Joseph Hellweg is Asst. Prof. of Religion at Florida State Univeristy. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale. He has done research with initiated hunters (dozos) and on HIV and AIDS in Côte d’Ivoire from 1993-1997 and in 2002. In 2008-2009, he was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Kankan, Guinea, where he taught social science research methods. He will complete his fellowship at the University of Bamako. He speaks French and Mandenkan and eats fonio with okra sauce whenever possible.
The Other Afrik - West Africa - Mali - Panafrica - United States - Religion
Tabaski, Thanksgiving: Back to Back
The moon and sun align this year to bring two holidays together: the Muslim feast of Tabaski (also called Eid al-Adha and Aïd el-Kebir) and the United States holiday of Thanksgiving. They occur on November 26 and 28, respectively. Although Tabaski is explicitly religious, and Thanksgiving ostensibly secular, both re-enforce ties to one’s family and larger communities. Both focus on animals.
Here in Bamako, sheep are everywhere. They festoon the tops of buses and vans that take people across town and cross-country (see photo 1). Even motorcycle drivers transport sheep on their laps with the animal’s fore and hind legs wrapped around their wastes like a belt attached at the back. Next to the Avenue Al Quods on Bamako’s northern end, sheep merchants are thick with their flocks along the railroad tracks that parallel the road (see photo 2).
Those buying sheep right now may have to pay a hundred U.S. dollars [50.000 francs CFA] or more for one in the final days before the feast on Saturday. If one lacks the means, a goat will do. Wealthy benefactors even sacrifice cattle.
In the U.S., a frozen turkey from the grocery store is the main Thanksgiving course and less expensive than a ram. But Americans still make a fuss about buying it. They follow sales and compare prices and the quality of different brands. They may order it weeks or months in advance for fear of waiting too long and going without. Type just two words into any online search engine—Thanksgiving turkey—and you can gauge the extent of the obsession. You will find endless advice about how to choose, thaw, clean, bake, spice, serve, and eat a turkey. You can even order it online with overnight shipping. Frozen turkeys can’t walk, but they appear to be able to fly.
And they are easier to take home than sheep. You may have to make extra space in your freezer, but a turkey will fit. You don’t have to feed it. It doesn’t make a mess. It’s already cleaned. And unless you plan to deep-fry it outside—a specialty of the U.S. south—the trick is to keep the meat moist while it cooks in the oven. Despite all this attention lavished on an edible carcass, a family has little personal relationship with its turkey. It is meat from start to finish.
In Africa, things are different. A family lives with its meal before eating it. Last year in Kankan, Guinea, I saw rams tethered outside of every compound I visited in the days before Tabaski (see photo 3). Children and adults may name the sheep and play with it. They feed it and may grow fond of it, especially when purchased well in advance. Then the pet for a day becomes the plat du jour.
Processing the sheep is as much a family affair as taking care of it. When I was with Malian friends in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, in the 1990s, men killed the sheep, children cleaned the entrails, and women cooked the meat. In a way, the sheep is like family and, as such, the whole family prepares it.
But the goal of each feast is still the same: to share meat with relatives and friends, some of whom travel far to eat it. Last year in Kankan, I met Guineans who had returned home from Conakry, Europe, and the U.S. for the meal. Imagine my surprise when a man in sunglasses walked up to me and told me in fluent English that he had just arrived from Washington, D.C.
Thanksgiving in the U.S. is no different. It is the busiest travel day of the year. Airports are jammed, and flights run late, making national news every year.
The feasts are variations of each other. On Tabaski, families distribute meat to their neighbors. This happens at Thanksgiving, too. Families invite neighbors to dinner or send turkey, sweet potatoes, and gravy to those they know who will be spending Thanksgiving alone or in nursing homes. And soup kitchens offer free turkey and mashed potatoes to the poor and homeless.
But at Tabaski, sharing is de rigueur. While in the Ivoirian village of Nienesso one Tabaski, I watched children scurry about with plates of meat, taking chunks of mutton or goat to neighboring compounds while other children left these same compounds to take meat to the compounds the other children had just left. This was more than sharing with the have-nots. It was sharing with the haves, too.
