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“I didn’t even know that women could ride in the t’bourida (also known as fantasia, a French term),” says Moroccan photographer Zara Samiry in a voice that conveys her astonishment. “Then one day I saw a report on TV about some women riding in the festival – alongside the men, with their own guns. I was amazed, so I decided to try to find them.”
Almost all Arab countries have important equestrian traditions, but the t’bourida is particular to North Africa. It is thought to have originated in the eighth century, during the Moorish conquest of Andalucia, when the standing charge of the North African cavalry gave them a speed advantage over their sitting Spanish counterparts.
Nowadays, it survives as a commemorative tradition, taking place on religious and harvest feast days between June and September. Colourful caidal tents sprout up on wide open plains around Morocco, and hundreds of horsemen and holidaymakers descend for the festivities. At the week-long Moussem Moulay Abdellah Amghar in El-Jadida, 500,000 people arrive daily for the show.
Other impressive t’bouridas take place at the Tan-Tan Moussem, which is celebrated by over 30 Sahrawi tribes, and the UNESCO-listed Cherry Festival in Sefrou, both of which are held in June.
“Think of it as a mixture of a rodeo and a carnival,” says Zara. “It’s a tradition that is still very much alive in Morocco, and everyone goes.” At these festivals there is food, acrobatics, female dancing groups, music and lots of socialising. But the big pay-off is the t’bourida, an electrifying series of cavalry charges (known as talqa) performed by troupes of 11-15 riders, which finish with the flourish of a musket and a loud crack of synchronous gunfire.
Bouchra Nabata is the muqadema (chief) of a troupe of nearly 20 riders called Farisat el Hawzia. As the most skilled horsewoman, Bouchra leads the charge, signalling when the riders should rise in their saddles, lift their rifles and place them on their breastbones to fire that single shot. The skill and artistry lies in the fastest, most controlled charge and the synchronicity of the gunfire, which should sound like a single shot. Inexperienced members ride at the edge, in case they lose control and break the line or misfire.
“Because Bouchra grew up on a farm, she had access to horses,” Zara explains. “Her grandfather was a t’bourida rider and saw how much she loved the horses, so he taught her how to ride and shoot the moukkala (rifle).” The latter is a serious bit of kit, weighing 5.5kg (12lb) with a 1.2m (4ft) barrel encased in elaborately engraved silver. Occasionally old rifles blow apart when they are fired, so riders brace their wrists or wrap their hands in cloth.
Without access to these ceremonial guns, training or horses, the t’bourida is beyond the means of most people, never mind for young women without any income. “Most of the girls are still in high school, and only some of them own horses,” says Zara. The horses in question are native Barbs (or crossbred Arab-Barbs), an ancient breed renowned for their intelligence, speed and agility. A racing stallion can cost between €5,000-10,000 (£4,582-9,164).
The riders love the horses and take great care of them. They groom their manes and tails, which are grown long for the race; and they dress them carefully in an elaborate livery, which includes a high-sided saddle and padded underblanket embroidered with silver thread, along with a bridle replete with a decorative breast collar, blinders and a fringed browband.
The team’s outfits are in matching colours, too. “Unlike the men, who wear white linen robes, women are permitted to wear bright colours,” Zara says. Bouchra’s troupe wears hot pink djellabas (loose-fitting long robes) over loose white pants and collared shirts, and their boots are embroidered down each side with images of stars or khanjars (traditional daggers) rendered in gold and coloured thread.
“The women are very feminine and take pride in their appearance,” Zara says. “When I stayed with them, I was able to photograph them putting on their make-up and dressing in their ceremonial clothes.” The t’bourida is a celebration of Amazigh (indigenous North Africans) and Arab culture, so a fine display matters. “They don’t brag, but they are very proud of what they do.”
While there are tales of women participating with their fathers and brothers in t’bourida during the French Protectorate (1912-1956), until recently the tradition was an all-male domain focused on celebrating male fraternity, performance and identity. “Many girls have the support of their families, but some face real resistance,” says Zara. “It is a dangerous practice and families want to protect their daughters.”
On top of this, there is societal pressure. Many see the activity as unfeminine, and there are folkloric tales that say non-virgins sap the strength of the stallions. Pioneering Princess Lalla Amina, King Mohammed VI’s aunt, overcame much prejudice with her passion for equestrian sports. She owned a breeding stable, coached the national dressage team and was president of the Moroccan Federation of Equestrian Sports until her death in 2012.
She also created a class for women to compete in the Hassan II Trophy in Rabat – the event every t’bourida rider dreams of competing in. “The funny thing is, at local festivals, the girls ride at the same time as the men,” says Zara. “And, if they win, they win the main prize or money.” In between charges, the women trot past the colourful tents to watch the entertainment and chat with fans who sit shaded from the sun. “Some people are amazed to see women riders, but it’s slowly becoming more normal,” she says.
On completing the project, Zara exhibited the images in Casablanca and around the world in Dubai, Nepal and New York. “I received lots of positive comments, but I was really just happy to have witnessed these women riding their horses, having fun and challenging tradition,” she says. Her favourite photograph is of a young rider called Shaimaie. Her gaze is strong and candid – one that makes you check any preconceptions at the door.