20 June 2013

A Moroccan Wedding Celebration:
Day 4 - The Desert

A well-earned rest this morning after so much partying and all those late nights (or should I say early mornings!) This afternoon we are heading in convoy to the desert - once the temperatures have dropped a little. I'm so excited - I absolutely love the desert - the dunes, the isolation, the tents - and the journey there is somewhat spectacular too!

It is about 5 pm when we are all ready to set off. Only family and close friends are making the trip to the desert. We feel very privileged to be counted amongst those. Drivers arrive in their 4x4s to pick up the family from the hotel and, after our farewells to the lovely staff, we too set off on our 2-hour journey to our desert camp for the night. Everyone is competing to take on the driving - it's a special experience to drive in the desert, negotiating the dunes without getting stuck in the sand!

After nearly 2 hours of bumping and sliding along the alternately hard ground and soft sand of the desert floor, we arrive at the camp. This is a different camp to where we have stayed before, the final part of the route being lined with old tyres and the 'gates' being palm fronds, supporting two pieces of material which form a 'fence'! A creative bunch, these desert people!

Our car is one of the first to arrive and we are met by some of the young men who run the camp as well as by Bobo and Tine, the newly-weds. There is music blaring out from a DJ installed in the 'corner', European-style this time, in stark contrast to the previous traditional Berber music to which the lines of men and women were dancing and drumming in M'hamid only last night!

The sun is now beginning to set, so there's just time to throw off our shoes/sandals and run up to the nearest dunes barefoot in the cooling sand to watch the sun disappear for the day. Some of Tine's family decide to hitch a ride to the foot of the dune on the camels that await.

Perfect sand dunes await us - unsoiled by human steps. It as if they have been just created for this moment in time.

Swirls of cloud create patterns in the sky high above the dunes...I could just stay here all night watching the clouds, gazing at the blue sky and observing the final rays of the sun for today - but I have a party to go to!

As we return to camp, the mood has changed. It is beginning to get dark and neon balloons light up the rugs laid out on the sand. There are drums, both djembe and bendir lying on one rug alongside the krakebs, castanets traditionally played by the Gnaoua tribes. The men of the desert take their places and soon are playing haunting melodies as well as lively traditional songs of love and happiness. They clap and sing, taking their cue from each other so as to harmonise. We Europeans are mesmerised as we clap and sing along. These young men are proud of their heritage and love to share it with others.

Interspersed with the traditional singing and dancing is the music played by the DJ and acrobatic feats from the young men. Everyone dances together - there is a real sense of family and fun which prevails throughout the evening and on into the night. I can't remember the last time I danced to 'Coward of the County' by Kenny Rogers :)

One thing that I find very moving is how at one point all the men, both nomadic and European, are dancing together, moving around the sand doing the same sort of 'free-style' dances that are often seen at weddings - all in a spirit of fun and camaraderie. The women sit and watch - and laugh!

About 11 pm food is served. As usual, I am amazed at the quality of the food provided - chicken tagine, salads of all varieties, rice dishes, followed by fresh fruit and sliced sweet melons. The young men serve us and ensure we take plenty of food, wishing us BisaHa (Good Health). We sit at long tables with banquettes and eat by candlelight. Once fully satiated the musicians start up again and more dancing continues. It is 1 am when a fire is lit to combat the distinct chill in the air. We all sit around the fire on low Berber stools, gazing into the fire and seeing only silhouettes of families and friends. As I look across the sand I can suddenly see something white in the sky...it is a Chinese Lantern - and across a dune I see more silhouettes of people letting more lanterns loose into the night sky. It is a feast for the eyes as one after another they ascend and finally disappear somewhere over the dunes.

It is 3 am when we finally decide that all the partying has finally taken its toll on us and we really ought to try and get some sleep. We head for our tent....but the music continues till about 5 am - and tents don't have walls! We listen to Bobo making a speech and the hardcore revellers still singing and dancing to the loud beat of the music.

It is 7 am when I wake up and decide to go for an early morning walk on the dunes. It is beautifully tranquil as I tiptoe past the debris of the night before and the bodies strewn all over the sand; the sun is just rising and bringing a lovely hue to the colour of the sand. Not for the first time I thank God for the beauty of the scene around me - it is glorious. I idly inscribe my name on the sand as if to mark that I am really here at this momentous event.

