Savoring a Saharan Spectacle: The International Festival of the Sahara, Douz, Tunisia
Text and photo by Kim Toolson
If we were to believe our eyes, we were flying through space, speeding along a black ribbon of raised highway with the heavens circling all around. The reality was that we were crossing southern Tunisia’s Chott el Djerid, the Lake Triton of legends, and, as we could now confirm, a place of mirages on the grandest scale. We were on our way to Douz, an oasis at the edge of the Sahara.
Palm trees outnumber residents 25 to 1 in Douz, making the town of 12,000 the largest of Tunisia’s desert oases. But each fall, the town’s population swells considerably when it plays host to the four-day International Festival of the Sahara, a spectacular celebration of the arts and traditions of the desert people drawing both performers and audience from across Northern Africa.
We arrived on the first day of festivities and our shared taxi driver pulled up at a chaotic louage station that, initially, did little to endear us to the ramshackle town. But we soon took to Douz, where men in flowing white robes disappeared in clouds of dust and sand, and blue doorways added a touch of whimsy to the somber brick and mud buildings.
That first day, and for the next three, we strolled through the cool shadows of the spring-fed palmeraie to the grandstand just beyond town. Here, on the very edge of the Sahara, we visited the smoky tents of Berber women. Faces etched with tattoos, they tended open fires and toasted rounds of stuffed bread they called Berber pizza and we called the best food in town.
Never quite early enough to secure a sheltered seat in the stands, we tried to beat the heat by fashioning our shawls into miniature tents, while puzzling over the Tunisian men quite comfortably bundled in their trademark black ski jackets. But heat or shade, we knew we were in for a spectacle that would bring all those fantasies of the Sahara to life.
The audience erupted as the first vibrantly costumed performers filed across the sand to center stage where a half-moon arena was defined by black nomadic tents. Kicking off four afternoons of mesmerizing music and feats of daring and dexterity was a performer who succeeded in sustaining a provocative belly dance while simultaneously balancing seven large clay jars and mounting a tall ladder.
The boisterous crowd was hushed by the arrival of the young girls of the “hair dance” who tossed their long tresses to a rhythm beat in the sand. Roguish men in turbans flaunted their superb horsemanship, executing headstands on the finest stallions and leaving the women gasping. Applause rang out for the horse races, the camel fights and the rabbit chases, but never so loudly as for the marriage tableau, with its cohesive portrayal of a traditionally resplendent Southern Tunisian wedding.
The sun cast long shadows when the troupe of 100-plus united for a final bow before the throngs dispersed for the day. But rather than return to town, we wandered off and followed the soft sand that rippled to the horizon. Once past the fantastic kasbahs–movie sets in disguise–we would pause as the sun retreated behind distant dunes, leaving nothing in its wake but the silhouette of a camel caravan against a crimson sky.
The festival’s Master of Ceremonies, an educated gentleman and author making his 16th trip to Douz, was lodging in our hotel. Over breakfast on the day of our departure, he joined our table in the leafy courtyard. He wanted us to understand the importance of preserving the heritage of this proud region; he wanted us to appreciate the stalwart struggle necessary to keep the desert at bay.
With the characteristic pout of the Tunisoise, he applauded this annual tribute to the spirit of the Sahara. “I have the greatest respect for the people of Douz,” he concluded in heavily accented English. After having witnessed the grand and powerful spectacle of the International Festival of the Sahara, I admitted that I did, too.
Normally scheduled for December/January, the festival has been moved up in recent years to avoid clashing with Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar.
There are direct buses to/from Tunis twice daily. Frequent buses and louages run between Douz and Kebili (25 km.). There are connections to all major cities from Kebili (These can be difficult to secure during the festival when demand is high). Trains run twice daily from Tunis to Gafsa. From Gafsa it is possible to visit the famous oasis town of Tozeur then continue by bus or louage to Kebili and Douz.
ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES
The small Douz Museum has an interesting collection portraying traditional Saharan life. Entrance TD 1.100. Open 9:30-4:30 Closed Mondays.
The Ofra Sand Dune is one of Tunisia’s largest easily accessible dunes. Just off the road leading to the big hotels, it’s a favorite spot for hiring a camel at sunset.
Sand skiing, go-karting and balloon rides can all be booked at any hotel.
On Thursdays there is a market attended by nomads.
Excursions to Zaafrane by bus or louage (or a four-hour walk for adventurers — take water and compass!) This small village is right in the desert and much of it is covered in sand. Many Sahara excursions use Zaafrane as their starting point.
24-hour camel treks into the Sahara start at US $25 per person. Desert trips can be arranged via camel or jeep for one day, one week or longer and can be customized to include ksour, dunes and Bedouin villages.
Accommodation may be particularly tight. Book in advance, if possible.
Centrally located near the louage station and market. Modest hotel built around 2 courtyards. Very clean and friendly. Rooms from $US 15 double.
Fax: (216-5) 470313
Zone Touristique. Kasbah décor within lush oasis. Rooms from US $70 double.
Fax: (216-5) 471589
3-star luxury hotel situated at the end of the Zone Touristique near the Ofra Sand Dune. Nightclub, 2 pools, hot springs. Rooms from US $80.
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