Compared to Aid el Kebir, the Feast of the Sacrifice, or the end of the month of Ramadan, the feast of Mawlid, or Mouloud, the celebration of the birthday of Muhammad, tends to be a small family affair. It is generally celebrated on the eleventh day in the lunar month of Rabî Al-Awwal, or Rabi—May 14 in Europe– though the date varies according to interpretations.
In the close-knit immigrant communities of contemporary Italy, as in Morocco, the feast of the Prophet’s birthday is an occasion for families to get together, mainly in the morning after ritual prayers at the mosque.
It has to be said though that, whereas in the countries of North Africa Mawlid is an important holiday, in Italy it tends to be overshadowed by the other Muslim feasts.
It is a day to be spent with the children and closest relatives. New clothes and toys are bought for the little ones and the family celebrates with a sumptuous breakfast of rich, scented sweetmeats.
Every Moroccan housewife preserves the secrets of recipes for pastries and biscuits, bread and cakes, personalizing them with ingredients and methods passed down from mother to daughter.
The day of Mawlid starts very early, at dawn, when the muezzin orders the community of believers to pray. From Rabat to Casablanca to Fes, the Moroccan faithful set out for the mosques dressed in the traditional white djallaba. One their return, their houses—from the most modest to the most sumptuous—are filled with the scent of freshly baked cakes and orange flower water.
Then comes the joyful, ever spontaneous ritual of sharing the meal together. Entering a Moroccan home is always a moment of great warmth and emotion for any guest: the elders first touch their chests then hold out their hands in the characteristic sign of welcome that comes from the heart, while old grandmothers kiss their hands after shaking them with guests. Everyone then gathers together in the dining room, where damask sofas are arranged around a low table covered with fine cloths (embroidered with traditional refined fassi* arabesque patterns, or, more frequently, made with less lavish fabrics from China). Everyone takes pains to make guests feel at ease, offering them their seats, overwhelming them with kindness and serving them boiling mint tea in tall glasses with gilt decorations.
The special cakes and pastries that the women of the house bake for Mawlid are: kahbu al ghazal, ‘gazelle’s horns’, fine pastry filled with almond paste mixed with orange flower water and powdered cinnamon, kraschel, leavened biscuits flavored with sesame and orange flower water, briouat, typical triangular pastry parcels (‘briouat’ means parcel in Arabic) filled with chopped, toasted almonds and dipped in honey, baghrir, unusual pierced pastries made of semolina, eggs, salt, brewer’s yeast and water, pan-fried and served sprinkled with butter and honey, m’semmen (one of the most delicious street foods in all Morocco), fine square pastries folded over and pan-fried or baked on a greased hotplate.
Mawlid is a ‘sweet-toothed’ feast all over North Africa, not just in Morocco. In Algeria, for example, the typical dish of Mawlid is the tamina, a cake of semolina, honey, and butter decorated with toasted almonds and powdered cinnamon.
In Morocco all the refined Mawlid pastries are washed down with plenty of shai bii naanaa, sweet mint tea.
In Italy, the distance from home means that the traditional extended family feast often has to be replaced by a more intimate get-together. The joy of the occasion is thus tinged with melancholy and nostalgia for the bled, the homeland on the other side of the Mediterranean, where life is sweeter—just like the pastries and the tea that help keep sadness at bay.
*fassi: literally ‘from Fes’, the intellectual capital of Morocco, where over the centuries fine crafts have developed alongside the arts and sciences. The hand embroidery of Fes features intricate dark and royal blue or green patterns reminiscent of the geometrical motifs of the Berber carpets of the Atlas mountains.
Alessandra Abbona, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office
Adapted by John Irving
Illustration: ‘Prayer on the Housetops’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg