Celebrating the diversity of desert peoples at Tunsia’s International Sahara Festival

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Michael Keating, Olney, MD

The oasis of Douz in Tunisia lies in an uneasy balance with nature. A short nighttime walk outside town over the gently undulating dunes reveals a sky cluttered with the glitter of millions of stars. And yet those same dunes gently push against the town, silently covering the streets.

The oasis of Douz is just that: an oasis in the Sahara. The dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental encircle the town. Where the pavement ends, the sand begins. It’s the Sahara that determines the border.

International Sahara Festival

The talc-fine sand of the Sahara has sculpted its people, shaped its culture and dictated its crops. Once a year, the people of southern Tunisia are joined by the desert people of Libya, Algeria and the other Sahara nations to pay homage to that bond — at the International Sahara Festival.

The 37th annual festival began on Dec. 26, ’04. The 3-day event is not pegged to the same dates each year but generally takes place in November or December.

The Sahara Festival is a celebration of the very recent past. Although most southern Tunisians have abandoned the nomadic life — a change encouraged by a government that insisted upon universal education — those memories are still fresh and the desire to celebrate them is real.

In addition, except for limited agricultural pursuits, the area is dependent on tourism. The festival was well attended by tourists but even better attended by locals.

Music and dance

During the opening ceremonies, after the official municipal greetings, the festival participants paraded before the viewing stands. Their saddle blankets a riotous blaze of Berber and Bedouin weaving, regal white camels in a slow-motion cascade of muscle and bone transported elegantly tailored riders across the sands.

Horsemen from a dozen nations displayed their finery and their fine horsemanship. Gilded in metallic-cloth blinders and draped in a prideful display of local fabrics, their horses, twisting and cavorting, shook their manes in the wind.

One following another, groups of musicians and dancers from all over the Sahara took their turn before the spectators, showing off their indigenous traditional culture. Groups of men in chicory blue and lemon yellow played horns and banged drums as they wove amongst themselves in a carefully choreographed dance.

A group of women in long, dark dresses knelt in the sand and threw their long, dark, shiny tresses back and forth in the wind, rhythmically accentuating their kneeling dance.

The local descendants of salukis and visiting Italian greyhounds pulled impatiently on their leashes, anxious to chase hares.

Grand finale

The crowd was on its feet for the camel races. Camels and riders looped far into the distance, then returned to the finish line in front of cheering spectators.

The grand finale of the opening day was a torrent of horsemanship, all at full gallop. Some slashed the air with sabers. Others rode hanging off the side of the saddle. Some even rode upside down — their heads on their saddles, legs and feet straight up in the air — all at full speed. Others charged down the course in pairs, men arm in arm, mounted on different horses.

On and on they came, the daring and athleticism of the horses and their riders matched by the beauty of the textiles that clothed them both. So fast and spectacular and numerous were the riders that it became impossible to concentrate on any single one for fear of missing the next.

Then a single horse in the cavalcade misstepped — and fell — throwing its rider and breaking its leg. Inconsolable, the rider was led away. The crowd, moments before cheering and shouting its delight, fell silent. But when the horse rose to its feet, so did the applauding audience.

Winding down

The day’s events over, the camels glided over the dunes, over the horizon and out of sight. The spectators climbed into their cars or donkey carts. Both the excitement and the momentary horror continued to hang over the muted crowd.

Tunisian flags snapped smartly and the wind blew powdery sand over the departing crowd, spreading a fine cover over the roads they traveled on.

Planning a visit

The International Sahara Festival is the biggest event of the year. Visitors to Douz, the primary Tunisian gateway to the Sahara, should plan accordingly.

The number of hotels is limited; those who wait to make reservations will have to commute from other oases. We stayed at El Mouradi Douz (phone +216 75 47 03 03 or visit www.elmouradi. com), a beautiful and comfortable 4-star venue with a large, spacious lobby, an excellent restaurant and a friendly bar featuring (occasionally) belly dancers. At TD104 (about $83) for a double room, it was a modestly priced treat.