All too soon everyone is awake and a wonderful breakfast is somehow produced of hard-boiled eggs, yoghurts, bread with jams and piping hot coffee - all served with a smile of course! And then soon after off we go in convoy again, taking a different route out of the desert across the dry salt lake named Lac Iriqi. We feel we have grown really close to all these people of the desert having spent so much time with them during the wedding celebrations and we've made friends among the other guests too - we are sad to leave. We promise, however, that one day we will return....maybe for the birth of Bobo and Tine's first child.... ;-)

18 June 2013

A Moroccan Wedding Celebration:
Day 3

It is the morning after the night before and we are all shattered after chatting and eating well into the night. We are glad to hear that there is nothing really happening regarding the wedding celebrations till this evening. A morning walk is in order to blow off the cobwebs - despite the 38 degree heat! We meander our way along the Draa river bed and briefly visit an old kasbah, Ksar Bounou, before deciding that perhaps this walk isn't such a good idea after all due to the intense heat of the African sun. Still, we have at least managed to walk some of that couscous off! But of course it's now lunchtime, so time to undo all that good work.

A lazy day ensues - sleeping, lazing by the pool, chatting with friends....until the sudden unannounced arrival of the newly married couple at the hotel. Finally we can see Tine's face - she is now unveiled. Her face bears the henna from her traditional party a few days earlier, as do her hands and feet. She is now dressed in a white lacy costume with a shawl slung around her shoulders and is once again adorned with the headdress and traditional Berber jewellery from yesterday. She tells me the headdress weighs about 5 kilos! Now I can see her face - she is beaming. Beside her is her husband, Bobo, looking very proud of his wife and far more relaxed understandably than he was yesterday! After a brief chat with everyone, they leave the hotel for a short respite before they return to the village for tonight's celebrations. All I know at this point is that tonight we will see Tine's wedding dresses - I am looking forward to that.

It is almost 11 pm when we arrive back in the village and are ushered into the main caidal tent where a 'throne' has been assembled to seat the newly married couple and their guests for the 'official' wedding photos. Next to the throne is the wedding chair on which Tine has been ceremoniously paraded around the tent, carried by the men of the family. And here she is now...entering the tent with her husband, dressed in the most stunning orange and gold dress with a gold cummerband, tiara sparkling on her head as it catches the light. She looks very regal - and much older than her 24 years. The train of her dress is adjusted so that all can see the beautiful colours and embroidery within. What a stunning bride! Bobo has chosen to keep it simple, wearing a linen shirt and trousers - As is the case in all weddings, he mustn't upstage the bride!

There ensues a series of photographs with members of both families and close friends of the couple. It is a special occasion for the immediate family, the rest of us are onlookers, sitting on the rugs admiring the spectacle. As suddenly as they appeared in the tent the couple have vanished - only to reappear moments later, Tine now wearing another beautiful dress, this time it is blue and cerise. After the official photos have been taken, the happy couple cannot help but share a private joke - a moment of light relief from the intensity of focus on them.

There follows an exchanging of rings and the symbolic tasting of dates and milk - a symbol of longevity, happiness, fertility and love in marriage. As relatives dance around the newly-weds, we head off to the house that has become our very own 'restaurant' and promptly a delicious plate of fried chicken is produced to fill our empty stomachs. We can only muster enough energy afterwards to lie back on the floor and observe the night sky with its galaxy of twinkling stars. How wonderful is this moment!

13 June 2013

A Moroccan Wedding Celebration:
Days 1 & 2

With excitement and some trepidation we approach the village of M'Hamid el Ghizlane (meaning 'plain of the gazelles'). It is 10.30 pm and we've been invited (my husband, friend and myself) to join in the marriage celebrations of our friends, Tine and Bobo. But this is to be a wedding reception like no other! Bobo's family is one of the many nomadic families who moved to this area after experiencing a severe drought that made life untenable for them in their family settlement of Erg Smar in the desert. Thus, M'Hamid El Ghizlane was formed, the last town at the end of the road before the desert starts for real.....
Tine, on the other hand, is a young Belgian girl, who found love in the desert and three years later is ready to commit to her man.

