Camels for Christmas

December 30, 2008 in Africa, Travelogue, Tunisia

Normally, Christmas morning is a cozy affair at our house, jammies until noon, hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls for breakfast, carols sung, the Christmas story read and presents to be opened. Not this year.

This year we awoke to the call of the muezzin instead of sleigh bells and rolled out of our tents to huddle around the camp stoves sipping hot coffee and tea from plastic cups held in gloved hands. The desert isn’t warm until the sun is well up. The excitement was no less. The kids shared candy canes with the other camping kids in our area and hopped around chattering about the event we’ve been talking about for a year:

The Festival du Sahara at Douz!

This was the 41st official celebration of the Festival du Sahara, but it has been going on for much longer. The celebration grew out of a Bedouin marriage and camel market.Each year the nomadic peoples of the Sahara would come together to buy wives for their sons, trade camels and other goods and celebrate with camel races, horse races, hunts with their dogs and nights full of music and dancing.

It causes the population of the sleepy oasis town of Douz to swell from around 12,000 to several times that number as people from all over north Africa join the celebration. We were surprised to find just a handful of other westerners in attendance; owing, likely, to the difficulty in acquiring any details about the festival on line… such as the actual dates, which aren’t available until the last minute. We weren’t sure if it was happening in November, or at the end of December, until we were actually on the ground in Tunisia and drove down to Douz to check it out for ourselves last month!

Christmas morning was spent shopping through the sprawling Thursday souq, which had swelled to several times it’s normal size for the occasion. I bought some fruits and vegetables. Gramps bought a red checkered scarf and a burnoose (the brown, ankle length, heavy wool cloaks with pointy hats that the bedouin men wear… think “desert raider” in Star Wars!) The children shopped, unsuccessfully, for knives, their Christmas 10 TN burning a holes in their pockets. Christmas dinner was roast chicken, cabbage salad and fried potatoes at a street side cafe… the eight of us ate like kings for 28 TN (about twenty bucks.) A Christmas dinner we won’t soon forget!

By the time we’d walked the nearly 2 km through the date palms there were no seats left on the risers, built facing the desert. It took us a while to find a spot, way down at the end, where there was still standing room and where the kids could worm their way to the front and sit in front of the make shift fence… actually inside the arena… and build sand castles with the other little kids while they waited, and watched.

The crowed erupted when the huge painting of President Ben Ali was solemnly paraded past the crowd and the Tunisian anthem played while the flag was raised. Then, the drum beat began as a long line of drummers and dancers and bedouins marched across the sand from their semi-circular ring of wool tents toward the watching crowd. The opening parade of camels and horses and veiled women dancing to the beat of the ever present drums took our breath away, but was nothing compared with the rest of the festivities.

The children cheered along in English as the camel racers galloped past, beating their mounts with what looked like twists of wire and one racer tumbled off of her perch as the camel looked back with disdain and kicked sand in her face. We all laughed and shouted as the fighting camels (baited and goaded on by their bedouin masters) ran from the ring, bellowing, the following camel racing and snapping his teeth, trying to bite the bottom of the winner. They raced off into the dunes with their owners running and waving their hands as they chased their animals across the sand. We came to see that this chasing of one’s escaped camel must be a fairly routine part of nomadic life… it happened a lot!

The favorite event of the locals was, by far, the hunt.

Long, sleek sandy grey colored dogs were turned loose after numerous rabbits and two desert foxes. The crowd went wild as the quarry ran and the dogs followed in hot pursuit. There was unanimous applause when the dog finally snapped the neck of the rabbit. The fox got a standing ovation when he turned and bit the dog on the nose and sent the dog limping away. I was hoping he’d won and would get to sneak out between the tents and back to his hole in the sand. No such luck. The dog, having given up the chase, was replaced by a team of stick ball players who pummeled the little fox to death and then held him up by the tail for the cheering crowd. Elisha emerged from his ring side seat about this time, having wormed his way through the crowd.

“This makes me sad, Mama.” he said, as he buried his face in my skirt. Me too.

We learned a lot about nomadic life and customs. We saw the women doing a mysterious “hair dance,” and the men dancing with huge piles of clay pots on their heads, and a man whipped into a frenzy walking on hot coals as the big skin drums beat.

A white robed Libyan English teacher in a black hat enlightened us on camels, “The big white ones are the breed for riding. They are fast and carry only one man and his pack, but they don’t go far. The smaller brown ones are for packing up and traveling a long distance. We need both.”

For me, the crowning event was the horsemen.

Anything you’ve ever seen in a movie about Arab horsemen does not hold a candle to the real thing, I promise you.

They are a culture of riders and even the little children took my breath away. They raced back and forth on their decorated mounts, sitting, standing, frontwards, backwards, feet in the air, while hanging on to their horse’s neck, stacked two high, three people balanced between two horses, firing guns, tossing sabers, swinging from side to side, touching their feet to the ground on either side of the horse.

Little children were literally thrown to their father’s on horseback as they rode by and then climbed up to stand on their shoulders, or swing from side to side, or hang upside down off of the back of the horse before being thrown again, off of the back of a galloping horse, to be caught in mid air by an uncle.

Manes and tails were dripping with fringe and satin flags stretched out behind the flying horses from beneath the saddles. Men wrapped in turbans of every color, with only their black eyes showing were the heros of the hour as their robes flapped around them and they performed the very best of what has, no doubt, been handed down from father to son through countless ages.

What, then, could I say, when one such rider trotted up on his wet and dripping mount, skin as black as night, wrapped in a turban and leather chest armor and extended his hand with a smile?

“Will you ride with me on the Sahara?”

If you know me, you know my answer, I’m never one to miss an opportunity like that! I swung up behind his saddle and he headed off into the sunset, leaving my husband taking pictures and my Dad sweating it out about whether or not we’d be coming back.

Before it was over, all of the children had rides as well and our pockets were a few dinar lighter… taken for a ride in both senses, it seems. With the horse ride not 24 hours old, my Dad worried less when I got the same offer from another bedouin, this one on a racing camel.

“Will you trot with me?”

Less starry eyed this time, I asked, “How much?” “Two dinar… just two, we’ll trot on the desert together….”

And so we did.

“Are you ‘sportif’?” the camel jockey asked as we loped back toward my family. I’d like to think so, and so I nodded my affirmative.

“Do you think you could just bail off the side so I don’t have to sit the camel down?” he asked me, in French.

So, to the shock and awe of my kids I grabbed the Bedouin’s hand and swung off of that eight foot high hump, down the camel’s leg and landed lightly on the sand. I was rewarded with a thumbs up from my new friend and a cheer from the kids.

We walked home through the date grove as the sun set over the Sahara, rehashing the day’s events, tired, dusty, smelling slightly of camel, but happy.

We got our camels for Christmas!