Friday, October 31, 2014

The Day of Ashura is Coming - Be Prepared for Surprises!

One of the most unusual celebrations in Morocco is The Day of Ashura. To outside observers it appears as a mixture of of halloween, feasting and a playful water fight but it is an ancient and fascinating tradition.  The View from Fez investigates...

The Muslim world celebrates the Day of Ashura on November 3rd or 4th, depending on which country you are in. It is the tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar.

While the Day of Ashura in Sunni Morocco has been traditionally a day of celebration and joy, it is celebrated differently by Shia Muslims, who see it as a day of mourning.

In Morocco the local customs associated with Ashura vary across the country. People exchange pastry and mixes of nut fruits and dried raisins and apricots. Children play with fireworks in the streets and on the eve of Ashura light a fire called the Sh'ala (Arabic: الشعالة‎) and parents and family buy toys for their children.

A Sh'ala  fire on Ashura eve

Some scholars suggest that these customs may be a legacy of the Ummayyad rule who, at the time, sought to create a popular public display of joy on Ashura day in order to humiliate and counter the mourning of their enemies, the supporters of Ali (Shi'a). The Shia regard this day as a great catastrophe since it was the day of the death of Hussein and the slaughtering of his army at the battle of Karbala. However, today in Morocco, the event is not at all associated with the Shia-Sunni conflict and has little religious significance and is seen as merely a folk tradition.

Another odd custom very close to Halloween is called "the Right of Buba (pappa) Ashur" is observed in some regions of Morocco. It is an activity for children during the festival of Ashura, during which children wander from one house to another wearing masks and fancy dress costumes asking for candy and dried fruits or even money and asking the question "the right of Baba Aichor?" of anyone who answers the door.  This tradition has become famous recently when it is has been considered as a substitute for fireworks which usually lead to a range of accidents.

In some Moroccan cities the tenth day of Muharram is called Zamzam day and it is the custom to spray water people. Whoever wakes up first sprays the rest of the family with cold water before taking to the streets where crowds of children 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.

The day is capped off with a meal of couscous with dried meat saved especially for this day from the sacrifice of Eid al-Adha - in particular the tail of the sheep which is used along with sun dried meat called “kurdas”. Kurdas contains liver, fat and lots of spices, wrapped around the stomach and tied tightly with the small intestines then stored in an open sunny place ready for Zamzam. The name "Zamzam" is a reference to the holy water of the Zamzam well in Mecca.

In the desert areas, residents wake up before sunrise and start sprinkling water on everything they own that is related to the land like the fields, crops, agricultural equipment and cattle.

Some researchers say that the Moroccan Ashura Day can trace its origins back to Jewish and Islamic traditions and commemorates the day God liberated Moses and his people from Egypt and its menacing Pharaoh. The strong connection between Ashura and water is said to be related to the parting of the sea by Moses.

Islamic researcher Idris Hani is convinced of the day's Jewish origins. “It was originally the Jews who started the water ritual in celebration of Moses parting of the sea,” he says. “Since a big Jewish community lived in Morocco, all Moroccans inherited this ritual.”

Hani explains that Ashura rituals are extended to the next day, the 11th of Muharram, as merchants refuse to engage in any transactions on Ashura. “They call it the day of Waste and Usury since they believe that any profit they get on that day will not be blessed by God. This is because they earn so much the day before during the celebrations, especially selling sweets and toys to children.”

Ashura in Goulmima

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.

The 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.

Fasting during Ashura is recommended but not obligatory. Moroccans also used to distribute alms and Zakat to the poor and those in need.

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