In other ways, Tabaski is incomparable. It has no equivalent in Judaism or Christianity. Like Christmas and Hanukkah, Tabaski evokes a spirit of giving. It commemorates Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram instead of his son, Ishmael. But like Easter and Yom Kippur, it is the holiest of holy days.
It is also like New Year’s Day and Rosh Hashanah, even though it is not the Muslim New Year. In Bambara, the blessings one uses as greetings on Tabaski make the case: “Ala ka san kura d’i ma,” ‘May God grant you a new year’, or “Ala k’i san hèrè chaya,” ‘May God give you peace in the year to come’. West Africans offer similar blessings in French, sometimes cutting to the chase with the expression, “Tous les tés,” which sounds to an English-speaker like, “two lay TAY,” an abbreviation for a range of blessings, all of which end in the French sound “tay”: bonté (plenty), prospérité (prosperity), santé (health).
Tabaski resets the ritual clock, whether in Bambara or French.
Both Tabaski and Thanksgiving recreate the world. Each marks a turn in the year—the start of the dry season and the beginning of Christmas shopping, respectively—and the hope that those who celebrate will endure these trials.
The day after Thanksgiving—always a Friday—is one of the year’s busiest shopping days in the U.S. How well sales do on that day is seen as an augur for the country’s economic welfare, a sign of how well Christmas sales and, as a result, the national economy will do in the coming year. Thanksgiving is the ritual sacrifice that precedes the divination of the kingdom’s future. I mean, post-Thanksgiving sales are key indicators in the nation’s economic forecast. When sales looks bleak, priests blame the failing ritual power of the sacred king. In other words, leading economic experts criticize the president’s fiscal policy . . .
Ironically, it is this commercial side of secular Thanksgiving that most closely resembles the religious side of Tabaski. Thanksgiving marks the opening of a month-long ritual of buying and spending that culminates in Christmas, the most elaborate American sacrifice in which gifts are given shortly before the New Year to assure that it will be safe and prosperous, Christian beliefs aside.
Similarly, Tabaski brings to a close a period of two lunar months in Islam that include Ramadan and the most intense season of pilgrimages to Mecca.
In contrast to the local sharing of Tabaski and its significance for global Islam, Thanksgiving sustains a national identity, neither purely local nor international. It commemorates a feast that occurred in the British colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 at which Amerindians and British Puritans shared the fruits of their harvests in thanks for a good season. Indigenous turkeys were on the menu.
Just as Tabaski takes Muslims back to the first ritual expression of obedience to Allah, Thanksgiving takes Americans back to the first prayerful consecration of a sustained Anglo-Saxon presence in North America. Taking part in the harvest meal that contributed in some way to the eventual establishment of the United States is like taking part in the meal that spared Ishmael’s life. Both feasts renew their respective worlds through ritual participation: the Muslim community through Tabaski, and the United States via Thanksgiving.
Here we see the richness of these holidays as well as their limits. In the United States, the Christian, Anglo-Saxon origin story of Thanksgiving now bolsters a suspicion among some Americans of both Muslims and immigrants of color, just as claims of religious absolutism grounded in God’s revelation to Abraham justify hostility among some Muslims against secularism.
Religious or not, holidays are rituals. They operate beyond strict divisions between sacred and profane; they bridge the two. This year, occurring in such close proximity, they might raise a common prayer for a better welcome to Islam and immigrants in the U.S. and for increased dialogue between secularists and Islamists across the world.
But in the end, holidays are mostly about the small ways in which people connect through sharing. This Thursday, a Muslim friend of mine from Mali, Diadié Bathily, plans to attend my family’s Thanksgiving dinner in St. Louis, Missouri. My Catholic mother will help him celebrate Tabaski far from home (two days early) by making him mutton in addition to turkey. Knowing Diadié, he will eat both. Shouldn’t we all?
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