The clocks in Morocco went back at the end of October (the change coinciding now with Europe after years of discontingous confusion) and the nights are drawing in. The Islamic year 1436 began on 26 October 2014 and tomorrow in Morocco we will celebrate Achoura, the 10th day of Muharrram, the new year.
Islam is based on a lunar calendar and the festivals and celebrations move through the year in relation to each other but independent of the changing of the seasons and passing of the Gregorian calendar. Muslims number the months (although many Moroccans also refer to them by their French names), meaning that although we are in the first month (of the Hijiri Muslim calendar), we are also now in ch’har hadach (the 11th month, ie November).
Achoura – a festival which in urban areas focuses on children and youth with neighbourhood fires, fireworks, practical jokes and drumming – always falls in the first Muslim month because it is associated with the new year. However, for me – coming from the UK – it somehow ‘fits’ with the short days and chill of autumn. When I see the souks stocked with pumpkins, it is easy to draw parallels to the autumn festivals of my childhood such as Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes’ Night.
And although we have enjoyed an extended Indian (or should that be ‘Swiri’?) summer , autumn has now well and truly arrived. September is the best month to visit Essaouira, weather-wise. Before the shift into winter time, the sun is still high in the sky and as the breeze drops the ‘feels like’ temperature finally coincides with the actual centigrade reading. This year, October continued to be very warm, but at this time of year locals speak of a fickle sun and begin to don sweaters and coats while European tourists still stroll around in t-shirts and shorts. This unreliable sun is strong because it is low, but in shorter days it does not contain the heat of its summer counterpart. Areas in the shade remain cool and as soon as the sun sets – creating spectacular sunsets behind wispy clouds not quite full enough to offer rain – the chill sets in. Local Swiris believe this sun transmits illness and I can’t help that think that the body’s constant battle to retain temperature stability distracts the immune system from other important tasks. I have been sick in all three Septembers I have spent in Morocco!
As we move into winter (in Moroccan darija, chta, which is etymologically related to the word from rain), one can sense a certain agitation in the air. As the name suggests, this is the time when the rains are expected, but increasingly they come late or less than hoped; than elders tell us they did before. Without rain, the farmers (who make up around 90% of economic activity in Essaouira Province) cannot survive. They liberate the animals they can no longer feed to fend for themselves in the forest, in the hope that once feed (for themselves and their livestock) is plentiful once again, they will return. In the city, the numbers of tourists drops before the peak of the European Christmas and New Year holidays. People working in hotels and restaurants – and all those who supply them – start to worry whether they will return and in what numbers. No more so than right now, given various (often unfounded) security scares. And as the ocean cools again, the fish swim deeper and the selection at the fish souk begins to thin out. Without rain, tourists and fish, the survival of urban Swiris and their rural neighbours seems more precarious than in the height of the windy summer months. The fear that one of these delicate variables might be disturbed is almost palpable.
For now, though, that capricious sun still shines over the new year celebrations and locals offer their hope to God: incha’Allah all will be fine through the winter and the life-giving rains will come soon.