The hotel is located in the tourist district, but the disadvantage of not being downtown is offset by the easy walk to the festival. Those wishing to ride camels need only step out of the hotel grounds. Across the street on the dunes were many men with camels anxious to offer visitors rides into the desert.

The souk

Although Douz is modest compared to its more opulent neighbors, like Tozeur, be sure to poke around outside the tourist district. The city is quite pretty.

And be sure to visit the souk. More a square than a labyrinth, the souk was open, sunny, bright. . . and empty. We feared that because of the festival we would have to elbow our way through tourists. Not so. In fact, decidedly not so; we were the only ones there.

Most remarkable was a broad and glorious selection of rugs: kilims and mergoums from southern Tunisia and rugs and blankets of Berbers and Bedouins.

While throughout Tunisia one sees some very pretty, eye-catching factory ceramics, the souk in Douz displayed some truly handsome, hand-thrown pieces at very reasonable prices.

Desert hospitality was gracious, certainly enhanced by the fact that we were the only show. Mint tea was served to us under the winter sun.

I was immediately interested in the rugs. These rugs — all were flat weaves — were riotous, boldly geometric and often garishly colored. It didn’t take long to find something that was gorgeous and, after some bargaining, affordable. The one I bought is predominantly orange with blue and green, resembling an elegant, controlled explosion. It’s old and has a couple of holes in it (which don’t bother me).

The dealer was handsome and gracious. He laughed, he cajoled and his English was very good (his brother lives in Philly). He said, “No.” He said, “Impossible.” The holes? “To be expected with the age.” But, in the end, he looked out over the empty plaza and accepted my final offer of TD120 ($96), down from his initial price of TD320.

If you see something that you love in Douz, buy it. Don’t wait until you go back to Tunis. You might (but you might not) find something similar in the comparatively vast souk there, but you won’t find it at the price offered in Douz.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Michael Keating, Olney, MD

The oasis of Douz in Tunisia lies in an uneasy balance with nature. A short nighttime walk outside town over the gently undulating dunes reveals a sky cluttered with the glitter of millions of stars. And yet those same dunes gently push against the town, silently covering the streets.

The oasis of Douz is just that: an oasis in the Sahara. The dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental encircle the town. Where the pavement ends, the sand begins. It’s the Sahara that determines the border.

International Sahara Festival

The talc-fine sand of the Sahara has sculpted its people, shaped its culture and dictated its crops. Once a year, the people of southern Tunisia are joined by the desert people of Libya, Algeria and the other Sahara nations to pay homage to that bond — at the International Sahara Festival.

The 37th annual festival began on Dec. 26, ’04. The 3-day event is not pegged to the same dates each year but generally takes place in November or December.

The Sahara Festival is a celebration of the very recent past. Although most southern Tunisians have abandoned the nomadic life — a change encouraged by a government that insisted upon universal education — those memories are still fresh and the desire to celebrate them is real.

In addition, except for limited agricultural pursuits, the area is dependent on tourism. The festival was well attended by tourists but even better attended by locals.

Music and dance

During the opening ceremonies, after the official municipal greetings, the festival participants paraded before the viewing stands. Their saddle blankets a riotous blaze of Berber and Bedouin weaving, regal white camels in a slow-motion cascade of muscle and bone transported elegantly tailored riders across the sands.

Horsemen from a dozen nations displayed their finery and their fine horsemanship. Gilded in metallic-cloth blinders and draped in a prideful display of local fabrics, their horses, twisting and cavorting, shook their manes in the wind.

One following another, groups of musicians and dancers from all over the Sahara took their turn before the spectators, showing off their indigenous traditional culture. Groups of men in chicory blue and lemon yellow played horns and banged drums as they wove amongst themselves in a carefully choreographed dance.

