About This Festival
For over a century, the International Festival of the Sahara has proven that it is possible to throw a party in one the harshest of environments on earth. The festival is the largest and most well-known in the country of Tunisia, and attracts visitors from across Northern Africa and around the world.
The festival is situated in the middle of the rolling sand dunes, in and around the small town of Douz, the so called “Gateway to the Sahara” (the world’s largest desert outside of the polar regions). While the festival is held in the desert, temperatures at this time of year usually range from 40 to 60°F (5 to 15°C). On arrival, you might be thinking the landscape seems strangely familiar—and you would be right as the surrounding desert was used as the backdrop for Star Wars, the movie.
Expect a huge variety of events, ranging from camel racing to a traditional Bedouin marriage ceremony along with displays of traditional local crafts. There's also music and dancing held in the town itself at the Maison de la Culture in Place des Martyrs.
A Festival for the Ages
The Camel Festival,as it was first known, originated in 1910, while Tunisia was under French rule and included some popular games and a Bedouin marriage market.In 1967, the festival embraced its modern identity, due largely to the new republic’s first president Habib Bourguiba. In the following years, it quickly emerged as the country’s best-known festival, taking on an international feel in 1981 with the addition of other Arab and African countries.
With the ever-evolving culture of Tunisia, the International Festival of the Sahara is a great way to experience the Bedouin culture and lifestyle. The festival has now grown into a huge celebration that attracts over 50,000 people every year, from nomads, to poets, artists, camel racers, and even sand-hockey players.
In recent years the festival has been attended by more Westerners than ever before. This influx of tourists has had an influence on the festival, especially the music. Don't be surprised to find DJs playing techno music in parts of the festival grounds.
Camel Racing, Camel Wrestling and More
Most of the events take place in the H’naiech stadium on the outskirts of town. When the stadium is full it is a very impressive sight. Over the four days, competitions include camel and horse races, desert hunts and a sand-hockey competition.
One of the most popular events is camel wrestling where two strong, heavy camels attempt to knock each other to the ground. It's mating season so two males from rival herds compete for the attentions of the female. Gurgling loudly to assert their prowess, they face each other, each using their necks to knock the other off its feet.
The most prestigious event of the festival is the camel race. After the qualifying heats the final race takes place on the last day of the festival before a packed crowd, with a generous cash prize on offer for the victor.
Also on the final day is the Sloughi (a Moroccan breed of greyhound) hunt. These dogs are incredibly agile and remarkably fast. Similar to the British hunt, a rabbit is released and the dogs are sent off to follow the trail. Bets are fiercely placed on which dog will catch it.
The majority of events seem to be tailored to the male crowd. Belly dancers balancing up to seven large clay pots upon their head… while climbing a ladder. There's even a ‘Miss Sahara’ competition that is guaranteed to draw a crowd.
Theatre and Dance
Traditional plays tell the story of a brave Bedouin warrior called Mandour. He falls in love with a beautiful young girl from a rival tribe that leads to dangerous encounters and rivalry. Meanwhile, the nakh (hair dance) is performed by a group of local girls wearing bright colored dresses and veils. They rhythmically swing their long hair in unison to the music, which was once used to hypnotize men and trick them into marriage. As the tempo increases they swing their hair in wider circles before collapsing on the ground.
There is also a craft fair and poetry plays an important role as it has always been a cultural tradition of communication in the desert. If the action gets too much, you can always retire to the food area and indulge in the delicious treats served up by these nomadic people.
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