Although traditional Berber weddings can last up to a week, such events are closed to outsiders. Brides’ Fair organizers have devised a tourist-friendly alternative. In the nearby village of Agoudal, a 90-minute version is open to all: relatives, friends and tourists. On the way to Agoudal, I pass lush fields of alfalfa and potatoes. Small children hold up green apples for sale, and women bent double by loads of hay tread along on dirt paths.
In the middle of the village square, an announcer narrates each step of the marriage ritual. The comic high point comes when the bride’s messenger goes to the groom’s home to pick up presents on her behalf. As necklaces, fabrics and scarves are piled on her head, the messenger complains that the gifts are paltry things. “More!” she demands, jumping up and down. The audience laughs. The groom adds more finery. “Bring out the good stuff!” At last, head piled with booty, the bearer takes her leave.
Finally, the bride herself, resplendent in a flowing red robe, rides up on a mule, holding a lamb, representing prosperity. A child, symbolizing fertility, rides behind her. As women ululate and men tap out a high-octane tattoo on handheld drums, the bride is carried to the stage to meet the groom. Wearing a red turban and white djellaba, he takes her hand.
After the nuptials, I drive 180 miles southeast to the Merzouga dunes near Erfoud for a taste of the Sahara. What greets me is more than I bargained for: a fierce sirocco (windstorm) pelts hot sand into my mouth, eyes and hair. I quickly postpone my sunset camel ride and go to my tent hotel, where I sip a glass of mint tea and listen for the wind to die down.
An hour before dawn I am rousted out of bed for an appointment with my inner Bedouin. Wrinkling its fleshy snout and casting me a baleful eye, my assigned camel snorts in disapproval. He’s seen my kind before. Deigning to lower himself, the beast sits down with a thump and I climb aboard. “Huphup,” the camel driver calls out. The animal jerks upright, then lumbers forward, setting a stately pace behind the driver. Soon I am bobbing dreamily in sync with the gentle beast’s peculiar stiff-legged walk. The dunes roll away toward Algeria under tufted, gray clouds. Then, for the first time in months, it starts to rain—scattered droplets instantly swallowed up, but rain nonetheless. Ten minutes later, the rain stops as abruptly as it began.