From the literal translation for "tenth," the day of Ashura is one of fasting and festivity for the Moroccan people during the month of Muharram. Due to the varied cultures and religions spread throughout the country, Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram) is celebrated uniquely among the different peoples, mainly the Shiites and Sunni Muslims, as well as native Moroccans. Below, we'll explore the origins and customs of this cherished holiday and see how it has morphed into its current status as a favorite Moroccan tradition.
To the Shiite people, Ashura is a day of mourning for the Prophet Muhammad. The prophet, along with much of his family and army, were beheaded in the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. In fact, it was this event that divided Shiites and Sunnis into two religious sects, forever igniting a feud between the Islamic cultures. In honor of Muhammad, Shiites often strike their chests to commemorate his death. Some even go so far as to self-flagellate themselves, finding it necessary to recognize the pain of their hero's demise.
Sunni people celebrate Ashura in honor of Moses parting the Red Sea. Rather than cause self-harm, they fast for the day, a practice Muhammad had observed in the Jewish culture and adapted to Islamic tradition. Most Moroccans, in turn, have assimilated this unique practice to make an exciting day for adults and children every year.
One of the most popular dishes served at Ashura is fakia, a sample platter of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. Often included within the fakia are little shortbread cookies known as krichlate. These cookies are made with flour, sugar, orange blossom water, as well as sesame, fennel, and anise seeds. A type of cured meat known as gueddid is also made during Ashura, though, rather than eaten on its own; it's primarily used to flavor stews and couscous dishes.
Ashura is a time of great joy and renewal for women and children. In preparation for Ashura, women commemorate by thoroughly cleaning their homes. Washing every table, chair, counter, and appliances is said to bring good graces and blessings (Baraka) for the new year ahead.
Meanwhile, children find Ashura to be a day of harmless fun and gift-giving. A common tradition, very much like Halloween, involves children going door-to-door wearing masks and costumes, hoping to receive treats such as dried fruit and money. Rather than ask "Trick-or-Treat?", the children ask their neighbors "the right of Baba Achour?" (Father Ashur), a character in Moroccan tradition.
The children also have fun on Zamzam Day, which is what some Moroccans celebrate as opposed to Ashura. On this day, children spray each other with cold water to commemorate the Zamzam well that never dries up located in Mecca. Water guns are often used, but children also throw water balloons and dump buckets of water on each other's heads.
One of the most significant traditions of Ashura is the lighting of the bonfire. Children often jump over the bonfire to symbolize either Abraham being thrown into the fire or the attempt of Muhammad's grandsons to avoid death by jumping over flaming tents. Women often use the bonfire to perform spells to protect them from evil spirits or to charm men. It is believed when bonfires are made of rubber tires; the rubber negates the effect of these spells.
While Ashura is, for some, built on a tragic incident in Islamic history, contemporary Moroccans enjoy it as a time for music, dancing, games, and carnivals. It's for fun, it's for fasting, but mostly, it's for family and friends and for keeping the Moroccan tradition alive.