Imilchil The City of Group Engagements in Morocco

Imilchil The City of Group Engagements in Morocco

Magic, Folklore and Love Songs

Since my first visit to the Kingdom of Morocco in 1972, during the filming of The Message in one of the villages of Marrakesh Governorate which is full of legend, magic, history, antiquity, noble origins, horsemanship and all the qualities, virtues and values which distinguish it from other cities of the world, since that time, as I said, I have noticed that our Moroccan brothers celebrate festive occasions. Our presence in Marrakesh at that time coincided with the celebration by the country and the people of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and give him peace. At that time I was in the company of a good group of colleagues and friends from the media (Abdulaziz Jaafar, Undersecretary of Information for Broadcasting Affairs, Abdulrahman Al-Houti, Undersecretary of Information for Engineering Affairs in Kuwait, Sheikh Essa Ibn Muhammad Al-Khalifa, the Undersecretary of Information in Bahrain, Dr. Abdulaziz Muhammad Al-Mansour, and Muhammad Nasir Al-San ousi, the Undersecretary of Information for Kuwait Television). The latter kindly invited us to watch the shooting of the film in his capacity of Chairman of the Board of Directors of the company producing the film.

In the morning, we were surprised that the city of Marrakesh was having a happy holiday, with children strutting around in their new white gowns, and the mosques resounding with chants of praise. The national and local radio stations were playing anthems, muwashahat, poetry in the local dialect and folk songs dedicated to noble occasions.

It really was a holiday, in which everyone wore splendid new clothes and ate special cakes for the celebration, as well as couscous full of vegetables and chicken, green tea flavored with mint, yoghourt, dates and almond juice. There were other spiritual and religious festive customs and rituals, in which religion and the mortal world were mingled in the most splendid manifestations, and which leave moving and beneficial effects which are never forgotten.

You Must Go to Imilchil even if It's a Long Journey

Since that day I have known that Morocco is the Mother of Festivals , anniversaries, and holy men close to God. You only need to know that festive occasions are numbered in the hundreds!

When I was working as a media adviser in 1978 in our Embassy in the Moroccan capital Rabat, I heard about the engagement festival of Imilchil for the first time. I saw a documentary film on Moroccan television centered around the festival. I remembered that it made me astonished, impressed, curious and eager to get to know it at first hand.

Luckily for me at that time the head of the Kuwaiti diplomatic mission was the artist Ambassador Hamad Essa Al-Rujaib, God rest his soul. He was a social and popular ambassador, whom you would find present at important cultural, artistic and other activities. His house in the beautiful, aristocratic Suissi area of Rabat was a literary salon whose doors were open five nights a week all the year round. This was his constant custom when he was the Ambassador of the State of Kuwait in the Cairo of Al-Muizz. In the salon of Abu Khalid , I came to know about the aforementioned festival, through the Moroccan writers and artists who regularly attended the literary salon and were close friends of His Excellency the Ambassador.

You must go to Imilchil even if it s a long journey, he told me when the conversationalists of the salon had dispersed. We will be here during its next festival in September 1978. However His Excellency unfortunately left the Kingdom of Morocco before the festival was due, and was later appointed Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, if my elderly memory does not betray me. But when he noticed how interested I was in attending the aforementioned festival, he promised me that he would be in Morocco on the day when it was to be held, to attend it with me. But circumstances did not enable him to do that. Since that year I have been looking for an Arab friend from the Gulf who shares my interest in this kind of tourism. The village of Imilchil is part of Rachidia province which is more than a thousand miles from the Moroccan capital. An Arab tourist from the Gulf does not like movement, adventure, discovery and a nomadic life in God s wide earth! You will always find him resting in the hotel or tourist resort where he is staying, and never leaving it, except to swim in the swimming pool or in the sea, if there is a sea there. He always sits in cafés and nightspots only, nowhere else. And the writer of these lines, in this context, is certainly not absolving himself from blame.

