‘It’s around a six hour drive from Rabat,’ explains Zacarias Garcia, a Spanish photojournalist who has documented the festival. ‘It’s not an easy drive, but it’s quite enjoyable. We made our way from the coast into the midlands, where everything is agricultural, and then climbed the mountain little by little. That’s where we started spotting all of these small, traditional villages.’
Imilchil, he elaborates, is populated by two to three hundred families. A sparse town, it contains little more than the modest adobe houses that shelter the humble herders who call it home. While unremarkable on most fronts, the village’s peculiar location makes it an ideal gathering point for Berber tribes. ‘It’s not a typical Atlas village. Usually they sort of hang off the mountains, but this one is right by an open valley, so it’s flat.’
A three-day affair, the marriage market takes place about a mile or two outside of the village in the valley itself, around the tomb of Sidi Ahmed Oulmghenni, and brings together the Berber tribes of Aït Haddidou, Aït Morghad, Aït Izdeg and Aït Yahia. It is as much an occasion for business as it is for matchmaking – the ‘event of the year,’ as Garcia calls it.
The atmosphere is jubilantly chaotic – traders peddle their goods alongside doe-eyed singletons making shy conversation, traditional Berber music is played on ancestral instruments and the ululations of parents celebrating a promising partnership or a formalised union pepper the air.
‘This market is really a way for Berbers to safeguard their traditions,’ explains Zahra Kirat, a native of Marrakech who, along with her husband and daughter, journeyed to two iterations of the festival out of a personal curiosity. ‘It’s not just marriages – there’s also a souq, circumcisions, dance troupes, boys dressed in traditional djellaba and girls adorned in Berber accessories.’
The marriages are held in a huge tent in the corner of the market. ‘What doesn’t happen is that a couple meets today and gets married tomorrow,’ Garcia points out. ‘It’s not Las Vegas.’ Young and single men and women meet at the festival, their families become acquainted, and if the latter approve, the union is made official in the tent the following year.
While the ‘courtship’ aspect of the festival may be rooted in romantic myth, the marriage ceremonies themselves are grounded in pure pragmatism. Unable to afford trips to marriage courts in the cities, the Berbers invite a notary to Imilchil to marry a mass of couples in one go.
The procedure itself is relatively unglamorous. Brides and grooms wait with their paperwork inside the tent, while their eager parents pace back and forth outside. Once a marriage is official, the family rush home to commence with their private celebrations. ‘I liked their faces,’ says Garcia. ‘After the ceremony, I wasn’t invited to the private celebrations, but I could tell from the way they looked at me and from their body language that they were happy.’
Unlike Garcia, American scholar Cynthia Becker, who specialises in Imazighen art and culture, has had the privilege of witnessing such a celebration. The festivities, she explains, last for three days. The bride is dressed in, among other things, jewellery sent from her future husband. The bride’s caretakers spend hours preparing her, slowly brushing sweet smelling herbs into her hair and serenading her with songs. She is brought to her husband’s house on the back of a mule and settled into a tent right outside it for three days, wearing a red cloth over her face – the colour of fertility.
Among the jewellery she wears are often a few silver fibula pins fastened to her shoulders and linked by a chain (historically made, like most Moroccan jewellery, by Jewish silversmiths), amber beads and a headband of dangling coins meant to represent a fringe of hair – also associated with fertility. ‘They even have wedding songs about fringes. Fertility is a big theme, as you can see.’
The bride must circle her new home three times before entering it, and sprinkle guests with blessed milk, also symbolising fertility. An animal sacrifice will follow the consummation of the marriage and, finally, the bride’s veil will be pulled back and her face revealed, primarily to a company of women. The bride’s mother presents her with a woolen or silk belt, which she wears as a symbol of her marital status.
While not as elaborate, the ceremony at the marriage market is not all formalities either. It’s easy to pick the brides out from the crowd, dressed in colourful dresses as well as uniquely Berber woolen wedding shawls, sewn by their mothers, their hands hennaed with symmetrical patterns.
Married women are distinguished from those who are single by their headscarves, the former wearing veils with a slightly pointed tip and the latter wrapping them flat. The grooms’ attire is more relaxed, consisting of a modest djellaba, worn in white to symbolise the purity of the marital union and their piety. ‘Some of the grooms come straight from the fields still wearing their baseball caps. It’s funny to see them dressed in their white wedding clothes with Yankees caps they forgot to take off,’ laughs Garcia.
‘It’s a culture shock,’ he adds. ‘You come from the city and you meet people you would never find in your normal life. It’s very 500 years ago. I imagine tourists would like it too.’ Only two tourists joined Garcia and the five other journalists at Imilchil. Few Moroccans, let alone tourists, have more than a rudimentary familiarity with the festival. ‘It’s something we hear about in the news,’ says Mounia Hajji, Kirat’s daughter, ‘but most urban Moroccans are not likely to have travelled to the Atlas Mountains to see these rituals. Internal tourism is still underdeveloped.’
It was Hajji’s adventurous parents who exposed her to this neglected aspect of her national heritage. She hopes more of her compatriots will acquire an appreciation for the Berber community’s complex and stimulating rituals, which are as much ‘Moroccan’ as the cultural practices common in Casablanca and Fes.
‘Morocco is known for its urban destinations, but the countryside – the Atlas – has another world of things to see, from nature, to people, music and folklore. It’s hard to describe it to someone unfamiliar. It almost feels like travelling back in time.’