A Celebration of Fire and Water
With bonfires, water-throwing, presents and gangs of happy children making music in the streets, Ashura in Morocco is the closest thing to Christmas you will find in the Muslim world. The holiday falls on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram. Some call it Moroccan New Year, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of light and life, death and renewal, light and dark.
In the Arab world, Ashura is a reminder of the martyrdom of Hussein (the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad) for the Shi’a, and commemorates the parting of the Red Sea for the Sunni. For both, it is a day of solemn fasting and prayers.
For Moroccans, it is a day on which you are sure to see gangs of happy children rushing through the streets and alleyways with new toys used to make music and noise. Since the Islamic calendar is lunar, it falls 10 or 11 days earlier (on the Gregorian calendar) than the year before. In recent years it has been celebrated in November and December.
Ashura is a day that celebrates life in Morocco. It is connected to the story of Baba Aichour, considered to be like the Moroccan Santa Claus, but with a tragic end. One of the songs children sing as they travel through neighbourhoods asking for coins tells about how Baba Aichour came outside to pray, gave the children coins and sweets, but then was swept away by the river.
For days before and after the holy day, kids form makeshift bands that play this and other songs accompanied by drums made of wood, pottery and sheepskin. The noise reaches a crescendo on the night of the ninth day of Muharram, when bonfires are lit in vacant lots and neighbours sing and tell stories. It is not uncommon for people to jump over the flames in an effort to burn away evil spirits or free themselves of curses. In the poorer areas, people will light branches and wander through the streets chanting prayers.
This is considered to be the most auspicious time of the year for prayers. Fortune tellers, called shawaafa, do a booming business as young people try to capture their love or understand their destiny. Witch doctors, or afikih, work with djinn and cast magic spells and release curses—all for just a few coins.
Traditionally, the morning of Ashura begins with a cold bath. Some say this is the origin of the water-throwing that takes place throughout the day, but for others it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea or of Baba Aichour being swept away. In the Sahara, the Touareg sprinkle water on tents, plants and each other while saying their prayers.
During the day, adults fast while the children enjoy gifts of dried fruit, nuts, chocolates or small toys. Finally, when the sun goes down, each family gathers to break the fast together. The traditional meal is made of sundried sheep meat and couscous.
Tradition says that any profit made during the 11th day of Muharram will not be blessed by God. It’s also a handy way to extend the celebration for one more day since all the shops are closed.