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...

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