The Ashura Festival in Morocco (often spelled: “achoura”) is truly a festival for kids… and kids at heart! Kids all get new toys, as well as the staple Darbuka (a goblet drum) and Berrada (a clay piggy bank). Kids go from playing music and eating healthy treats, like fakia, to playing with water.
But there is so much more to the Ashura Festival in Morocco than just drums and toys! Ashura is a perfect example of the Judaeo-Islamic tradition in Morocco, deeply rooted in values of tolerance and coexistence.
Ashura is a controversial celebration, particularly in the Muslim world. Some might wonder why Muslims celebrate a Jewish holiday. In fact, in ancient times, before monotheistic religions, both Muslims and Jews were part of the same tribes and shared the same beliefs. As Judaism and, later, Islam grew, it is no surprise to find overlaps between these people who hail from the same region.
Ashura is celebrated on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim New Year. The word “ashura” comes from the word designating the number ten in Arabic: ashara.
In many historic accounts, it is said that in 622 AD, when Prophet Muhammad with his followers completed the journey from Mecca to current-day Medina to escape prosecution, he found that the Jews there were celebrating Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) by fasting. They explained to Prophet Muhammad that they were commemorating the deliverance of the Children fo Israel and Moses from the Pharaoh’s armies. The Prophet then recommended to his followers to fast two days so as not to confuse the Jewish celebration with Muslim ones.
Ashura is celebrated differently in different Muslim countries. Some don’t celebrate it at all.
In Morocco, many people fast on the 9th and 10th day of Muharram. Some even add the 11th for extra purification. Unlike during Ramadan, the Ashura fast is voluntary.
Besides fasting, the first day of Ashura is a day of toys, candy and charity. People also visit cemeteries, congregating to pray and commemorate their ancestors. While there, they light incense and take a moment to reflect on what is most important in life. Meanwhile, the kids run around squealing with joy, dirtying their new clothes.
Children most look forward to the second day of Ashura to play “Zem-Zem.” The name refers to the well of holy water in Mecca. This is when children get a pass to sprinkle water on each other… and on anyone else who happens to pass by! Everyone joins in the fun, especially when Ashura falls during the hot summer months. It’s not uncommon to see streets full of water fighting with the expected squeals of joy and laughter from the kids, and quite a few “young at heart” adults as well!
During Ashura, it used to be more common for children to play with firecrackers and rockets. But for safety reasons the government banned this practice, and thus the noise that came with it. However, occasionally you can still find pockets of kids who have resourcefully found a few firecrackers to light up the night with a bang.
The celebration of Ashura has been carried out almost the same way for many generations in Morocco. I say “almost” because of modern-day cheap plastic toys and exotic dried fruits invading the markets. The latter is definitely a better evolution. The former? Not so much.
Ashura is that special time of the year when we get to shop for fakia (meaning “fruits” in reference to dry fruits), a sort of trail mix that also includes all sorts of sweet treats, usually including a variety of nuts, raisins and dried, colored pineapple cubes. During the first day of Ashura, kids (and adults!) enjoy the family fakia. Each family makes their own mix and shares it with guests or with the needy. Fakia makes for a great afternoon snack, too.
Morocco being one of the best culinary capitals in the world, ideas for holiday meals abound. A special occasion like Ashura calls for a special dinner. This is generally a Rfissa or a couscous. My family loves the very unique Seksu b liyya (couscous with dried sheep tail). Most families dry and preserve the sheep’s tail from Eid Al-Adha in salt. In some parts of Morocco, after dinner, young people, males especially, still light big bonfires in their neighborhoods and dance around.
No Ashura party can take place without the sound of ta’erija. This handmade clay goblet drum with stretched goat skin (also known as darbuka) becomes the star of every gathering. In the evenings, during the dinner party, the women and kids get together to play ta’erija and sing the night away. Both adults and children like their ta’erija, and buy a new one every year.
“Now go put your coins in the berrada,” my mom would say. “And don’t break it until it’s full!” We all had a handmade clay berrada growing up. This is a Moroccan version of a piggy bank – minus the pig. At Ashura, and every other holiday, families would give the kids coins and treats. You won’t save your college fund, but you could get a nice treat once you break it up the next year.
Muslim holidays insist on the importance of Zakat, charity. At the core of every Muslim celebration is a call for helping the less fortunate. During Ashura, people can give as much as a tenth of their annual savings as alms. This could be money or a contribution to building mosques, schools, hospitals, orphanages, or public fountains, for instance.
The Ashura Festival in Morocco is like a children’s festival, with fairs and parties everywhere. If you happen to be traveling Morocco during Ashura, beware of the little ones walking around with their squirt guns and those lurking in the rooftop terraces of their houses… you might hear a bit of laughter before being hit with the Zem-Zem!
Amina Lahbabi is a proud Moroccan, feminist, mother, climate change activist, and promoter of education, equal rights and freedom of expression. She is at the forefront of all of Journey Beyond Travel’s NGO initiatives. She loves art, freedom of expression, and is an accomplished photographer in her own right. She holds multiple graduate degrees in translation and communication and was a Fulbright Scholar at Michigan State University. She also munches on fakia year-round. She lives in Tangier with her family. You can check out her Wikipedia or find her online: http://www.aminalahbabi.com.