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Yesterday was a hot day. In spite of that, I managed to forget to bring water bottles, as we loaded up the car, picked up our friend Randi, and headed out to the Royal Complexe des sports équestres et Tbourida de Dar Es-Salam.

It was the finals of the Hassan II Trophy in Tbourida, a traditional equestrian performance in which teams compete in a precision exercise; a line of horsemen (or women) race their thoroughbreds for about 200 meters, brandishing their gunpowder rifles, then suddenly stop as one and fire their guns, an explosion of noise and smoke drifting off into the clear blue sky.


Picture thanks to:

All my research couldn’t tell me a starting time, but several friends told us the earlier the better. Accordingly, we arrived about two, to find the place full of picnicking families, but very obviously nowhere near beginning. A couple of water trucks were driving slowly around the arena sprinkling down the dust. We asked a couple of people, and were told varying answers. The woman selling water said definitively, “3:45!” but the man sitting under a large umbrella in the stands told us “4:00.” Either way, we were far too early.

We passed the time wandering around. It had taken us a while to find the place, mostly because we’d been given very inexact directions.  We admired the ponies, and joined Moroccan families in sitting on the grass in the shade of the trees. It was very pleasant. Ilsa and I pulled out our books (we are always prepared) and Randi and Abel went to look at horses. We whiled away the time until we saw a general exodus towards the bleachers, which sat out in the full sun absorbing heat onto their cement benches.

We squished our way in about halfway down. Donn and Abel took their places by the railing, but everyone else wanted to sit down. Ilsa whined about the heat and the sun pouring down its heavy golden light on our heads, so I lovingly trickled some of my water on the back of her neck. To cool her down. That really helped her attitude.

Soon, we saw the teams assembling at one end of the open-air arena. We were on one side, along with a crush of people assembled the length of the barrier. The other side was massed with enormous tents, fitted with rugs and cushions and pennants, one for each team. At the far end was a red carpet and empty tent filled with proper chairs, very formal, no doubt for royalty and dignitaries. It was completely empty.

In the meantime, we watched our fellow attendees. The tinkling of brass bells announced the arrival of a water seller. Colourfully arrayed in red and green tassels and bobbles, he carried a black goatskin under one arm, from which he would fill a brass bowl and pass it to you. I didn’t get one because I’ve had plenty of opportunity to drink water with that delicate hint of dead goat before. Instead, I swigged from my bottle of mineral water and called it good.


We also saw several other people we knew, including  Megan, who was much more energetic about getting really good pictures, rather than just sitting in the hot sun, drinking tepid water, and using her camera’s tiny telephoto capabilities, which is pretty much what I did.

Promptly at about five minutes past four, the first team assembled at one end of the arena. A voice called something out into the still air. The team began to move. They trotted, they cantered, they galloped. They presented themselves before the empty, formal tent and bowed. Then, as they left the center arena to return down a sort of wide aisle in front of their tents, they gave their horses their heads. It was a marvelous sight to see, magnificent horses stretched at full gallop, riders’ scarves and capes streaming behind with the horse’s own mane and tail. In the meantime, a second team was assembling themselves beneath a giant poster of the current king’s father, Hassan II.

pink line

We eventually figured it out. There were three teams, each of whom went three times, in the same order: team 1, team 2, team 3, team 1 again, etc. After each team had performed three times, there was a pause and then a fourth team assembled themselves, charged, presented themselves, and galloped back around again.

gold team

The second time each team went, at the end they fired their guns into the air. People applauded depending on how exact they were. Were the lines of horses ragged? Were the shots fired at once or was there more like a volley of shots? However, the applause didn’t always match the performance. We found out later that different people support different teams, depending on their home region.

megan powPicture by Megan

Each team had a leader, with a microphone attached. He or she was usually in the center, and called out when to canter, when to gallop, when to stop and fire. Randi and I discussed how difficult it would be to control the horses so exactly, and how embarrassing it would be if yours was the gun that went off that split second after everyone else’s, like suddenly singing out a high note when everyone else is still waiting several beats to come in.

leader women groupThe leader of one of the women’s teams; praising Allah before beginning her charge. Notice her mike.                    Picture by Megan

The gunpowder explosions made a surprising amount of noise. Even when I knew to expect it, I still jumped nearly every time.

horse fantasiaPicture thanks to:

There was a group of young men filling the guns with new powder after every charge.

filling gunpowder meganPicture by Megan

The second group of teams was female. It’s possible that the first team of this group of 3 was children; they sounded very young and they were very small. It was hard to tell. Randi felt they were 10-12 year old boys. I know there were children’s groups at this event, but I wasn’t sure. Either way, it was fun to see women well represented at this event. Traditionally, this wasn’t the case, but times have changed.

pink team

Each team had matching outfits for both horse and rider, with the leader differentiated in some way. They were very elaborate.

outfit meganPicture by Megan

horsePicture by Megan

After their 9 runs, they departed and a 3rd group of 3 teams began to assemble. These were evidently seniors, men of experience, men who reminded you that this mock-battle was started long ago to commemorate real battles of Arab and Berber raiders who swept down fields of conquest and fired their weapons into the clash of oncoming armies.

By this point, it was getting on for 6 o’clock, and several of our party wanted to leave. It’s true that there was a certain sameness as each team performed the same 3 precision exercises, but it’s also true that there were millions of police out, not to mention a red carpet. I wanted to stay to the end and see the trophy presented and possibly a princess or some other royal personage. I was, however, outnumbered. And admittedly, an afternoon under the sweltering sky had had its effect, and I was sunburned and headachy and hungry like everyone else. It’s also true that Elliot’s birthday was Saturday and we had large groups of gallumping teenage boys over from Friday night onwards. It was time to go home, drink copious amounts of water, and relax.

Want to learn more about Tbourida? Go here.

*extra credit if you know what novel about Morocco this title plays off of

July 2009

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