Shsha”ala: ‘Ashura Bonfire

Shsha”ala: ‘Ashura Bonfire


Mohammed Maarouf
Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco. [/symple_box] 

When I was driving my car this morning amidst of the debris of yester bonfires, watching the smoke still ascending the skies from the ruins of rubber material inflamed last night in a ritual performance by the boys and girls in Moroccan streets, I was charmed at how entrenched is still the practice in popular imagination, reviving my reminiscences on the fieldwork research I did on ‘Ashura the last decade though appalled by the absence of institutional spaces reserved for such intent. Roads where bonfires are usually fueled are built from citizens’ taxes and are maintained and restored from the sweat of their sinews, I do not understand how can they be vandalized in rituals of anti-citizenship?!

What is the meaning of the practice of bonfires and why has it survived up to the present?

It is well known in Moroccan lore that Ashura bonfire (shsha”ala) seems to be the most convenient time when Moroccan women who believe in magical power decide to burn their spells. Early in the evening before going outdoors, they hennaed their hair and their daughters’ hands while singing ‘My ʿAyshur My ʿAyshur, I loosen my hair for you! (‘Aishuri ‘Aishuri dellit ‘lik sh’uri)” Later, bonfires are lighted by male youths in an open area in the presence of girls, grownups of both sexes and little children. When it blazes, the boys commence to circumambulate and leap over the flames; girls standing by sing what Moroccans term “the Songs of Baba ʿAyshur.”

At this point, one may notice women neighing the fire, and casting their spells and charms in it under children’s hurrahs. Those who do not like to expose themselves to public shame may give away fire ingredients, for instance an old stuff mattress, to children to burn in fire. The latter run happily dragging the bits and pieces along into the fire unaware that the gift might have been filled with spells.

The fire of Ashura may be divided into two major categories. There is the male bonfire explained above and the household fire lighted by women in small censors inside the house, on the terrace, or at the threshold of the door. A female interviewee commented on the practice by saying: “such a great night highly regarded by God deserves feasting and fumigation for the house also has its own masters (ddar tahiya bi mmaliha)!” Members of the family, especially boys and girls leap over the fire making their wishes for the next year. Such fire is believed to cure sicknesses and bring good luck; those who step over it may say: “I left inside you the sickness of my head and bones (khallit fik mard rasi u ‘dami)!” When the flames abate, women may throw in it incense to fumigate the house, or spells to charm those dear to the heart.

Women who prefer to burn spells in small censors instead of throwing them in bonfires outdoors say that they do not want boys and girls playing outside to step over the spell because it may harm them. In the countryside, some women may spin wool in front of the household fire to produce a magic charm. It is believed that if women spin yarn from the wool fibers stored from the Great-Feast victim’s fleece in front of Ashura fire, fortune might guide the hand that grasps the spun thread. The woman equipped with her distaff and spindle forms a thread taller than her body height. The thread may be cut into small pieces and given to nubile girls as well as to people who desire to sell their cattle in weekly markets. All are believed to find fortune on their side when they grasp it.

‘Ashura night may turn neighborhoods into different sorts of perfume from gum ammoniac, alum to benzoin. Some believe that fumigation may fortify them against evil influence but others think that their spells if burnt ceremonially in ‘Ashura may incontestably bewitch the targeted person. Furthermore, women who store the ram’s muscle tail (diyyala) by salting and curing it in the sun may cook it with couscous on ‘Ashura night, or by following the ancestors’ tradition (al-qa’ida) kindle a fire in a small censor, grill the tail and give it to shepherds to eat, a customary performance designed to safeguard the cattle for the next annual seasons.

Other farmers’ wives may burn the muscle tail in an incense burner and use it to perfume the cattle; the smoke spreading all over the place is believed to contain baraka. Afterwards, the fleshy tail is cut into pieces and offered to children to eat. There are women who seize the occasion and stuff the tail with magic brews with the intent to tame the male sex, and cook it in a couscous dish for their husbands to eat from.

Nowadays, urban open-air fires in ‘Ashura are no longer kindled with thorn or branches of other sacred trees such as marjoram and olive foliage but with rubber wheels. In the past, male adults participated in the ritual and the person allotted the responsibility of lighting the fire was a man of high standing in the community. Though the bonfire now is seemingly losing its symbolic function and becoming a child game both in rural and urban societies, it is still socially functional in secret.

