Upon my momentous return to Morocco, I have decided to blog in the semi-academic sense. When you are a graduate student, if you haven’t written papers, blogs, or anything in a long time, getting back to writing can be scary. To counter the “ONLY fieldnotes”-genre of writing, I’ve decided to share stories from the field and my tips and tricks, ups and downs, of conducting fieldwork abroad. I actually love writing, so this is a motivating way to supplement my fieldnotes, think about my fieldwork/research process, and help others learn from my mistakes and triumphs (hopefully more of the latter instead of the former).
I want this also to be a forum where I read about writing and fieldnotes, review books on writing and the research process. If you have any suggestions, comments, and questions, I would love to hear them. This is meant to be part fieldnotes, part ethnography, part research process, and part FUN!
This is the homepage for Gwyneth Talley, Fulbright Alumni, National Geographic Young Explorer graduate student in anthropology, horse-crazy researcher, animal enthusiast, photographer, and all around jane-of-all trades. Look around to see photos, learn more about my research and get some insights into my fieldwork. Thanks for stopping by!
My Fulbright journey began with one distinct moment: My first Arabic class in 2009 where Tunisian Fulbrighter Beligh Ben Taleb, a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA),taught me my Alif–Baa–Taas (or my Arabic ABCs) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. It was Beligh’s first trip to the United States, first Ramadan in a non-Muslim country, and first American teaching experience. He would set a high bar for all the other Fulbright FLTAs to follow at the University.
I remember the class vividly, full of heritage speakers, curious students who wanted to work in government, and a few looking for a challenging language. Beligh took teaching Arabic in stride and encouraged us to participate in cultural activities by cooking traditional Arab meals, helping us translate songs, and dressing us up in Tunisian clothes. Aside from learning how to introduce ourselves, the most memorable phrase I remember Beligh teaching me was: “I ride horses.”
In the summer of 2010, I took my first trip to Morocco to study Arabic and French. I stayed with a horse training family, which would lead me to my graduate research in anthropology. While learning Modern Standard Arabic, my host family immersed me in Moroccan dialect and culture–specifically their horse culture. I also met the incoming Fulbright FLTA assigned to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Othmane Zakaria. He was born and raised in the city of Meknes where I was staying for the summer. We shared tidbits about our cultures, and I warned him to buy his winter coat in the States because Nebraska winters were not like winters in Morocco.
I returned to Morocco again in 2012 to continue my Arabic study, and the cycle continued. This time, Beligh was visiting Morocco and we met with Othmane and Hassan, another Moroccan Fulbright FLTA who taught Arabic at Missouri State University. Everyone talked about their futures: Beligh was continuing his graduate studies in Nebraska, Othmane and Hassan were both going to become English teachers. I felt like an i
mposter with my brief two to three month stints in Morocco. I dreamt of applying for my own Fulbright to go to Morocco for a year and conduct research.
Fast forward three years and three application attempts; in April 2015, I was notified that I had received a Fulbright award to conduct my graduate research in anthropology on women in Morocco’s traditional equestrian display. My experience learning Arabic and spending time in Morocco was coming full circle. My Moroccan Arabic phrases went from saying, “I ride horses,” to asking; “Do you ride horses?” “When is the next festival?” “How did you learn to ride?” I then used my Arabic while volunteering at the American Fondouk in Fes, an equine charity hospital, learning phrases like “Does your donkey have a cough?” “How long has your horse been limping?” I fumbled with some phrases and accents and pushed myself to exhaustion trying to understand the nuances of my research in Arabic, but that is what a Fulbright experience is: a challenge, a reward, and the people that lead you to and through these events.
