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Imilchil Moussem: The Marriage market of Aït Haddidou

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The world-famous Imilchil Moussem – the “Fête des Fiancés” or “Marriage Market” – is the mother of all Moroccan mountain souks, a gathering of thirty thousand or more Berbers from the Aït Haddidou, Aït Morghad, Aït Izdeg and Aït Yahia tribes. Over the three days of the September fair (Friday to Sunday), animals are traded; clothes, tools and provisions bought and sold; and distant friends and family members reunited before the first snowfalls isolate their high villages. What makes it especially highly charged, however, is that it is here the region’s youngsters come to decide whom they’re going to marry.

The tradition derives from colonial times, when the officials from the Bureau des Affaires Indigènes used to insist the Berbers assembled in Agdoul, site of a yearly transhumance fair, to register births, deaths and marriages. After independence, the custom was encouraged by the Moroccan tourist office, which the locals blame for propagating the myth that the marriages contracted here were entered into spontaneously. In fact, the matches are nearly all arranged in advance and merely formalized at the moussem. All the same, the fair provides the perfect opportunity for unmarried Berbers – particularly women trapped at altitude for most of the year – to survey their prospects. Dressed in traditional finery, with hefty jewellery and eyes rimmed with heavy black kohl, the girls parade around in groups, flirting outrageously with the boys as eagle-eyed elder relatives look on. Later, singing, dancing and drumming give both sexes further opportunities to mingle.

Unfortunately, the influx of tourism has seriously compromised the authenticity of the event, and while local life continues with its serious market and marriage elements, a pure folklore festival for tourists has been shifted up to Lac Tislit. Neither part is actually at Imilchil, of course, and the date is not always easy to discover – contact the ONMT for details. Rates for beds, food and water (which has to be brought in by lorry) tend to be greatly inflated, so fix prices in advance; it’s also advisable to bring plenty of warm clothing as the nights at this altitude (over 2000m) can get bitterly cold by the end of September.

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