Libya: Purity of tribal wedding traditions endures

Iason Athanasiadis
A traditional wedding in Ghadames was held in the street outside the groom’s home.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

GHADAMES, LIBYA – When offered the opportunity to photograph a wedding in Ghadames, the first question I asked was whether it was a real one or one of the folkloric spectacles staged by costumed Tuareg tribesmen for the delectation of tourists.

Most Ghadames residents abandoned the sprawling underground Old City for modern cement dwellings built on an overlooking hill in the 1980s. The wedding (a real one!) was held in the street outside the family house of the groom. Hundreds of guests sat on plastic chairs under a colorful tent as a band, sitting cross-legged, struck up traditional tribal songs.

The Old City, a 10th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site, hugs an oasis in the Sahara, on the border with Algeria. For centuries it was a stopping point on the desert caravan route that ran East-West along the Barbary Coast’s hinterland.

Once one of the world’s wildest regions, today the tourist buses trundle through, testifying to its having entered the orbit of international tourism. The buses disgorge European, Chinese, and Japanese tourists whom local guides funnel into the network of tunnels weaving among three-story mud-brick houses built to survive an alternately freezing and sizzling climate.

Though modern life has shortened its duration, a Libyan wedding traditionally lasts an extravagant five days. The night I attended, the groom was ceremonially presented with the henna that was to be applied to his future wife’s body and – amid pomp and celebration – led a procession to her home. The strict separation of the sexes means that only the groom can enter the women’s abode, where hundreds of the bride’s female guests dance and make merry.

In accordance with Muslim law, the celebrations take place in an alcohol-free environment. Alaadin Augrara, an Italian-Libyan guest who grew up in both countries, was ambivalent about Libya entering the orbit of irreversible change.

“On the one hand, I am used to a few glasses of red wine at a wedding,” he said. “On the other, this way of life is so much purer than what we are used to in Tripoli or in the West.”

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