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Meet Morocco’s Gunpowder Girls

The skill of the talqa (cavalry charge) is in the speed and tightness of the charge and the synchronicity of the troupes firing, which should sound like a single gunshot
The skill of the talqa (cavalry charge) is in the speed and tightness of the charge and the synchronicity of the troupes firing, which should sound like a single gunshot | © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip
The t’bourida – gunpowder festival – is one of the oldest folklore traditions in Morocco. Thousands of men ride in this roving rodeo – and now a handful of Moroccan women have saddled up to take them on.
Two riders in the hot pink colours of the Al Farisat Hawziya troupe approach the starting line for the talqa (charge) © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

“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.”

During local festivals, male and female troupes, each with distinctive liveries and colours, compete side by side for the prize money © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip
Girls will be girls: even when competing in the male-dominated world of the t’bourida, female riders celebrate their femininity © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

A carnival and rodeo rolled into one

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.

Spectators seek shade from the summer sun in colourful caidal tents served by a traditional guerrab (water carrier) © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

“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.

Between cavalry charges, riders enjoy performances by other entertainers such as the chikates, professional dancers who are accompanied by a violin orchestra © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

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.

Chief of the Farisat el Hawziya riding troupe, Bouchra Nabata, in full riding regalia on her prize Arab-Barb horse © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip
The ceremonial rifles used during the t’bourida are family heirlooms decorated with highly ornate silver bands. They are loaded with gunpowder only (no bullets) © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

Looking the part: horse and (wo)man

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).

Members of the Farisat el Hawziya sorba (troupe) posing with their guns. Bouchra, their chief, wears a distinct red outfit to distinguish her from the rest of the riders © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

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.

Bouchra and her mother dress the horse in its complex riding regalia, which includes an embroidered saddle and numna (underblanket), a breast plate, decorative bridle and fringed browband © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

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.”

Members of Farisat el Hawziya kohl their eyes prior to a race. It’s part of the show that both rider and horse look their best © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip
Most of female competitors in the t’bourida are teenage girls still in high school. After marriage it becomes harder to continue competing © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

Breaking down barriers

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.”

Bouchra keeps a picture of the king’s father, Hassan II, in her room. Both he and his sister, Amina, were champions of the t’bourida © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

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.

Between cavalry charges, Farisat el Hawziya riders visit spectators in surrounding tents to chat with fans from neighbouring villages © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip

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.

Shaimaie, 19, one of the youngest members of the Farisat el Hawziya troupe © Zara Samiry / Culture Trip