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How mostly Muslim Senegal celebrates Christmas

Edward Harris

Hundreds of young men decked with tinsel wander before mostly Muslim Senegal's mosques, hawking plastic Christmas trees. Women pray to Allah beneath an inflatable Santa Claus suspended under a bakery's eaves. While Muslims recognise Jesus Christ as a prophet, they don't generally celebrate the date of his birth.

Hundreds of young men decked with tinsel wander before mostly Muslim Senegal’s mosques, hawking plastic Christmas trees. Women pray to Allah beneath an inflatable Santa Claus suspended under a bakery’s eaves.

While Muslims recognise Jesus Christ as a prophet, they don’t generally celebrate the date of his birth. But in this country on Africa’s far-western tip, Christmas is a national holiday and Allah’s followers are madly preparing to celebrate Sunday’s Christian holiday.

Muslims who constitute upward of 95% of Senegal’s 12-million people say they have a long history of tolerance and co-existence with Christians, most of whom live in the south, far from this dusty capital, Dakar. So: Why not help them celebrate Christmas?

“Officially, we Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas. But the Catholics are our neighbours. So, we all celebrate all the religious holidays,” said El Hadj Diop (60), sitting in front of his African antique store.

“We share the same houses, even graveyards,” Diop said. “It has been the same for years.”

Islam arrived in Senegal hundreds of years ago, borne across the Sahara desert by slave and spice traders from the north. French colonialists with Bibles came afterward. Now, many practitioners of both faiths have adapted their religions to local mores.

Few Muslim women in Senegal wear headscarves and fewer still cover up in all-encompassing robes, with one newspaper editorialist opining that the practice was un-African.

Some hip-wagging Senegalese traditional dances would make a Westerner blush and a Muslim fundamentalist wild. Nightclubs with booming bands are full on the weekend until dawn, although the drink of choice is more likely juice than booze.

Christians and Muslims alike wear “gris-gris”—or magic charms meant to ward off bad luck—which many of the faithful elsewhere would consider profane. Unlike in countries such as Saudi Arabia where images of humans are taboo, Senegalese Muslims paint pictures of their spiritual leaders on the sides of buses.

So, celebrating the holidays of Christian neighbours, however few, isn’t a stretch.

The government has strung lights across main thoroughfares, including a route that passes outside the city’s main mosque.

Merchants are decorating their stores, including one bakery that has Father Christmas above the door. Women, not allowed inside the mosque across the street, gather beneath Santa to do their five daily prayers.

Christmas songs lilting from radios mingle in the streets with the calls to prayer booming from minarets.

Street merchants who normally sell T-shirts have turned to Christmas trees and ornaments, including long strands of tinsel they carry hanging from their ears as they wander the streets looking for buyers. Others carry gaudy blow-up Santa Clauses.

Stalls of overturned cardboard boxes have sprung up on street corners, selling cheap baubles and toys for kids. An African Santa in fuzzy white beard sits at a supermarket, looking pained as tourists snap his picture.

Christians say they welcome the solidarity and repay it in kind by partaking in Islamic holidays, including the year’s main feast days, one of which is arriving within weeks.

“People here believe in God, it’s what nourishes us and binds us,” said Eric Midahuen, a Christian who works in an eyeglass shop next door to Diop’s.

“It’s our tradition, this cohabitation. When we’re born and baptised, our Muslim neighbours are there. They help us all the way, even into the grave,” said the 40-year old father of two. “We’re all the same before God, who allows us to recognise him in all others.”

Diop, next door, echoing many of his countrymen and fellow practitioners elsewhere, said Muslim extremists elsewhere are sullying Islam’s reputation with their false interpretation of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an.

“The Qur’an says Muslims mustn’t force their religion on others. Aggression has no place in Islam,” he says.

Indeed, Senegal is a peaceful oasis in sometimes strife-torn West Africa.

It’s a budding democracy with political parties not largely based on clan or religious affiliation. The country has no official religion, despite the vast preponderance of Muslims. Senegal’s motto is “One people, one goal, one faith”.

While secularism may mean elsewhere that each person is free to celebrate his or her own holidays, many in Senegal have interpreted it to mean they should celebrate all holidays.

“Here in Senegal, it’s a secular country. Everyone wants to buy cakes and gifts. We respect Christians and they respect us,” says Fatou Mata, a 40-year-old mother of two. She faces a universal and practical reality of parenting: “Also, if my kids don’t have a present on Christmas, they’ll cry.”—Sapa-AP

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