By Madeleine Handaji
Rabat – The first wedding doesn’t really count, I was 10 and performing a play at my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary party.
I walked up the aisle dressed in the only white clothes we could get our hands on to marry my 11-year-old sister in a fake moustache while my cousin performed the ceremony. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being married to anyone, let alone for 50 years.
My view on romance was very much based on fairy tales – brides wore crowns and sparkling dresses, and grooms rode horses, brandishing swords to come to the rescue of the beautiful, elegant princess.
About 15 years later I met my husband. The first time I saw him was outside the police station in a rather grubby part of Casablanca. The owner of a school, he was to be my employer and was waiting to take me to start work.
When I began teaching at the school, life in Derb Sultan was far from the fairy tales of my childhood, but there was a handsome prince who swept me off my feet, despite having a motorbike instead of a horse.
A year later we had our first wedding in the UK. It was traditional and thoroughly English; the guests arrived in a red London Bus, I wore white, and the father-of-the-bride made a moving speech. The wedding took place in the British stately home turned boarding school, where I had been a pupil from age 9 to 18. My husband’s family came over from Morocco for the event and dubbed it ‘a royal wedding.’
However, my 10-year-old self was still not satisfied and I was thrilled to hear there must be another wedding; this time in Morocco. I knew nothing about Moroccan weddings before my own and was very happy to leave the details to my mother-in-law. However, I did make one demand. I wanted horses.
In the weeks before the wedding I visited the Negafa (women responsible for dressing and introducing the bride, as well as providing the accessories and some of the outfits in a traditional Moroccan wedding), chose my dresses, and tried to fend off questions from the British guests planning to attend the wedding – I knew about as much as they did. This said, I continued to make my horse requirements known.
Finally, the day came. My sister and I got up early, accompanied by the cousin who had performed my first wedding ceremony circa 1999. My sister had thoroughly researched Moroccan wedding makeup and, guided by youtube tutorials, had become almost professional. Hours of application later, I was hardly recognizable. In fact, my grandmother flatteringly told me “You don’t look like yourself. You look like a beautiful woman.”
Used to travelling with Moroccans, I didn’t find the next bit surprising, but my sister was shocked as the three of us piled into my sister-in-law’s five seater car, already occupied by 2 adults and 3 children. With the windows wound down and music blasting, my sister-in-law beeped the horn continuously while her younger sister announced our presence with cries of celebration.
All the way to the wedding venue, people on the street waved.
We arrived at the venue, where I was immediately led to a bedroom. The two negafas were there waiting for me. Speaking very quickly in Darija, they whisked me onto a chair and before I knew it, I was in my first outfit of the day; the traditional green and gold ensemble with a golden crown, glittering earrings, and a veil of almost opaque gold.
So I had been right, weddings, in Morocco at least, are things of fairy tales. Rather confused and a bit overwhelmed by the noise, the colours, and the two negafas, I was ready.
Somehow it was indicated to me that I should walk up the stairs and onto the roof terrace where the guests waited, some standing, some seated around elaborate white and glass tables.
Walking through the crowd, I don’t really remember seeing any faces and was mostly focused on not tripping over the hem of the intricate green and gold takchita (a Moroccan wedding ensemble made of more than one piece).
Standing in front of a resplendent, golden throne with my parents either side of me, I took in the colours and smiles of the guests gathered before me.
Next came the henna. I am told that all Moroccan weddings involve a henna ceremony, where the negafa paints beautiful decorations in henna on the hands and feet of the bride, some brides choose to have this on a separate day but most wear green, which is a royal colour and symbolizes fertility.
It was a very hot August day, nearly a year ago now, and I remember trying to itch my left eyebrow before remembering that I had wet henna on my fingers.
Fortunately, a very swift Negafa wiped off the henna smudge on my forehead before the red tinge became permanent!
As my husband and his family processed through the gathered guests, wielding enormous tagine shaped dishes piled with gifts, I realised that the fairy tale weddings I had imagined as a child were not the stuff of legend, but a reality in Morocco.
The next stage of the wedding was the Ammariya (another traditional part of a Moroccan wedding, it is a golden sedan chair where the bride sits and is paraded for the guests).
Now wearing a purple takchita I had ordered from a French-Moroccan designer, I stepped into the golden cage and tried not to close my eyes as the traiteur’s team lifted it above their heads.
Sitting in the golden throne, wearing a crown, and waving down at the wedding guests, it was hard to not feel like a princess. My husband smiling up at me, certainly looked like Prince Charming.
Over the course of the night I wore five dresses, increasingly elaborate jewellery, and had no end of make-up touches. This was definitely the wedding of a fairytale couple.
However, the part of the wedding I enjoyed most, was not sitting serenely in front of the assembled crowd, wearing a tiara and looking like a queen, but wearing a traditional Amazigh dress, riding a horse, and dancing.
An Amazigh music group had travelled to Essaouira for our wedding from my husband’s Blad (the countryside region his family come from), and it was they who led the dancing.
The atmosphere was of pure joy, Moroccan and British guests together, dancing to the traditional Amazigh beats.
My husband’s grandmother flung her hands above her head and danced like a teenager, despite being a great-grandmother, while my own 90-year-old grandma enthusiastically joined the fray. This was the first moment of the whole wedding where I felt free and able to be myself.
The music continued and the guests let the beat of the traditional music take over. In the middle of the group, I saw my husband’s smiling face and sparkling eyes, and it was in that moment that I realised true romance is not about a ‘royal wedding’ or a fairytale couple, it is built on the joy of sharing experiences and genuinely connecting with another person who allows you to be completely yourself.