RIBNOVO, BULGARIA - The communists tried hard to stamp out the culture of Bulgaria’s rural Pomak minority, and since then tough times in the European Union’s poorest country have made many leave, but one village is keeping traditions alive.

Nestled in the southern snow-capped Rhodope Mountains, each winter Ribnovo rolls back the centuries for workers returning from construction and farming jobs in Germany, Britain or Israel to tie the knot in extraordinary Muslim weddings. For happy couple Letve Osmanova and Refat Avdikov, both 21, their two-day nuptials start with a display of the bride’s dowry - everything from socks and a washing machine to the marriage bed - on the street for all to admire.

The main part comes on day two when away from prying male eyes, two aunts ritually slap a thick layer of white face paint onto Letve’s face, then stick on hundreds of colourful sequins to form flowers. A red veil and streaks of shiny tinsel garlands frame the bride’s painted face, rendering her unrecognisable and more like a doll than a woman. She is then led through the village home in a merry procession accompanied by traditional music and presented to her husband-to-be, her brightly coloured attire contrasting with his more “European” get-up of white suit and black shirt. Alcohol, however, is forbidden. And in this closed Pomak society - whose Christian ancestors were converted to Islam during Bulgaria’s Ottoman rule from the 14th to 19th centuries - the young couple was also not allowed any public show of tenderness before the wedding. Not only that, the bride also keeps her eyes closed throughout the proceedings. She is allowed only to peek at a small hand mirror until an imam marries the couple. Then Refat takes her home and washes her face with milk, the groom’s uncle Mustafa Avdikov explained. “I am proud of our tradition that is so rare,” a smiling Letve said ahead of the ceremony, a winter feast for the proud village of some 3,500 inhabitants.

Bulgaria’s communists, ruling from after World War II until 1989, were hostile to any religion including the mainstream Orthodox Church. But Todor Zhivkov’s regime was particularly intolerant of Muslims and especially the Pomaks, forcing them to abandon wedding and circumcision rites and their colourful outfits. They were even forced to adopt Slavonic names. The word “Pomak” means “people who have suffered”. There are some 200,000 Pomaks today, part of a sizeable Muslim minority of nearly one million out of Bulgaria’s population of 7.4 million.  Others live in Turkey, Greece, Albania and elsewhere. One woman in Ribnovo, 86-year-old Sevie Beeva, who was forced to change her name to Sofka, says she still has painful memories.

“I stopped going to work in order not to hear that name,” she recalls. Another, 82-year-old Fatme Kuchukova, told AFP she remembers how locals threw stones at the police when they came to rename them in 1964. “We do not tell the young of these humiliations,” she said. But these weddings “show us as we are: generous and attached to our family values.” Bulgaria, now a democracy, has been a member of the European Union since 2007, but this has brought its own challenges to Pomak identity, with many lured to the big cities and other countries in search of work. Newlyweds Letve and Refat are the lucky ones, having found a way to remain in their traditional homeland. “We will stay in Ribnovo: She is a seamstress and I am a forester,” Refat said. “Life is so nice here on the mountainside.”