Veiled women at the Imilchil Moussem, which honors the patron saint of the Aït Hdiddou tribe, Sidi Mohammed Maghani, and is held near his tomb. Two lakes nearby are said to be formed from the tears of two tragic Romeo and Juliet-style lovers and this legend has given the festival a reputation for romance.
Imilchil – Long Read

A picture can tear a family apart

Photo by William Stevens

Imilchil – Long Read A picture can tear a family apart

Hello Imilchil, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where images on postcards and in magazines of their marriage ceremony have caused heartbreak for countless Berber women since an annual celebration became tourist fodder. A picture can tell a thousand words, but it can also tear a family apart.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

I admit I came to Imilchil to see the High Atlas Wedding Market I had heard so much about: young women and men from a close group of Berber tribes travel for days to a market to find somebody to marry. A story almost too good to be true? Well, I am afraid it is. Created by the tourist industry, and swallowed like candy by the media, this wedding festival in reality has a much darker side. Together, they have turned it into something more like a divorce festival.

“I have nothing to say!” says Rabha. If looks could kill, I would be a dead man. She is working in the fields harvesting vegetables. Her robe is old, her hands dirty with soil. A dust cloud in the distance shows where the festival, or “moussem” of Imilchil is taking place. When we approach Rabha, she immediately covers her face. My interpreter Saïd explains why I would like to talk to her. She looks straight at me. “I don’t trust you!” she says in her own language. “Go away!” We turn around and she watches us as we leave. Rabha Aït Riri is in her late 20s. Her husband divorced her a few years ago because of a picture of her in a magazine. A picture taken by a foreigner, somebody like me. Someone who she holds responsible for destroying her life. No wonder she doesn’t want to talk to me, or to anybody else for that matter. She is sick of what happened, and sick of those who caused it. And she is not the only one.

Every year in September, after a long hot summer and before the hard winter, when most crops have been harvested and their animals have given birth, the Berber people of the Aït Hdiddou and their associate tribes come to the Souk Aam – the “year market” of Imilchil. They come to trade, celebrate and pay homage at the tomb of the holy marabout Sidi Ahmed Oulmaghni. They number more than 25,000 and their camels, goats, sheep and cows multiply that number tenfold. They create a whole village of tents that serve as shops, restaurants and cafés. From early morning to late afternoon, the dusty streets are packed with people. Men drink tea and discuss the quality of the flocks, young women gather in groups of three or four and wander along the tents selling clothes and jewelry.

Each time they meet friends or family from another village, laughter erupts and shrieks of excitement are heard. It is a beautiful sight and very authentic; its idyllic setting in the valley Assif Melloul (“White River”) adds considerably to its charm. No wonder tourists like to come here and tour operators like to promote it. Moreover, there is a nice legend attached to it, about a boy and a girl from enemy tribes who fell in love, cried because their love was forbidden, and drowned themselves in the two lakes that were created by their tears. According to the story, their families decided to establish a day on the anniversary of the lovers’ death when members of local tribes could marry each other freely.

I see camels change owners, crops being sold

It is a useful tradition in this region where villages are scattered widely through the mountains, and where each village is made up of close relatives. So where are the Berber girls and boys who meet each other and marry on the same day, written about in tourist brochures with headlines such as: “Come to witness the unique and ancient ritual of the Imilchil Wedding Festival”?

I stroll alone and see camels change owners, crops being sold, young men showing off by shooting targets at an air-gun stall. There is no sign of a wedding anywhere. People ignore me or stare at me with a degree of hostility. Women cover their faces when they see my camera and, when I try to take a picture, aggressive young men come and stand in front of me. Only the young children react in a way I consider normal. They chase me around and ask for money, or candy.

The fact is, it is very clear I am not welcome here. Driss Aït Zib, one of the elders, explains. “For years the Tourist Board and tour operators from Marrakesh have promoted the moussem of Imilchil. They say it is a wedding market, where girls and boys meet and get married on the same day, which is not true. Some even say you can buy a wife here. Ridiculous! We are civilized people, we don’t sell our women like cattle. But we do have a long tradition of getting married during the moussem, because these weddings receive the blessing of the holy marabout, our local saint. Because autumn is the right time for a wedding. Because the wedding fee is less than half what it normally costs. We understand that these group weddings are nice to witness, because men wear djellabahs (outer robes) and embellish themselves with precious silver daggers, and women wear beautiful handiras (capes) covered with embroidery and silver jewelry. But the tour operators have turned our tradition into a Hollywood tourist attraction. Apparently, the reality is not good enough. But they haven’t considered the consequences.”

