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Ashura in Morocco: A Puzzling Celebration

Flames of a bonfire burn bright orange in the dark. Wood can be seen through the flames.
Many non-religious cultural traditions are associated with Ashura in Morocco. Bonfires are one of them. Photo: Pixabay

Mabrouk laawasher (laawacher) is an expression one constantly hears in Morocco during the first ten days of the Islamic year. It means, “Happy ten days.” But the good wishes aren’t for the new year alone. Ten days into the new year, another important day in the Islamic calendar arrives—Ashura.

To some, Ashura (or Achoura) is festival of mourning, synonymous with sadness, sorrow and blood. For others, it’s a quiet day of fasting. But to many Moroccans, it’s much, much more.

Ashura in Morocco has grown into a many-faceted feast. It’s associated with fasting, sadaqa (optional charity), zakat (obligatory annual charity), and bringing neighborhoods together. It’s also a celebratory time highlighted by bonfires, carnivals and theatrical impersonations, sprinkling passers-by with water, gifts, confections and sweets and drumming and percussion. For Moroccan children, the day is as festive as Christmas.

Fakia (a mix of dried fruits, nuts and kichlate) can be found in nearly every home, and many families prepare couscous made with the last bits from Eid al Adha—dried meat and preserved offal such as diala (tail), kourdass, gueddid, and mjebna. 

Where do these traditions come from? How do Moroccans pass the day of Ashura?

A Special Time for Children and Women

In Morocco, Ashura is equated with joy and sharing of fakia and couscous dishes, as well as giving out money and sweets to children who go door to door in a tradition called Baba Ashur. It also includes lighting a bonfire and sharing moments of joy around it, and answering each other via percussion and drumming. Some women plan a get together on the eve of Ashura to chant, drum and dance.

Ashura was traditionally a call for neighborhood spirit and helped cement unity. However, this is disappearing among new generations, as many city residents may not even know the name of the neighbor next door.

Morocco was a crossroads of civilizations; an empire. Its society is a mosaic reflecting this fact. The traditions and customs of each layer of society was accumulated throughout the centuries. Ashura is no exception; it is celebrated in different ways across the country from north to south and east to west. The city dwellers do not celebrate like villagers. Many customs are disappearing and others are now folkloric in character.

The Origin of Ashura

Initially, Ashura was a religious holiday. When the prophet Muhammad ﷺ fled the adversity of the Arabs of Mecca and took refuge in Medina, he observed that a Jewish community was performing a day of fasting on the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei). When he asked for an explanation, he was told it was Yom Kippur or the great day of pardon. As Islamic teachings also recognize Moses, Muhammad ﷺ declared that Muslims should fast this day as well. However, to avoid confusion between the Jewish and Muslim observances, he advocated two days of fasting instead of one.

This date, which in the Islamic lunar calendar falls on the 10th of Muharram, would become known as Ashura. Fasting at this time became a highlight of Muslim rituals. Later, when fasting the month of Ramadan was prescribed in the Quran, the Ashura fast changed from obligatory to optional.

Apart from this religious aspect, there are many socio-cultural practices that vary in Muslim countries according to Shiite and Sunni communities. In Morocco, it’s a solemn day in that we visit graves and pray for our deceased ones, but festivities also have their place, especially for women and children who light the bonfire and joyously jump over the flames to symbolize escape from harm.

Preparing for Ashura

Preparations for Ashura begin during Eid el Adha since families must preserve the meats and offal used to prepare the couscous for 9th day of Muharram. Then, on the first day of the month of Muharram, the household get busy with a to-do list according to their traditions. This includes the purchase of dried fruits, preparation of sweets, heading to the souks and buying new outfits for the whole family as well as toys and kitchen utensils, and whitewashing the facades of houses with lime.

And, most of all, women gave a deep and thorough cleaning, washing and scrubbing to everything in the house. There is a belief that we have to start the year on the right foot with cleanliness and vitality. It makes way for receiving baraka (blessings) while pushing away curses and bad luck (we will come to that).

