RIBNOVO, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Fikrie Sabrieva, 17, will marry with her eyes closed and her face painted white, dotted with bright sequins. She lives 'at the end of the world', tending a hardy Muslim culture in largely Christian Bulgaria.
The remote village of Ribnovo, set on a snowy mountainside in southwest Bulgaria, has kept its traditional winter marriage ceremony alive despite decades of Communist persecution, followed by poverty that forced many men to seek work abroad.
"Other nearby villages tried the traditional marriage after the ban was lifted, but then the custom somehow died away -- women wanted to be modern," said Ali Mustafa Bushnak, 61, whose daughter came to watch Fikrie's wedding.
"Maybe we are at the end of the world. Or people in Ribnovo are very religious and proud of their traditions."
Some experts say clinging to the traditional wedding ceremony is Ribnovo's answer to the persecutions of the past.
Bulgaria is the only European Union nation where Muslims' share is as high as 12 percent. The communist regime, which did not tolerate any religious rituals, tried to forcibly integrate Muslims into Bulgaria's largely Christian Orthodox population, pressing them to abandon wearing their traditional outfits and adopt Slavonic names.
The wedding ritual was resurrected with vigor among the Pomaks -- Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule and now make up 2.5 percent of Bulgaria's 7.8 million population -- after communism collapsed in 1989.
But today it is still performed only in the closed society of Ribnovo and one other village in the Balkan country. Young men return from abroad to the crisp mountain snows, just for the winter weddings.
People in Ribnovo identify themselves more by their religion, as Muslims, than by their ethnicity or nationality, and the wedding ceremony is an expression of their piety. The village has 10 clerics and two mosques for 3,500 inhabitants.
Fikrie's family have been laboriously piling up her dowry since she was born -- mostly handmade knit-work, quilts, coverlets, sheets, aprons, socks, carpets and rugs.
On a sunny Saturday winter morning they hang the items on a wooden scaffolding, 50 meters long and three meters high, erected specially for the occasion on the steep, muddy road of scruffy two-storey houses that leads to her home.
Nearly everyone in the village comes to inspect the offerings: Fikrie's tiny homeyard has been turned into a showroom for the furniture and household appliances the bride has to provide for her new household.
The girl and her husband-to-be, Moussa, 20, then lead a traditional horo dance on the central square, joined by most of the village's youth.
But the highlight of the ceremony, the painting of the bride's face, comes at the end of the second day.
In a private rite open only to female in-laws, Fikrie's face is covered in thick, chalky white paint and decorated with colorful sequins. A long red veil covers her hair, her head is framed with tinsel, her painted face veiled with and silvery filaments.
Clad in baggy pants and bodice shimmering in all the colors of the rainbow, the bride is presented by her future husband, her mother and her grandmother to the waiting crowd.
Fikrie is not permitted to open her eyes wide until a Muslim priest blesses the young couple. Alcohol is forbidden at the wedding receptions and sex before marriage is taboo.
Ethnographers say it is hard to date the bridal painting ritual, as the communist regime did not encourage studies into minority ethnic and religious groups.
"It is very likely that it is an invented tradition. It's their way to express who they are," said Margarita Karamihova, an associate professor at the Ethnography Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Science.
Experts say Pomaks had identity problems and faced more challenges than the majority of Muslims in Bulgaria, who are ethnic Turks.
"In the 1960s they would ban Islamic music at weddings, then they would not allow traditional clothes, and in the 1980s, the whole traditional Pomak wedding was banned," said municipality mayor, Ahmed Bashev, born in Ribnovo.
Ribnovo's inhabitants used to make a living from tobacco and agriculture, but low incomes in the poorest EU country forced men to start seeking jobs in cities in Bulgaria or in western Europe -- not least to raise money for a wedding.
Outside influences have been slow to reach Ribnovo and young people rarely marry an outsider. Another Fikrie, 19-year-old Fikrie Inuzova, suggested the women, for whom the acceptable bridal age is up to 22, are not in a rush to modernize.
"My brother wants to travel, see the world... It's different for men. They can do whatever. I want to stay here and marry."
Editing by Ralph Boulton and Sara Ledwith