If he did, he would not deserve to have Kuwaiti nationality!

In fact I did not attend the famous engagement festival until the summer of 2001, in September. Since I am a Southerner in my inclinations, I chose to go south to the festival, from Casablanca, or Casa as Moroccans call it, or if you wish Casamadha as I like to call it. Do not ask me why. Thus we went from Casa to Marrakesh, the capital of the South, and from there to the town of Ouarzazat, and as far as Rachidia. The area of Imilchil lies in the heart of the Atlas Mountains, and the road beginning from Ouarzazat is a very rugged mountain road, ascending with hairpin bends and extremely dangerous curves and downward slopes, which requires a skilled driver with the eye of a hawk, the courage of a lion and the patience of a camel. The only vehicle suitable for the road is a jeep which can traverse mountains and rocks that have been swept down by the torrent.

The road is full of beauty, magic and variety. At times it is in a desert, a bleak wasteland containing nothing but pebbles, and after a while you find yourself in the middle of green plain planted with lemon, orange, olive and palm trees, and at another time you find yourself at the top of mountains more than 2,000 metres high, surrounded by pine trees and small conifer bushes, while groups of monkeys jump around hither and thither, playing frivolously, unconcerned about anyone.

The Amazighi Woman

The Moroccans are a civilized people who love the environment, nature and the creatures who share their life in it. Hence you find that most of the birds of northern Europe take refuge in Morocco during the winter, and live there in tranquillity and safety. Hunting there is regulated by law. It is not widespread like it is in the eastern part of the Arab world, where it has led to the extermination of all the birds and animals which used to roam freely in the deserts of Egypt, Libya, Sudan and the Arabian Peninsula. All that remains in these deserts now are beetles.

True, there is a healthy reversal towards creating nature reserves full of the birds and animals which used to be there in the east of the Arab world during the first half of the twentieth century. But the calamity lies in that band of sharpshooters who like shooting, killing and sniping, out of love for killing God s living creatures in an unenviable frame of mind.

It is not the entrancing beauty of nature alone that attracts the attention of a person traveling through the highest Atlas Mountains, but even more attractive are the Amazighi people, or the Berbers as the Western Europeans call them. Berber is a denomination that is widespread and mistaken, because the correct denomination is Amazighi, and the people are the Amazigh. Incidentally, the word Amazighi means a free person.

When I speak of my admiration and surprise at Amazighi people, I mean specifically Amazighi women. I have found them running the affairs of the household, bringing up their children, cultivating, planting, harvesting, carrying the crops on their shoulders, taking the livestock to graze, milking the cows and camels, and selling produce by the roadside with their small children accompanying them! It seems to me that Amazighi men devote their time to war and love, love which produces sons and daughters.

It may be from curiosity that I mention that for the whole length of the road, which was more than a thousand kilometres, I did not see any Arab Muslim tourists. All the tourists were foreigners. I will not mention Moroccan visitors, since their presence was a matter of course, and not an occasion for mention.

Hence my presence was a cause for surprise, and a spectacle gazed at by both Moroccans and groups of tourists, particularly since I was dressed in the Arab clothing of the Gulf, which has become known to all and sundry.

The Engagement Festival

The Imilchil engagement festival, which is held by Rachidia Governorate from 19 to 21 September, is regarded as a focus of attraction for visitors, foreign (non-Arab) tourists and Moroccans, as well as researchers in folklore, anthropology and other subjects. For this manifestation of folklore, which is unlike anything else in the world, contains a legendary character mixed together with the popular imagination of the inhabitants from the Ait Hadidou tribes who dwell in the Atlas Mountains at an altitude of 2,000 metres.

