On the edge of the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, lies the oasis town of Douz in Tunisia. With a population of 12,000 it is said the palm trees outnumber the residents of this town by 25-1. This attractive community is known as the 'Gateway to the Sahara' and is a hundred miles West of the coastal town of Gabes and South of the dry salt lake bed at Chott El Jerid. Its magical landscape is home to the spectacular annual four day ‘Festival of the Sahara’. At the end of December thousands of people from across North Africa come together in this social and trading hub to celebrate Bedouin nomadic life and tradition.
The first festival was called the ‘Camel Festival’ and was held in 1910 when Tunisia was under French rule. It is believed the current format for this celebration is only thirty five years old. In the summer months tribesmen take their sheep and goats to graze on the plains and in the winter they come together in Douz to harvest the dates. This inspired the festival where men, young and old, challenge each other to competitions to test wits, skill and horsemanship.
Over the four days the competitions include camel marathons, horse races, desert hunts to catch rabbits and a sand-hockey competition, which is played with shepherd’s crooks instead of hockey sticks. One of the most popular events is camel wrestling where two strong, heavy camels attempt to knock each other to the ground.
Although the festival is not very well known outside of Tunisia, the population of the town swells as intrigued visitors journey to this region to watch or participate in events such as camel excursions into the desert, balloon rides, sand skiing and lively parades. Tattooed and costumed performers engage in balancing acts and a range of regional belly dancing.
The festival is not only for the physically ambitious. Besides the craft fair, there is a strong cultural tradition of poetry which is one of the most important forms of communication in the desert. Music is added to lively prose; the pieces are presented with singing, dancing and adapted to the stage. Crowds gather to enjoy this celebration of life in the Sahara Desert in French, Arabic and some English. The most traditional play tells the complicated story of a brave Bedouin warrior called Mandour. He falls in love with a beautiful young girl from a rival tribe which leads to dangerous encounters and rivalry. The ‘Miss Sahara’ competition also draws the crowds.
The hair dance (or the nakh) is an impressive display by dozens of veiled girls wearing bright colored dresses. They kneel on the ground and in unison they swing their long hair to the rhythms of hypnotic music, which was once used to hypnotise men and trick them into marriage. As the tempo increases the girls swing their hair in wider arches until they collapse. So the festival is also an opportunity for the young people to marry.
The main events take place in the H'naiech stadium on the edge of town in the heart of the sand dunes and palm trees. It is surrounded by black and brown Bedouin tents, which are also called hair tents because they are made with goats’ hair. In these tents women prepare traditional dishes including stuffed bread called Berber pizza. Most of the men wear white skirts, bright red waistcoats and fezzes with long black tassels. When the stadium is full it is a very impressive sight.
The most prestigious event of the festival is the camel race. The camels used for this event are the Mehari camels which, in the summer months, are sent ahead of a caravan to find new pastures. After the qualifying heats the final race takes place on the last day of the festival in a full stadium. The prize money is a generous $3000 dollars. To win this prize is something the young men dream of.
Another event saved for the final day is the Sloughi greyhound racing which the children enjoy the most. Bets are placed on this Moroccan breed which is possibly related to dogs of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. These dogs are agile and remarkably fast. The races provide for much excitement.
This exotic festival is an annual contrast to the hard, lonely life of the nomads of the desert. In the midst of this fascinating arid region, the festival draws to a close with tribal rhythms, gun salutes and a standing ovation. As the crowds return home they take with them the timeless spirit of the Sahara which has been rejuvenated for another year.