Ta kurt om el mahag (Libya)
Name of sport (game)
Name in native language
Place of practice (continent, state, nation)
Ta kurt om el mahag (the ball of the pilgrim’s mother) or, more commonly, Om el mahag (the pilgrim’s mother). Berber Baseball according to the statement of the Berbers of Jadum, is played only by the Berber tribes of the Gebel Nefusa.
Ta kurt om el mahag literally translates to “the ball of the pilgrim’s mother.” This game was discovered in the 1930s in a remote village in Libya, where the Berber tribesmen lived. It is said to have very similar rules and goals with baseball.
The playing field consists of a level space without special boundaries other than those designated by home and one other base. In a shady spot in the middle of one side, a home base consisting of a rectangle about twelve feet in length is marked by stone or other signposts at its external limits. In front of the home base, some seventy to ninety feet away, a running base, called El Mahag, is marked. The game uses only one base like American “One O’ Cat.”
The game is played by two teams of equal numbers, each under a captain (sciek). The players choose two captains. Then the other men distribute themselves by couples and a man is assigned from every couple to each captain by chance. The number of players may vary from three to twenty on each side, but the usual number is six. The batting team (A) strikes the ball in batting order with a bat, sending it as far off as possible, so that the other members of the team may have time to run from home to the mahag and, if possible, back again. The men of the fielding team (B) try to prevent this by catching the ball as it flies, or by picking it up from the ground and throwing it to hit a member of the batting team as he runs from the gate to the mahag or back. When a team bats, it is called “marksmen” (darraba), and when it fields it is called “hunters” (fajadah).
Lots are drawn at the beginning of the game to see which of the two teams bats first.
Figure 1 shows the arrangement of the teams when the game starts.
The batting team stands in full strength along the homebase; the batter in front, bat in hand, is faced at a distance of six to eight feet by the captain of the catching team who pitches the ball for his opponent to strike on the fly. The distance between pitcher and batter is such that the batter with outstretched arm can touch with the end of his bat the ball which the pitcher also holds at arm’s length. The mode of pitching makes it easy for the batter to hit the ball as it does not seem to be part of the game to strike out the batter. Before any batting is begun, the pitcher and the batter take the right distance and throw the ball back and forth several times, to make it easy for the batter to hit the ball. No catcher is used.
The leather covered ball is the size of the American baseball, but is not so hard. The bat is an olive branch which has been slightly curved by exposure to the heat of a fire, followed by slow drying. It is about three feet in length, somewhat flattened to about three fingers broad on the striking end.
In the batting order, the best batters are generally kept for the last and the captain ends the list of his team. The ball is always pitched by the captain of the fielding team. At first each member of the batting team is entitled to two strikes, the captain to three. When a batter misses all the strikes to which he is entitled, he withdraws to a corner, near one of the stones marking the limits of the home base, and hands the bat to the next man. He is then said to be “rotten” or to be set aside to “grow mouldy.” Should all the batters miss all the strikes to which they are entitled, the inning would be lost by the batting team (A), and the fielding team (B) goes to bat. It is, however, very unusual for all to miss. Like One O’Cat, no account of score is kept. The fun lies in keeping the bat as long as possible. As a matter of fact, a distinct advantage accrues to the batting team, as the members have much time to stand quiet in the shade, while the men in the field have to stand or run in the sun.
As soon as the ball is hit, all members of the batting team who have already batted (including also the “rotten” ones) run to the mahag. Sliding to the mahag is usual, as sliding into base in American Baseball. However, since the Berber merely has to avoid being hit by the ball and does not have to be touched by a baseman as in Baseball, he often slides and rolls into the mahag sideways. On reaching the mahag the men of the batting team generally stop, shouting out “mahag, mahag”; if, however, they have time, they run back to the home base, shouting all the time and mocking their opponents. The player who succeeds in running to the mahag and back is entitled, if he has not yet batted, to one more strike. Then a member of the batting team is entitled to three strikes and the captain to four. The batter does not always follow his comrades in making the run to the mahag. He must do so after the last strike to which he is entitled, but after other strikes he only runs when the blow he has given has been a very heavy one so that he thinks he has hit a “home run.”
