A line of horsemen, clad in flowing white garments, thunders across the desert, kicking up a cloud of red dust in their wake. Suddenly, in one nearly identical motion, the riders raise their arms and fire rifles into the air, the sounds of the shots blending into a single, overpowering clap of gunpowder.
The Moroccan tradition of Fantasia, also known as lab al baroud (Arabic for “gunpowder game”) or Tbourida, is a stylized reenactment of a wartime cavalry charge—a celebration of the region’s history and of the bond between horse and rider.
The tradition, also practiced in other countries of North Africa, dates to the eighth century and the Islamic golden age, when similar cavalry maneuvers were performed as displays of power to intimidate enemy armies or in joust-like warrior ceremonies attended by kings and sultans. The custom of firing guns was a later addition, likely around the introduction of gunpowder to the region in the early 13th century. The tradition later attracted the attention of foreign adventurers, like the French painter Eugene Delacroix, who visited Morocco in 1832. He came away captivated by the Fantasia games, which he introduced to a European audience through his paintings.
Today, the stylized war game is performed at weddings and harvest festivals around the nation. The tradition is practiced by both Arab and Berber communities throughout Morocco, uniting disparate groups in a national sport of sorts. [Related: Horse Culture Lives On in This Desert Nation]
Each year the most skilled fantasia teams converge in a national event organized by the Société Royale d’Encouragement du Cheval (Royal Society for Encouragement of the Horse) in Rabat, to compete for the Hassan II Trophy.
Teams of horsemen—and increasingly, women—vie to execute the most perfectly synchronized charge. The art requires an exceptional degree of attunement between horse and equestrian as well as among the riders.
Italian-Moroccan photographer Karim El Maktafi, who documented the tradition in his family’s hometown of Bouznika during a harvest festival, explains that in a perfect fantasia charge, the audience should hear only one sound as all the riders fire their guns in unison. (For those concerned about safety, he noted, no bullets are fired—only gunpowder is released).
El Maktafi grew up in Italy but visited Morocco with his family each year. He only saw the Fantasia ceremony on television until last year, when he photographed a game. He was electrified by the excitement in the air and captivated by the skill of the riders.
“It’s like a fusion between a rodeo and a carnival,” El Maktafi says. “The atmosphere is like going back to the eighth century.”