Becoming an Anthropologist: A Rite of Passage for a US Fulbrighter in Morocco
Gwyneth Talley, Fulbright Student Researcher 2015–2016
On a cold evening in Zagora, Khadeja and I held our rifles. We spent the day watching tbourida, the traditional Moroccan calvary charge, sport, and equestrian display. We cheered for our our friends, (and my research participants) as the only all-women troupe, test their mettle against other all-male troupes from across the region. We had journeyed 12 hours by van down from Kenitra to be a part of the festival. Now it was our turn to get some training in the centuries-old tradition. One of the grooms and male helpers of the team, Mehdi, had tucked away some gunpowder in a baggie to fill up two gunpowder rifles for us to practice. Finally, five months into my Fulbright grant, I was conducting my first in-depth ethnographic fieldwork on women equestrians in Morocco!
Amal was the muqadema or troupe leader. I introduced myself to Amal through Facebook and only met her in-person once at the Salon du Cheval in El Jadida a few months prior. She was to give us our orders and instructions. Even after a long day in the sun and riding, she still wanted us to give it a try. We did a few practice rounds holding the rifle, twirling it, and practiced firing it before the gunpowder was ramrodded down the barrel. I was nervous. I had seen injuries to both men and women if the rifle was overfilled, underfilled, or if the rifle was too old. I was grateful I was not doing this for the first time on horseback.
Amal invoked the name of Allah, yelled a long “oooooh” and we raised our rifles together. A new command came to put the rifles on our shoulders. Amal yelled again to signal us to cock the rifle, and once that was done, she yelled in English “don’t do anything!”. We waited with bated breath. I worried I had done something wrong. The next word was “HUP!” — our signal to fire. Khadeja fired right away, while I hesitated, and finally discharged my rifle looking straight at the barrel, watching the gunpowder fireworks rain down on me. My face burned with the tiny embers of gunpowder. I could not help but tear up from the burns but also from the fatigue and exasperation of the experience. This was what participant observation was about –feeling the experience, understanding, and becoming a part of a larger group. I handed my rifle off to one of the guys, and Amal came up and wiped my tears away, saying “you are one of us now.” She was signalling to me I was part of the team in a small way. She probably didn’t know that this was also my rite of passage as an anthropologist. An event that took me from casual observer and student, to an ethnographer, a fieldworker — an anthropologist. As David Crawford and Rachel Newcomb mention in their book Encountering Morocco: Fieldwork and Cultural Understanding, “fieldwork is personally transformative…through fieldwork we learn about ourselves as much about other people and we are changed by the process” (2013, 6); That was Fulbright for me– transforming.
Later that night, Amal’s mother looked at my face in horror. My face was red and swollen. The gunpowder flecks were embedded in the skin on my face. Amal called over Fatima, another seasoned rider, who acted as the ad-hoc medic for the team. Together with a safety pin and rubbing alcohol, Fatima made me lay my head in her lap as she extracted my badges of honor from my face. “We don’t want your face turning green. Look what happened to my eye lid!” showing me a dark greenish fleck that looked like a freckle on her eyelid. She kissed my cheeks and told me “we all do this.” I had transformed from a complete outsider, to nearer an insider perspective of some of the events that happen to women tbourida riders.
That moment in time was a catalyst for many future, ethnographically and anthropologically rich moments. I had just finished my Master’s thesis focusing on tbourida and tourism prior to my Fulbright year, and was moving toward my PhD segment at UCLA. It was a great time to take a breather from the classroom and get some practical, hands on fieldwork experience. Eventually, I would repeatedly come back to Morocco for many more unique moments to gather data and film a documentary about Amal and her team that accepted me as one of their own. In 2019, I filed my dissertation in the shadow of Mt. Toubkal, while leading a group of high school students on a National Geographic Student Expedition to Zawiya Ahansal in the High Atlas Mountains. Nothing could be more fitting than submitting a product of time, labor, and love in the place where it all started. I graduated with my PhD in Anthropology and started teaching at the University of Nebraska in the School of Global Integrative Studies. In Fulbright’s 75th year, I am proud to be counted as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador and alumni of the Morocco program.
Today, I am a board member of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, I regularly talk to my Fulbright cohort members who are scattered across the US, and What’sApp my participants, now long-time friends in Morocco. With my research, I am working on a book proposal to bring my participants to a general audience and to focus on Moroccan women in sports at all levels, including the Olympics. As a professor, I love sharing my experiences as a Fulbrighter and continue to encourage the next generation to seize the day and apply for Fulbright.