International Festival of the Sahara
Each year in the South of Tunisia is held the International Festival of the Sahara of Douz, celebrating desert life and culture. In typical desert style, the program is always in flux so be prepared to live at a little different pace and take a little more time to make sure you are able to enjoy the festivities. You may want to arrive 2 to 4 hours before the event is supposed to start in order to get your place staked out (and each year it is never certain which day exactly the 4 day celebration will begin until roughly the week before). On the 52nd year of the event in 2019, rough event programs became available as of the 2nd day of the event. This event is truly a celebration of North African Sahara heritage with participants from Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya and other neighboring countries showing off their unique dress and cultural heritage through dance, parades, horsemanship, camel races and dog hunting competitions. Berber tents line the area and you are as likely to run into someone out riding their camel or horse as driving a car during this week.
Sloughi Hunt: Desert Greyhounds
One of the highlights of the International Festival of the Sahara is the Sloughi Hunt: the demonstration of the skills of the unique desert greyhounds as hunting dogs. These dogs are specially bred for their speed and skills as hunters. At the festival you will have several opportunities to view a demonstration of a typical hunt where a wild desert hare or fox is released, and the dog hunting pair are released to catch it and bring it back to their owner.
Traditional Berber Wedding Traditions
Another intriguing event at the International Festival of the Sahara is the demonstration of the traditional Berber wedding entourage, complete with dancing, drums, and elaborate traditional dress. The bride typically would be taken around the town inside the bower on top of the camel.
This festival actually originated as a Berber marriage gathering back in 1910 where people would come to meet their future spouse.
Many races of camels around the track which often ended in the camels thundering through crowds of photographers and others who had gone out for a closer view of the action. Amazingly nobody was seriously injured as the large animals weaved their way through the milling people some of whom had forgotten that the camels were coming with all the other exciting things going on at the same time. Many daring deeds and demonstrations of horsemanship and men in the traditional dress of their tribe, whirling dancers some with pots on their heads stacked more than 10 high.
Trying the Local Foods at the International Festival of the Sahara
This year the outdoor shows were mostly in the morning and between shows there were many chances to enjoy the culture and heritage of the desert Berber, like savoring Matubgha, (also known as Berber pizza) a flat unleavened bread cooked over an open fire, stuffed with onions, and a spicy tomato sauce. Or you might have time to sink your teeth into a Shawarma, slow cooked on a skewer and stuffed into a sandwich filled with salad, grilled peppers and harissa (Tunisia’s signature red pepper sauce).
Exploring the Sahara Town of Douz
Spend the days wandering through a town bustling with activity or bargaining with vendors selling mementos of the occasion. You will likely find groups doing theatre in the town squares, and other activities for kids, such as horseback and camel rides. We were delighted to watch a stick hockey tournament where players used the sticks of the palm branch shaped exactly like hockey sticks to hit the ball. Yellow turban team took on the blue turban. We appreciated that handicapped kids were encouraged to join in with the activity.
In the evenings around town in various places you can find theatre, poetry readings, concerts and other celebrations of local desert culture to soak up some of the traditions of the region. I was even invited to join in a Bocce (Petanque or Boules) tournament where men from the area tested their skills against one another in a game of lawn bowling. The small Oasis town known to have in the neighborhood of 25 date trees for each of the inhabitants was bustling with activity from dawn till dusk in this celebration of Sahara North African desert culture.
Don’t miss this chance for a unique glimpse, where outsiders are welcomed in to experience the culture in Douz, the gateway to the Sahara.