No one can deny that Moroccan interviewees are reluctant to express their magical beliefs overtly for fear of being disdained, and try to hide their practices by adopting an antagonistic stance. Only if the researcher upholds strict naivety and evinces himself as a magic client can he extract relevant data from them. Some interviewees reveal that their families living in the countryside until now use the bonfires’ smoke to fumigate cattle and people, which indicates that the purification intent of the ritual is still existent.

Now, boys in cities light their bonfires with discarded rubber tires. The change from thorn to rubber tires is saying something about how magic changes its forms so as to fit the modern industrial social context. Women even say that fumigation with the rubber tire (rweda) is an efficacious antidote to the evil eye. Bonfires lighted with rubber are thought to undo the effect of spells, which explains why urban female spell-doers rather prefer to light the household fire with wood to burn their spells rather than go outside to look in vain for a male bonfire lighted with thorn or any other woody substance.

The choice of the tire is not random. It has the cultural significance of the wheel of fortune. The eroded rubber tire has travelled long distances outside the normal traffic of the familiar. It has explored the unknown. The sacred as we notice from the legends of saints and baraka lie beyond the threshold of the familiar. Beyond the limits of the parents’ protection, as Campbell (1973) maintains, there is “darkness, the unknown, and danger” just as there is the unfamiliar to the member of the tribe beyond the periphery of his village. Rachik (1990) observes that sacrifice to jinns takes place in the wilderness beyond the familiar context of the village. The tire is part of a paradigm of cultural symbols that has acquired a sacred touch by virtue of crossing into the world of the unfamiliar, travelling either across time or distance and resisting their perils.

In Moroccan mythology, the terracotta dish—gas’a couscous server—of inheritors (gas’at l-warata), for instance, bequeathed from grandmother to mother to daughter (trespassing the limits of the familiar and being hallowed by the spirits of the dead) may be used for purificatory purposes as a spell antidote for someone bewitched to wash their body on it. So, if someone or something crosses the threshold of the familiar into the unfamiliar and returns from there, they acquire a new identity and like the snake that sheds its skin are reborn into sacredness.

In Moroccan society—especially among the uneducated lower social strata—, it seems that magic has the social function of reducing women’s anxiety and helping them bear the ordeal of male domination in a patriarchal social world. To gain a measure of power in their households, or chase ill omen and realize their wishes, women resort to the practice of magic on ‘Ashura occasion. Denied real power in a male-oriented world, they imagine acting influentially by virtue of magic. They affirm it is mentioned in the Qur’an, though as forbidden and futile, and believe in its efficiency, giving examples of other women who have gained control on their husbands by magical practices.

But why do women heavily resort to magic in ‘Ashura? In Moroccan popular mythology, there are specific times when jinns are believed to be either incarcerated or unleashed. For instance, jinns are believed to be incarcerated in sha’ban and Ramadan but unleashed on the night before 27th of Ramadan called laylat al-qadr (Night of Measures). Ashura in contrast is believed to be the time jinns are released from their abodes. And they can respond to magical invocations.

On the night of ‘Ashura, women either perform prophylactic measures to protect themselves from evil influences or practice magic accepting as true that their invocations may be answered. There are women, for instance, who store the mlak (lit. belongings) and throw them in ‘Ashura fire with the intent to invoke magical influence on their husbands. The act has to be repeated every ‘Ayshur (year) to keep the male under his wife’s control. Mlak or sherweta (fabric) is a term belonging to the jargon of traditional healing and is used by fqih-s and clients to refer to human sperm. Mlak are those pieces of fabric women use to clean themselves with after sexual intercourses. Cloths stained with sperm are considered key-magical instruments used in charming men towards women, a reason why some women may offer up to 200 dhs to boys who can furtively sneak near wooden bonfires and throw unseen the spell package women trusted them with (l-amana) in the fire blazes.

On the whole, ‘Ashura seems to be a new year ritual that commemorates the annual emancipation of women in that once a year, women work to overpower their husbands by the force of magic, go outside to announce their freedom and challenge patriarchy in songs of derision, discharging the hostilities they have accumulated from male domination all the year along. It is an annual transition celebrated in a carnivalesque outlet with gender roles’ reversion, a licensed relief or an innocuous blow-off after which women may resume for the rest of the year their natural lower status in the patriarchal household.