The gunshot snaps all attention to its sound. Two-dozen Berber horsemen charge across the red earth, their rifles raised in unison at the midday sun. Behind me a toothless women flicks her tongue in loud ululation as the riders circle back towards us, gun-smoke leaking from their barrels and shrouding us in a mist of blood-coloured dust.
I am less then two hours from the bustling modernity of Marakesh, but here in the remote foothills of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains I am in Berber country and immersed in another world entirely.
By pure chance I have stumbled upon a remote celebration of the Festival Fantasia: a traditional Moroccan spectacle of horsemanship. Teams of riders representing different local villages take it in turn to sprint the length of a 500ft flat plain while holding, and firing, a traditional gunpowder jezail musket above their heads. At the end of the festival points are awarded for synchronicity and presentation with the winning village granted annual bragging rights and a cash prize. It’s a serious business: in a region where water is scarce, the horses are showered twice a day.
But this is no organised, santised show for tourists. There are no fences, no boundaries, no separation between us and them. From where we are standing on an old stone wall the horses charge near enough to touch, near enough to see the ripple of tensed muscle etched above their galloping hooves, near enough to feel the riders sweat ripped from their brows, the heat of the musket fire. I watch as line after line of riders charge. There is pride in their eyes and the stiffness of their backs. “These horses aren’t worked, they are saved just for this day,” my guide Houcine Hilali explains, whose own village is represented here. “If you’re chosen all the year you are allowed to ride with them.”
Gradually our curiosity takes us deeper into mass of bodies and tents writhing behind the main field. A solitary old man etched in deep weathered lines spoons a bag of black gunpowder into a waiting line of muskets. The next row of Berber horsemen move forward as one, and then stand their horses still waiting for the order: muscled legs kicking the dirt, nostrils faring, teeth biting the bit in anticipation.
The Berbers are one of the most gentle and welcoming people I have ever met. But the warrior runs in the blood. Their name derives from the Latin ‘Barbari’, or barbarians, a title given to them almost 2,000 years ago by invading Roman armies who were repeatedly attacked by a race of fiercely independent tribes. Their symbol is a man holding his arms to the sky – a free man. A man who will not be conquered. As the riders charge, time slows down. They arch their bodies, gathering speed, raising their rifles to the sky. The gunshot cracks again, a black hole of magnetic sound that rips all senses towards it. A pure defiance that dares all who will see it extinguished to stand in its path.
Festival Fantasia’s occur throughout Morocco in varying degrees of size and authenticity. To watch a remote rural celebration such as this requires planning, and a bit of luck. We found this Fantasia near the village of Ait Takla, about 20miles northeast of Demnate (which itself is about 60miles west of Marakesh). Houcine, my guide, told me groups of rural villages such as this will hold their own Fantasia each year – usually around September, but it can vary.
I travelled with Inn Travel on this trip, and had an excellent time. The people there are really nice and if you say you want to see a Festival Fantasia I’m sure they’ll help coordinate your itinerary to find one. Houcine Hilali is a fantastic guide and can be requested, though he’s pretty busy and can’t be guaranteed.
If you’re looking to book independently I recommend the Kasbah Timdaf as base for the area – it’s super chilled and owners Yannick and Jacqui Bourgeois are excellent hosts, and even better cooks … you will eat like kings and queens!