The songs of Ashura mainly focus on the figure of Baba 'Aishur who is portrayed as a model of manhood and courage.
El Jadida – It is not assured that Baba ‘Aishur has a founding legend in Moroccan popular culture. At least, when some women were asked in El Jadida (Doukkala region) who Baba ‘Aishur was, they replied that they did not know about his origins though an old woman from Shawiya (a different region) recounted to her grand-daughter the story of Baba ‘Aishur. The daughter narrates:
“Once upon a time Baba ‘Aishur was a childless married person. On the verge of his death he ascended to Allah and cried over the fact that he would die without descent. Allah said to him in reply: ‘why do you cry and you will be the forefather of all generations? They will all mourn you!’ and so started the ritualized mourning of Baba ‘Aishur”– needless to mention here that the myth mirrors the theme of fertility and the wish for fecundation early discussed by anthropologists while studying agricultural folk beliefs.
Baba ‘Aishur appears in the myth as an impotent male unable to fertilize his wife, a picture that chimes with the cultural image portrayed in ‘Ashura songs describing the death of masculinity (see table 1 below).
As far as other interviewees are concerned, Baba ‘Aishur is an effigy they had to bury when they were young in ceremonial funerals and with it they intended to lay to rest their sorrows, sicknesses and bad luck. Who Baba ‘Aishur was, no one knows.
The picture in the songs of ‘Ashura represents an aging knight who lay dying; his bravura and courage reminiscent of ‘Ali’s, the warrior, or his son al-Husayn’s, the martyr; both are eulogized. Yet, the women interviewed are not aware of the symbolism. Lots of them do not know who al-Husayn was, let alone how he died though there are historical indicators that shurfa and administrators of the Makhzen used to observe ‘Ashura in sadness, fasting and abstinence. Lamentations of his death have also survived in ‘Ashura chants (see Table 1, lines 28-38), which implies the survival of a Shiite influence. Cannot we suggest that the image of al-Husayn as combatant and dying may concur with the image of the year as wanning and rising yet again (see Table 1)? Both can be interpretations of the end of the year to quote Westermarck.
Women interviewees are only aware of the fact that ‘Ashura is an annual occasion for them to liberate themselves from the shackles of convention and go outdoors to sing and play. They seem to chant defiance to social conventions of patriarchy and announce their ‘cleavage’ on the occasion. A pertinent popular female verse runs as follows: “Baba ‘Aishur we [women] are not under any rule!” During the night of the festival, when boys are kindling bonfires, girls are frenetically beating their drums and whooping: “he who does not heat it up! Chopped off be his hand!” On such frenzied tunes, the girls yell in streets as if heralding the end of an epoch of male domination and the dawn of the era of female emancipation.
Nowadays, the participation of adult women in the singing processions is generally getting in decline in urban centers. Major participants are girls of a younger age though some interviewees claim that the participation of adult women is still active in the countryside. If we look at the vocabularies used in the songs in Table 1, we realize that the dying figure is masculine and is given the title of “Baba” used in the local dialect, especially in the countryside, to refer to the Father/Grandfather. This old-age may evoke the symbolism of a wanning year on the verge to flee away. The lexical choices in the songs (Table 1) portray an old dying man unable to stir up and on the threshold of departing. He is dying. And there are cries to bring him back from where he is going, i.e. to resurrect him into life.
Blame is inflicted on scapegoated others like Nazarenes and Jews, regarded as impure and capable of casting evil on Muslims. Women are asked to close the doors to leave the dying man rest in peace because he is neighing his hour. Other songs either recall reminiscences of the young strong ‘Ayshur of the past, or rather announce the advent of a new ‘Ayshur stronger but inevitably doomed to the same fate because it is part and parcel of the cycle of nature that a season dies and a new season is born. The upcoming ‘Ayshur is a forest young horse (jda’ l-ghaba) able to vanquish his enemies. He can attack. He can kill. He can fecundate. He can murder and create. Isn’t it the annual transition depicted in a patriarchal-oriented image that bestows on the male his lofty crown of manhood?
