Tabaski (Eid al-Adha in Senegal)

[WARNING: Very graphic images ahead]

Since the beginning of the program, CIEE students have been joking about a certain “silence of the lambs.” One of the first things study abroad students learn about when reading about Senegal is the holiday of Tabaski. Tabaski is the grand Christmas of all holidays. However, Tabaski (the local/Senegalese name for Eid al-Adha) is very different in that it is a Muslim holiday honoring Abraham’s demonstration of his submission to God by his willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Only after Abraham has slit the throat does he see that his son has been replaced by a ram. Thus, Muslim families sacrifice their best animal (bull, ram, or billy goat, but traditionally ram in Senegal) in reference to this act.

Most families are not sheepherders so they save up all year to purchase the best animal they can, as well as new fancy outfits for each family member. Our program directors have noted that there is therefore increasing theft in the weeks prior but everyone’s pockets have remained intact. Personally, I was more worried that even up until the day before Tabaski, my all-female family had not bought an animal; furthermore, because Muslim halal dictates that Muslims only eat meat killed by male Muslims, I began to doubt that we were going to have a traditional Tabaski, which was going to be really disappointing. As a former vegan, if I couldn’t do the killing myself, I’d hoped at least to watch the slaughter in an effort to bring myself closer to my meat.

Fortunately, when I woke up the next morning, I heard splashes of water and a few soft brays. But as evidenced by this pathetic journaling excerpt, my eager anticipation began fading:

Sweet little Tabaski sheep, snowy-white. Standing straight with all four of your legs lined up. Somehow the inaccurate, unimaginative name of “Goaty*” has stuck to your person. There is a pink line on your muzzle where your fur has been rubbed away by a harsh bridle. You sneeze. I approach; you back away afraid. You stand there so quietly. Not even looking left or right, determinedly chewing some kind of cud.
It would have been easier if you were annoying, or even moved. But you just stand there with your knees together, like a lamb ready for the slaughter, and truthfully –
well, I had been crowing about a certain Sénégoal to kill a chicken since during my vegan stint I’d seen the hypocrisy of eating flesh without killing. But this morning, when you were obediently being bathed, not shouting like the others, my heart was too guilty, too sad. It’s as if you know and you are resigned.
Ironically, my empty stomach rumbles painfully.

My mother, a maid, and a strange man are fastidiously cleaning the courtyard. The hired butcher enters. He easily flips Goaty upside down and ties his legs together. Goaty barely even protests. He just lies there with his neck over the drain, waiting, and then empties his bowels, hard.

Resigned. He looked at me so dolefully.

When the butcher begins sawing, Goaty is still and just takes it silently. He dies quickly. Red flows out, his eyes close, and his neck flops open.

And the blood ran onto the streets?

The butcher begins by skinning Goaty into a sheepskin work surface. The belly looks remarkably soft. I am surprised by how little meat seems to be on the animal, and by how much organ there is. When the butcher reaches the knees, he cracks them off. The worst part is watching him skin and hack away at the head, exposing both the brain and his last cud. At this point, Goaty is starting to look more like a dissection than meat. I do not know how I could handle watching (and especially smelling) this had I not had experience cooking whole chickens and eating fish with heads.

This is meat. Every single piece of meat you eat came from something like this. The horns have been hacked off of the skull and right now eyes are staring out.

Sometime before noon, the liver is grilled, making up the traditional Tabaski breakfast. Already both sheep- and liver-averse, I am too nauseous at this point to eat more than a polite bite.

The next few hours are spent grilling the meat and prepping vegetables to go along with them.

Grilled ribs. I did eat them for lunch. For some reason, all the meat was first boiled through before being grilled. I hope it had a practical purpose, like killing tropical parasites, because such fresh meat deserved to be rare.

Here is where my Tabaski story comes to an abrupt halt. After lunch, everyone went their separate ways. I’d expected more festivity after having read so much about Tabaski. My mother did field more phone calls than usual and did receive a group of visitors for five minutes, but other than the sacrifice and fancy lunch, there was nothing special about Friday – not even fancy clothes! I’d expected at least a prayer before the ram was slaughtered, but the sacrifice was conducted almost like a chore. Perhaps this lack of festivity was because of our small family size, but other participants found themselves in similar situations. Perhaps post-lunch is relatively ignored since le déjeuner is the big meal in Senegalese culture.

I was glad to have experienced Tabaski, and I’m happy to report that my nausea subsided by the next morning, though when I went out that night, I was treated to the once-a-year sight and smell of mass carcass piles in the road meridians. The day after Tabaski, I went downtown with some friends. Of course, there were far fewer sheep left on the streets. However, there were also far fewer people. Because of rural flight, most Dakarois go back to their countryside roots to be with their families during this important holiday, leaving the post-Tabaski streets, markets, and non-toubab shops almost completely deserted, and lending quite a different feel to Dakar.

*”Mouton” always gets translated into “goat,” because the sheep here look like goats. Therefore, “sheep” and “goat” are used interchangeably when speaking about Tabaski animals, and in fact “goat” is the more common term; however, it is mostly rams that are slaughtered. In addition, thanks for putting up with my random switch to present tense in the middle of the blog post.


4 responses to “Tabaski (Eid al-Adha in Senegal)

  1. Interesting… I was also witness to an important cultural tradition in Korea, Chuseok, but discovered that my family treated it rather perfunctorily, as well. Maybe the versions of these kinds of holidays that we read about in books are over-hyped.

    • I guess it makes sense – my own American family doesn’t treat Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. very specially, but my head is still filled with the traditions and in my mind’s eye that’s still how I see it.

  2. I always thought the slaughter of animals for food was a fairly large affair, but based on videos, experience and your account, it’s always very routine. From a kosher slaughterhouse in the MidWest to a meat market in Taipei to a ceremony in Senegal, everyone seems to approach it the same: nonchalantly and normally. I feel like my attitude is largely attributed to the my disconnect with my meat.

    • You’ve seen slaughter in Taipei? And been to a kosher slaughterhouse in the MidWest? Nice.
      Apparently there is another holiday in about a month during which we’ll be eating with the goat head in the middle of the bowl (the last time I saw the skull, the brains were exposed so I am not looking forward to this). I feel lucky at least to have been accustomed to fish heads on my plate (some students here still can’t deal with it) but clearly you and I still have some distance to go with the land animals.

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