As I say, it's 10.30 pm - we met the groom earlier today and he has invited us to have an evening meal with family at a neighbour's house in the village. Hence, as we arrive at the village, all lit up with fairy lights, we do not really know what to expect. This feeling, although we do not know it yet, will remain with us for the next few days! We are led into a house and up a staircase which opens into a large room open to the night sky with many colourful rugs spread out on the floor, elaborately embroidered cushions strewn on top. Small round wooden tables are spaced out around the room, bedecked with an assortment of Moroccan pastries, and in the corner sits a gentleman with a bubbling pot of mint tea and silver trays laden with tea glasses. We are heartily welcomed as tea and pastries are offered to all those gathered, namely ourselves along with Tine's European family and the bride and groom. Our shoes are hastily dispatched to a corner of the room - we don't want to step on these beautiful rugs with our dusty shoes. We chat, laugh and mingle as best we can given the language barrier, and before we know it we are served with delicious bowls of couscous with beef and vegetables, all sitting cross-legged around the low tables. It is 1.00 am and the food is delicious!!! Tomorrow, we are told, or rather later this morning, in 5 hours' time in fact (!) we should be back in the village for the dressing of the bride.

Pouring the tea

Couscous with beef and vegetables

It is 7.00 am as we make our way to the village, all bleary-eyed and longing for a return to bed in our cosy hotel rooms. But not a soul is in sight! Eventually we stumble across an open doorway and three women seem astonished to see us as they shake their rugs outside their doors, chatting excitedly together..."tsroud, asharah" they say, pointing at their watches..."Come back at 9 or 10"....oh well, a few coffees in town will sort us out we reckon! As we sit and chat to the cafe owner who is delighted to have our custom so early in the morning, we watch the odd donkey pass by, laden with grass, wood and any other material you can think of, driven by a young boy or an older man. "Ah, le mariage" he repeats....everyone here knows about the wedding celebrations - and most people are attending as we later find out. It seems no time at all before the 4x4 drivers make their way past us along the road, tooting their horns loudly at us, as they head from the hotel where all the European guests are staying,  relaying everyone in convoy back to the village. (We've hired our own 4x4 for the journey so we can drive at our own pace around the villages and into the desert, making more of a trip.)

7am coffees

We head back to where we came from and are ushered into a room full of local women who are dressed in vibrant colours and are singing together, seated on rugs. In the midst of them sit two women who are being dressed in cloaks, scarves, headdresses and heavy jewelery by some of the women whilst they sing. The two women being dressed are both brides; they are having a joint celebration as the grooms are related to each other. There is a sombre mood to the occasion. Slowly, the brides stand and turn around. Their faces are covered with pieces of fabric which completely hide them from view. They will remain like this until tomorrow evening when their respective grooms will unveil them. Tine's mother has also been clothed in a traditional wedding costume befitting the mother of the bride. She looks beautiful, but cannot help shedding a tear as she sees her daughter being clad in such an extraordinary way.

Tine, the Bride, with her father and mother

The singing continues as the two girls are led out of the room with their mothers and families following, the rest of us trailing behind. Outside, two huge camels await the brides and they are helped to mount, one on each camel. They are led by two camelteers along the dusty road, surrounded by men, women and children, singing, chanting and playing drums. The atmosphere is amazing; there is a real sense of the importance of such an event for this small community as the brides set off on the long journey to meet their respective husbands.

The women leading the singing on the street

A car heads the procession and behind it there suddenly appears two groups of people - one line of men with drums lead the camels and a line of women face them, walking backwards along the road. The men bang their drums loudly and sing what sounds like a chant, the women reply equally loudly. I am told that this symbolises the men trying to hurry the bride to meet her groom and the women telling her to take it easy and not rush into the marriage.

The brides mounted on their camels

The wedding car leads the way

Men versus women

En route we pass the home of Bobo's family which is in the process of being lovingly restored. Hanging proudly from the bare cement wall is a banner of the Moroccan flag and the Berber symbol representing the 'free man'. Bobo's mother is dancing and singing alongside me and points to her house with pride - this is her family home and she wants everyone to know that.

Moroccan, Berber - and proud of it!

As we near the end of the route, a young girl from each family is hoisted up onto the camels with the brides - they too are dressed as mini brides. A foretaste of what is to come in their future lives.

Children join the brides as the drummers lead the way

Finally, after processing for over an hour along the road in the heat of the day, we arrive at the main tent which has been erected for the celebrations. Here, Tine will sit with her family and all the women of the village till the evening, her face still covered. She will eat food prepared for her, talk to the women - and wait patiently.....

