Having missed the turning to ‘La Palmeraie’, we double back on ourselves and leave the main road. It’s very up and down and we have to skirt serious manholes, trenches and the usual va-et-vient of motorbikes and homeward-bound school children. The campsite is perfect – with very few other people, and the family and locals running it are very laid back and friendly. They have a number of animals in a shared pen – a young horse, goats, sheep and assorted poultry, and strutting about the campground yard a beautiful peackock. Later, we also come across a nursing dog with seven fluffy pups. Last but not least, an adorable young cat which after very little prompting settles into Emma as if she’s always lived there.
Having heard some traditional music drifting through the palm trees, we go in search of its source. Perhaps a restaurant, we think, with a live band. As we get closer, we join a number of others, mainly women, and after a series of turns of narrower and narrower backstreets, arrive at a Berber wedding in full flow. This is ‘Ladies Night’ of a 3-day event and Ruth is very quickly whisked off into a huge tent set up in a walled-off area between the houses. Some 200 women of all ages and in a vast array of different outfits, ranging from purely practical, multi-layered wraps to sparkling numbers with golden tassles, all head-scarved but none veiled, are seated around a group of drummers – from a deep goat-skin bass to lighter hand-held tambours. Amongst these are others singing and ululating, and out from that a linked circle of dancers. The sheer joy and energy is uplifting. I witness all this from the rough doorway – not much more than a hole in the wall – until I see Ruth being escorted out to be changed into something more appropriate as we’d both ventured out in our heavy woollen jellabahs.
I’m very grateful for mine as I’m stood still outside witnessing this extraordinary scene, with the wind whipping around the narrow streets. Before heading back in, we are both ushered into a tiny room where the brides (two sisters aged 19 and 21) are huddled. They’re covered head to toe, their faces hidden behind white lace veils – the only exposed flesh being their elaborately henna’ed hands. They are penned in by a number of other women friends and I have to say the atmosphere is somewhat creepy – virgin lambs to the slaughter? Their up-coming wedding is being celebrated without them. With these images, added to Ruth not feeling at her best, she is desperate to go home but sits out the next round of singing and dancing. She eventually makes her excuses and we head back to Emma, reeling from the intensity of the experience. Sadly, this takes its toll on Ruth and she spends a large part of the next few days laid up in bed with our woodburner for company. I shop, cook and wash clothes (one of the main reasons we use camperstops is for their facilities: reliable Wifi, washing machines and hot showers).
The next night is men only and I’ve been invited back, so I wrap up well in my jellabah, under which I’m sporting my only smart jacket – black with satin reveres and my black Tango trousers. As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered. The huge space is at most a third full with the men sat around tables of 9 or 10, swathed in jellabahs and scarves. The atmosphere is totally different. We sit for an age in the freezing cold, the wind lapping at the tent, with little or no conversation and certainly no singing or dancing to keep us warm, waiting for our food to arrive. I am put next to a french speaker and try to keep some sort of conversation going – the others at the table mostly only speak Berber and I think quite a lot is missed in translation. It is friendly enough but I miss the warm-heartedness I’d witnessed the night before. Eventually, Berber tea and little sweet biscuits are served, and after another long interval, a delicious chicken Tajine, followed by an unctuous beef dish. Bread is torn off the round loaves and distributed. No cutlery or plates and everyone eats from the one Tajine in the centre of the table. Finally a large bowl of tangerines and apples is delivered to the tables and no sooner than the last bites are taken the whole party rise as one and file out of the tent and disappear into the night.
Despite Ruth making the effort to find a more suitable outfit for the final evening,
she doesn’t feel up to it but insists that I go. It’s once again a hugely celebratory evening, but everything is delayed as the wind and rain have caused havoc, with the whole tent arrangement nearly coming down, in addition to a power-cut which plunges the entire village in darkness.
First is the arrival of the husbands in a flotilla of honking cars and a live street band, with long horns, duduk, drums and calling singers, interspersed with women clapping and ululating. This is followed by the carrying of presents, which are laid around the double marriage ‘throne’. Then the two couples are individually ushered into the packed tent (again mainly women) by a live ensemble not dissimilar to a marching band – snare drums, trumpets, horns – then taken up by traditional songs from an exceptionally loud sound system.
A young girl notices my frustration at not being able to get close enough to the action to capture it on film and with no more than a simple mime takes my mobile and weaves her way to the front of the crowd. Here is one of her videos:
Each couple is, in turn, led through the throng of guests and while the grooms are settled somewhat bewildered and alone on a huge white throne, the brides are hoisted aloft by half a dozen pall bearers, and in an intricate compass-point dance are paraded before the guests.
This is followed by a great deal of mixed gender dancing (though mainly women). I’m encouraged to join in and by 3am I’ve shuffled myself to a standstill and slip away back to the campsite. The late nights, irregular eating and looking after Ruth finally takes its toll and I end up flat on my back too, but what an experience!
For more photos and videos of this chapter, click here
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