At this time of year, which coincides with the harvest season, they come together to commemorate the legend of the two lakes, Isli and Tislit, whose meaning in the Amazighi language is a man who is engaged and his fiancée. The legend is about a boy and a girl who loved each other very much, but unfortunately they belonged to tribes which were hostile to each other. So obviously their love was confronted with a refusal to allow them to marry. This led them to weep masses of copious tears, and their tears formed the two lakes Isli and Tislit. The legend of the two lovers in the folklore imagination came to symbolize the freedom and independence of decision-making among the people of the tribe. This freedom is not absolute, it is dependent on the agreement of the families of the engaged couple.

The festival in the Kingdom of Morocco is comparable with the Prophet s Birthday in Egypt. I think that the latter inherited birthday celebrations from Morocco, especially since most of the holy men in Egypt were Moroccans. Whatever the case, the Moroccan Kingdom is justly considered the Mother of festivals. Every governorate, district, city and village has its own festive occasion, so we can say that there are hundreds of festivals being held all the year round in the length and breadth of the Kingdom.

A festival in Morocco has many meanings. It includes a market and a birthday, that is, the commemoration of the birthday of a righteous holy man who was close to God in addition to it being an exhibition, a celebration and a wedding feast. These activities are interconnected to create a unique atmosphere in which legend is mingled with imagination, with the folk heritage and tribal social customs from ancient times.

The basic foundation on which the marriage of a couple from the Ait Hadidou tribes rests in Imilchil in Rachidia province is Kidnap your bride and then marry her. If you don t do that, respected husband, you don t deserve her!

This account I am relating on the authority of one of the Sheikhs of the tribe. I am saying that because kidnapping during the festive season is done in a "dramatic" festive way, which is an imitation of the kidnapping which used to be prevalent in bygone days.

It should be mentioned that some of the tribesmen are not happy about their heritage and traditions being a festive spectacle for tourists and visitors. But this attitude did not affect attendance at the festival or its fame, or its continuity every year uninterruptedly from 1965 to the present time.

When one sees the ceremonies of the engagement festival they are confusing, because one cannot tell at first glance the difference between the real thing and make-believe, or between the legend and the reality that is happening on Earth.

In the early morning, an hour after sunrise, the people of the Ait Hadidou tribes hurry to the gathering in the square where the festival is held. There are spacious, large sized Moroccan tents, erected side by side in the form of a circle, encompassing the space of the celebrations with magic and splendor. Festivals in Morocco in general are characterized by a commercial, marketing, social, religious and spiritual nature. They are usually held immediately after the harvest season, at the beginning of autumn, when people can buy their requirements and necessities of life for almost a whole year.

The area of Imilchil lies in the heart of the upper Atlas Mountains, where the winter is long, with severe cold and plenty of snow and rain. Hence someone who is living there in winter needs provisions to provide him with the means of subsistence, protect him from the cold and give him warmth and all his essential needs.

The main pivot of the engagement festival in Imilchil as I mentioned rests on a legend going back into the depths of history, about two young people from different tribes who were passionately in love with each other.

The young man was called Muha and his sweetheart was called Hada. Traditions prevented their love from being crowned with marriage. So there was no other way open to them but to bewail their ill fortune. So they withdrew to a distant corner and began weeping bitterly. Their eyes flowed with copious tears which as the legend says formed the two lakes of Isli, which means a bridegroom, and Tislit, which means a bride. The lakes Isli and Tislit became a place for lovers to visit, a shrine for those who wanted to marry without obstacles and hindrances.

Since the righteous holy man Sidi Ahmad Oumghani had blessed the love of the young couple Moha and Hada, it became possible for any two intimate lovers to marry according to the manner sanctioned by God and His Prophet.

Those who want to marry get to know each other of course before the festival, and they conclude their contract of marriage during the festival itself. There are notaries public who carry out the measures to contract the marriage verbally and in writing according to the Islamic traditions customary in all Muslim countries.

Around mid-morning the space in Imilchil is filled with horsemen from the tribes riding their horses which are decorated with magnificent saddles. Women come in groups of two, three or four, trailing their beautiful traditional dresses. Nothing of a bride is visible except her eyes because she is veiled. They are adorned with jewelry, necklaces and earrings made locally by jewelers, and traditional jewelry usually made of silver.

