Nostalgia Post: Mata Moussem in Morocco

Now that I’m back in Morocco. I decided to post one of older my National Geographic Blog posts. Hopefully more to come with this year in the Maghreb!

Inside Morocco’s Wild Game of Horses, Riders, and … a Puppet?


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.

(Photo by Gwyneth Talley)
The annual contest draws locals and foreigners alike to see some of the most daring bareback riding in North Africa. (Photo by Gwyneth Talley)

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.

(Photo by Gwyneth Talley)
The young men gladly showed off their horsemanship for the camera. (Photo by Gwyneth Talley)

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.

(Photo by Gwyneth Talley)
The game’s only female competitor rides in with her team, proudly lifting the game’s treasured puppet. (Photo by Gwyneth Talley)

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.

Jesus and Muhammad Share a Birthday for First Time in 457 Years

(Photo by Mariem Naciri)
In Rabat-Salé, Morocco, Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad with a street procession known as the Lantern Festival, featuring geometric wax designs on metal stands carried on the backs of believers. (Photo by Mariem Naciri)

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).

The Calendars

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.

The Celebrations

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.

(Photo by Mariem Naciri)
Music and dancing are about as universal as human traditions get. (Photo by Mariem Naciri)

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.

(Photo by Mariem Naciri)
The traditions may date back centuries, but the expression of those traditions always has a bit of newness every year. (Photo by Mariem Naciri)

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.

Eid al-Adha: A Joyful Holiday for Everyone But the Sheep

Featured on NatGeo’s Food blog, The Plate.

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.

Moroccan breakfast

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.

man collects sheepskins

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.