Today, I am A.B.D. (that’s academic lingo for “all but dissertation”) in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California–Los Angeles. My Fulbright award jumpstarted my dissertation fieldwork, and this fall I am returning to Morocco to finish my fieldwork and write my dissertation. In between teaching at the university and studying, I love spend
ing my time as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador spreading the “Fulbright gospel” to my students or anyone who will listen. My Fulbright experience also gave me an incredible network of friends internationally and throughout the United States. In fact, during my Alumni Ambassador training in Washington, DC, I had a mini-reunion with four people I lived and worked with in Morocco. At our training, I connected with dozens of incredible and inspiring Fulbrighters who are also Alumni Ambassadors. My network and friendships keep growing thanks to Fulbright. I left that training with future trips planned to Azerbaijan, South Africa, and Russia with my fellow Fulbrighters serving as my tour guides. Fulbright became the great uniter across the world for me, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
In a place that can only be called the remote plains of northern Morocco, a festival of a unique game on horseback takes place every year.
Arab tribes from the north gather to play a game similar to “capture the flag,” but on horseback with the goal being to capture a puppet. They call this game mata. This gentler version of the Afghani buzkashsi draws locals and foreigners alike to see some of the most daring bareback riding in North Africa.
Morocco’s large Barb horses are normally associated with the tbourida or fantasia, a cavalry display reminiscent of the region’s famous tactic of charging toward the enemy and firing gunpowder rifles in sync. These festivals happen often and are composed of large groups from the north all the way to the southernmost provinces where the horses are replaced by camels.
But mata is a singular event: tents arise in the middle of nowhere for five days and then disappear just as quietly as they were pitched. The herds of various tribes return to the villages and all that is left is the shredded turf and fresh divots from galloping hooves competing for a little white doll that symbolizes the coming of spring and fertility.
When asking Moroccans about the game, most of the time blank stares are the only answer you get from city folks. If you journey around the rural country around Tangier, people have glimmers of recognition but very little knowledge of when or where or even why the game occurs.
This past May however, I was able to witness the mysterious mata firsthand.
Riders and family from the Beni Arous, Beni Gofet, and Souk Tolba tribes gather their horses and travel to the small town of Zniyed in the foothills of the Rif Mountains.
Similar to the riding style of the Native Americans of the Great Plains, riders ride bareback on thin, young sorrel mares. When walking out to the herd before the games, I offered the young men an impromptu photo-shoot to show me the abilities of the mares. They gladly obliged, scrambling on the horses, standing on their backs, holding onto their manes, having two or three riders walk over the herd without the horse haltered or trying to bolt free from the harassment of their grazing.
During the introduction of the game, all the tribes gather, galloping their horses across the large plain showing their skills and prowess as they race each other bareback, chanting their anthems, some standing shoeless on their galloping mounts.
One group stands out, more resplendent than the others not just because they carry the mata doll, but because they have the only female rider. In her late forties, she wears a black hijab, her hands dyed with orange-colored henna, carrying the doll proudly for her tribe almost like an American barrel racing queen carrying the flag at the opening of a local rodeo. She waves to the crowds gathered clambering between her fellow riders and their mounts.
The young men from the tribes are energetic and trim. For them, keeping their balance on their mares is as simple as sitting in Laz-E-Boy rockers—they are at ease in every way, making it look effortless.
The goal of the game is to snatch the mata puppet from your opponent and keep it until the end of the game. Think of the game as a combination of polo, wrestling, and buzkashi. Fortune favors the bolder, trim riders who race across the plains on horses that seem to never tire. If they stay on their horses and skillfully keep the doll safe, they are declared the victors.
The horses from various tribes carry no saddles, but they have red and yellow silk scarves wrapped around their necks. Most of the horses have halters and mellow snaffle bits, but everything is at a minimum. Part of the requirement for the riders is wearing the traditional costume of turbans, traditional djellaba (think of it as an old-timey male nightgown), and saffron yellow slippers made of leather.
Many of the riders lose shoes, and turbans come untied during the ride, but those incidents are minor compared to the spectacular falls off the horses that hospitalize some riders.
Until recently the game was floating adrift in Moroccan culture, occasionally being organized but nothing too official; now there is an organization that sponsors and puts together a program of activities designed to bring more people to the heart of the countryside.