Fashions play a magic festive role in distinguishing the virgin bride from other women, divorcees and widows, who want to get married again.

A girl from the Ait Hadidou tribes who is a bride at the Imilchil festival takes great care with her her make-up. You find her putting eye-shadow on her fascinating eyes, and decorating her cheek with rouge on the pretext that the red color as she believes keeps envy and evil away from her. She puts yellow round her eyebrows to accentuate her beauty and delicacy. She does not forget to adorn her ears with large earrings, and her breast with necklaces set with yellow and red stones similar to the kahrab stones from which prayer beads are made.

A wedding requires members of the tribe to wear traditional clothes that are new usually and always clean. White-haired men wear Amazighi turbans, which are usually of superb cloth, and they wear robes and hooded cloaks in beautiful green and brown colors.

Inside and outside the tents traditional handicrafts of that region and neighboring regions are on sale. You find rugs spread out on the ground everywhere, and the bleating of sheep goats, and all the distinctive sounds of cows, camels, horses, mules, donkeys, dogs and chickens resound.

From the early morning the women begin cooking and spicing couscous in earthenware cooking pots, while the folk music groups sing songs in the bandir rhythm, with tambourines of different types and the small Moroccan rebec, with a reverberation that does not accord with its size. The folk singing and dancing groups come from the towns and tribes in the Atlas Mountains and the surrounding area. They are led by an Amazighi elder who is full of chivalry, vitality and elegance. He is known in festival and heritage fair circles as the Maestro . He is always present at them, and enjoys a mass following and personal magnetism and charisma which enable him to reach the hearts of the audience without having to ask permission. In the Imilchil festival which we were attending, I almost stole the camera as they say in the language of the cinema from the Maestro with his majestic ability, the greatness of his art and the strength of his presence. And the reason lies in the Arab Gulf costume which I was wearing when I was photographing the festive scenes with the camera which I had with me. The tourists pointed their cameras at me to photograph me because of the strangeness of my costume.

But the Maestro managed to regain their attention with his dancing and rhythm, and his attractive presence in the square of folk dancing and singing, as was his custom always in every fair and festival.

It should be mentioned that Lake Isli lies six kilometres away from the Imilchil area, and it is 37 metres deep, while Lake Tislit is twelve kilometres away and is 86 metres deep. Because of the beautiful natural space surrounding each of them, they have become tourist resorts visited by tourists from all regions of Morocco, and all countries in the world whose peoples are accustomed to taking holidays in Morocco.

The Legend and the Reality

The fact is that a visitor to the festival imagines that he is watching a film with a dramatic script in which legend, customs and festivities to promote tourism are mixed together. It is considered similar in status to the bazaar and spices which attract tourists every year to watch the festival and enjoy it.

The first scene in the imaginative film script involves the principle kidnap the bride and you ll have her . If the bridegroom cannot carry out the kidnapping operation, he does not deserve the bride at all! It should be noted here that the kidnapping operation nowadays is agreed between the families of the bride and groom, in contrast to ancient times, when the kidnapping was genuine. Or so the tribal marriage legend goes.

In spite of the touch of tourist promotion which colors the ceremonial rituals of the festival, one of the local people with knowledge of the customs of marriage inherited from the civilization in Imilchil referred to the importance of the lofty sentiments of the group of tribes called Owmalan, a word which means the people who provide safety .

It should be mentioned that the head covering of married women is cone-shaped and points upwards, while a spinster s head covering is horizontal (as the pictures show). When a bride leaves her family s home and her wedding night arrives, her strong cousins surround her, armed with palm branches, with which the poor husband will be beaten for a while, until he is able to seize the bridle of the mule which his bride is riding. The significance of this painful operation is to prove the bridegroom s self-control, his patience in enduring hardship, and his ability to protect his wife from the vicissitudes and misfortunes of the age.

