A friend who lives in one of the poorer sections of town told me a story this week. He was walking by a school and saw some little boys fighting. The two bigger ones grabbed the smallest and looked around for the worst place they could stuff his head. They found it in the mangeoir—the goats’ feeding trough, full of half-chewed odds and ends and goat spit and fleas—and gleefully threw him in. Kind of an interesting comment on what has been sanitized into a nice clean manger, isn’t it? We tend to imagine that 1st-century Palestine was as neat and tidy as a child’s Sunday School drawing, when in real life I’m sure it was much more like daily life in 21st-century Mauritania—full of animals walking by, insects scuttling by, diaperless babies crawling in the sand where the goats just were, and nary a bottle of Lysol in sight.

December in Nouakchott. By now, the nights are chilly. In the daytime, if you keep your cement-block house closed up, it stays cool all day, so that you can drink coffee in mid-afternoon and think of wearing slippers on the chill tile floors. Opening a window or stepping outside will break that spell, though, as temperatures get into the high 80s or low 90s most days. But it’s a dry, transitory heat, and can be fought by closing up the house by 10 a.m. and playing carols all day. Africans who can put faded parkas over their thin cotton trousers, and wrap their turbans tightly round their heads.

Some days the skies are clear, even blue, windswept clean except for fringes of combed clouds. Some days, the wind blows cool from the desert, filling air and lungs with fine dust, smearing the sun. Sand settles on everything, emphasizing minute crevices, crunching in bread and drifting in the red-brown clouds. Sand-days tend to last for about a week, then suddenly one day the sun is brighter, the full moon soars behind the minarets of the mosque and casts spiky shadows behind the palm trees in the garden, and we all breathe easier again.

This year, every night, someone is burning garbage near our house. The acrid smell drifts in through windows opened for the breeze, and stays in the back of our throats. We wake up every morning coughing and blowing our noses.

We have donkeys and camels, but no Nativity scenes. We have stores, but no sales or crowds. Life carries on as usual; pointless traffic jams, soccer games after school, teaching classes. At school, the kids make Christmas cards in art and play marbles in the dust at recess. The Lebanese-owned “supermarches” import cheeses, patés and terrines, and chemically-laden long-shelf-life bûche de Noel from France for Christmas. You can find sparkling juice on the shelves. Turkeys are $8/pound and they are from France, too. They import those chocolate Advent calendars and I buy one for each kid. The quality of the chocolate is marginal but the kids, surprise, love them. The markets are filled with piles and piles of tiny, tart, juicy tangerines from Morocco—only 40 cents a pound. We eat them all day long.