An Unusual Tradition: The Imilchil Marriage Festival

Young, unmarried men and women gather in the mountainous village of Imilchil, in southeastern Morocco, every year at the end of September. They meet, trade livestock, buy their supplies for the long winter, and, traditionally, seek a marriage partner.
Eduardo Bombarelli via Flickr

Morocco is so culturally and ethnically diverse that certain cultural celebrations in some regions can seem outlandish and strange, even for other Moroccans. One such celebration is the Imilchil Festival, organized every year in late September in the lake plateau of the Middle Atlas Mountains.

In the past, from the age of 18, single men and women from the Amazigh tribe of Ait Haddidou would dress up in their finest attire and head to the village of Imilchil for the wedding festival in search of their future partners. Today, most of the couples already know each other and simply take advantage of the festival as an opportunity to secure a marriage licence. Women put on natural makeup such as kohl (traditional eyeliner) and henna and wear a traditional tahendirt (cape or cloak) ornamented with glittering coins. They also cover their faces with scarves, allowing only their mascaraed eyes and crimson cheeks to show.

Traditionally, in the souk of Ait Amar in the Atlas Mountains, women wandered in groups between stalls and tents while men eyed them from a distance. The prospective partners exchanged smiles and looks of potential interest. If the two matched, they might continue the stroll in the souk hand in hand as if they had known each other for years. At the end of the day, they would meet with their respective families, agree on a dowry in the presence of a judge, and sign a marriage contract. The day would finish when the couple bought victuals for the long winter, during which they would remain cut off from the outside world due to heavy snow and rain. With their marriages cemented and provisions bought, the new couples mounted their donkeys or mules and went back home. Those who failed to find a match were forced to wait until the next festival.

The Imilchil Festival finds its roots in an ancient mythology of forbidden love passed down from generation to generation.  It is said that a young man named Moha and a young woman named Hada from the two rival tribes of Ait Ibrahim and Ait Yaazza fell deeply in love with each other. Their tribes, however, were constantly feuding over grazing areas and water resources, which left their love story unfulfilled and their passions unsatisfied.

The lovers had done their utmost to unite under one roof, but hatred and stubbornness won over love and peace. Mourning their relationship and profoundly disillusioned, they sat in two separate places and cried until two lakes formed from their overflowing tears; the lake of Isli, which means, “groom” and the lake of Tislit, which means, “bride.’” Eventually, both lovers stepped into their respective lakes and drowned themselves. This tragedy made the elders of the two tribes regret having prevented the two lovers from being together, and they pledged to put their conflicts aside for the sake of love and peace. In memory of Moha and Hada, the tribes of Ait Haddidou continue to hold the Imilchil Festival to allow young people to meet each other and to give them freedom to choose their partner.

The timing of the festival coincides with the end of summer and the harvest season. Therefore, it is an occasion for the tribesmen and women not only to marry, but also to trade what they have harvested or made by hand. Traded goods include locally-made, traditional Amazigh carpets, wool and woolen garments, tahendirt (women’s cloaks), goats, sheep, livestock, and other agricultural products such as apples, almonds, and walnuts. The festival is also an occasion to bolster cultural tourism, as it has become a major tourist attraction throughout the years. Both Moroccan and international tourists annually visit the festival in varying numbers to explore the history and the cultural uniqueness of the place and its inhabitants. Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism has recently started promoting tourism in the region through various initiatives in the framework of its 2020 tourism vision. One initiative is the Festival of Mountain Music, which takes place concurrently with the Imilchil Marriage Festival.

The Marriage Festival also appeals to anthropologists and ethnographers from around the world. Some renowned anthropologists who have studied Imilchil marriage rituals and their cultural aspects were the Austrian Wolfgang Krauss and the American David M. Hart. The latter has written prolifically on the various Amazigh tribes of Morocco. Some of his seminal works in this respect are: The Ait ‘Atta of Southern Morocco: Daily Life and Recent History, The Aith Waryaghar of the Moroccan Rif: An Ethnography and History, and Dadda Atta and His Forty Grandsons: The Socio-Political Organization of the Ait Atta of Southern Morocco.

Despite having contact with Arabs and other Amazigh tribes, and despite the cultural influence that permeates through their own remote areas through television, satellite dishes, and the new media, the Ait Haddidou tribes have preserved their original cultural heritage and the unique cultural tradition of the Imilchil Marriage Festival for ages. Some speculate that the tradition dates back more than 150 years. Others say that the Imilchil Marriage Festival is as old as the tribe itself, making it more than 1,000 years old.

Although it is not clear when the festival actually began, it is very clear that this annual tradition in Imilchil cultivates and celebrates the values of love, peace, understanding, and cooperation.