After the marriage contract has been completed, the bride and bridegroom and their families share a large loaf of bread more than one square metre in area, as a sign of the sacred bond between the two families who are now related by marriage. That is, there is now bread and salt between them, in accordance with the saying and customs of the Eastern Arabs.

The scenes of the festival film script follow each other in succession, and appear like a romantic film. The bride has to bathe in her wedding clothes in the water of Lake Isli and Lake Tislit in broad daylight, in the sight of everyone who is present at the scene.

There is no doubt that foreign tourists are entranced by this romantic scene, and other scenes which are absent from their materialistic daily lives. The ancient traditional national clothes, which have preserved their original character and presence in social life, in spite of the passage of years and eras. The clothes are magnificent in their form and decorative colors, as is the jewelry made of cornelian, pearls and silver, around the necks, wrists, breasts and feet.

The festivals any festival in Morocco are a wedding feast, a celebration, a commercial market, and folk singing and dancing.

Add to these scenes that of the bridegroom in his white clothing, with his thoroughbred horse, bestowing on the place of the festival a legendary atmosphere full of magic, joy and romanticism, which tickles the fancies of the young girls who have come, and who are waiting to be brides of the future.

The researcher Khadija Aziz, in her study on the engagement festival in Imilchil (Al-Sahra magazine No. 4612 of 6 September 2001), mentions that the Imilchil area is located in the Grand Atlas and was a pioneer in its openness to the world. This is due to the fact that it enjoys a strategic location which has suited it to be the place where the grains are winnowed. Elsewhere in her study, the researcher mentions that the engagement festival is considered a focus of attraction for all who yearn for the noble values of love .

Love among these people has an almost inseparable twin called virtue, the thing with which love is completed, and through which it grows and becomes bigger, and spreads mercy and tolerance. These noble sentiments one might say are almost absent from dome contemporary societies.

Ceremonial Rituals

The question that arises in this context may be how the ceremonies of engagement and marriage are conducted in accordance with the prevailing customs of the tribes of the area.

To start with, a ten-member delegation is formed (five women and five men), which goes to the home of the bride, to give her the presents which consist of clothes, jewelry and a full-fat sheep with no blemish, as well as the abadir which was referred to above, namely the large loaf whose diameter is one metre. It is made of 25 kilograms of wheat flour kneaded into a dough with ten litres of water, after the right amount of salt has been added to it. Usually the men bake it, not the women. When it has matured, it is distributed to members of the two families, as a symbol of affection and acquaintanceship. Dates, butter, honey and milk are also offered to guests by the bride s family.

An elderly lady decorates the bride with henna. Then she puts on her white bridal dress, and adorns herself with her jewelry. Before the bride goes out from her father s house, her father places a cloak under her feet, as a sign that he blesses this marriage.

The other rituals have been referred to above, in another part of this investigation.

The advantage that makes the Imilchil festival distinct from other festivals in the Kingdom of Morocco lies in the fact that it embraces lovers and sweethearts, who meet in it, exchange intimate conversations, and discuss arrangements related to their lives in future. When understanding is reached between the two parties, the engaged couple go to the center where the notaries public are located, to announce in front of them and get them to witness their wish to conclude their marriage contract, with extreme simplicity and without the complicated routine procedures which characterize many marriages in civilized urban societies.

I maintain that this extreme simplicity in concluding a marriage does not exist as far as I know in the most advanced modern societies. The freedom to choose a spouse and life s companion does not mean that it is an irresponsible, frivolous, fickle freedom, because the agreement between two lovers to marry has no value without the agreement and blessing of their families.

The thing that deserves to be noted in the engagement festival in Imilchil is the very small financial value of the bride s dowry. I have witnessed with my own eyes that it is no more than 200 dirhams, the equivalent of $20 only (almost nothing).

