Morocco abounds in holidays and festivals, both national and local, and coming across one can be the most enjoyable experience of travel in the country – with the chance to witness music and dance, as well as special regional foods and market souks. Perhaps surprisingly, this includes Ramadan, when practising Muslims, including most Moroccans, fast from sunrise to sunset for a month, but when nights are good times to hear music and share in hospitality.
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Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, commemorates the first revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. Most people observe the fast; indeed Moroccans are forbidden by law from publicly disrespecting it, and a few people are jailed for this each year.
The fast involves abstention from food, drink, smoking and sex during daylight throughout the month. Most local cafés and restaurants close during the day, and many close up altogether and take a month’s holiday. Smokers in particular get edgy towards the month’s end, and it is in some respects an unsatisfactory time to travel: efficiency drops, drivers fall asleep at the wheel (hence airline pilots are excused fasting), and guides and muleteers are unwilling to go off on treks, and when the fast ends at sunset, almost regardless of what they are doing, everybody stops to eat. The month-long closure of so many eating places can also make life difficult if you are dependent on restaurants.
But there is compensation in witnessing and becoming absorbed into the pattern of the fast. At sunset, signalled by the sounding of a siren, by the lighting of lamps on minarets, and in some places by a cannon shot, an amazing calm and sense of wellbeing fall on the streets. The fast is traditionally broken with a bowl of harira and some dates, a combination provided by many cafés and restaurants exactly at sunset. You will also see almsgiving (zakat) extended to offering harira to the poor and homeless.
After breaking their fast, everyone – in the cities at least – gets down to a night of celebration and entertainment. This takes different forms. If you can spend some time in Marrakesh during the month, you’ll find the Jemaa el Fna square at its most active, with troupes of musicians, dancers and acrobats coming into the city for the occasion. In Rabat and Fez, there seem to be continuous promenades, with cafés and stalls staying open until 3am. Urban cafés provide venues for live music and singing, too, and in the southern towns and Berber villages you will often come across the ritualized ahouaches and haidus – circular, trance-like dances often involving whole communities.
If you are a non-Muslim outsider you are not expected to observe Ramadan, but you should be sensitive about breaking the fast (particularly smoking) in public. In fact, the best way to experience Ramadan – and to benefit from its naturally purifying rhythms – is to enter into it. You may lack the faith to go without an occasional glass of water, and you’ll probably have breakfast later than sunrise (it’s often wise to buy supplies the night before), but it is worth an attempt.
Other Islamic holidays
Ramadan ends with the feast of Aïd es Seghir or Aïd el Fitr, a climax to the month’s night-time festivities. Even more important is Aïd el Kebir, which celebrates the willingness of Abraham to obey God by sacrificing his son (Isaac in the Old Testament, but believed by Muslims to be his older son Ishmael). Aïd el Kebir is followed, about two months later, by Moharem, the Muslim new year.
Both aïds are traditional family gatherings. At Aïd el Kebir every household that can afford it will slaughter a sheep. You see them tethered everywhere, often on rooftops, for weeks prior to the event; after the feast, their skins can be seen being cured on the streets. On both aïd days, shops and restaurants close and buses don’t run; on the following day, all transport is packed, as people return to the cities from their family homes.
The fourth main religious holiday is the Mouloud, the Prophet’s birthday. This is widely observed, with a large number of moussems timed to take place in the weeks around it, and two particularly important moussems at Meknes and Salé. There is also a music festival, Ashorou, which is held thirty days after Aïd el Kebir, when people gather to play whatever traditional instrument they feel capable of wielding, and the streets are full of music.
Moussems and ammougars
Moussems – or ammougars – held in honour of saints or marabouts, are local and predominantly rural affairs, and form the main religious and social celebrations of the year for most Moroccans, along with Aïd es Seghir and Aïd el Kebir.
Some of the smaller moussems amount to no more than a market day with religious overtones; others are essentially harvest festivals, celebrating a pause in agricultural labour after a crop has been successfully brought in, but a number have developed into substantial occasions – akin to Spanish fiestas – and a few have acquired national significance. If you are lucky enough to be here for one of the major events, you’ll get the chance to witness Moroccan popular culture at its richest, with horseriding, music, singing and dancing, and of course eating and drinking.
There are enormous numbers of moussems. An idea of quite how many can be gathered from the frequency with which, travelling about the countryside, you see koubbas – the square, white-domed buildings covering a saint’s tomb. Each of these is a potential focal point of a moussem, and any one region or town may have twenty to thirty separate annual moussems. Establishing when they take place, however, can be difficult for outsiders; most local people find out by word of mouth at the weekly souks. Some moussems are held around religious occasions such as Mouloud, which change date each year according to the lunar calendar; others follow the solar calendar (see Ramadan and Islamic holidays).
The accommodation situation will depend on whether the moussem is in the town or countryside. In the country, the simplest solution is to take a tent and camp – there is no real objection to anyone camping wherever they please during a moussem.
Aims and functions
The ostensible aim of the moussem is religious: to obtain blessing, or baraka, from the saint and/or to thank God for the harvest. But the social and cultural dimensions are equally important. Moussems provide an opportunity for country people to escape the monotony of their hard working lives in several days of festivities, and they may provide the year’s single opportunity for friends or families from different villages to meet. Harvest and farming problems are discussed, as well as family matters – marriage in particular – as people get the chance to sing, dance, eat and pray together.
Music and singing are always major components of a moussem and locals will often bring tape recorders to provide sounds for the rest of the year. Sufi brotherhoods have a big presence, and each bring their own distinct style of music, dancing and dress.
Moussems also operate as fairs, or markets, attracting people from a much wider area than the souk and giving a welcome injection of cash into the local economy, with traders and entertainers doing good business, and householders renting out rooms.
At the spiritual level, people seek to improve their standing with God through prayer, as well as the less orthodox channels of popular belief. Central to this is baraka, good fortune, which can be obtained by intercession of the saint. Financial contributions are made and these are used to buy a gift, or hedia, usually a large carpet, which is then taken in procession to the saint’s tomb; it is deposited there for the local shereefian families, the descendants of the saint, to dispose of as they wish. Country people may seek to obtain baraka by attaching a garment or tissue to the saint’s tomb and leaving it overnight to take home after the festival.
The procession taking the gift to the tomb is the high point of the more religious moussems, such as that of Moulay Idriss in Fez, where an enormous carpet is carried above the heads of the Sufi brotherhoods, each playing its own hypnotic music. Spectators and participants, giving themselves up to the music, may go into a trance. If you witness such events, it is best to keep a low profile so as not to interfere with people trying to attain a trance-like state, and certainly don’t take photographs.
Release through trance probably has a therapeutic aspect, and indeed some moussems are specifically concerned with cures of physical and psychiatric disorders. The saint’s tomb is usually located near a freshwater spring, and the cure can simply be bathing in and drinking the water. Those suffering from physical ailments may also be treated at the moussem with herbal remedies, or by recitation of verses from the Koran. Koranic verses may also be written and placed in tiny receptacles fastened near the affected parts.