Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas day at the Douz International Festival of the Sahara

I woke up Christmas morning in Douz to sunny skies, similar to most days in the Sahara. After making coffee in my ibrik, I walked to the town centre. I could hear the drumming and music as I approached, and soon saw the festival activities of the day. Musicians, drummers, dancers, including pot dancers. The beat of the music in south tunisia goes right into your body, you can feel your heart and pulse beating to the deep vibrations. I met with some friends from Ali Baba's restaurant, and wandered around with them for awhile, taking photos.

The Douz International Festival of the Sahara is four days long, this year starting on Christmas day. There are events taking place every day, and there are apparently over 120,000 tourists here each day.

After that I went home to prepare for the 'big event'! I was riding my new Algerian Toureg camel (that I just bought last week) in the procession in the arena with other Bedouin men from south Tunisia (the six I rode with are from Glissia, a Bedouin village next to Douz, where most of my friends life.)

Before I talk about riding in the festival, I will tell you a bit more about my new camel. While I love Lasfar (my first camel love), he is not trained at riding without someone leading him. He is sturdy, gentle and strong, and is used for treks, short and long. I have ridden him without someone leading, but since he is not trained to ride without someone walking in front of him, and is too old to train at this point, when I ride him without someone leading, he spends more time looking for grasses to eat, than being led. He did surprisingly well with me in the desert, walking while I led him, but that is just because he loves me so much and listens to me (that is what the Bedouins told me!). But to go alone with him into the desert, even for just a short ride is a lot of trouble with him, and would be very frustrating. And that has been my goal since I got here.

My other goal has been to camel race. Ever since I had my 2, four hour lessons in February in camel racing, I have been passionate about it. I love to race a camel across the desert, and would love to enter a formal race as well.

Toureg camels are Algerian, usually white, slimmer, and are trained to race or camel dance. Riding a Toureg camel is very different too. The saddle sits on top of the hump, not behind it, and there is nothing to hold on to. The only thing keeping you on, is the post on the saddle that sits between your legs. You squeeze. Tight. Every minute! There is what looks like something to hold on to attached to the post, but it is fragile and would not hold you on - it is purely decorative. So you hold the reins, and have your legs crossed over the post, with one foot on the camels neck (usually in bare feet) to kick the camel on the neck when you want to go fast! It is pure bliss!!!

So, my friend Mounir has been looking for a Toureg camel for me for months. There are not very many around. He thought he might have to go to Algeria to get one, they are trained by Algerian specialists only. A few weeks ago, he heard that there was one in Toezer for sale in the souk, but when he went there to look at it, saw it was not young (I wanted a young one I would have for years). As the festival approached, I knew that even if I got one, there would not be enough time for me to practice to enter a race in the festival. Your relationship with a Toureg is very very important, as you must trust him, and he you. And when there was only a week left before the festival, I was losing hope that I would be able to even ride in the procession at the festival.

Then, 5 days before the festival, Mounir heard that there was a young one in Douz for sale. He went to look, saw it was young, trained very very well, the owner just didn't want it any more. So I went to look and fell in love. I have named him "Mabrouk", which means 'congratulations'. (Mounir's cousin's name is Mabrouk, and I love the name.)

He is beautiful, white, young, gentle, very very soft, and has been trained extremely well. If I wanted to learn to camel dance, I could with him, as he has been trained in that too! (I don't think so, you stand on the saddle while the camel dances...)

So, yesterday, on Christmas day, I rode in the procession with some Bedouin friends, all of us in white shirts, black pants, white cheich's. The arena was packed! The arena is the largest in the world, as the marathon camel racers start in the arena, and race for around 40 k. So we had 'front row' seats, sitting on our camels beside the bedouin tents set up in the arena for the tourists to see. One of the photos is of us, the "Glissia team"! And I watched the festival from the back of Mabrouk and then rode in the procession. I will do the same for the other 3 days of the 4 day festival.

Enjoy the photos! Don't forget you can double click on them to enlarge them. Hope your Christmas was full of love, joy, with the people you love...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ode to Eid Aloosh

I have never 'really' made the connection between the meat I eat and the animal who had to give its life so I could eat.

In the past, even if I thought about the animal, it has never been personal for me.

