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Berber Brides' Fair - An article on National Geographic (1980)

Updated: Jan 11, 2020


A note from Ranadu team:

Hope everyone is having a good New Year! We really thankful to those who've supported us with their heart along our Ranadu journey in 2019.

Today, we share with you an article about Berber culture from National Geographic that was published 40 years ago, in January 1980. The author is Carla Hunt, one of our advisors from New York City.

We are inspired by Carla's life long passionate of handcrafts, her astonishing collections from every details from her home, and her appreciation of worldwide cultures.

Carla at Berber village in 1980. Photo by Ran Dong

Please note that we took the photos directly from the magazine at Carla's home during our conversation, so please bear with us for the photo quality. And not all photos published in magazine are included in this blog.

We welcome any feedbacks and comments from you. Enjoy reading!


By Carla Hunt

Photographs by NIK WHEELER

Published on National Geographic Magazine, January 1980 (Vol. 157, NO.1)


He was no ordinary traveller, this Berber, perched atop a saddle of rugs and rent poles, riding along a dusty mountain track in Morocco. He carefully wound white turban with a square of cloth hanging behind marked him as a bachelor eager to wed. The suitcase he clutched was filled with other wedding clothes. The prospective groom prodded his donkey with special urgency as he neared the Imilchil platearu where his people were gathering for the annual festival, or mousse. Here in the Atlas Mountains I have attended any country moussems -- those wonderful Berber fairs that combine a local saint's day with a regional trade market. Bur only at the September moussem of Imilchil have I seen such a pageant of public courtship, instant marriage vows. Thus it has become known as the bridal fair of Imilchil.

Marriageable young women of the region's dominant tribe, the Air Hadiddou, are the object of the bridegroom's haste. They concealer's their reputed beauty under heavy capes and spangled headdresses. The veil places a bride-to-be at a distinct advantage in discreetly surveying the prospects during the three-day festival.

The fair is an integral part of the marital customs of the Berbers. Ordinarily, families arrange marriages back in the village in the best interests of the community and with the consent of the betrothed. When these matches do not work out, divorce is common place. In fact, Ait Hadiddou women are free to divorce as often as they wish and to remarry whom they like. Thus at the Imilchil mousse, divorced and widowed women are in the majority, a status easily identified by the pointed headdress they wear.

The independent farmer herdsmen of the Ait Hadiddou strike me as the most Berber of all Berbers. They have occupied the rugged mountains since before the Musilm Arabs swept in from the east in the with century. The Berbers adopted Islam as they had previously taken to Christianity, but it was not a total embrace. Their religion combines Islamic and older tribal beliefs. Even the word Berber is foreign; they call themselves Imazighen -- men of the land.

Looming first as if a mirage, then as a blockade, the festival grounds lie on a crossroads of dirt tracks south of Imilchil. At dawn of opening day, the tribal families with their herds pour through mountain passes and stream across the valley onto the barren plateau. From distant villages they bring the years's surplus of wool, meat, grain, and vegetables to sell or barter. Tradesmen group their white tents by product: pottery, pots, rugs, locks, tools, and books; butchers keep a distance. larger dark tents house officials.

The brides

Devotional and social activities centre on the beehive tomb, or marabout, of holy man Sidi Mohammed el Merheni, centre. The Alt Hadiddou do not recall precisely when this remarkable man guided human affairs; they know only that the marriage he blessed were happy ones, and believe his sprit lives on in the shrine -- dispensing grace. I watched a groom enter the holy enclosure to pray; later a bride tucked a handful of tomb dust -- a portable blessing -- into her robes.

The courting game involves the family, I learned when I accepted an hair tent of Moulay Mouha. His oldest daughter, Yatto, prepares her divorced 18-year-old sister Aicha with tradition beauty aids. As their mother watches, she rubs saffron-coloured powder into Aicha's eyebrows; kohl outlines the eyes, and carmine rouges the cheeks.

A wool cape striped in tribal colours will cover the white dress. Then the pointed headdress is assembled over a stiffened cone hold by loops of tasseled and spangled wool. A well-to-do friend wears a necklace of silver, glass, and amber. I gave Ailcha the thin silver chain I was wearing, since silver brings good luck. Berber believe.

Unlike many brides, Aicha has already selected her husband-to-be. Their marriage vows will be formalised during the moussem. He has provided her wedding clothes, "worth at least 200 dirhams [$50]," her father tells me, proudly. Westerners mistakenly think men purchase wives at the fair, but actually marriage depends on mutual consent and family approval.

Here come the brides, now in full regalia; they will sit gossiping near the shrine, waiting to choose and be chosen.

The language of gesture is as clear as the spoken word to these berbers. Their own tongue, Tamazight, is totally unlike Arabic, the official language of Morocco. The prospective grooms -- kinsmen who may meet only once a year -- have much to discuss. They greet each other with smiles and open arms.

A groom gains courage by leaving a confidant help him choose -- perhaps from no more than a silhouette, two dark eyes, a voice -- which bride will be the most desirable wife.

All day, two by two, men weave in and out of the clusters of brides. Then, welcomed by a glance or a nod of reserved assent, a man will stop to speak to a woman, encouraged by a friend's reassuring hand.

A groom holds his prospect's hand as an expression of intention, promise, and then -- with the holy man's blessing -- of final accord.

Romance is a sometimes a rocky road. With both hands, an eager groom excitedly grasps a bride whose male relatives accompany her, lending advice, making judgement. His enthusiasm is not well received; rejection is singled by the broken handclasp. It's time to look elsewhere.

When a bride does consent, she speaks the magic phase, "you have captured my liver." A healthy liver aids digestion and promotes well-being, so it and not the heart is considered the location of true love.

"Marriage by mutual consent and divorce when there is disharmony are central to the social system evolved by the Ait Hadiddou," A moroccan ethnologist told me. " Despite their reputation for being fierce and warlike, they have evolved paix chez eux, peace at home. Often snow bound behind village walls six months a year, families must live in harmony.

Perhaps the romantic courtship of the moussem serves to temper the harsh reality of daily life. During the half year when men move with their flocks to upland pastures, women run the village, plant crops, weave rugs, and guards the granaries. It would be hard to dispute the proverb:" A woman is the ridgepole of the tent."

When the courting is over, the hours of waiting begin. The betrothed line up to enter the wedding tent after answering to the official scribe who writes the marriage application in Arabic.

With it, the couple goes inside to be presented to the qadi, a representative of the Ministry of Justice in Rabat. This judge, though informal and good humored, does not automatically endorse every union. Certain standards must be met by both families. He quickly disapproves, for example, the marriage of a child of 8 or 9, posing as 18.

When the marriage contract is approved, the groom pays the state twenty dirhams [$5] and gives his brides fifty dirhams. First-time brides leave the moussem with their fathers to be welcomed by the grooms' families at a feast later in the year. Newlywed divorcees and widows go directly to live in the village of their new husband.

By uniting couples under civil law, the Moroccan Government seeks to integrate the isolated Berbers into the national society. Eventually, this may happen, Inshallah -- as God wills. But for now, little matters to the Ait Hadiddou beyond the tribe, with its council of elders, local saint, and ancient rituals.


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