What are the consequences? When the first groups of tourists started to arrive, maybe two decades ago, the locals were rather amused. The men would talk to them and offer them a cup of tea, as is customary, and the women would smile shyly behind their veils. Taking a picture then was a sensitive issue, but nobody was too concerned about it, because nobody fully understood the consequences: that a picture could be reproduced on the cover of a magazine in the shops for thousands to see. That a picture could be made into a postcard, which could be sent all around the world. That a video could be shown on television, a signal picked out of the air containing the images of the moussem, and of the faces of the local women.

The kind of postcards tourists would buy

One day the inevitable happened. A man returned from visiting his family in Rabat with a postcard showing a woman from the village. She wore the traditional attire and represented the local folklore of the High Atlas. The kind of postcards tourists would buy. Hassouin Iani, her husband, was not amused. “I was 26 and she was 19,” he says. “We were married for four years and had two daughters. When I saw the postcard I was in shock. ‘Is that you?’ I asked, but of course I knew it was her. She said: ‘It is not me!’ But when I hit her she confessed it was her. She cried. She said she didn’t know that the picture was taken. I believed her but it didn’t matter. It was impossible to live with her any longer. My wife was on a postcard. Everybody could buy her, she was no longer mine. I divorced her and she moved to another village. My daughters? They are with me of course! My wife has lost her honor. Everybody was talking about her. How could she be trusted with two children? I remarried within two years and have four children with my second wife.”

Driss Aït Zib adds: “Today, almost every family has suffered a divorce.” Coming from a country where everybody dreams of becoming a photo model or a movie star, I am confused about what I hear. I ask Saïd to explain and he answers with a question: “What is the most important thing a woman has?” I hesitate, not sure what he means. “Her honor of course, her reputation!” he says. “When people start talking about a woman, even when it is not true, her reputation is damaged. This is what happens when she is seen in a magazine or a video.”

Saïd is a 23-year-old Berber who lives in Meknes, where he studies law. He is dressed in a modern way, he talks English and French fluently and has an opinion about Voltaire and Nietzsche. I ask him what he would do if he were married and a picture of his wife appeared on a calendar? “Divorce her! This is the only way to save my honor. I have to. Don’t you understand?” In fact, I do not. So I ask him if he thinks the women are to blame when their picture is taken. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” he says. “It matters what other people think. Nobody wants to divorce his wife because of a picture taken of her without her permission. But we are forced to. It is a tragedy for us, too. We have to divorce the mother of our children!”

With this in mind I go back to Hassouin and ask him how he felt about leaving his wife. “She was the love of my life,” he says. “But I had no choice.”

She carries the stigma of a bad wife

The Berber, a name derived from the Greek word for barbarians, are a semi-nomadic people who live in the mountains of north-west Africa. They have converted to Islam but keep some pre-Islamic rituals and beliefs. Although they are considered liberal by Arab standards, the status of a divorced woman is low. She carries the stigma of a bad wife who could not hold her man, and it is thought that “something must be wrong with her”. Often it is easier for her to move to another village where she will not run into her former husband and his family.

At the moussem I meet Mina Ouzini. The 29-year-old is divorced from her husband and visiting the market with her nephew, Saïd Baa. Mina doesn’t mind when I take her picture. “Not any more,” she says. “Wouldn’t you like to get married again?” I ask. “No,” she says. “Only old men are interested in me. They are either divorced or widowed. Divorced women are not in demand, you know.”

The first tourists that came arrived in a 4x4, but then the road was paved, allowing coaches from Marrakesh. Suddenly there were hundreds of tourists. For them, events such as folk dances were organized and wedding parties – which are normally held after the moussem – were staged. Huge tents with comfortable beds were put up to accommodate the visitors and guides came from all over the country to “explain” what was happening. “TV crews came from Japan, England, Germany, Holland and France,” says Saïd. “They were generally very rude, and saw the moussem as something that was only there for them. They just wanted a spectacular story and were not concerned about whether it was true or not. They started filming without asking permission. They turned the moussem into a zoo.”

