Moroccans celebrate Ashura Day in a peculiar way as youths light fire and engage in water fights as part of rituals that trace their origins to Jewish and Islamic traditions.
Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram (the first month in the Muslim hijri calendar), is celebrated by all Muslims although the reason for celebration differs across the different sects.
While Shiites commemorate the death of al-Hussein ibn Ali, son of the Profet Mohammed's cousin, in Karbala, Sunnis commemorate the day God liberated Moses and his people from Egypt and its menacing Pharaoh.
According to the Sunni tradition, Prophet Mohammed fasted on that day and asked all Muslims to do so.
Moroccans start celebrating Ashura the night before by setting tree branches on fire and roaming the streets with the torches while repeating chants related to the occasion. Sometimes Moroccans light a fire in the yards of their houses and start jumping over it.
This ritual is called “shaaela,” meaning “flames,” and is mainly practiced in working class districts and desert areas.
The next day, Moroccan youths throw water at their friends and neighbors as a gesture of intimacy that is said to have started with women’s bathing in cold water on Ashura morning, a ritual believed to bring prosperity for the coming year.
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.
Due to the strong connection between Ashura and water, said to be related to the parting of the sea by Moses, the day came to be called Zamzam day, in reference to the holy water of Zamzam well in Mecca.
Despite the fact that the fire and water rituals are meant to express joy, unpleasant incidents might take place due to the way some youths misuse these reveling activities.
Some youths roam the streets throwing water at people they don’t know, especially women, and sometime they carry water and keep threatening women of spilling it over them and ruining their hair, makeup and clothes.
This kind of behavior leads to violent outbursts whose consequences are sometimes very grave. Last year, a man got into a fight with another who spilt water on his sister and killed him, while a pregnant woman had a miscarriage because of the shock of having water spilt on her from the roof of one of the houses.
Jewish and Islamic origins
The rituals performed before and on the day of Ashura have several origins, said Islamic researcher Idris Hani.
“It was originally the Jews who started the water ritual in celebration of Moses’ parting of the sea,” he said. “Since a big Jewish community lived in Morocco, all Moroccans inherited this ritual.”
The name Zamzam Day, Hani added, is the Muslim influence as Muslims link between the holy well in Mecca and the story of Moses in the Quran and the drowning of the Pharaoh.
“The ritual also has Shiite traces as well as influences from the time of the Omayyad Caliphate.”
Hani explained that Ashura rituals are extended to the next day, the 11th of Muharram, as merchants refuse to engage in any transactions.
“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.”
This, Hani elaborated, is also a Jewish tradition since the majority of Jews who lived in Morocco worked in trade.
“This demonstrates how deeply-rooted the Jewish culture is in the history of Morocco,” he concluded.
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)