Small ceramic Moroccan drums, painted in colorful designs, are displayed for sale on a table.
Taarija drums for Ashura are displayed in a Moroccan supermarket. Photo: Taste of Maroc

The souks stock up to meet the expected extraordinary demand, and in Rabat, Salé and other cities, ad hoc markets called Ashur or Achour are set up. Vendors pile dry fruits, toys, drums, cakes and confectionery. Herbalists and ‘attars (spice shops) expect increased demand from women for reasons related to superstition and witchcraft. Families buy new clothes for the occasion.

The old generations of sellers chose not to open on Ashura; not only was everything sold by then but also because it was thought to bring bad luck for the year to come. It is worth noting that decades ago, most of the shop owners were Moroccan Jews who forbade any business on this day. This belief carried over to the Muslim community.

In some areas, handmade masks are prepared for the Carnival of Ashura, which takes different names according to the region of Morocco in question.

In the meantime, kessabas (cattle owners), farmers and the wealthy are calculating laachour (10 percent of the worth of the crop or wealth), which corresponds to the zakat that is to be paid to the poor in the community. Some attest that the name of the feast is derived from laachour, while others explain that Ashura takes its name from the word for tenth in Arabic which is Ashura.

Ashura in Our Family

When I was a child, Ashura was the occasion to receive a mountain of toys. My father worked for an important bank. Each year, they organized an Ashura party for the children. Cakes, sweets, juices and soda were overflowing. Clowns and fun activities entertained us. Music and dancing, too. In the end, each of us was gifted a good package of toys. It was the perfect day for a child and I would come home exhausted but happy.

A plate with alternating piles of dried fruits and nuts around a bowl of nibble size cookies.
Fakia for Ashura. Photo: Nada Kiffa | Taste of Maroc

In my modest Fassi family, fakia was the only food-related element in the house to mark the celebration. Fasting for the adults was not yet common practice; they caught up with it in the late 1980s after performing Hajj.

A wise woman like most Moroccan women, my mother used to share fakia with each family member in equal portion and just composition. That way none of us could pick the best of the mix and leave the others with cheaper nibbles such as dates, raisins and chickpeas. Everybody was after walnuts and almonds and she knew that. Fair sharing of the fakia was a good lesson in life. It was also the time I learned to stuff my dates with almonds or walnuts as is commonly done in Morocco.

I grew up in what we call “zone villas,” which is quite important to mention in the context of Ashura, since much of the folkloric elements of this celebration happens in the highly populated and bustling streets of the city. Therefore, we missed out on most of that.

I was lucky, though; we had Saharawi (Saharan) neighbors who had been squatting on an empty lot since I was born. They were almost part of my family and I could see some Moroccan traditions through them. They celebrated Ashura in a completely different way. My sisters were given the green light to attend their big bonfire while I was peaking from the window. As I grew up I had to be chaperoned to attend for a few minutes. However, my parents did buy me a mini-taarija (drum) and I tried percussion in the garden. That was fun!

Fast forward to the days I started working, Ashura day had become increasingly hazardous in some of the highly populated streets of the city. The boys were targeting girls with mini-balloons filled with water. It was vital to stay alert while walking around. We never knew if we were going to receive a bucket of water emptied on our head from a balcony or a window or be at the trajectory of that infamous water balloon. The smaller boys were the most harmless as they had mini-water pistols and their effect was not so disastrous. Things became dangerous when some boys started mixing harmful substances with this water, making Ashura pranks hazardous and sometimes catastrophic.

After all these years, I can report that I was never been hit by these water bombs, as I made sure to avoid problematic sections of city or managed to stay in the car with windows up.

Fassis are generally on the Sufi side of the religion and this dates back centuries. Our Ashura was therefore low-key. My parents did not buy us new clothes for the occasion because they thought we had that privilege all year round. On the eve of Ashura, we wore a traditional handmade Moroccan outfit.

My mother reminded me that for this celebration, it was necessary to buy new serving plates and glasses or new pans for the New Year. It was an obligation that I cannot explain. My grandmother would recite chants (Amdah Nabaouia) and melodic prose (malhoun). Visits from (and to) relatives and neighbors were an opportunity for me to taste their cakes and have more fakia, play with other children and acquire some of their “spoils” (candy and small coins) from baba ashur. I was a little jealous of their freedom to knock on the doors and fill their pockets with all sorts of goodies!

