A joyeux Noël in Muslim Senegal

Religious harmony is on full display in a year when Christmas and the Muslim holiday of Tabaski fall within days of each other.

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The first Christmas I spent in the French-speaking West African country of Senegal, where 95 percent of the population is Muslim, I'd wondered whether I'd feel as festive. I needn't have worried.

From the African Santa Claus that set up his grotto down the road to the nativity crib on a former slave island, it was jingle all the way, culminating on Christmas Eve when we were deafened by fireworks from our Muslim neighbor's garden.

The national motto is "one people, one goal, one faith," but the state doesn't prescribe what that faith should be and many Senegalese see that as a license to celebrate everything.

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So as the call to Friday prayers crackles from the minarets at a downtown mosque, street hawkers weave their way among the throngs waving plastic Christmas trees and blowup Santas.

"I sell to Christians, animists, everyone! But my best customers are Muslims," laughs vendor Ousmane Fall as he tries to foist a plastic Christmas tree and some tinsel on me.

For most of the year, the 23-year-old scrapes together a living selling anything from shoes to portraits of local spiritual leaders. In December, he abandons them for the trappings of Christmas.

A country where tolerance prevails

Some of my foreign friends living in Dakar bemoan this as further proof of the commercialization of Christmas, but for me it's just another example of the tolerance that prevails in this westernmost corner of Africa.

When cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad appeared in Scandinavian newspapers this year, violent protests erupted in the Middle East, but in Senegal a charity football match with Norway went ahead as planned.

This year, Senegal's religious harmony will be even more on show as Christmas and Tabaski, the key Muslim feast that commemorates Abraham's proof of his dedication to God, fall within days of each other.

"I have three siblings who are Christian, while me and my sister are Muslim, but we'll all get together to slaughter a goat and enjoy the Tabaski feast," explained Ibrahima Bop, the gardener at my house. "That's Senegal – we all live together."

Goats, in fact, play a starring role in the soundtrack to my Christmas this year: A nearby street became a makeshift goat market for Tabaski.

Two years ago, some of us Western expats invited Senegalese friends to enjoy a Christmas feast of turkey and roast potatoes. This year, many of our Senegalese friends have invited us to Tabaski, which means we'll be in for plate after plate of tasty, if greasy, goat.

Senegal's distinctive brand of Islam is divided into brotherhoods with a complex hierarchy of spiritual leaders known as marabouts.

For members of the richest and most influential brotherhood, the Mourides, a pilgrimage to the country's main mosque seems more important than one to Mecca. Every March, cities become ghost towns as some 1 million pilgrims flock to Touba in the "Grand Magal," commemorating the exile in 1895 of brotherhood founder Cheikh Amadou Bamba.

The underlying tenet of this branch of Sunni Islam is that hard work in this life will help secure a place in paradise in the next. With that blend of daily grind and profit, it is perhaps no surprise that Mouride disciples control much of the economy.

They also pack a political punch, as every candidate for the upcoming presidential election knows. President Abdoulaye Wade, a member of the brotherhood, traveled to Touba less than 24 hours after he was elected in 2000 to thank religious leaders for their support. He is seeking reelection in this February's poll. But that's not to imply a monopoly on power. Senegal's first post-independence and beloved poet-president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, was Roman Catholic and ruled for more than 20 years.

Female friends who visit us in Senegal often call to ask what clothes to bring. It really is anything goes. Dakar's beaches teem with bikini-clad locals. And fashion changes with moods – Monday it could be traditional Senegalese dress – a colorful boubou (tunic) – while Tuesday it's hip-hugging jeans and a skimpy top.

'This is Dakar, not Tehran'

When Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Dakar recently, his protocol team suggested that the female journalists at a press conference move to the back of the room and cover their heads. Senegalese colleagues reacted in disgust.

After a quick rummage in bags, heads were wrapped in anything from scarves to beach towels, and the Iranian minders quickly backed down.

"This is Dakar, not Tehran," one victorious Senegalese journalist declared proudly. "We may all be Muslim but we do things on our own terms."

And perhaps at no time of year is that more clear than at Christmas, when many a shop window is painted with Joyeux Noël and streets are adorned with Christmas lights.

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