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Dreams in the Desert

The allure of Morocco, with its unpredictable mix of exuberance and artistry, has seduced adventurous travelers for decades

Following evening prayers, it’s showtime at the Place Djemaa el-Fna, the teeming medina crossroads that dates to 12thcentury days when Almohad dynasty sultans cut off rebel leaders’ heads and displayed them on spikes. Forsaking Riad Tamsna, I stumble about the darkening souks, getting thoroughly lost. Eventually I arrive at the three-acre market square that by night becomes a carnival. Dancers costumed in harem pants spin their fez tassels in madcap rhythms as drummers and metal castanet (karkabat) players keep them literally on their toes. Ten feet away, a storyteller lights a kerosene lantern to signal that his monologue, an animated legend that draws a rapt audience, is about to begin. I push past incense sellers and potion vendors to join a crowd gathered around white-robed musicians strumming away at three-stringed goatskin guitars called kanzas. A man playing a single-chord violin, or amzhad, approaches me, fiddles like a Berber Paganini, then doffs his cap for a few dirhams, gladly given. He’s soon replaced by a musician tootling a boogie arabesque on a stubby zmar clarinet favored by cobra charmers. In the midst of the hubbub, alfresco eateries feature chefs serving snails, mussels, spicy merguez sausages, chicken and mountains of fries.

 

I climb the stairs to the rooftop terrace of the Cafe de France to take my final view of the clusters of performers and star bursts of fire-eaters—all forming and reforming a spectacular human kaleidoscope, filling the void, decorating every space, like the Merenid artisans of old.

 

While Moroccan cities are dominated by Arab influences, the countryside remains overwhelmingly Berber, particularly in the Atlas Mountains. The Brides’ Fair at Imilchil, which combines marriage ceremonies with harvest celebrations, offers a highspirited opportunity for outsiders to penetrate these normally closed tribal communities. To get there, I take a 220- mile roller-coaster drive north from Marrakech through dense pine forests. Imilchil is a bustling tent city lit by kerosene lanterns. Craggy mountains ring the plain like the sides of an enormous dark bowl.

 

The next morning, I head to a billowing canvas tent the size of a circus big top where the festivities are just beginning. According to one legend, the Brides’ Fair originated when a pair of star-crossed lovers, a Berber Romeo and Juliet from warring tribes, were forbidden to marry. When they cried so long that their tears formed two nearby lakes, tribal elders gave in. The fair was created to allow men and women from different tribes to meet one another and, if all goes well, to eventually marry. Inside the tent 20 couples, already engaged to be married, are waiting their turn to sign marriage contracts before a panel of notaries. The prospective grooms, wearing crisp, white djellabas, lounge in one corner while the young women, in brightly colored shawls, sit separately in another. Many engaged couples wait until the Brides’ Fair to sign marriage agreements because it’s cheaper. (Normally, a contract costs $50 per couple; at the fair it’s just $12.)

 

Wandering around the sprawling harvest market, I peer into tents filled with dates, peppers and pumpkins. Teenage girls with arresting green eyes are dressed in dark indigo capes and head scarves tinkling with mirrored sequins. They inspect stands of jewelry and flirt with teenage boys wearing baseball caps emblazoned with Nike and Philadelphia Phillies logos.

 

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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