Ashura Rituals in Morocco

Ashura is a bouquet of interesting traditions from a cultural and historical perspective. They differ from one corner of the country to another due to the influences from Amazighs, Andalusians, Arabs, Africans, Jews and Muslims (with both Sunni and Shiite history). It is clear that in Morocco, the Islamic background is not the strongest component of this celebration; it is fractional, hence the rather questionable side of certain practices.

The days preceding Ashura are days of labor. Each house must be thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed; the list of chores is quite extensive, as not a single corner should be left untouched. Come Ashura, it is forbidden to do any major housework. The following expression explains it so well: Chettaba 3roussa we jeffafa nfissa, which equates to “the broom is the bride and the mop just gave birth.” In other words, they’re resting.

Ashura is also the feast of silat rahim (visit of the family and relatives), charity and fasting, gathering at the tombs of deceased and, for some, at the shrines of local marabouts and saints.

The newly engaged couple has a ritual to follow, too. The fiancée will be eagerly awaiting a gift from her other half which usually consists of a piece of gold jewelry or a quality fabric that will be made into a traditional Moroccan outfit.

Aside from fasting and zakat, the Sunni side of the feast shows in activities such as the kouttabs (Quran schools) opening their doors early to the public. The activities of the day revolve around reciting the Quran and chanting Amdah Nabaouia.

Many customs are vanishing with the disappearance of the old generations. Some purely pagan rituals no longer find their place in a modern city. The mentalities change as people become more educated, with many of them moving to the cities. Adding to that is religious preaching that refutes most of these practices.

Zamzam Day and Asperging Water

In some areas of Morocco, Ashura is referred to as Zamzam Day. Children wake up early in the morning to work out the logistics for a traditional water throwing game. The activity consists of sprinkling passers-by on the day of Ashura. It is said the water is symbolic of water that could have saved the Prophet Mohammad’s ﷺ gandson and his family from their atrocious beheading. Ashura is an opportunity to commemorate this tragedy with the hope it will never occur again.

This is a day of mourning for Shiites around the world, some of whom self-flagellate and self mutilate in the streets of Iraq and Iran. Although Morocco is mostly Sunni, this Shiite flogging ritual can be found in Tamesna where some women seem to follow this practice.

Another theory backing the water sprinkling practice is that women used to bathe with cold water in the early hours of the day, doing this in this day is a good omen for the new year as it would start under the sign of vitality and liveliness. Those who were still asleep were sprinkled by their mothers as their year might be one of laziness if they continue sleeping through the morning. This practice seems to have moved from the vicinity of the house out to the street.

We must also look at this ritual from another angle. In cities, the water sprinkling ritual seems to be linked to the Shiite practice mentioned above. As for the villages, people sprinkle their children and belongings such as cattle, wealth, jars of oil and smen, and seeds. They believe that everything touched by the water will will be fruitful and multiplied, thanks to the blessing or baraka of water.

Water is life in both Jewish and pagan contexts. Therefore, the element of water in this festival originates long before Islam and well before the advent of Shi’ism.

The Bonfire: Chaâla or Tachaâlt

The bonfires lit on the occasion of Ashura are called chaâla or tachaâlt. They can be found in crowded city neighborhoods and villages.

Some say that the tradition of children jumping over a bonfire commemorates the day when Abraham was thrown into fire by the disbelievers. But others interpret it as a reenactment of the moment when women and children of the murdered grandsons of the prophet ﷺ had to jump over flaming tents in an attempt to save their lives while their men were being put to death.

The children light pyres and jump over the flames singing, “Taifa temchi we tji 3la 9bar Moulay Ali.” (A tribe goes and a tribe comes around Moulay Ali’s tomb.) Women gather round to play percussion and chant special rhymes for the occasion such as “3aichouri 3achouri, dellit 3lik ch3ouri(my Ashur, my Ashur, I laid my hair on you) in reference to the character Baba Achour.

The same fire will be used to heat the tambourines traditionally made with animal skins. Others will heat water in the hot ashes and use it for washing to bring baraka to their body and to the coming year.

Some farmers in agricultural villages mix the bonfire’s ashes with seeds to benefit from good agricultural year.

In some areas, women cut one centimeter of their hair and throw it in the fire to prevent hair loss the next year. And, when done playing on their taarijas (drums), some break them with the intention of buying a new set each year as an act of good fortune.