Meantime the fielding team (B) has placed its men back or aside of the mahag or running base. They come nearer or spread out according to the strength of the batter. They try to catch the ball as it flies past or else pick it up from the ground as swiftly as possible. If the ball is caught in the air the inning finishes with the victory to the fielding team (B), which now goes to bat. If the ball is picked up, the picker tries to hit one of his opponents who is running to or from the mahag. If he succeeds, the fielding team run immediately to the home base, because a member of the batting team (A) may pick up the ball and hit one of the fielders with it. If he does so and saves himself on the mahag or on the home base, the earlier advantage to the fielding team (B) is forfeited. It is easier to reach the mahag than to make a home run in one hit. It generally requires two strikes for reaching the mahag and returning home. This explains why the batter only runs to the mahag either after the last hit to which he is entitled, or, in exceptional cases, after he has struck what he thinks is a home run. Sometimes the batter is mistaken in his estimate, so that, after having reached the mahag, he has insufficient time to return to home base. Then, if the batter is not the captain of the team, the next member of the batting team (A), takes the bat. If the batter is the captain, who always bats last, there is no following man to bat. In that circumstance, the captain of the batting team (A) takes a three-step lead from the mahag, and tries to steal home while a man of the fielding team (B), tries to hit him. If the captain of the batting team (A) is not touched by the ball, the inning is continued for the batting team (A), and the batting order begins again. If, on the contrary, the captain of the batting team (A) is touched by the ball, and no successful retaliation is made, as described above, the side is out and the fielding team (B) goes to bat.
The men do not use mitts, but catch the ball in their bare hands.
When a fielded ball is thrown and hits one of the members of the batting team (A), and the advantage is not forfeited, as above, the whole of the field team (B) gathers round the mahag, except the captain who goes to bat. The opposing team (A) then goes to the field and its captain pitches. Should the B captain who now has to hit the ball, miss it thrice, then the advantage accruing to the B team now gathered round the mahag is forfeited. In that case, the B team retires to the field while the A bats again. But should the B captain hit a fair ball, which is uncaught, his men, gathered round the mahag, try to run home. If they succeed without being hit by the ball which their opponents have picked up, the former fielding team (B) becomes the batting team. Should they not succeed in this, their advantage is forfeited and the teams resume their respective position.
If the pitcher, having the ball in his hand, or catching or picking it up in the neighborhood of the home base, sees one of the men of the batting team outside the home base and the mahag, he can throw the ball and, if he succeeds in touching the man off base and no successful retaliation is made, the inning is for the field team which now goes to bat.
When playing at ball, whether Om el mahag or Ta kurt na rrod, the Berbers take off their barracans. Does this have a ritual significance or is it merely a concession to the freedom of movements necessary to the play? The last explanation seems obvious; but it is advisable to remark that the Berbers otherwise never remove their barracans. It may be interesting also to note that, in the formation of the teams, words are used that have no meaning for the Berbers of today. Probably they represent ancient vestigial words of which only the sound is remembered. To the possible ritual significance of the game I shall return later.
Thus Om el mahag substantially resembles American Baseball. In both are found two opposing teams, each led by a captain; a base, the touching of which makes the player safe; the catching of the ball in mid-air; the throwing of the ball, by the men of the fielding team, when picked up from the ground, or by the pitcher, at the opponents who are not at the base. Innings, forced runs, base stealing, and most of the other key situations in American baseball are also found. The objects with which the game is played are similar, the ball and bat. The tasks assigned the two teams are fundamentally the same. Baseball is, in some respects, much more elaborate, but this, as is known, is due to relatively recent regulations. The chief differences from the structural point of view are the presence, in Baseball, of the catcher, who is lacking in Om el mahag, and the use of three bases — besides the home plate — instead of one. More important are the functional differences which make Baseball much more complicated and difficult to play, more violent and more strictly regulated than Om el mahag. Essential among these differences are the importance which pitching the ball has in Baseball, the effort to make it difficult for the batter to hit the ball, the consequent importance of the pitcher, and the fact that his function is independent of that of the captain of the team, and also, on the other hand, the difficulty of the task assigned to the batter, increased by the round shape of the bat. The greater violence of the game entails the need of masks, mitts and protectors, and the presence of umpires.
It should however be noted that at one time there was no umpire and no masks, mitts or protectors. And in many other particulars the old game of Baseball, before the introduction of the rules a century ago, was much more like Om el mahag. The bat was flat as in that game, no special tricks were used in throwing the ball so as to make it more difficult for the batter to strike it. The batter could hit the ball twice without running to the base; he was only required to run after the third hit. On the other hand, Om el mahag is complicated by the principle of retaliation which is not generally found in sand-lot and early Baseball.
How are these similarities to be explained? Three suppositions seem possible. The game may have been borrowed by one people from another. This hypothesis is not, however, easily acceptable. It is difficult to see how an American or an Anglo-Saxon can have imported the game from the Berbers of the Gebel Nefusa. It is no less difficult to suppose that the Berbers, of the Gebel Nefusa have in past centuries imported their game from America or Great Britain, The supposition of independent origin and the convergence of the two games also seems difficult to accept, in view of the marked and detailed similarities between the two complex games. If the games were simple they could more easily have an independent origin.
Sources of information
The information contained in the article comes from the following sources: