Arriving in Douz under the blistering sun, we leave the louage station and join a whirlwind of activity. As we walk through town it is easy to imagine how colorful and lively this place must have once been when caravans passed through, rejoicing in refreshments of food and drink, enjoying storytelling and news sharing, and finding relief from lonely desert passages with new people and cultures after long journeys across the Sahara. Today, the annual Festival of the Sahara recaptures this memory as a convergence of people from all corners of Tunisia and the world descend upon Douz.
"Snake charmer music" (as my brother calls it), blasts from CD shops, filling the air with a perfectly apt soundtrack for the scenery. Motorcyclists in full gear roar through town after racing in the desert. Four by fours piled high with luggage show a heavy dusting of sand from recent adventure excursions as they make their way through the roundabouts in the center of town. Indestructible Toyota Hilux trucks are packed and ready, winches and all, to carry thrill seekers on tours to otherwise unreachable desert oases.
Plump brown "deglats en nour," the cream of the date crop, are sold on every street corner by the truckload or in bunches fresh off the tree from old men in flowing white headscarves. There are all sorts of people wandering the market-stall lined streets, from a group of stereotypically snap-happy Japanese tourists, to a band of Douz teens who I imagine are in awe of how their quiet town has been transformed overnight into a hub of activity.
A French family stops to look at a map and take a much needed drink of water while an intense-eyed Berber man leads his camels, dressed head to toe in swaths of black fabric. We are all here for a once-in-a-lifetime experience; we've all come for the Festival of the Sahara!
We find Hotel de La Tente easily and check in, very pleased that our reserved room is both clean and spacious. We dump our backpacks on the bed, and begin to follow the crowd towards the festival grounds. The large arena is located about two kilometers from the center of town. We think about hailing a taxi and then decide against it when we see the bumper-to-bumper traffic slowing inching its way towards the festivities.
Instead, we follow the crowd and walk. With each step the sun beats down on our backs and I imagine with horror the thought of summertime in a place like this. It used to be hard for me to comprehend why people in the desert wore headscarves; I was unable to imagine how more clothing would actually feel cooler. Wishing I had some sort of barrier between my face and the sun, I now understand completely. Thankfully we soon reach Douz' oasis where thousands of palm trees provide breezy relief.
After a kilometer through pleasant shade we emerge into an immense expanse of open desert and see bright white bleachers rising up before us. There are people everywhere, packed into every seat. Bedouin tents are set up around the perimeter of the stadium where people are selling bottles of water and bags of popcorn and candied nuts. I buy a bag of peanuts from this man who makes them in batches, coating the nuts in brightly colored sugar syrup.
Food and water in hand, we make our way to the front in hopes of finding a good spot to take pictures. It is hot, it is crowded, and even though we've managed to squeeze behind a crowd of children instead of tall adults, we're still far away from where the events will take place.
Policemen guard the low fence surrounding the stadium, herding children behind bars, making sure no one gets run over by an unruly horse galloping close by. An announcer comes on a loudspeaker and announces first in Arabic then French and finally English, that the opening ceremony will begin shortly. Unsatisfied with our current location, Tyler suggests we try to find a way onto the festival grounds where we've spotted several people wandering around taking photos.
We walk the length of the bleachers. At the very end, we spot a police officer who immediately waves us onto the festival grounds, saying "Bienvenue a Douz!" Incredible! We aren't sure if we're given special treatment because we're foreign tourists, because our camera makes it seem like we're journalists, or if we just have inordinately good luck, but we wander around, gaping and gawking at everything in sight while the throng is still several hundred meters away crowded into the bleachers.
People have come from countries all around the Sahara, from Algeria to Mali, to show off their camel fighting, horseback riding, marriage customs, dog racing, and a countless other desert skills and cultural traditions. Everyone is remarkably friendly and we're greeted with waves and wide smiles, enthusiastically welcoming us to the festival. We ask a horseback rider if we can take his picture. He agrees and when we're done, he waves goodbye as he thunders off to race against the others.
Camel riders chastise wayward beasts who act like teenage boys, emitting strange guttural growls and burps. The camels all converge, re-enacting the movement of caravans and nomadic desert tribes.
Suddenly a shrill, otherworldly "Liii-li-li-lilililililililiiii" noise fills the air and we turn to see a group of girls in bright jewel-colored garb, their hands placed horizontally over their mouths creating an chorus of enthusiastic warbling tones I only wish I could duplicate.
There is a clomping of hooves and we turn the other way to see a group of riders galloping our way. We quickly run a few paces to dodge the horses and the sand their hooves kick up.
We pose with camels, meet ancient Bedouin tribeswomen, listen to bands of musicians play "snake charmer" music, and we even see a man in full shaman's attire. The local newscaster is there in a beautiful blue outfit; she poses with her microphone before beginning filming the festival for the evening's news. Reporters from around the world photograph and film the spectacle, and we are among them.
After an hour or so, the opening ceremony draws to a close and we make one more pass through the performers, meeting people and asking for their pictures. Tired but still in awe of what we just witnessed, we make our way slowly home through the oasis along with hundreds of other people. What. A. Day.