This Eid, 2008, I have changed how I look at what I eat. Like the 'slow food' movement in the west, my attitude towards eating has been slowly changing since I moved here even before Eid. The process of cooking a meal takes longer, sometimes over a fire, ingredients are purchased individually from a person who likely grew the food or knows the person who grew it or raised the animal. When I buy lamb or beef, I actually see the parts of the animal - legs, often the head, sometimes looking at the eyes of the animal I am about to eat. This changes a person.

This Eid, I participated in the timeless ritual of the family killing an aloosh (goat). Early in the morning on the first day of Eid, I rode my mobilette to Glissia, to my friends home, with the promised kefta and a container of Canadian/Tunisian version of chili on the back of my bike.

After having tea at their home, Khiria, the girls and me, walked to the palm pen to get the aloosh. I was sad as I walked, having stroked this aloosh many times since I have known this family, and having seen the children play with it many times. The children skipped and jumped with happiness, this was all very natural for them.

After we brought the aloosh back to the home, Jamel put incense on the fire, to bless the goat before it was killed. He hugged it and said something to it. To kill an animal halal, the animal must be happy. This process reminded me somewhat of the aboriginal people of Canada, how they thanked an animal for giving its life for sustenance.

However, I could not watch the aloosh's throat being slit. Jamel had wanted me to take photos, but I could not. So he went to a neighbour's home to ask for help to take photos of it (I did not include photos of the goat just after it was killed, when you are not part of the whole process, a picture is sometimes too difficult to see). I could hear the goat gasp for its last breath. It was not as bad as I thought, but I fought back tears.

Jamel then skinned the goat, its skin coming off like a coat. I made sure I helped to hold the leg for part of it. If I was going to be part of eating this animal, I wanted to respect it enough to be part of the process. I looked at the aloosh, and thanked it, and thanked Allah (God) that this family would again have meat for awhile. At times, the children watched the goat being cleaned and skinned in the yard, at times they played with the balloons I brought for them.

In the afternoon, we walked to the homes of other family members and friends, wishing them "Aidek Mabrouk" (happy Eid), and some people came to the home to do the same.

Much later in the cold dark of the Sahara night, under the winter canopy of stars, Khiria built a fire, and the family and I sat around and watched while Jamel and Khiria carved the meat off a leg very very thinly, placed it in tin foil and barbecued it on the fire. The taste of the smoky aloosh was delicious. I now understand why it is important to eat even the grisly parts. To waste even a part of the aloosh, would be not honouring the gift it gave.

And so, Aidek Mabrouk everyone. May you find the connection and give thanks for the food that sustains you.

PS - there are other photos below of friends I spent time with on the second and third day of Eid
Love, Juanita

Friday, December 5, 2008

My apartment in Douz

I am finally posting some photos of my apartment in Douz. It is only a few days until Eid, a new year celebration (there are two Eid's in the year, one after Ramadan, and one in the winter). Dec 8 is the first day of the 3 days of Eid.

It is a time of great celebration, each family will kill a sheep or goat (halal and very quickly) on the first day of Eid. Children often get new clothes, and food, music and family are celebrated. I am looking forward to being part of it, although somewhat (well, very) squeamish about seeing the deceased before I eat it...)!

Soon after Eid is the annual four day Douz Festival of the Sahara, known throughout the world, where around 30,000 people from around the world will arrive in this town! Mostly from Algeria, Morocco, Europe, Syria and Egypt. There will be camel racing, camel dancing competitions, Bedouin music and dance, a huge souk (aka shopping for Juanita!), and of course FOOD! This year the festival starts on Dec 25th, so I will be celebrating Christmas Bedouin style!

I was hoping to have my own toureg (white Algerian racing) camel before the festival to enter one of the races, but it doesn't look like that will happen. If I get one before the festival, I would still be able to participate in the toureg procession, which would be exciting enough!!!

The downside, is that I will be missing Christmas with friends, and especially my darling sons, Rustyn and Jesse, and their sweet and beautiful femmes. This will be the first year I have not prepared a Christmas feast for my family. It is very weird, and sad for me.

As far as turkey dinner, I hope to buy a small turkey after the festival and cook a 'traditional' Christmas dinner for New Years for a few friends. I just bought a 'real' stove with an oven, haven't figured out how to work it yet, and I discovered there is no thermostat - I guess you just turn it on and hope for the best! Inshallah....

Enjoy the photos of my apartment, and have a wonderful Christmas season! Picture me riding Lasfar in the desert and sitting under my own eastern star...
Love Juanita