20 May 2014

Festival de la Province d'Al Haouz

One of the spectacles I have always wanted to see in Morocco ever since moving here is that of a traditional authentic Fantasia. Sadly, however, these are few and far between and generally only advertised by word of mouth within the local community where they are to be held. So imagine then my delight to hear from our 'guardien', Said, or 'guardian angel' as we often refer to him, that there is to be a festival in our town for a whole week with a Fantasia each evening!

You may well ask 'What is a Fantasia?' Well, I'm not referring to the Walt Disney film of the same name, but rather to a special equestrian event that takes place during the summer months in Morocco. Each region in Morocco has at least one group of horsemen who perform together in a team to showcase their skills in synchronizing the movement of their horses at speed over a 100-200 metre course and then firing simultaneously into the sky using traditional gunpowder muskets so that only one shot is heard. The name 'Fantasia' is imported, the traditional term used is lab el baroud meaning 'the gunpowder play' and has its roots in the historical wartime attacks of Berber and Arabian desert riders. Nowadays a Fantasia is considered a cultural event. In the Tahanaout festival, many such teams have gathered from surrounding areas to display their skills for the enjoyment of all - and also of course there is naturally an element of competition between the horsemen from the various regions.

We leave our house on Friday evening for a walk into town accompanied by Said and join the throngs of people also heading in the direction of the large marquees erected at the end of the town for the event. It's a beautiful evening, the sun illuminating the local hills dotted with olive trees. The main street is lined with sellers of everything you can possibly imagine - plastic toys and balloons for the children, clothing for the adults, tacky jewellery, beautifully ornate tables and lamps, popcorn and candy floss sellers with old-fashioned carts, nougat sellers with their little hammers and even replica guns for those inspired to become future horsemen. Everything is here! Moroccans are very good at taking every possible opportunity to sell you something! There is a wonderful atmosphere created by the hoards of people who chatter excitedly as they peruse the items for purchase, only enhanced by the sound of booming gunshots heralding the arrival of a team of riders at their destination. The excitement is catching.

Children's balloons tied to a buggy and ready for sale

As we arrive at the cordoned-off field guarded closely by policemen and army officials, there seems to be no way we will get to see anything of the spectacle: crowds of people press in closely to the barriers, babies wrapped in shawls tied to their mothers' backs, young children seated on men's shoulders for a better view, teenagers holding up camera phones and iPads to take distant shots of the scene. We feel a little despondent - but we have not taken into account the presence of our guardian angel, Said. He chats to a soldier at the gate and before we realise what is happening we are being ushered through the barriers and toward the front seats of one of the open Marquees surrounding the event field. Not just any front seats either - these ones are a few metres away from the small bales of hay marking the stopping point of the horses which will soon be charging towards us at full speed mounted by gun-firing horsemen! Soon we are surrounded by the families and friends of the riders as well as a few French tourists who have been brought here by a guide and who seem equally surprised to find themselves sitting in such a well-located spot. I look around to see hundreds of people filling the tents erected along the length of the field and throngs of people pressing in against the barriers opposite. But we have the best position - the governor and officials are seated in the neighbouring tent to ours. The musicians begin to play and the organiser of the event welcomes us to this most prestigious event which apparently has only ever been held in Tahanaout once before. We feel very privileged to be here and to be treated like royalty.

Locals gather in one of the tents

The musicians begin to play

Everyone suddenly goes quiet - only the drumming and singing continue. All eyes are fixed on the horses and horsemen at the far end of the field. The men wear traditional costumes, each team varying in colour and design, their horses sporting matching equally-colourful livery. From a distance we can see the efforts of the horsemen to get their respective horses to fall into line - some are more amenable to the task, others remain in defiance, still others chomp at the bit to get going.

Getting into line

Suddenly it all comes together. The first team are ready to go. The horsemen hold aloft their guns, canter slowly forwards, then all at once start charging, still aiming to stay in a straightish line - and they are heading straight at us! The bale of hay seems a paltry obstacle to me in stopping 12 charging horses, and I must admit to feeling slightly afraid of its powers - or lack of them. I'm not the only one though. The French lady next to me leaves her seat several times during the evening with loud cries of 'Oh là là', much to the amusement of the locals gathered in our tent behind us. But then, they are not on the front row!

A team line up holding guns aloft and ready to charge

As the horses charge forwards, the horsemen deftly twirl their muskets in unison and fire a shot upwards into the sky, aiming at producing one single gunshot sound. The horses come to an abrupt stop just in front of us amidst the haze of gunpowder created. We breathe a sigh of relief...until the next team take their turn.

Twirling of the guns

The adrenalin is flowing as we all applaud the men who line up to present their team with pride to the crowd, then canter off to the side of the field to allow the next team to begin their performance. We are mesmerised - for 4 whole hours we watch the action whilst men selling cakes and water wander through the tents selling their wares to hungry and thirsty spectators. A man sitting beside us who rode his horse the previous night passes us some water he has just bought - not for the first time do we think how kind and friendly the people of Tahanaout are to us. As one team, all dressed smartly in turquoise, manage to fire their guns in unison, an old man nearby cannot contain his excitement and jumps up and down throwing his hat in the air whilst blowing kisses to the horsemen. He then animates the crowds to clap wildly. Said tells us that this man used to ride himself when he was younger and loved to take part in the Fantasia, but now all he can do is watch and support from the sidelines as the younger men take over.

Shots are fired

Riding in unison

Stopping abruptly

Fire and smoke

As we continue to watch the various teams performing, I see something pink floating in the air in the distance. No, surely not...but yes, a young lady is riding one of the charging horses! She is wearing a pink headscarf and turquoise djellabah with matching trousers as she rides with her all-male team, her horsemanship just as good as theirs! I am amazed in this patriarchal society that a woman is allowed and even encouraged to take part in such a male-dominated sport! Not only is there a woman performing but as we look closer we can see there are also young boys and elderly men taking part. The young boys, however, I am pleased to report, do not carry guns.

A lady rides

Individual rider and his horse

After the charge a team presents itself to the crowds

The time passes very quickly as we watch team after team perform and all too soon the event is over for another night...but tomorrow is another day and the horsemen and their horses must get some rest and be ready to do it all over again tomorrow. We walk back home, happy in the knowledge that we finally got to see a truly authentic Fantasia - and happening in our own town too!