I am almost a week late in wishing you a Happy New Year, but nonetheless it is appropriate. One week ago, November 4, 2013 was the first day of the New Year, 1435, according to the Islamic calendar. The first month of the year is called Muharram and is one of four holy months, each of the four being mentioned in the Koran. Muharram is considered the most holy month of the year except for Ramadan, the ninth month in the calendar.
The Islamic calendar is lunar, as compared to the Gregorian calendar, and as a result, each month moves back approximately ten or eleven days each year. For example, Muharram 2012 began on November 15, and Muharram 2011 began on November 26. Next year the month should start October 25. Each new month begins with the sighting of the new moon.
Ashurah is the Arabic word for ten, and the tenth day of the month of Muharram has evolved into a celebration with some similar traditions to what occurs at Christmas. For example, like Christmas it is referred to as a time of remembering. It is commemorated by Sunni Muslims (who also refer to it as The Day of Atonement) as the day on which the Israelites were freed from Egypt. The Shia Muslims remember it as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Mohammed. Hussein died at the Battle of Karbala on the tenth day of Muharram in the year 680 A.D., which corresponds to the year 61 in the Islamic calendar. The death of Hussein and the ensuing conflict as to who should be the legitimate successor in the lineage of Mohammed resulted in a schism between two factions, the Sunnis and the Shias, which has had serious implications since that time.
Ashurah is also commemorated by the giving of gifts, especially for children. Indeed, we have seen children dressed in new clothes, mothers pushing babies in new carriages, and children playing with new toys over the past week or so. Though I am uncertain if every Ashurah is the same, all the schools were on holiday this past week, from preschoolers to university students. Our internet service has improved quite a bit since all those teenagers are not at home viewing their Facebook pages all day.
Last Tuesday, the second day of Muharram, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my friend Abdesalam about 9:30 in the morning. There being no school, lots and lots of children were playing in and about the neighborhood where we sat. On the table, the waiter had placed a pitcher or water and glasses for each of us in addition to the coffee we had ordered. All at once, about five excited young children, aged 6 to 9 in my estimation, ran up to our table and asked to have some water. (This is not an uncommon occurrence in this culture, and sometimes a person walking down the sidewalk might stop and ask if they can have your water.) Abdesalam said yes and all of them drank at least one glass and a couple of them had two glasses.
Abdesalam began talking to them as they stood there and inquired why they were out of school and if they were enjoying themselves. Then he asked them if they had received any gifts yet. They replied they had not, and he asked if they wanted anything. That’s what I call a rhetorical question! He reached in his pocket, pulled out some coins and gave one to each of them. They ran off thanking him, but in no more than a minute or two, the youngest of the group returned to inform Abdesalam that all the others had received a dirham, but she got only a half-dirham coin. He enjoyed a bit or repartee with the little girl, but then exchanged her coin for one of equal value to the others. They all disappeared, quite pleased I think with what had happened.
In less than five minutes another four or five children appeared at our table. The water pitcher had been refilled and they asked for some water as well. Again, some discussion and questions occurred but no offer of coins was made. To their credit, none of them asked for anything but water, but my cynical, western mind was convinced they had had a conversation with previous visitors to our table. Abdesalam told me he thought they were a bit too old, but I think he might have surmised he could have an unending line had he come up with more coins.
Traditions are different and customs are different, but the vibrancy, energy and enthusiasm of children is pretty much the same around the world. That fifteen or twenty minute encounter was quite an enjoyable experience for me.