Drums on display

At the top of the riad, in the heart of the medina of Marrakesh, the evening is punctuated by small rolls of drums, which seem to come from all directions. The sun has set, the birds have fallen silent, and the sounds of the city rise up to the terrace. But the shouts of the merchants, the donkey drivers, the roar of the scooters that hardly make their way through the narrow streets like in the Middle Ages are covered by the laughter of the children preparing Ashoura.

The “festivals” of Ashura in Islam

The day of Ashura, the tenth (Achoura) of the month of Muharram, has many different meanings throughout the Muslim world.

In the Shia world, it is a day of mourning and sadness. Each year, Shiites remember the martyrdom of Hussein and his family, Muhammad’s grandson, who were killed at the Battle of Karbala on Ashura by the Umayyad caliphs in the struggle for power.

For Sunnis, it is becoming much more insignificant in the Sunni world, where it is only one of the two days of fasting that became optional after the institution of Ramadan.

It can also be associated with the dead, with a visit to the cemetery, where candles are lit in the evening, as in Tunisia. At the same time, it is, especially in North Africa, associated with the very ancient rites of resurrection. Also in Tunisia, fires are lit over which children jump while singing, a bit like our Saint John’s Day fires.

A boy chooses his drum for Ashura, in Marrakesh's medina

In a derb  (neighbourhood) of Marrakesh’s medina, a young boy chooses his darbouka (drum) for Ashura.

In Morocco, Ashura is above all a celebration of children and family. It is, like all holidays, a day of charity, and the repentance inherited from the original meaning of Ashura remains attached to the religious fast. It is said that it was on seeing Jews celebrating Yom Kippur, the Great Forgiveness, and learning that this celebration honoured Moses, that the Prophet Muhammad instituted the fast of Ashura, to honour Moses who is also one of the great prophets of Islam. However, instead of celebrating the giving of the tablets of the law, Muslims commemorate the day when God saved Moses and the Jews by opening the waters of the Red Sea.

Ashura in the streets of the medina

Ashura in the streets of the medina

But for the children, there is only the festival, a mixture of Saint Nicolas and Carnival. They receive new clothes, toys, firecrackers, small musical instruments, they wander the streets asking passers-by for a few dirhams, and they prepare for the big day the next day, “Zem-Zem”.

“Zem-Zem” is the name of a well in Mecca. And Zem-Zem in Morocco is the day of watering. All the children (normally under 12 years old) have total freedom to water the grown-ups, they run around the fountains to stock up and return to sprinkle friends and neighbours.

Carnival-like rituals

These rituals are mostly practised in the countryside.

The men disguise themselves as women, and go from one house to another singing…

In our south, in Tazarine, a man dresses up in a rather frightening way, and puts flaming palm branches on his head, arranged like horns. Followed by all the children of the village who sing, laugh and heckle, he goes from house to house, knocking on every door to ask for Gaddid (the spiced and dried meat of the Eid sheep, which can be kept for a whole year), insisting and staying on the spot if a family that is a bit stingy refuses to give its due. But he always wins his case, and, accompanied by all the children, he will end the evening in a corner of the ksar, generously sharing his Gaddid with them, in a feast that is both joyful and delicious.

Ouday n achour in Goulmima

The dances of the people of Goulmima, masked for Ashura

In Goulmima there is also the “Carnival of the Jews”, (“Ouday n’Achour”) which is so called because part of the festival consists of the adventures of a Jewish couple. As elsewhere, people dress up, wear masks

Is it a kind of Halloween?

Achoura will take place on 29 January this year. A week before, the whole city is already preparing. In the alleys of the medina, I see little kids sitting in front of a big plate of sweets, and in every stall, in every corner, there is a little stall selling drums… the same drums that mark the beginning of my night.

This is a translation of a post originally published on the website of our tours agency, in January 2007. After business and website closed, the French version can be read here.