The Souk Aamor Agdoud N’Oulmghenni, or the renowned Imilchil Moussem; the “Fête des Fiancés” or “Marriage Market”, is the most impressive of all the Berber mountain souks
Held at the end of summer, over three days - September, 22, 23rd and 24th - it represents the annual meeting of the great family tribes Aït Haddidou, Aït Morghad, Aït Izdeg and Aït Yahia. A gathering of the Berber people of remote villages of the Middle and High Atlas mountain valleys and nomadic herders of the southern slopes leading to the fringes of the Sahara desert
These days the event is organised in collaboration with the municipality of Bouzemou and the province of Midelt, aims to contribute to the preservation of cultural and symbolic heritage of the region through the promotion of local traditions and mountain tourism.
There are two main competing versions of stories that lay claim for the inception of the festival. They are both pragmatic and probably the real truth lies somewhere in between the romantic fact and fiction.
Berber legend tells that two young people from different feuding tribes fell in love but, in a Moroccan triste akin to Romeo and Juliet, they were forbidden to see each other by their families. The grief of unrequited love led them to their deaths. One ending of legend tells that they cried themselves to death, creating the neighbouring deep alpine lakes of Isli (his) and Tislit (hers), near Imilchil.
The second ending, equally dramatic, is that the lovers drowned themselves in the separate lakes. Accordingly the Imilchil Marriage Festival was founded as an anniversary to those lover’s death, and in a tribal tradition, as an opportunity for unmarried Berbers, particularly women trapped at altitude for most of the year, to survey and mingle with prospective spouses. For some it’s the opportunity to commit to the vow of marriage and commence the tying of the marital knot with their chosen love.
The second and more unromantic version of the story is that the marriage tradition purportedly derives from the French colonial times of the last century, when the foreign officials used to insist that the Berbers assembling for their yearly souk, registered their births, deaths and marriages. Most probably it is that act that instituted the official contract signing and noting of the exchange of vows we know them today. While its not apparent it is said that most marriage matches are arranged in advance and merely formalised at the moussem with the contract signing.
Whatever version of the story you want to believe, the souk and moussem is a delightfully unique and colourful event. Small groups of young Berber women dressed in traditional finery and roughly, woven woollen robes distinctive to each family tribe, some with berber fibules (amulets), eyes rimmed with heavy black kohl, and intricately hennaed hands, amble through the commerce of the souk talking, flirting with or being approached by the potential bachelors trying to strike up meaningful conversation. The wary eyes of elder relatives, looking on, following them protectively at a furtive distance.
On the second day of this year’s moussem, under the white and black appliqué of the official Moroccan tent, 29 young couples apprehensively waited to make their vows at the public ceremony. A large crowd of onlookers sparsely sprinkled with few tourist eyes, Moroccan media and a few film documentary crews looked on from a short distance. For all the sense of frivolity surrounding the evident flirting, courtship and mingling in the souk the young nuptial couples sat in nervous congregation before approaching the officials together and solemnly signing their betrothal contract with the stamp of their inked thumbs. Then each couple, striding from the official’s tents, amidst the celebratory rhythmic tamborines, singing and shrill tongue warbles, successively broke through the parted circle of the crowd. Stepping over the threshold of tradition and through the open door of their married lives ahead of them.
Text and photographs: John Horniblow