Tan Tan Moussem: An Amazing Cultural Celebration

Started in 1963, primarily as a religious festival, the annual Tan Tan Moussem, held in early December, draws thousands of members of nomadic tribes to gather together for a celebration of tradition and culture in the small desert town of Tan Tan in South Morocco. The focus of the Tan Tan Moussem was the tomb of the great Saharan leader Cheik Mohamed Laghdaf, who died in 1960 after fighting for decades against French and Spanish colonial invaders. In addition to being a festival of worship, this is an opportunity for tribes to socialize with song and dance, swap stories, share herbal remedy knowledge, compete in horse races and engage in some serious camel trading.

Due to the turmoil being experienced in the region in the mid-1970s, authorities at the time banned the Tan Tan Moussem. However, the festival had life breathed back into it when in 2004, UNESCO teamed up with the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism to revive the festival which they considered to be a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” The response was overwhelming and the Tan Tan Moussem has reclaimed its spot as the largest gathering of nomadic tribes in northern Africa.

The “fantasia”, a choreographed reenactment of an attack charge by Berber tribesmen, is a highlight of the Tan Tan Moussem. Sitting astride their magnificent steeds, with their robes billowing in the wind and their rifles raised in the air, the warriors thunder across the desert sands, ululating a war cry that would strike a chord of fear in many an enemy. Other features of the Tan Tan Moussem are a long procession of camels, with nomads singing heart-stirring traditional songs. Long lines of women dressed in elaborate and colorful costumes with their hands covered in intricate henna tattoos carry wooden bowls, brass teapots and other items readily identified with a nomadic lifestyle.

Around 800 tents woven from camel and lamb hair accommodate the dozens of nomadic tribes that travel from all over the Sahara, as far away as Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Several of the tents are set up with exhibits displaying aspects of Berber tribal life, including cooking, weaving, popular games, marriage ceremonies and the teaching of the Koran, while some tents contain traditional crafts for sale. However, the main focus of trading activities revolves around the thousands of dromedary camels.

As the activities of the Tan Tan Moussem draw to a close, members of the various tribes exchange farewells in preparation for the long journey home, finding comfort in the fact that, although saying farewell is sometimes difficult, they can look forward to gathering again next year in the small desert town of Tan Tan, Morocco.