Africa and the Middle East 4 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (1)

Cure Salee

Where? Agadez, Niger

When? August/September

How long? 1 day

Traditional festivals are stitched firmly into the pattern of daily life in the ancient Agadez region of northwest Niger, and one of the most famous is the festival held after the rains – usually in August or September, when the area’s large salt flats fill with water and animals are fattened with the cure salee (“salt cure”) – by the nomadic Fulani community. Gerwol, the much-photographed male beauty pageants that are a central part of the proceedings, are unique. Young men seeking a wife adorn themselves with thick face paint to accentuate the features they consider most attractive, namely a high forehead, a long nose, white teeth and the clear whites of their eyes, then set about displaying their sex appeal to maximum effect through ritual teeth-baring and eyeball-rolling. Visitors don’t have much opportunity to participate, but you’ll certainly see Plenty of highly decorated desert-dwellers if you happen to be passing through.

Dubai Shopping Festival/Dubai World Cup

Where? Dubai, UAE

When? January

How long? 1 month

It’s hard to imagine how the shopping capital of the Middle East could improve on the opportunities it offers to shop till you drop, but Dubai somehow manages to, devoting itself to a month-long shopping festival, with lots of special offers in its stores and hotels, raffles, and competitions for things you never thought you could afford. It’s very much the place to be if you fancy your chances of landing that Ferrari, or for some serious shopping, since there’s nowhere better for luxury items, carpets, or haggling in one of the souks. And when you’ve reached your credit-card limit, there are fireworks, street shows and the added attraction of the Dubai World Cup – which offers the biggest prize money of any horse race in the world, and as such is attended by anyone who’s anyone in the sport of kings.

Eid al-Fitr

Where? Damascus, Syria

When? November

How long? 3 days

Marking the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr – literally, the breaking of the fast – is celebrated all over the Muslim world, but nowhere more enthusiastically than in Damascus, where festivities include fireworks, music, dancing – and food, the first before sundown for a month. Everyone gets dressed up and takes to the streets, and the city enjoys a carnival atmosphere, with street stalls, fairground attractions and general revelry. It’s a fine time to be in town, although truly authentic participation should really include the month of fasting beforehand.

Festival of World Sacred Music

Where? Fes, Morocco

When? June

How long? 1 week

Rabat may be the political capital of Morocco, but Fes el Bali – old Fez, the most complete living medieval city in the world – is the nation’s beating heart; and the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music (©www.fesfestival.com) offers visitors the opportunity to tap straight into its rich, multi-layered cultural and spiritual life. The festival styles itself as “a beacon of peace from the Islamic world” and deliberately draws performers from many different faiths and traditions. Alongside internationally acclaimed world music stars such as master sitar player Ravi Shankar and Malian superstar Salif Keita, both of whom headlined in recent years, are offerings as diverse as African-American gospel choirs, English chamber singers, Japanese court musicians and Spanish flamenco artists. The ticketed concerts, held in the palace courtyard of Bab Makina or the wonderful, cedar-scented gardens of the Musee Bathar, are glamorous, high-society events, attended by well-groomed locals keen to see and be seen. There’s a daily programme of free events, too, held at dusk in Bab Boujloud, one of the city’s main squares. Late in the evening, people move on to the Dar Tazi Gardens, to sway to hypnotic hadras, traditional Sufi chants. Between performances, you can explore the spice-scented souks, dodge muffled-hoofed donkeys in the winding alleyways, and sip mint tea to the call of the muezzin.

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