Monday, October 19, 2015

The Drums of Ashura

Visitors to Morocco over the next few days will quickly become aware of sound of drumming.  Everywhere small drums and tambourines are being carried and played by children. From the large supermarkets to small street stalls drums are for sale everywhere. The View From Fez took to the streets to ask "why?"

The most common instruments for sale are small colourful tambourines and shopkeepers explained that usually boys had a tambourine and girls a vase-shaped ta’arija. However, this is not strictly observed and we have seen both kinds being played by boys and girls.

In some cases the drumming goes on until late at night. In Marrakech, visiting American tourists reported that they  heard drumming at 3 am! "I can see why they use loud noise when doing interrogations," one visitor quipped.

A boy carrying home a decorated ta'arija

Trying to discover the reason for such gifts during Ashura was a little more complex as everyone had a different explanation. The most common response to the question "why do children get gifts at Ashura?" is "So they will be happy".

The symbols and rituals of Ashura have evolved over time and have meant different things to different people. However, at the core of the symbolism of Ashura is the moral dichotomy between worldly injustice and corruption on the one hand and God-centred justice, piety, sacrifice and perseverance on the other.

According to many local storytellers in Fez, Ashura is a time of sadness and many people both Sunni and Shia mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn and the significance of the events at the Battle of Karbala.

Sunni followers also fast to commemorate the day when Moses and his followers were saved from Pharaoh by Allah creating a path in the Red Sea. According to Muslim tradition, the Jews used to fast on the tenth day. So Muhammad instructed his followers to be different from the Jews and recommended fasting two days instead of one.

Ta'arija in all size and colours for sale - note the plastic gun which is another common gift

"The children are given presents at this time to cheer them up, so they are not touched by the sadness of the history of Ashura," says Hicham, a Fez drum seller.

In some villages there is still the tradition of Baba Ashura, ("Baba Achour") a father christmas type, who, dressed in a costume of goat skins, gives out the gifts to children.

In the Moroccan city of Goulmima there is a large street festival where people celebrate Ashura by wearing costumes, different skins of sheep and goats, and scary looking animal masks. In the Berber tradition, the costumed people are referred to as “Udayen n Ashur,” the Jews of Ashura. With only tambourines and handclaps, “Udayen n Ashur” creates lively music, performances of acrobatic dancers. Everyone sings and dances with amusing variations on the songs, until very late into the night.

In some cities, Moroccans call the tenth day of Muharram, Zamzam day. On this day, they spray water on each other. Whoever wakes up first sprays the rest with cold water, and gets lots of children and young people out into the streets to spray every passerby with of water. Over the course of the first hours of the morning there are fierce "water battles," especially among friends and neighbors. Whoever refuses to celebrate with "Zamzam water," by sprinkling a little of it on his clothes, may be exposed to a number of volunteers taking turns dumping all of their water on his clothes. Then the day is capped off with a meal of "Moroccan couscous" with dried meat saved especially for this day from the sacrifice of Eid al-Adha.

The Amazigh (Berbers) have a different name for each of the three days of Zamzam: The first day is “Bou Isnayen” the second, “Bou Imerwasen” and the third is, “Bou Imrazen.” These are translated as “the day of throwing water,” “the day of repayment,” and finally “the day of fight.” On any one of these days, if water is thrown at a person, they have the right to throw stones back.

AK47 - the children's version

One type of Ashura gift is traditional yet frowned on by some. The giving of toy guns and water pistols seems an odd way of banishing children's "saddness due to Ashura", but at least it is better than the practice a few years ago when guns that could actually fire a powder charge were very common.

A young Medina business man said he recalled having a functioning gun as a child "But there were many bad ones that caused injuries, lost eyes or burnt skin. Thankfully they were banned some time ago".

On the lighter side, an English tourist told the story of walking down a dark Medina alley and hearing the sound of drums, first in the distance, but getting closer. "It brought to mind the drums of Khazad-dûm deep in Moria and at any moment I expected to see a horde of orcs. Instead it was six small boys with drums..."

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