The problem for a journalist visiting Imilchil for only a couple of days during the moussem is that the “facts” are hard to verify. Everybody who speaks English or French works in tourism and thus holds a stake in keeping up this story. What visitors see is flirting youngsters one day, and a group wedding the next day. Hey, this story could be true! The reality is very different. In the nearby village of Agoudal I talk to 16-year-old Aïcha, who is not at the moussem. I ask her why she does not go. Doesn’t she want to meet any boys? “A beautiful girl doesn’t need to go to the moussem to meet a boy,” she says. I can not argue with that.

There are too many people like you

So I try again: “But isn’t it fun to go there, to meet your friends?” “Yes of course, but my father doesn’t allow me to go,” she says. “There are too many people like you!” “People like me?” “People with cameras!” With the arrival of tourists, the real wedding celebration went underground. The most that visitors are going to see? A dozen brides and grooms trotted onstage for the press. Women, hooded and veiled, shy and uncomfortable. The moment is awkward and embarrassing. The official ceremony involves troupes of dancers and musicians paid by the tourist office, playing in a cordoned-off arena to an audience of tourists and journalists.

Saïd and I take a dust road leading into the mountains, looking for a woman called Henou Aït Mohamed who used to live in the same village as Saïd. “She is my age. I used to be in love with her when I was eight years old, but she got married when she was 16,” he says. “Now she is divorced and lives with her sister and her sister’s husband.” We find her close to the river, where she is tending the cows. Her sister is there, too. She is keeping an eye on us while we talk.

“I was married for three years, when my brother showed me a postcard with my picture on it,” Henou says. “He was very angry, asking me how I could be so stupid. But he promised not to tell anybody. From that moment onwards I was living in fear, knowing that any day a disaster could happen. Of course I had heard of other women who were abandoned by their husbands. It took another two years until the postcard showed up again – this time, the whole village knew. I separated from my husband, leaving my three children behind.”

In the High Atlas, a woman’s average day starts at 5am. She will first tend the animals, bake bread and cook some tea before waking up the rest of the household. At mid-day and in the evenings, it is her responsibility to prepare a meal. After breakfast she works on the land, looks for herbs and spices, and milks the cows. In the afternoon she either continues working on the land or does some needlework. In the meantime, the older girls are looking after the younger ones. At the end of the day, she will clean the house. At nine in the evening it is bedtime.

I wear leftovers from my sister

Women do not hold formal jobs, so for money they depend on their husbands. When they are divorced, this presents a problem. Family members are not too keen to take care of them, and often make them work even harder. Henou, now whispering so her sister does not hear, says: “I never get any money, not even to buy material for new clothes. I wear leftovers from my sister, which I repair myself. I feel like a slave.” I am trying to imagine what this must be like when she adds: “But you know what is worse? I never get to see my children...”

When King Hassan II died in 1999, the moussem was cancelled. This presented the tribal leaders of the Aït Hdiddou with the opportunity to assess a situation they felt had got out of hand and put their community under a lot of stress. “What used to be a Souk Aam, a year market, was turned into a wedding market by the tourist industry, and ended up being a divorce market!” says Driss Aït Zib. Everybody agreed this had to be stopped. So it was decided that no more ceremonies would be held or tents put up to accommodate tourists. And even the traditional group wedding, normally a colorful event, would be limited to the signing of the register. The Ministry of Tourism issued a statement asking visitors “not to take pictures of women without asking permission”.

After all these measures the Imilchil moussem will no doubt survive, and the community of Aït Hdaddou will recover. But how about Touda Aït Oiri, who was left by her husband because she appeared in a video which was made to promote the valley and the festival? She doesn’t mind talking to me because, as she puts it, the world must know what happened to her. “During the Souk Aam, I had to work on the land. From behind a house or a bush they must have filmed me. If you see the video it looks as if they were very close to me, but I have never seen them. It looks as if I knew they were filming me, but I didn’t.

“One day my husband came home very very angry. He cried – it was the first time I saw him cry. He shouted: ‘Whore!’ He told me everybody was talking about me. Something about a video. I didn’t understand, but knew it was serious. I took my son, who was two years old, and went to my mother. Later, my husband came to tell me we were divorced and collected our son. It was only a year later that I saw that video. I cried for days. It is so unfair. I lost everything I had, my husband, my son.”

When the interview is over I ask her, embarrassed: “Can I take your picture?” “You can,” she says, and starts crying.

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