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License to flirt: Morocco’s ‘Marriage Market’


A coy smile and blush was unmistakeable even from behind her veil before a young woman turned away her sparkling hazel eyes.

She walked on quickly, watching her paces and had no intention of looking back.  Perhaps she was embarrassed and unaccustomed to, what is in the West, a common bit of flirting.  She blended with the rest of the crowd and was gone.

That sort of thing is normally held tightly in reserve and unquestionably considered shameful in many countryside communities in Morocco; but it was sheepishly standard practise at the annual pre-harvest market and isli-tislit (or groom-bride) festival near tiny Imilchil in the High Atlas Mountains.

The annual affair is billed as a celebration of marriage, but the real action began at first approach.  Mothers escorted their daughters through the dusty lanes, heavy with foot traffic and tents full of typical souq (or market) wares—plastic sandals, couscous pots, carpets and football shirts—but the daughters themselves were the hot items at market.  Flirtatious interactions between men and women are common enough in the big cities, Casablanca and Marrakech, but in the bled (or countryside) this was the big dance.

Men, dressed in modern and informal fashion, surveyed the passing crowds and with their courage approached, rarely face-to-face, but more likely from the side or slightly behind.  They frequently tugged on the sleeves of the single ladies, so-marked by their brightly sequinned white shawls or other colours of their native tribe.  Nearby Ait Yaza in their white and black stripes and Ait Brahim in their navy blue and black stripes were two of the better represented Berber tribes.

The mums closely trailed their daughters and often looked sceptical, quickly dragging away their young ones if a gentleman caller did not pass muster.  At times it was the initially interested daughter who, after a few short minutes of chatting, turned shy, pulled her veil even farther over her face and began to walk off.  The men were often undeterred by an initial rejection, but finally were sent on their way by an ever-vigilant mum.

Other groups of girls braved the gauntlet of persistent suitors without the protection of mothers’ veiled scowls.  Their eyes darted back and forth as they giggled to each other from behind their scarves.  Many girls wore head-coverings in Berber styles which offered varying degrees of compliance with strict Sharia law.  Some showed all of their face, or some hair; and others mixed modernity with tradition wearing a pony-tail and Moroccan jellaba (or hooded gown made to be either a dress or an overcoat).

Throughout the rest of the year across the rural and heavily ethnic Berber High Atlas, marriage is in large part arranged.  When the time comes, a young man may approach, not a young lady in town, but his mother to tell her that he feels ready to marry.  A not-quite secret, but hushed search is made for a suitable wife through a network of family and friends.  Once a  potential bride is found, the couple meets.  Afterwards, the families have their own meeting and if there are no objections from either side a date is set for what may be a three-day celebration.  The men have dinner one night, women have lunch the next day.  On the final day, both genders may be together for more food music and a car horn-tooting cavalcade through town which may last as long as the following morning.

The Imilchil festival was just one way of speeding things up, according to some of the legends surrounding the event’s inception.  There are variations on the Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of the original Isli and Tislit.

When dust kicks up

Lake Isli and Lake Tislit bracket Imilchil and they are named for a would-be bride and groom kept apart by their families which belonged to different tribes.  (In most Berber dialects t’s are added to the beginning and end of a word to create the feminine meaning.)

In the story, the man, a shepherd of the Ait Yaza tribe, loved a shepherdess of the Ait Brahim.  Out with their flocks, they met as often as possible, in secret, and finally one day they sat down back-to-back and cried because they knew they could never remain together.  Their love and their sorrow was so powerful that their tears filled the lakes.  The two supposedly died there, but not in vein.  Now it is said that sons of Ait Yaza should always marry daughters of Ait Brahim.

The less romantic version holds that remote Imilchil, which sits high above (Elev: 2113 metres) and almost equidistant (at least 250 km) from all of the minor cities surrounding it, is at the crossroads of several ancient Berber trading routes.  In the early days of the festival, a man would supposedly find a girl, an agreement would be made, a dowry paid and the newly-weds would go home together.  Some say it still happens, some say it is all a show for the tourists.

The festival apparently fell out of favour during recent centuries, but was revitalised by the French colonial authorities who used the occasion in order to register new marriages and conduct an annual census in the High Atlas region.  The festival then faded again after Moroccan independence, but is now being pushed by the country’s tourism industry.

Despite the efforts, Western tourists—frequently called: ‘aromi,’ meaning Christian or foreigner and derived from ‘Roman’—were in relative short supply at the festival which is scheduled on merely a week’s notice.

As per tradition, the local authorities who manage the festival only announced the final dates of the three-day event (23-25 Sept) just days prior to its commencement.  Still, the heavily Moroccan contingent of tourists and the local area’s souq shoppers know to expect the festival each year around the last weeks of September.

Each year farm equipment, including various donkeys, mules and camels, are bought and sold as well as steaming or smoking Moroccan foods and even a tooth-yanking ‘dentist’ left dozens of bloody molars on a table outside of  his mobile tent clinic.  Prostitutes make up another group which look forward to the festival every year in order to take advantage of the more liberal environment to find clients.

Aside from the feature attractions and outward displays of courting and flirting, the festival reportedly featured mock wedding ceremonies which were either poorly advertised or possibly cancelled by a nagging daylight dust storms.  Fortunately, by nightfall the winds and dust died down and the shouts of souq vendors gave way to the drumming and chanting of jellaba-cloaked folk musicians who played in a Berber style called: aheduse.

The traditional groups were obliged to fight off the dust during the day as they drummed, in time, standing and jumping shoulder-to-shoulder; but the modern take on the genre was spared the dust under the festival’s full moon.

The late-September moonlight was strong enough to cast shadows and silhouette the tan mountains and sloping valleys which surround Imilchil.  Below the night sky, the man-made lights on stage dazzled the costumes of the performers after the crowds returned to Imilchil from the day’s souq in nearby Ait Amar.  Amplifiers reverberated the vibrato voices of the singers who produced Middle-Eastern style melodies, but those melodies were underpinned by a violin as well as  rhythmic African drumming which formed a distinctly North African sound.

In front of the main stage, people danced in the usual Moroccan way, hands clapping, shoulders bounding.  Families danced together, or men with men and women with women.   No one seemed too young or too old for Morocco’s traditional sounds, whether unreverberated by day or reverberated by night.

Souqs are common to even some of the smallest communities in Morocco.  They are usually held weekly and are the principle or the only venues for rural Moroccans to buy the week’s fruits, vegetables and meat in addition to clothing and household goods.

The festival at Imilchil may be regarded as a remnant of untouched Berber culture tucked far away in the seldom seen mountains.  It may continue mainly for the purpose of offering outsiders, even Moroccan outsiders, a chance to see a sliver of a wonderful ancient ritual; but perhaps as very isolated young men and women behave a bit more like Westerners for three days each year, they too see a bit of culture that is not often their own.

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