A couple of months before the outbreak of the coronavirus in China in December 2019, the atmosphere was perfect for the Imilchil festival in the High Atlas region of Morocco. Taking place annually in the mountainous village of Imilchil, the unique and vibrant festival was successfully held for three day in September 2019—shortly before the world became aware of the devastating virus.

But things quickly changed. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the popular fair was canceled in 2020 because of Morocco’s imposed restrictions on large gatherings. Sadly, the event was also canceled this year, for the second time consecutively, because the country has yet to ease the limits on large-scale events.

The yearly festival was initially known as “Moussem Sidi Ahmed Oulmghenni,” organized in commemoration of the much-venerated Sufi saint patron Sidi Ahmed Oulmghenni, before it took the name of “Imilchil Marriage Festival” in the 1960s. This event has an intriguing cultural character where the mythical, the mystical, and the artistic intertwine, thanks to the contributions of the tribes of Ait Hadiddou (Ait Yaezza and Ait Brahim), who have remained faithful to the tradition of collective marriage (timighriw).

Imilchil Marriage Festival COVID-19

A young woman from Imilchil, at the annual wedding festival in the Atlas Mountain of Morocco. (Credit MoroccanZest.com)

[An Unusual Tradition: The Imilchil Marriage Festival]

Historically, the indigenous Amazigh population of the Ait Haddidou tribes would meet in the souk (market) of Ait Amar in the Atlas Mountains, where they traded their harvests and livestock, sold their handicraft products, bought victuals for the long cold winter, and also got married.

Indeed, the festival is not actually a time to seek a partner as is commonly thought. The locals completely reject this understanding! The couples who celebrate their marriage during the festival already know each other. They simply take advantage of the festival to sign their marriage contracts instead of traveling 150 km (90 miles) to Midelt for the same reason.

While there are practices at the gathering that could seem odd in the present modern context, there are numerous falsifications and stereotypical notions.

While there are practices at the gathering that could seem odd in the present modern context, there are numerous falsifications and stereotypical notions about the Imilchil festival that should be demystified.

According to Ismail Ouaddou, a local journalist and civil society activist from Imilchil, “There are many people who have a false image about the region, constructed and propagated by the media,” Ouaddou told Inside Arabia. “Some journalistic reports are really a shame to read; some say that women are put on display for sale during the festival, others say anyone visiting the Imilchil festival can pick the woman he likes,” he added.

“If truth be told,” Ouaddou continued, “it was first and foremost a commercial moussem [festival] where people met annually to earn their living. The artists, the farmers, the craftsmen, the tradesmen, and the cattlemen of the neighboring tribes all found their gold mine in the moussem.”[1]

Thus, besides being a convergence of distinct cultural aspects, the festival is also an opportunity for economic activity and tourism. Indeed, every late summer in September – under normal circumstances – national and foreign visitors flock to the village of Imilchil in search of authentic traditions and cultural immersive experiences with the local population. The uniqueness of the Imilchil marriage festival – being the only one of its kind in the world – has drawn attention far beyond Morocco, causing it to acquire international fame.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, the festival has also been subject to unprecedented campaigns of defamation and disparagement on social media, nurtured by extremist ideologies. Many have launched calls to abolish the festival altogether, on the grounds that the rituals are pure sacrilege. Even more bizarre is the fact that the floods which have repeatedly struck the region since 2015 have been interpreted as God’s wrath, despite the scientific evidence that they are really a manifestation of global climate change.

Imilchil Marriage Festival COVID-19

The village of Imilchil, in the High Atlas, Morocco. (Credit: MoroccanZest.com)

Another controversial facet, from an anthropological point of view, is that of cultural tourism. This modern phenomenon of international and domestic visitors and local hosts coming into close encounter and interaction, contributes to the fetishization and folklorization of the local culture for the sake of economic interests.

Anthropologist D.J. Greenwood, for example, is wary of how this form of tourism manipulates cultural traditions and turns them into trivial folklore. He contends that the local culture is “altered and often destroyed by the treatment of it as a tourist attraction. It’s made meaningless to the people who once believed in it by means of a process that can be understood anthropologically.”[2]

This idea of turning traditions into folkloric performances, to create an impression of authenticity for tourists, is called “staged authenticity”[3] by author Dean MacCanell, who believes that it considerably dilutes and alienates the local culture.

To the indigenous inhabitants of Imilchil, cultural tourism has become a major source of revenue.

Nonetheless, to the ordinary indigenous inhabitants of Imilchil – who shun away from the dizzying academic debates on traditions, identity, and cultural alienation – cultural tourism has become a major source of revenue. Over the three-day festival, the local economy receives a big boost that, sometimes, revitalizes fiscal activity for the rest of the year. Hence, the suspension of the festival for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the local population.

“The region depends on tourism par excellence,” explained Ismail Ouaddou. “The central village of Imilchil has been affected the most. Some people’s sole revenue comes from tourism-related activities during the festival, such as those who run cafes and hotels. It’s true that there is dependency on agriculture, but not as much as on tourism. It is such a big loss for both sectors though.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted the normalcy of life in urban and rural areas worldwide. Yet, in the far-flung village of Imilchil and its neighboring tribes, people doubly suffer because of their isolation and lack of resources. In the absence of sustainable development projects in the region, the socioeconomic condition of families will be left to the unpredictable vicissitudes of national and international economic fragilities.

It is high time, therefore, to shape a post-pandemic world of just and equitable opportunities. Governments must empower communities such as Imilchil’s and help rebuild their resilience, through investment in their natural and cultural resources as well as in their human capital.

[1] Translated from an audio statement in Arabic by the author.

[2] Greenwood, D. J. “Culture by The Pound: An Anthropological Perspective on Tourism as Cultural Commoditization.” In Hosts and Guests: The-Anthropology of Tourism (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1977). pp. 129–138.

[3] MacCannel, Dean. “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings.” In American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 79, No. 3. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1973). pp. 589-603.