A group of women in long, dark dresses knelt in the sand and threw their long, dark, shiny tresses back and forth in the wind, rhythmically accentuating their kneeling dance.

The local descendants of salukis and visiting Italian greyhounds pulled impatiently on their leashes, anxious to chase hares.

Grand finale

The crowd was on its feet for the camel races. Camels and riders looped far into the distance, then returned to the finish line in front of cheering spectators.

The grand finale of the opening day was a torrent of horsemanship, all at full gallop. Some slashed the air with sabers. Others rode hanging off the side of the saddle. Some even rode upside down — their heads on their saddles, legs and feet straight up in the air — all at full speed. Others charged down the course in pairs, men arm in arm, mounted on different horses.

On and on they came, the daring and athleticism of the horses and their riders matched by the beauty of the textiles that clothed them both. So fast and spectacular and numerous were the riders that it became impossible to concentrate on any single one for fear of missing the next.

Then a single horse in the cavalcade misstepped — and fell — throwing its rider and breaking its leg. Inconsolable, the rider was led away. The crowd, moments before cheering and shouting its delight, fell silent. But when the horse rose to its feet, so did the applauding audience.

Winding down

The day’s events over, the camels glided over the dunes, over the horizon and out of sight. The spectators climbed into their cars or donkey carts. Both the excitement and the momentary horror continued to hang over the muted crowd.

Tunisian flags snapped smartly and the wind blew powdery sand over the departing crowd, spreading a fine cover over the roads they traveled on.

Planning a visit

The International Sahara Festival is the biggest event of the year. Visitors to Douz, the primary Tunisian gateway to the Sahara, should plan accordingly.

The number of hotels is limited; those who wait to make reservations will have to commute from other oases. We stayed at El Mouradi Douz (phone +216 75 47 03 03 or visit www.elmouradi. com), a beautiful and comfortable 4-star venue with a large, spacious lobby, an excellent restaurant and a friendly bar featuring (occasionally) belly dancers. At TD104 (about $83) for a double room, it was a modestly priced treat.

The hotel is located in the tourist district, but the disadvantage of not being downtown is offset by the easy walk to the festival. Those wishing to ride camels need only step out of the hotel grounds. Across the street on the dunes were many men with camels anxious to offer visitors rides into the desert.

The souk

Although Douz is modest compared to its more opulent neighbors, like Tozeur, be sure to poke around outside the tourist district. The city is quite pretty.

And be sure to visit the souk. More a square than a labyrinth, the souk was open, sunny, bright. . . and empty. We feared that because of the festival we would have to elbow our way through tourists. Not so. In fact, decidedly not so; we were the only ones there.

Most remarkable was a broad and glorious selection of rugs: kilims and mergoums from southern Tunisia and rugs and blankets of Berbers and Bedouins.

While throughout Tunisia one sees some very pretty, eye-catching factory ceramics, the souk in Douz displayed some truly handsome, hand-thrown pieces at very reasonable prices.

Desert hospitality was gracious, certainly enhanced by the fact that we were the only show. Mint tea was served to us under the winter sun.

I was immediately interested in the rugs. These rugs — all were flat weaves — were riotous, boldly geometric and often garishly colored. It didn’t take long to find something that was gorgeous and, after some bargaining, affordable. The one I bought is predominantly orange with blue and green, resembling an elegant, controlled explosion. It’s old and has a couple of holes in it (which don’t bother me).

The dealer was handsome and gracious. He laughed, he cajoled and his English was very good (his brother lives in Philly). He said, “No.” He said, “Impossible.” The holes? “To be expected with the age.” But, in the end, he looked out over the empty plaza and accepted my final offer of TD120 ($96), down from his initial price of TD320.

If you see something that you love in Douz, buy it. Don’t wait until you go back to Tunis. You might (but you might not) find something similar in the comparatively vast souk there, but you won’t find it at the price offered in Douz.