With the game in its sixth year, crowds and news reporters gather to watch the spectacle in the mountains. In the evenings a stage is set for local rap stars and traditional musical groups to perform over the course of the week. With tents available to local cooperatives selling grain, leather goods, argan, and olive oil, the Association Alamia Laaroussia for Social and Cultural Action responsible for the mata festival is aiming for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status.
The festival is meant to celebrate nature, springtime, and spirituality. With male and female riders, this long-lived game is becoming an example of tradition meets modernity. So as this crazy bareback riding tradition grows in popularity and familiarity, it might just be time to get on the horse yourself, and ride for your pride and puppet.
If you can feel the sun, smell the gunpowder, and feel the rush of the horses’ charge, I have done my job as a photographer. My mission with “Gunpowder Girls” was to capture the effort and time that the women put into participating in the gunpowder games (also known as the tbourida or the fantasia). I wanted to capture them through candid moments with little or no posing in the hopes that the viewer feels like they were in the middle of the moments.
The Gunpowder Games or also known as “tbourida” or “fantasia” is a performance and competition with roots deep in a centuries-old traditional cavalry maneuver historically unique to the Maghreb. The games consist of multiple groups of six or more horse riders, in traditional loose white pants, white shirts, and capes, armed with gunpowder rifles, standing in their stirrups and charging their horses across a field before firing their rifles in the air. The beauty and difficulty of the games is the synchronization–the charge of all the horses together and the simultaneous firing of the rifles. After the discharge of the gunpowder, the riders rein in their horses together, and dramatically stop at the finish line- inches away from the spectators in front of them.
For my debut exhibition, presenting my photos with people I care about and respect makes this experience all the more fulfilling. Each photograph was selected for the purpose of focusing on one aspect of the games in each shot; the sun, the flare of the gunpowder, or the horse.
All the photos in this collection are influenced and inspired by research for my PhD in anthropology and my time in Morocco as a U.S. Fulbright Student Researcher.
On May 6, 2016 at 6pm at the ALIF riad, I’m proud to announce that my first solo photography exhibition will be held in Fes, Morocco. Such a big thanks is due to the American Language Center in Fes, Omar Chennafi, all the strong girls who ride, and Fulbright for making this happen. The exhibit will run for two weeks at the ALIF riad from 4-6pm during the weekdays to coincide with the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes. More information about the exhibit to come soon!
As a former president of AnthroGroup at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln I was asked to do a video-blog for this year’s AnthroGroup. Here I am giving some tips and advice to younger students about being an anthropology major. I’ve never done anything like this before….Enjoy!
This post was first published on the National Geographic Voices Blog December 30, 2015.
By Gwyneth Talley, Young Explorers Grantee
Last week, for the first time in 457 years, the same day saw both Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 and Muslims celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on the 12th day of Rabi’ al-awwal (though there are large populations of both religions that recognize different dates).
Because the Christian calendar is based on an adjusted solar year and the Islamic calendar on the roughly 11-day shorter lunar year, the two holidays, while fixed in their own calendars, move relative to each other each year.
Wishing “peace and goodwill” as well as “happy holidays” are common during northern hemisphere winter every year to encompass the many celebrations in different faiths. This year (and last, and next, as Mawlid falls in January and December) Muslims have a holiday to be included in that number as well.
There are so many traditions associated with Christmas that it can be overwhelming: a massive amount of gifts, food, and candy; a jolly man that comes down the chimney without being suspected of burglary; children trying to appease said jolly man; the Peter, Paul and Mary Christmas Celebration; and songs, sculptures, paintings, and church services honoring theVirgin Mary giving birth to Jesus in a stable and placing him in a manger.
Due to Islamic practices, there are no depictions of Muhammad as a child (or any older) so there are no nativity scenes. Muslims who celebrate Mawlid gather with their families, pass out sweets, and read stories about the Prophet. Food and charity are distributed to the poor and people gather at the mosque to pray and listen to poetry and songs praising Muhammad. Many Muslims might fast throughout the day and then feast on traditional fare in the evening.
As with many Christmas processions in Europe, during Mawlid Muslims will carry banners or enjoy street carnivals. In Rabat-Salé, Morocco, their street procession, known as the Lantern Festival, features geometric wax designs on metal stands carried on the backs of believers. In Qayrawan, Tunisia, believers sing hymns welcoming Muhammad. Pakistanis celebrate Mawlid with a 31-gun salute in Karachi and people gather in Lahore for the International Mawlid Conference. In Indonesia, Muslims celebrate with a festival of bright, colorful masks. Just as Puritans once outlawed Christmas festivities in England, strict Islamic sects disapprove of the celebration of Mawlid.
So whichever religion you follow, whether you have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree or a Festivus pole, a Mawlid procession or just a few quiet or rowdy evenings with your family, be sure to celebrate the universality of celebration itself, and take some time to learn more about some of the many other traditions and cultures around the world.
Every morning the coo and flutter of pigeon wings stir me, I pull back the red velvet curtains that separate my suite from the grand and airy salon in an apartment of the Palace El Mokri in the Ziat neighborhood of the old city of Fes in Morocco. My friends back home believe I am finally living out my Disney princess fantasy. Add a Tiger named Raja, call me Jasmine, and it is a whole new world; I am living in a palace that housed the Grand Vizier of Morocco Mohammed El Mokri and his extended family. I just stumbled into living in the jaw-dropping Fesi fantasy.
The courtyard fountains and the outside view of the apartment in Palace El Mokri built in 1906.
Looking for housing in Fes is typically AirB&B or by word of mouth. A fellow Fulbrighter and I had looked at seven different houses and apartments but nothing quite struck our fancy or our budget. Eventually we triedAvito, the Moroccan Craigslist. After finding a nice looking apartment that seemed to have potential, we agreed to meet the landlord. On first meeting, this young landlord named Youssef, said the apartment posted online was not available, but he had something else to show us that was available.
My first impressions while walking through the long hall covered in mosaics was “oh no, not another dilapidated house.” Moroccan architecture is notorious for being sneaky and not revealing its secrets until you enter the house. Upon walking into the courtyard that holds three fountains and two slender pools, my doubt about the house turned into doubt about being able to afford the place.
One of the empty halls that is rented out for weddings. All the mosaics are handcrafted and made in Fes.
Ever single piece of this is individually constructed.
We climbed the stairs into the far apartment and were welcomed into the living quarters in which my first apartment in Los Angeles could fit into without the kitchen and the bathroom. The long windows decorated with red stained glass reach over 20 feet high complemented with arches with floral plaster framing them until the carved wall touches the hand painted ceiling. Some might consider the mosaics a bit loud for their taste, but it compliments the entire room with the spectrum of colors.
The grand salon and bedroom.
Sunlight on the stained glass in the mornings
The view from the balcony.
I quickly said “I’ll take it!” And moved in with great vigor. I agreed to lease the apartment in the palace until the end of January. Now after living here for a little over a month, the palace’s history and famous residents are revealing themselves:
Grand Vizier El Mokri lived in this palace with his four wives and four concubines.
El Mokri is in the Guinness Book of World Records for one of the longest living men that held a government office.
The musicians Sting and Bob Seger are rumored to have stayed in the apartment that I’m renting.
There is a bullet hole in a panel of one of the windows when the brother of King Hassan II was attempting to shoot pigeons and he did not realize the windows were shut.
El Mokri was heavily involved in the Moroccan government under French colonialism. After Morocco gained its Independence, the family was shut out from government life. Their Camelot fell into a state of majestic decline. Here and there you see some hasty repairs to the mosaics, or cementing over the wholes in the marble floors. If it wasn’t on the market for $14 million, I would give up my PhD ambitions and spent the rest of my 20s restoring this place a la Under the Tuscan Sun.Even the old chandelier that fluctuates with power at night even makes me feel like Lady Mary in Downton Abbey ready to devote my life to the upkeep of this relic.