Interviewees maintain that forty years ago, the custom of burial of Baba ‘Aishur involved the dressing of a ram’s bone stored from the Great Feast; it was then hennaed and taken by young females to a burial place usually a forsaken cemetery (rawda mansya) in a ceremonial procession with lamentations, wailing and cheek-or-hair-scratching [ndib]. Interviewees do not know the origin of the ritual and are not familiar with the figure of al-Husayn save for devout Muslims like fqih-s (Koranic teachers) and veiled practicing women who know about the story of al Husayn’s death and refute all local traditional practices in ‘Ashura. For the commoners, the burial is a tradition inherited from mother to daughter though its performance is now getting in decline.
It seems that the cultural schema of death is activated in ‘Ashura ritual without the informants’ awareness of a direct Shiite influence. Westermarck observed that “the ignorant women of Doukkala” mourning Baba ‘Aishur exhibited greater zeal than the learned theologians of Islam. According to him, both ceremonies of mourning—that of al-Husayn in Arabia and Baba ‘Aishur in Morocco—could be Islamized interpretations of ancient rites connected with New Year rituals.
Why shall it be framed within an evolutionary paradigm? It can also be argued from an ideological perspective that the cultural schema of mourning al-Husayn though deformed in history, in a Barthes’ sense of myth, and deprived of its Shiite meaning because of the widespread of Sunni Islam, is still activated in the familiar social context of interring an anonymous figure without legend called Baba ‘Aishur.
Table 1. ‘Ashura Female Songs on the Death of Masculinity
1. ‘Aishur died and did not die / Oh girls! Make him rise!
2. Dying is ‘Aishur/ On him you close the door!
3. ‘Aishur died and did not die / Oh girls lock him up!
4. ‘Aishur is stirring / Close on him the bier!
5. A dried meat strip grilled on wood!/ Baba ‘Aishur came to pray but the river took him away!
6. Oh ‘Aishur the betrayed! / They put poison to you in dates!
7. The white she-camel is carrying fabric/ ‘Aishur may not die till the crier calls for dawn prayers!
8. The white she-camel is carrying cucumber /’Aishur may not die till the chick crows!
9. ‘Aishur is running away! On him close the doors!
10. ‘Aishur played and went away / He who set eyes on Mannana might see success!
11. You who is angrily departing from your spouse / Taking the road and swallowing flour.
12. ‘Aishur died in Shawiya / Very far from me!
13. You sellers and buyers / did not you see ‘Aishur dying in the puddle?
14. Oh Christian people! / Bring back ‘Aishur from where he is going!
15. Oh the (new) house of (El Jadida) / the wind of cold season came into it!
16. I swear that I will never grease my hair / Baba ‘Aishur died in the shrine and I buried him there!
17. You girls go outside! Oh ‘Aishur died!
18. ‘Aishur, Wearer of the necklace / died and left Khdijja.
19. ‘Aishur of the ram tail/ died and left juveniles.
20. Run oh l-Kb?r (the Great)! ‘Aishur fell in a pit.
21. Horses went shining and came playing/ Where is Baba ‘Aishur of lovely games?
22. Where is ‘Aishur of the hand washing vessel? This is the year of bullets.
23. ‘Aishur of the long beard!/ Look at how the rule is crumbling into disorder.
24. ‘Aishur of the Eye! / Look at how the rule is crumbling into confusion.
25. ‘Aishur of the long curl! / This is the year of tumult.
26. My ‘Aishur, My ‘Aishur! I loosen my hair for you.
27. with thread and bobbin! / And death is untrusty!
28. Oh the puddle of grass, the puddle of the Arab, oh lalla! / Oh Sidi al-Husayn of the high dome!
29. Run oh Fatima! I lost ‘Aishur! / Run oh ?Li ‘Aishur fell in an abyss!
30. Run oh l-Kbir! / ‘Aishur fell in a pit.
31. Buried in a white clean corner/ mourned by shurfa and Makhzen agents.
32. Mulay ?Li our neighbor/ two doves over our house.
33. The Prophet father of Fatima/ Pray on him!
34. Between us and the mosque/ benzoin’s perfume.
35. The Prophet Mohammed/ the Arab.
36. Between us and the mosque/ aloe’s perfume.
37. The Prophet Mohammed/ the worshipped.
38. Between Mecca and Medina/ benzoin’s perfume.
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