Sahraoui society is marked by several customs, traditions and specific festivities connected to the different aspects of life, for example, birth, Akika – or the celebration of the seventh day after birth of a baby, circumcision, engagements, weddings, divorces, death and burial as well as religious ceremonies, including religious feasts and the two months of Chaabane and Ramadan.
There are also other types of tradition linked to traditional culinary art including popular dishes and beverages and traditional dress called « Al-Malhfa » for women and « Darrâa » for men.
To that is added the sense of generosity, hospitality and entertainment, the furnishing and decoration of homes, the principles of education, the spirit of solidarity and the relation between human beings and cattle, as well as with other animals; in particular the camel - that tireless « vessel of the desert ».
These customs and traditions are indispensable tools for understanding the semiotic dimensions and the cultural implications of popular Hassani culture. They also constitute an important factor to understanding the life style in the Southern Provinces and are reflective of the human creativity describing the distinctive feature of the Sahraoui space throughout history.
Wedding ceremonies in the Southern ¨Provinces are marked by the stamp of tradition which remains different from that of other cities in the Kingdom. Indeed, in most instances, when the Sahraoui man wants to marry, he informs his family, and in most instances it is the mother who informs the father, because among the Sahraouis the son cannot directly tell his father about his intention to marry.
The families of the betrothed get together to read the Fatiha and set a date for the wedding in conjunction with a special ceremony attended by respected parties and the elderly of one or both of the tribes. The Sahraoui family plays a front-running role in the choice of a spouse for the son. In making this choice, the family takes account of tribal considerations, given the important role played by marriage in family and tribal relations.
The Sahraoui wedding begins with the dowry ceremony of "D'foua" which begins in the home of the family of the groom in the form of a grandiose convoy consisting of the groom's family, relatives and close friends. The amount of the dowry depends on the financial situation of the groom and generally consists of cattle, fabric for making the "Mlahfa": the traditional garb of the Sahraoui woman, locally made perfumes called « khmira », different kinds of incense, as well as many kilos of sugar, jewelry and a few pieces of furniture. In the Southern Provinces, the dowry is of special importance that can even lead to exaggeration due to the fact that it reflects tribal values, meaning nobility and generosity, and is demonstrative of the interest that the male shows for his promised one, her family and tribe.
On the day of the wedding, the family of the bride sets up a huge tent or « khaimat al-rag » where the groom's convoy collects the offerings presented to the bride.
On the wedding night, a woman is locally appointed under the name of « Maalma » to adorn the bride with henna, braid her hair and apply prestigious locally made perfumes. It is the groom's duty to pay the « Maâlma » for this work and he must do everything to see to it that the pay is substantial as it will form the topic of discussion among the women of both tribes. The festivities continue for three days in the family residence of the bride. The second night, the friends of the bride try to create a gay and suspense-filled atmosphere by hiding the bride in a tent belonging to the neighboring tribe, a tradition called « al-traouegh ». The groom must then try to find his bride as a sign of love and consideration.
The bride gets together with her husband only after the third night of the wedding. An elegant convoy to a background of cries of the women, the sound of tam tams, Hassani songs specially sung for this occasion and poems extolling the qualities of the two tribes, and evoking the generosity and courage, is organized to celebrate the event. According to Sahraoui traditions, the wedding night or « Dokhla » occurs at the home of the bride and the she will not leave her father's tent until after her first childbirth.
It is only during the last night of the festivities (the third night) called « Ahchlaf », or the end, or night of the grandmothers, that the two newly weds can be alone together.
Afterwards, the guests lead the bride to her husband's home on a thick piece of fabric where she is offered a gift called « Amrouk », followed by another gift called « Al faskha » which is sent to the groom's mother, consisting of one half of the items offered by the groom as a dowry, along with a few extra presents. Then come the preparations for the final departure of the bride to her husband's place of residence, which can last several days.
In the provinces of the south, divorce is considered an ordinary event if it is the result of the mutual will of both parties and occurs in accordance with Islamic law. In spit of the fact that it is allowed by the Shari'a, polygamy is a forbidden practice in Sahraoui culture.
Astonishing at it might seem, when the Sahraoui woman divorces, her family and close relatives organize a great occasion in sign of support.
« Al Fashka »
In site of the urban development experienced by several aspects of life in the Moroccan Sahara, weddings still respect certain traditions and rites specific thereto. « Al faskha » is one of these traditions still much alive and connected to the worth of the dowry. It is about a gift that the bride's mother sends to the mother of the groom. It contains locally made perfumes called « al-khmira », carpets, blankets, sandals, shoes and camels.
« al-Khaima » tent
The « al-Khaima » tent is considered to be the central social unit in Sahraoui society. It is not just a spatial unit reserved as a living space as it also refers to all the relationships linking the members of a given family.
In this way, the tent represents all the concrete relations within the family, a name taken from the living quarters traditionally built by the Sahraoui man with camel hair and ewe wool.
The tent is pitched by means of two opposite posts or « Rkaiz » connected together by a cord called « al hamar » and secured to the ground with pegs. or « Akhwalef » and surrounded by fabric or « al kafya ». The tent is then divided into two parts, one for men and one for women. Tradition dictates that the door of the tent be situated to the south or « al-Gabla ».
Apart from its geographical implications, the concept of « al-Gabla » has other economic, political, cultural, social and civilizational implications. It refers to a region delimited to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the Senegal River and to the east by Aftout. However, it is difficult to determine the northern borders due to desertification and the influence of natural factors.
