To me, the word Tabaski sounded more like a seasoning than a holiday weekend—but Tabaski, Festival of the Sacrifice, is an age-old Muslim gala of biblical proportions sometimes called “The Great Feast,” one of the biggest celebrations on the Muslim calendar.
A couple years ago, Tabaski happened to fall on a day I was in rural Niger. Markets closed. Horses raised dust on village streets, their riders bedecked in traditional finery right out of Alibaba and the Forty Thieves.
The truth is, I’d never heard the word Tabaski before. But what did I know about Islam anyway? –only what I’d heard, what’s current after the latest terrorist horror. I was retired one of only two North Americans in the city that day—let me be blunt: one of only two white men. To say I felt anything near to being at home would be a stretch. I wasn’t afraid, but I was most certainly an alien.
The massive street fest that is Tabaski celebrates a biblical story that often seems too scary for Sunday School: God commanding Father Abraham to sacrifice his son on a burning altar, then jamming the operation in reverse and pointing out some poor ram in a thicket to become the sacrifice Isaac—or Ishmael, depending on your faith–was to become. It’s a story only Muslims celebrate.
Sheep are for sale everywhere the day before. Men make deals for holiday fare the way Siouxland shoppers clean and jerk 15-pound turkeys from Wal-mart freezers.
Heads of families buy sheep because everyone celebrates. Everyone eats. I saw sheep sit athwart moped seats and riding the upper decks of semis.
After prayers on Sunday morning, those poor sheep met their ends in a massive murderous ritual moment, a butcher shop outside every front door.
Blood soaked into Main street dirt. Once heads and hooves got tossed, skinned-out bodies were impaled on wooden cross staves and made ready for the flames, home-brew sauce painted on with whisk brooms, six or eight drawn-and-quartered sheep leaning into a fire so big you’d need a cane pole to brown a marshmallow.
Two North Americans and a pair of African doctors, our hosts, walked down dusty city streets. Tabaski is a family holiday, and it’s all outdoors—just about everything in Niger is. Tradition has it that a third of that ram is for family, a third for friends, and the remaining third for the poor. To my righteous ears, that sounded more Christ-like than, well, “Christian.”
A kid comes out with a paper plateful of something or other. Hadn’t a clue what was being offered. “Don’t ask,” one of the doctor whispers and shovels it in. It’s fried meat morsels, spicy and crisp and dipped in a hot sauce—wonderfully spicy, I thought. As hors’ oeuvres, we could have done worse. The little crispies were sheep liver cut into peanut-sized bites and deep-fried.
The main course was hours from medium-well, so we kept walking and ended up at the gated palace of the Prefect, a politician whose power and authority was buttressed by men in camouflage, AK-47s hanging from their shoulders.
We were honored guests. The locals don’t often see Americans, guests of the doctors. Inside, instead of doors, thick curtains, theater-like, and high ceilings to trap the heat of equatorial Africa.
We sit, as does the Prefect—and his wife. It’s clear we are in the presence of power. “Will you eat with me?” he asks. The room is surrounded. It’s not that we have a choice. We say yes. He offers no menus.
The entrée is delivered by a bald giant so perfectly proportioned he could have been groomed for the Packers. He offers and I take a plate. First the yams, largely tasteless, and then the main course, mutton, all of it in a rich sauce spicy and strong enough to cover any unpleasantries. Agreeable, I think.
Things are formal, but slowly as we eat and share a table, the pomp-and-circumstance wears. I sit at an appointed place at the end of a long couch, the Prefect’s wife on my left, the Prefect himself on her left.
On command, that giant produces a point-and-shoot. A photo of all this is requested, or so the Prefect rules. Thus, the three of us pose. I pull myself close for the portrait, even throw an arm around the Prefect’s wife’s shoulders, as I might have done back home.
When I see that strange picture today, all I see is a big bald white guy, Moby Dick well out of water. I can’t help but think the Prefect and his wife have never forgotten the Americans who came by on the Festival of Sacrifice, especially that heavy one who slung his bare arm around the Prefect’s wife on the Prefect’s sofa in the Prefect’s palace.
Whether I offended anyone that day I’ll never know. But Tabaski is a religious holiday, so I’ll hope for forgiveness. For a moment at least, our ritual meal behind us, in that high-ceilinged room we were odd but smiling friends, brothers and sisters having broken bread together, African and American, black and white, Muslim and Christian.
Three years have passed. Some new Prefect likely rules beneath those high ceilings.
But wherever he is today, when he and his good wife see that photo, I hope they giggle at the strange and ugly American. I would be happy to have given them that holiday pleasure.
Tabaski, or so it seemed to this thankful stranger, was far less about piety than it was about grace.