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Well-trained horsemen perform at the Festival of the Sahara in Tunisia. Photos by Sony Stark. Click on photo to enlarge.
Well-trained horsemen perform at the Festival of the Sahara in Tunisia. Photos by Sony Stark

The Festival of the Sahara: Galloping Stallions, Camel Wrestling and Rabbit Chases

Here in America, the circus keeps audiences at bay under big tents and atop tall grandstands. But in Tunisia, festivals encourage visitors to Voted one of the top ten staff written travel articles by GoNOMAD Editors!submerge themselves in the experience by staying close to the action.

Every December, two dusty towns in the inhospitable southern region of Tunisia, far from the Mediterranean Sea or the rainy hills of the northwest, share festivals dedicated to oasis life. Tozeur and Douz, about 65 miles apart, schedule festivals back-to-back to honor their ancient history of nomadic life, camel caravans and traditional music.

A Fascinating Region

Today I'm in Douz among a crowd of 10,000 spectators camouflaging themselves from the sun with celebratory little red flags. They shift anxiously on concrete stands that stretch out in front of a stage of sand and dust.

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Across from us are dozens of brown Bedouin tents called hair tents because they are woven from goat hair.

Pacing horses and wrinkled musicians practice for their grand entrance against a backdrop of scrubby palms and rolling dunes.

The military watches me with suspicious eyes as I set up my video camera to record the dignitaries. They arrive from all over North Africa in four-wheel drive jeeps escorted to their seats by security.

Spectators wait patiently in the blazing sun for the dignitaries to arrive. Click on photo to enlarge.
Spectators wait patiently in the blazing sun for the dignitaries to arrive.

A tall man in a black jacket directs me where to stand and what to shoot. His dubious looks are unnerving but my travel guide assures me it?s for my protection.

This is day four of four, the last of the celebration of arts and traditions in a baked brick city of otherwise quiet nomadic life.

The arid landscape is about 100 miles west of the coastal city of Gabes and just south of the Chott El Jerid dry salt lakebed.

Douz is called the 'Gateway to the Sahara' and, besides this festival, offers sandy treasures like camel excursions, balloon rides and sand skiing.

The crowd chants their President's name as a larger-than-life photo of him is carried in.
The crowd chants their President's name as a larger-than-life photo of him is carried in.

Finally, the Minister of Cultural Affairs is comfortably seated and an over-zealous Master of Ceremonies begins the program in French, Arabic and some English. His amplified delivery is earsplitting despite being in a boundless desert.

Choreographed Parades

A Tunisian flag is stretched out and carried alongside a larger-than-life painting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and a responsive crowd chants his name, "Ben Ali, Ben Ali, Ben Ali!"

Men dressed in flowing white turbans wrapped around their heads and faces ride in on camels dressed with colorful tassels around their long necks. Striped blankets cover their humps while bells jingle from their collars.

This marks the beginning of a long procession of performers from all over North Africa - Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Turkey and of course, Tunisia. Between the raised flags and gun salutes, there are so many senses are at play it's hard to know where to focus.

Tribal Rhythms

Loud drums called daloukas hang from the waists of musicians that bang and clamor the instrument to the tribal rhythms of Arab and Andalusian music.

Steady as a rock, but instead these are fragile clay pots adorned with the Tunisian symbol. Click on photo to enlarge.
Steady as a rock, but instead these are fragile clay pots adorned with the Tunisian symbol

The audience erupts into applause as a man balances seven fragile white clay jars atop his head. Then, one by one, white jars are added to the top of a ladder, this time the man grips the ladder between his teeth. His mouth - like a steal vice grip, locks onto the wood frame while children behind me gasp at the sight.

Suddenly, a spooked camel strays from the parade and launches itself in the direction of the clapping dignitaries safely seated from a viewing platform. Security spring into action with guns and muscle drawn. They secure the creature before it jumps the barricade.

Now I know why I was instructed to videotape from a safe distance.

Berber Traditions

On the horizon is a growing band of traveling camels, each outfitted with a traditional Bedouin wedding tent called a houdach.

Weddings are an expensive and flamboyant affair and once upon a time they culminated in the bride departing for the grooms house fitted inside a houdach, hidden from view.

A galloping horse carries a brave father-son team.
A galloping horse carries a brave father-son team.

A sword-wielding soldier rides a white stallion and jumps forward from the wedding parade to bow to the audience. His horse does the same followed by a little boy standing atop his dad's shoulders on the back of a galloping horse.

Soon the father-son team will ride in circles performing highflying stunts and acrobatics, one time blindfolded and then backwards.

Camel Wrestling

The Spanish encourage bullfighting while the Italians enjoy a good cockfight but at the International Sahara Desert Festival the most popular sport is camel wrestling.

Aptly named because the adult male camels do not draw blood but rather pin each other's legs and heads in an effort to topple each other to the ground, just like in wrestling.

When white milky saliva flies from the camel's mouth and nostrils you know the camel is ready to rumble, charging is expected during mating season.

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