A tourist admires the view
In the meantime, I’m teaching the pigeons to sing to me and dress me in the morning instead of coo me awake with their quarrels and flapping of their wings. Maybe I’ll extend my stay in Fes a bit longer…
This week, Muslims everywhere celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and God’s mercy in allowing him to substitute a ram.
In Morocco, that means thousands of sheep are bought and sold to celebrate one of the biggest and happiest holidays of the Muslim calendar. Think American Thanksgiving plus the spirit of Christmas, and you have the Moroccan Eid al-Adha. Except American Thanksgiving is like a 300-meter dash compared to this marathon feast. I am spending my first Eid al-Adha as an “adopted middle child” with my Moroccan host family, and so far, I’ve been advised to pace myself.
While the Eid is usually one day, families stretch the holiday out for three to five days, preparing and eating various parts of the sheep and washing it down with the hot and sweet Moroccan mint tea. Fireworks, shopping for the perfect sheep, purchasing new clothes for children, and some days of fasting lead up to the ultimate mutton-eating contest.
In the old city, families transport their sheep via motorcycle, in rickshaws, or in the trunk of the car. They keep their live sheep on the terraces and rooftops, feeding and watering them and hearing their bleats daily as the countdown begins. When Thursday comes, it will be silence of the lambs.
Eid al-Adha morning starts with a prayer and a small sermon about the religious meaning of the celebration, much like a Christmas Eve service. Part of the celebration of the eid is charity: the meat is divided into thirds, a third for the family, a third for friends and relatives, and a third to those in need or unable to afford meat.
After the prayer and breakfast, the family gathers for the commemorative sacrifice of the sheep. Usually the oldest man in the family along with the help of a local butcher, slaughters the sheep halal style, as family and children look on with anticipation. Within 20 minutes, the butcher guts, divides, and organizes the meat into its respective cuts, and goes on his way to the next household.
Moroccans traditionally eat many parts of the sheep, creating special dishes for this occasion. The first meal is typically boulfaf. It is the major organs, namely the liver, lungs, heart, and kidneys, marinated in paprika, cumin, garlic, and parsley, and then, skewered and barbecued over a charcoal fire. The fat adds some crispy texture and flavor to the iron rich dish, which can be eaten on its own with a salad or thrown into a sandwich with onions, olives, and tomatoes. And this is just lunch.
Take a quick nap and prepping the stomach for dinner is the next task. Douara is a savory, stew-like dish made of the stomach and intestines. Because cleaning the stomach and intestines is time-consuming, this dish is losing its popularity, but is a staple of eid nonetheless. The afternoon is also filled with family and friends, knocking on doors, wishing people a happy eid. Guests are served Moroccan pastries made with almonds and peanuts and piping-hot sweet mint tea.
The next morning is spent boiling the head of the sheep for the delicate and tastiest meat. Many people take out the brain, boil it separately, and serve it with a tomato sauce, a mixture of spices, and eggs. The rest of the head is cooked and served with vegetables in a sauce. Some of the older generation considers the eyes and the tongue delicacies. There are even traditional dishes for the feet, shoulders, and testicles—RockyAtlas Mountain Oysters anyone?
But enough about the offal. Thekebab (thick cuts of fillet), the kefta (minced meat with spices), and themechoui (the pièce de résistance—slow roasted leg or shoulder) are the coveted cuts of meat. My host brother, Marouane, licks his lips in anticipation while my mouth waters at the smell of the meat grilling over the charcoal flames. Even after a day and a half of eating, I can still find room for another mouthful as my host mother orders me to “Kuli, kuli!” or “Eat, eat!” I know I will only want a piece of lettuce for the rest of the week, but I cannot resist.
At the end, roll me out the door like the blueberry girl in Willy Wonka’s candy factory.