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 submerge themselves in the experience by staying close to the action.
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.
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.
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.
Douz is called the 'Gateway to the Sahara' and, besides this festival, offers sandy treasures like camel excursions, balloon rides and sand skiing.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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