Midnight at the Oasis

December 29, 2008 in Africa, Travelogue, Tunisia

Whoever idealized the serene night scene of Berber tents surrounding an oasis, fires flickering, a reflection of the stars above, the quiet hum of insects and maybe a bedouin bathing by moonlight had obviously NOT actually spent a night at an oasis… especially on a festival night.

If there is one thing that an oasis night is not, under any circumstances, it is quiet. There is really no way to describe the cacophony of sounds that paint the darkness: donkeys braying, dogs barking, cats calling, camels roaring (they don’t exactly roar, but they are certainly making their best attempt.) Add to that the clip clop of horse hooves, followed closely by the squeak of the wheels of the cart it is pulling, the low level drone of Arabic, whispers, conversations, laughter, shouting and singing and it is a symphony that echos out onto the desert and disappears into the darkness.

The drumming started just at bed time. BOM-bah-bah-bah-BOM-bah-bah-bah-BOM-BOM-BOM-bah-bah-bah…. The constant beat of skin drums beaten with smooth sticks by men in ankle length, hot pink dresses and green vests topped with red hats hung with long black tassles, reminiscent of a horse’s tail attached at the center. The high, shrill trilling of the Bedouin women accompanying their beat: “HIEEEELA-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-LA!” BOM-bah-bah-bah-BOM-bah-bah-bah…. There is no sense in putting in earplugs and trying to sleep. The only thing to do is lay awake in the deep dark and frosty cold of the desert night and enjoy the symphony, trying to burn it into my sound memory for the deep dark and frosty cold of my ancient days, sixty years from now.

Then, sometime after midnight, as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown: quiet. No more drums, no more people sounds, only the lonely donkey’s cry or dog’s bark. We emerged from the tent to make a run to the bathroom, our breath hanging in the frosty air. Desert nights, especially in winter, hover around the freezing point. It was impossible to rush (as my chilly self wanted to do) across the sand to the bath house. We had to stand, heads held aloft and look at the stars. It is hard to believe that these are the same stars that watch over us in the pine forests of northern New England, but they are, the stars of the northern hemisphere: Ursa Major and Minor, the Pleiades, and Orion, standing like an arab warrior over the ocean of sand. The moon was no where to be seen, hidden among the date palms at the edge of the horizon, perhaps, but the stars more than made up for its light. The desert stars alone were worth the trip.

Between drumming and the dawn prayers came three or so hours of twilight sleep. Douz has at least four mosques, each of which seems to pride itself on the accuracy of timing their morning prayers, and they certainly do not agree. The first wail arose at five thirty, sharp, and it was nearly half an hour before the last song faded into the semi-darkness. The sound of the muezzin is an effective alarm clock and reminds even we infidels to begin the day by addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. We do it from inside our warm sleeping bags: it will be another three hours before it is warm enough to emerge from our green tents, blow on our frozen fingers and start the fires resulting in coffee and tea while Gramps hummed the inevitable under his breath: “Midnight at the Oasis” by Maria Maldaur (1973).