When I asked the person from the Ministry of Tourism who was accompanying us about the amount of the dowry, he confirmed what I had seen. The fact is that a man has an appetite for marriage not only because of the small value of the dowry, but more important than that because the young girls (glory to Him Who created them) enjoy striking natural beauty, God-given beauty without interference by the fingers of hairdressers, beauty centers, manicurists, face-lifting and liposuction operations and other things common among young women of the velvet society of the eastern Arab world in general and the oil-based velvet societies in the Gulf in particular. To be extremely frank, if I had the strength, and my present age were only a quarter of a century less, I would have joined the queue of people getting engaged, to strengthen the relations of Arab unity between the peoples of the nation. But courage failed me at the last moment when I remembered the "she-wolf" waiting for me at home, together with half a dozen children! What should we do? The festival lasts three days. The first day is devoted to the opening ceremonies, which are inaugurated by the Governor of Rachidia Governorate, accompanied by senior officials and tribal leaders in the province, as well as crowds of foreign tourists and Moroccan visitors.

On the day of the opening, folk singing and dancing shows are put on, the most famous and attractive of which are the Ahidous, which are led by the elderly Amazighi folk artist Muha Walhin, who is known as the Maestro as was mentioned above. I read a news item that he had retired from artistic life because of his advanced age, and handed over the banner and the leadership to his eldest son, to lead the famous Ahidous band with the guidance of his father, the handsome horseman artist.

In addition to that, the opening day includes cultural and sports contests, shooting and hunting, and folklore concerts on the shores of Lake Isli. The second day of the festival is devoted to concluding the marriage contract of the bride and groom of the season in one of the palaces of the area. The tourists and visitors there see all the ceremonial manifestations of the conclusion of a marriage contract. The third and last day is for visits to tourist areas and archaeological sites, riding on the backs of mules, which alone are able to endure the hardship of the rugged mountain roads.

The Mother of Festivals" and Fairs

It is evident that a visitor to the Imilchil festival will spend the three days without feeling bored at all. A visitor can enjoy the sight of the large tents, which embody the life of the nomadic Bedouins, and can also eat and savor the arts of their cooking, in particular the large types of bread mentioned above in this investigation.

Tourists and visitors wander around in the midst of the Ahidous dances which are performed by the members of the tribes. Men and women line up in rows with hands linked, songs and bandir and tambourine rhythms resounding, in harmony with the movements of the feet and the shaking of the shoulders which inspire musical rapture and enjoyment and encourage people to celebrate the wedding and take part in the dance.

Festivals occupy a large part in Moroccan social life. They number between 600 and 700 festivals, which are held throughout the year. True, these festivals vary in their degree of importance and popularity, but every one of them has its special flavor which distinguishes it from the others, and justifies its continued existence.

In spite of the distinctive peculiarities, magic, beauty, originality, attractiveness and variety of Moroccan festivals, and all the pleasant characteristics which they involve, their defect is the variability of their dates. For example, the Marrakesh festival of folk songs, music and dancing is sometimes held in June and at other times in July, although it is more than forty years old.

This fluctuation, obviously, is not in the interest of festivals, fairs and exhibitions that are held each year.

The other defect is the lack of advertising, publicity and information about the festivals in the Arab countries, whose peoples have become used to visiting Morocco, particularly during the summer, and during holidays in general. I do not remember ever seeing an advertisement about one of the festivals or fairs, which Morocco has in plenty all the year round, in any of the information media in the eastern part of the Arab world.

We do not need to mention that these two defects severely affect the task of promotion and attracting tourists to be enthusiastic about all Moroccan festivals and fairs.

I say all that because the majority of Gulf Arab tourists do not know anything at all about all the Moroccan festivals and fairs. I am making this claim on the basis of my personal experience and my own memory. I have not seen one Arab individual or family from the Gulf in all the Moroccan fairs and festivals which I have seen time and again.

The defect may lie in the servant of God who is writing these lines, because my eyesight is weak and cannot be relied on, and so I must mention this.


Sulaiman Al-Fahd


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