Ain Salah, Algeria, Jan 1 – Gathered in a tent in the Algerian desert, 30 young women are preparing for a big day many thought they could never afford — a wedding.
Draped in beaded fabrics, the women lift their veils so make-up can be applied to their faces and hold out their hands for henna tatoos, the smell of incense wafting through the tent.
The next day, their 30 grooms gather separately, dressed in traditional robes, their heads wrapped in turbans.
Ornamental swords rest on their laps as they sit cross-legged on carpets outside, listening quietly to chants and drumming as they are shaved and kohl is applied around their eyes.
In the evening, the girls will be brought to the grooms’ family homes, lifting their veils to reveal their faces to their new husbands.
“For us, tradition is paramount, a woman is not properly married if she doesn’t follow our traditions,” says Hadja Hnizga, a volunteer helping to prepare the ceremonies.
The 30 couples, all from poor families, are taking part in a mass wedding organised by charitable association “SOS 3e-age El-Ihsane”.
Without the group’s help, few would have been able to afford an individual ceremony, which can cost at least 1.2 million dinars ($10,000/8,000 euros) — the equivalent of nearly two years’ worth of earnings at Algeria’s minimum wage.
– Costly ceremonies –
The high cost of nuptials in Algeria appears to be deterring some from tying the knot — there were about 370,000 weddings in 2015, a drop from around 386,000 the year before, despite a rising population.
“In these back country areas, people are poor and need help,” says Souad Chikhi, the president of the association that organised the mass wedding in Ain Salah.
An oasis town in the heart of the Sahara in central Algeria, Ain Salah sits near major natural gas production sites, but not everyone here has benefitted.
The 30 grooms in the recent ceremony work in low-wage jobs, some as drivers, others as security guards or agricultural labourers.
The brides are mainly unemployed and after their marriages most of the couples will live with families as they cannot afford their own homes.
Many were thankful that — despite the other difficulties in their lives — they were able to have a proper wedding.
“The initiative to finance and help young people is good,” said Mohammed, one of the grooms.
“When I heard about this association, like other young people I wanted to take part in this marriage. This association helps those who are in need a lot.”
As well as the ceremony itself, the association organised gift baskets to be given to the couples that include appliances, dishes and clothes.
“Thank God, we were able to gather their gifts,” Chikhi said. “We were able to pay the dowry for the boy and the girl and I hope that will bring them happiness.”