« Al Frig »
This is a series of tents grouped around a land space called « Manzla », a place where there are cattle, shepherds, the tent of the « Mâalem » craftsman, the tent of the fkih, a prayer space or « Amsla », on a prairie covered with sand and surrounded by stones opening out to the east or « Al Qibla ».
« Al gaitna »
During the month of Ramadan, the customs and traditions of the south differ from one family to the next. In the winter and during the rainy season, the population experiences no difficulty in getting food. However, in years of hardship, Sahraoui families are forced to look for a place where there is enough water and grass for them and their animals. Then, they pitch tents together near the oases, a phenomenon called « al gaitna » which essentially occurs so as to benefit from the abundance of dates.
When there are collective camps near date producing oases during Ramadan, the Sahraouis dry out cattle milk, preferably from ewes, which has higher protein content than other types of milk.
In some Sahraoui families, dried milk or « Al gars » is mixed with dates and served as breakfast to guests.
The art of cooking
In the provinces of the south, tea is prepared at specific times and goes hand in hand with special rites. It is well neigh impossible for a get-together or evening to occur without the serving of tea. The Sahraouis have maintained the old traditions and rituals in connection with the preparation of tea. It is preferable to take tea together, to make the duration of preparation long, and to prepare it on charcoal.
Seeing that tea is the main beverage served to guests, the Sahraoui male makes sure there is always enough of this item available which comes from far away places. In the old days, one paid lots of money for tea, to such an extent that it is said that one kilo of tea was exchanged for a camel and even sheep.
The person appointed among the members of the group, to prepare tea is called « al-qiam » and must meet certain conditions to be entrusted with this honor, in other words, eloquence, perfect recitation of poetry, good conduct and beauty. In addition, he must come from an honorable family.
The Sahraoui people take enormous pleasure in observing the « al-qiam » prepare tea and do not fail to comment on any faults he may commit during this process. As tea helps digestion, the Sahraouis attach importance to drinking it a lot, especially after heavy meals.
In Sahraoui culture, serving tea is considered not only a local tradition, but is also a sign of generosity, friendliness and hospitality. Often Sahraouis serve more tea than food. As a sign of appreciation, the members of a group throw out the « al-qiam » glasses after emptying them.
For les Sahraouis, tea, especially tea served in the afternoon or « Dahmis », alleviates headaches. Consequently, it is almost impossible for the Sahraoui to spend a day without having a glass in the afternoon. Including after a tea drinking session, the group is always ready to share more glasses with latecomers.
« Aralou » soup
The inhabitants of the village of Tirs drink a lot of milk and "leben" for the meal that breaks the fast (ftour) in Ramadan. The soup prepared in this village is unlike others because it is not prepared in the same way. Aralou soup is consumed cold for the Ftour with dates and milk. It is made with wheat, cleaned, heated and crushed and mixed with water. The village dwellers of Tirs neglect Aralou soup when there is an abundance of milk and "leben".
Tidekt (technique for preserving food)
In the southern provinces there are many customs and traditions still practiced, in particular those abandoned for a long time by new generations.
Among the traditions deep seated in Sahraoui culture is extensive consumption of dates, "leben" and meat. Even though "leben" is considered by some as being an indispensable food product in the life of the Sahraouis, on the other hand, many experts feel that meat is just as important given that it is eaten daily and is prepared months prior to consumption.
Also to be noted among the practices is the preparation and long-term preservation of meat called « Tidekt », or « Tichtar » prepared after slaughtering a camel, and the equitable distribution of the meat to families occupying the tents making up the « Al Frig ».
After receiving their share of meat, the families cut it up in long strips and extract the grease that is melted in order to obtain a white, clear and consistent liquid called Wdek . The meat is directly dried in the sun and placed in special bags, a practice commonly called « Tichtar ». « Tidekt », on the other hand, is obtained by cooking the dried meat with a bit of water. It is then molded into a paste and mixed with the sauce in which is cooked.
Daraa: this a wide, white or blue garment with two large openings to the sides, sewn underneath, with a pocket on the chest. It is worn with a black face cover. The Darra can be called by several different names according to the quality of the fabric with which it is made.
Malhfa: this is a female garment about 4 meters long and width not exceeding one meter and sixty centimeters.
The Malhfas are not always similar because there are some that are worn only for special occasions, those worn at home, those worn by young girls and those worn by elderly women.
Formerly, Sahraoui girl wore a garment similar to the Darraa consisting of two parts of different blue and black color. As soon as they come of age, girls wore the mlahfa until they married.
Generally, there is no big difference in the manner of wearing the mlahfa, there only being the type of fabric used for making it. Indeed, new types of fabric are invading the markets of the Sahara. New items are introduced according to the progress in civilization experienced by the Sahraoui woman. The mlahfa is the garb most worn and is more diversified than the darraa, while production is constantly progressing.
3- Hair braiding
Hair braiding constitute a tradition of the Sahraoui woman going way back in time and eventually becoming an important feature of her overall look. She has managed to develop braids in several different patterns designed to match the occasions in which she partakes.
The braids worn on ordinary days are different from those worn for weddings, ceremonies and celebrations. Elderly women wear so-called « Ghafa », « Malfoufa », and « Mchenfa » braid while the « Sala mana », « Baz » and T’azil » braid are more frequently found among young girls.