Arriving at the festive tent

Brides with Tine's parents in the tent

Meanwhile, we are privileged to be granted an audience with Bobo, the groom, who has been 'locked in prison' for the whole duration of this morning. He has been taken to a neighbouring house located just behind the tent in which Tine now sits and is isolated from all the action taking place in the streets. He can hear the music, the car horn, the singing and excited chatter, but is unable to take part in it. We quietly make our way to the house where we find him sitting in a bare room with the other groom, Ali, and a few close friends. We hardly recognise him, His face is adorned with make-up, black kohl circling his eyes, and he is dressed in a traditional white costume, complete with dagger. He wants to know that all is well with his bride - Have we seen her? Is she okay? Is she happy? We reassure him that everything is fine, Tine looks beautiful - even with the mask covering her face - and that she is happy. We are served mint tea at a low table, take a few photos, then offer our wedding gifts to him. We are all feeling very emotional by now. There is a strong sense of the importance of this whole ceremony accompanied by ritual and tradition and we are so grateful to be here, to share in it.

Bobo (right), Ali and myself

Ali and Bobo

So much has happened this morning, we are grateful to be able to spend the afternoon at the hotel - whilst Tine and Bobo remain apart, Tine in the tent and Bobo in his 'prison'. 

Before we know it, evening has arrived and we wait with friends around the hotel pool, chatting over a few bottles of Domaine de Sahari, for the signal to come that we should be on our way back into the village for the celebrations. Finally, at about 9.00 pm, the 4x4 drivers arrive to do the ferrying for the family. We follow on a little later. Ringside seats have been reserved for us all, sitting on the pavement alongside the women of the village, so that we can see all that is to take place. We are served several glasses of hot, sweet mint tea, made by some of the women sitting opposite us who are surrounded by large teapots and what seems like hundreds of glasses on silver trays. The women make the tea, the men serve us. As we sit, an older woman behind me rubs my back and chatters to me excitedly. I don't know who she is or what she's saying - but I know we have somehow made a connection and it feels good. I utter the greetings in  darija (Moroccan Arabic) that I know, 'kee daayera, labaas, l'Hamdou'llah. Mtshrfeen, shokran bezaaf'....hello, how are you? Good? Praise God! Nice to meet you, thank you very much.' By now we are best buddies - and the back-rubbing continues every time I sit near her throughout the evening.

The music begins. Men dressed in local costume form a perfect line standing very close together, hands outstretched to play their bendir drums (or even their washing up bowl if they haven't got a drum!) They start to sing, accompanied by clapping and drumming, shuffling to the right in perfect unison in time to the music. Meanwhile, local women also form a line, facing the men, and hold each others' hands across their bodies, dancing in the same way as the men, until each line has effectively swapped places. They sing in response to the men. I am told they are singing songs about happiness and love in honour of the married couples. It is lovely to witness such a tradition.

Have washing-up bowl, will drum!

Women dancing

Men and women face each other in lines

However, it is not long before a more free-style type of dance takes over amongst the men.

Sidi Garsten free-styling

Burberry (or should that be 'Berber-y') meets tradition.

Young girls of the village dressed in their finery.

Suddenly we hear the loud honking of horns and see the glaring headlights as two cars approach the party. In the first is Tine and family, in the second is Bobo and family. Tine's face is no longer covered by the material 'mask' but she is wearing a dark embroidered garment which covers her head and body, so we still cannot see her face. There is loud rejoicing as Bobo and Ali join the men dancing and singing. Tine and Kenza (the other bride) head once again straight to the tent. We, meanwhile, remain seated, clapping along to the rhythm of the singing and drums and drinking copious amounts of mint tea.

Excitement as the wedding cars arrive

Bobo joins in with the festivities

At about midnight we are informed that dinner is served! Once again, we enter the house with the low tables and feast upon a wonderful meal of chicken with couscous and vegetables. Just as we finish the meal, Bobo arrives and tells us that his bride has been unveiled - we will see her tomorrow. Now they are properly man and wife! Hamdou'llah!

I can't believe this is only the first real day of the celebrations - two more to go!

N.B. Due to cultural sensitivities, I have chosen not to display photographs of the faces of women villagers.

Photographs © Kathy Dady 2013