To the Atlas Mountains, in search of a bride

Moroccan Berbers gather every year for a marriage festival, but gawking tourists may stop the party

The barren, dust-whipped landscape of Morocco's Mid-Atlas mountain range seems an unlikely setting for the classic "boy-meets-girl" story. For starters, people here are scarce, and water's even scarcer. And whether traveling by donkey cart or SUV, one wrong turn on the one lane road can mean a fatal plunge from a towering peak.

But for almost half a millennium now, thousands of Berbers from the Ait Haddidou tribe have braved the trip to Imilchil, in hopes that their sons and daughters will find suitable marriage partners.

Each fall, after the harvest, the clans of the Ait Haddidou gather for what is now known as the Imilchil Brides' Festival, a nonstop three-day party filled with singing and dancing, selling, and trading. And, if a family is lucky, there may be a wedding.

Lacen Ait Lafkeh, a local Berber historian and author of a book on the Imilchil festival, traces its history back to at least 1520, before the Arabs conquered this area of Morocco and converted the native Berbers to Islam. "The myth is that there were two lovers named Tislit and Isli," says Mr. Lafkeh, "but they were from warring tribes and their parents would not allow them to wed."

Unable to be together in life, the story goes, the couple used their tears to fill two nearby lakes, and then drowned themselves. Afterwards, the warring clans were so distraught that they ended their feud. They vowed to hold an annual festival, a time of peace when their children could choose their own mates.

Even today, anxious mothers and fathers look on as their boys and girls, search for a potential spouse. Some are as young as 13, which is not unusual within the Berber culture. Once a prospective bride or groom is found, the parents are informed, and the families sit down to hammer out an acceptable marriage contract, usually over a bottomless pot of mint tea and countless cigarettes.

It is a time-honored and tricky business, and one that has – until recent years – remained virtually unchanged down through the centuries.

And then, in 1965, the Moroccan government took control of the festival. "It was hard for the local people to accept," says Lafkeh. "It changed the reality of the festival, and the lives of the people who come here."

Moroccan tourism authorities invited non-Berbers to the festival and watch the proceedings. Not long after, travel agents were listing Imilchil as a "must-see" Moroccan event. Today, fleets of four-wheel drive vehicles bring in Europeans, Americans, and other Moroccans.

Adventurous travelers now join the crush of Berbers making their way between colorful trucks loaded down with clothes and dishware. Four to five thousand Berbers and tourists push through the market, where locals and visitors alike can buy everything from the latest in Berber music to a freshly severed camel's head, a Berber delicacy.

But all of this outside attention seems to be having a negative effect on the main purpose of the festival, the marriages.

At this year's festival, only six couples signed marriage contracts, down from 30 or more just a few years ago.

As the brides and grooms awaited this year's official ceremony, they looked visibly shaken. They wouldn't speak with journalists, and they hid their faces from flashbulbs and whirring video cameras.

As the couples danced and sang songs honoring the legends of the Ait Haddidou, it was hard to spot a smile.

In fact, the influx of outsiders means that the Ait Haddidou can't even perform actual weddings at the festival. Instead of tying the knot themselves, the six couples and the thousands of tourists were treated to a mock Berber wedding, in which a symbolic bride rides through the crowd on a donkey, surrounded by ululating singers.

"The brides and grooms are supposed to be happy today, but look at them," says Abeh Saddiqi, who formalizes marriage contracts. "They're nervous, and the tourists make them even more nervous."

Like many of the Ait Haddidou, Mr. Saddiqi worries that many Berber families will even stop coming to the Imilchil festival.

But local tourism officials reject this as nonsense. They say the Berbers enjoy sharing their traditions with the rest of the world, and that they intend to keep promoting the Imilchil Brides' Festival both at home and abroad.

"Besides," quipped one tourism official, "isn't it normal for couples to be nervous on their wedding day?"

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