Travel: Snowy peaks and bartered brides

At Imilchil in the Atlas Mountains, they do a brisk trade in camels and wives. By Jack Barker

High in the Atlas, at the annual Imilchil market, Berber vendors sell anything and everything: goats, fossils, food, old clothes. Most popular among the locals are new and second-hand wives. The festival has its origins in the strange behaviour of two lakes, Tislit and Isni. Once a year, swelled by the summer melt of snow, the two lakes join for just a few days. In the barren mountains the symbolism seems obvious, and quickly acquired a Romeo and Juliet myth of two children of warring tribes and the tale of their doomed love.

For as long as anyone can remember there's been an annual gathering of mountain nomads here, where couples are allowed to meet and choose their own partners. In a country where marriages are generally planned by parents this is most unusual, and a party atmosphere blooms in the sands for three short days before the tribes scatter again.

For tourists, getting there is half the fun. At first the road looks fine: a strip of tarmac flits straight as an arrow across parched desert. But gradually the low shade on the horizon that marks the foothills of the High Atlas gets closer. As the road steepens from Morocco's Atlantic plane to climb the High Atlas, it fades to a rocky track. A hitchhiker gave me a ray of hope - at least someone believed I'd make it - but he turned out to be a flatland factory worker on holiday: another tourist. Weighed down with an extra body I inched the rented Fiat Uno over rocks and careered through sand-drifts, steadily climbing.

It was dark when we arrived at the twin lakes. Imilchil village looked a quiet, sleepy place. A huddle of high, windowless buildings was surrounded by rice-fields and there was no sign of any market. One of the two hotels had a Berber tent on the roof and another by the back door. I was not impressed. I hadn't braved death on the mountains for a two-tent festival. The hotelier pointed out that the market was a short walk from town. Ten miles was what he meant.

The next morning I arrived there with a truckload of latecomers, faces wrapped with long, indigo scarves against the dust. Sprawling across the gentle slopes was a forest of tents, stalls, and people. The traffic crawled past a tanker selling petrol by the jug and by a butcher's table teeming with flies. Groups of giggling girls in blue ethnic costume, trailed past stalls selling silver jewellery and glanced shyly at men. Tents - usually of hide but sometimes plastic sheeting - housed prosperous- looking merchants sitting cross-legged among piles of carpets. Second- hand flip-flops and charity-shop-like jackets sprawled in fire-sale-type heaps across the sandy paths. A small trestle table covered in pliers was a mobile dentist's surgery.

On a make-shift stage, an amplification system was set up. A couple of suits from the ministry of culture embarked on long speeches but soon gave way to musicians who stood in a row and performed standing-on-a-cat's- tail music. My finely-tuned tourist antenna twitched. I knew what was coming next: choreographed folkloric dancing. Quickly I walked over to the motoring section.

Except there were no cars, just animals. Donkeys, camels and horses had a hillock each. The air was filled with the shouts of salesmen extolling their creatures and offering test drives. On the donkey hill, the buyers and sellers were pretty casual. Older animals could be ridden normally, but the hottest business was in unbroken animals, and a steady stream of purchasers bounced off a donkey's rear haunches. The atmosphere at the camel hillock was more considered, reflecting the higher status of these animals, with cups of tea as part of the bargaining process. Things could still go wrong. A wilful camel scraped off his rider by lying down and rolling in the shale and then headed off for the horizon: all dignity was forgotten as the owner charged off in pursuit, turban loosening in panic.

Back at the main stage the speeches had stopped and the main business of the market - fast romance - was taking place under parents' watchful eyes. Hands were held and smiles exchanged as young couples strolled around the stalls. Potential mothers-in-law watched closely, ready to take charge of negotiating a bride-price before things went too far. In three baroque tents, new engagements (and divorces) were recorded by a notary. Young - and sometimes old - men, dressed in flowing white robes with ornamental silver daggers, milled around in groups. Streams of young brides, also wearing white, flowed past the men and into the marquees, while groups of parents haggled over the small print of the marriage contract and looked after the bride's trousseau, usually a carpet for the tent she hoped to live in. Most marriages arranged at the wedding market take place later in village ceremonies. However, some, fired by the vibrant atmosphere, happen in the glare of publicity and celebration at the market itself. In a theatrical ritual more in tune with the Middle Ages than the 20th century, families gather round to act their parts in rustic performances involving tattered suitcases, symbolic gifts, prancing horses and dazed sheep. Against a chaotic background of zithering traditional tunes, crowds dance all night in a party frenzy. The hard core carries on until dawn lightens the sky.

How to get there

Royal Air Maroc 90171-439 4361) charges pounds 295 return (including tax) for a non-stop London-Casablanca flight. If you stop en route the fare comes down. Through a discount agent, such as Major Travel (0171-485 7017), you can go via Paris on Air France for pounds 214 or via Gibraltar on GB Airways for pounds 215.

When to go

The marriage market at Imichil lasts three days. This year it will be taking place from 13 to 15 September.

Who to ask

Moroccan Tourist Office 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE (0171-437 0073)

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