These rituals usually take place on the 9th of the month and are related to sorcery, baraka, warding off evil; or they are to commemorate either Abraham or the carnage that the Muhammad’s ﷺ  family went through. Some of the rituals date back to a time long before Islam.

Regional Traditions

Practices vary by region or even by type of community (town or village). Some traditions will be the same but go by different names. Here are a few :

  • Baba Achour is a character with different names depending on the region. The children ask for hak baba Achour (the right of father Achour) on a door-to-door tour to collect coins, dried fruits and all sorts of goodies. The girls wait until the evening to celebrate the event and sing with percussion. They will also quote baba Achour in their songs.
  • Somewhere in the south of Morocco, children knock on doors and receive eggs, dates, small change, sugar and cakes. This is called brialou.
  • The grown-up boys take part in the fun by wearing scary or shaggy carnival dress to personify Boujloud, in order to collect enough money and food to make a good dinner.
  • In Ouarzazate, the new bride will be received by her in-laws or she will have the right to receive her family and friends. They will spend time sharing a couscous, tapping percussions and telling their stories in joy and good humor.
  • Marrakech people have their Aiit, a form of percussion with chants; Taroudant have their Dakka and in Essaouira they have Dakka and Rzoun d’âchoura, where the ritual ends in taâlak (brawls between opponents).
  • The Oudayn n Taâchourt is a carnival that takes place in Goulmima and its surrounding area, including the province of Errachidia. It was probably inherited from a Jewish tradition in this part of Morocco. Young people dress up in rags and and handmade masks and go around the village playing songs in Amazigh with a local Jewish accent to collect donations (sugar, gueddid, semolina, coins, dates, eggs, etc) from the inhabitants; the donations are used to prepare—and then share—an Ashura dinner.  The carnival was disappearing in the 1980s but was revived by a local association. It’s now an annual event that attracts many people.

Witchcraft and Marabouts

Islam formally forbids witchcraft and praying to saints, nonetheless certain sections of the population believe in them and practice rituals associated with them.

For such Moroccans, the bonfire of Ashura serves a purpose. It might be to ward off evil that is likely to occur during the new year, or to bring luck to the sterile woman or the girl without a husband. Talismans and other objects would also be burned in order to make husbands obedient.

Other Moroccans make a point to visit local marabouts and the shrines of saints on the occasion of Ashura. This varies according to region, but it is linked to the idea that the souls of holy men can send baraka to the visitors.

Fasting

According to several anthropologists who studied the origin of fasting on Ashura, the practice predates Islam, which represents a continuum of the other monotheist religions.

Each one attributes the fast to a commemoration. Here are the most quoted:

  • Moses’ victory over Pharaoh or the day of the Great Pardon
  • Noah’s ark reaching a safe destination after the deluge
  • The day when Abraham was thrown into the great fire by his his people
  • The day Jonas / Younes was swallowed by the big fish but saved by God
  • The day of supplication by Adam after he was expelled from Paradise.

The prophet Mohammed ﷺ advocated fasting of the 10th of Muharram for Muslims. The addition of fasting the 9th was intended to avoid confusion between the Jewish and Muslim festivals. These two days of fasting were obligatory before the prescription of Ramadan. Afterwards, they were reduced to optional but mustahab (preferable) fasts, given their significance in the Muslim tradition.

It’s clear then that Ashura in Morocco is a melange of traditions and rituals, each as interesting as the other. Some are even quite bizarre. The wide spectrum of these practices is due to the diverse layers that have constituted Moroccan society since its beginning. Every ritual and tradition should be checked from an Islamic perspective as the influences may be Sunni or Shiite, Arab and Andalusian, African, Amazigh or Berber, Jewish, or pre-monotheist religion (and therefore pagan).

The Islamic component of the Moroccan Ashura celebration is a mere fraction of the whole. That in of itself is a very interesting, if not puzzling, point to note in a Muslim majority country.

Nada Kiffa

Nada Kiffa is partner and Editor at Taste of Maroc. A native of Casablanca with strong Fassi roots, she writes extensively on Moroccan and international cuisine at Fleur d'Oranger, Masala & Co.

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