Africa and the Middle East 5 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (2)

Festival of the Dhow Countries

Where? Zanzibar

When? July

How long? 10 days

Though this started life as the Zanzibar International Film Festival, even before it had got off the ground the programme was extended to feature music and performing arts. The eighth festival showcased over 250 films, 40 performing artists and 10 exhibitions; seminars and workshops included Filmmakers, Musicians, Dance, Women, Children and Village; there was a literary forum,

a “dhow culture” symposium and batik classes; and, of course, plenty of beach parties.

Festival of the Oases

Where? Tozeur, Tunisia

When? NovemberlDecember

How long? 4 days   

If you’re after danger, wildness and a good knees-up in the desert, then Tozeur’s Festival of the Oases has got the lot During the Bedouin event the endlessly undulating sand dunes south of town (off Avenue Aboue el Kacem Chabbi) contain a sprawling tent-city where several thousand desert nomads take up residence. The diversions include horse racing, whip-cracking, snake charming, knife­throwing competitions and the extraordinary hissing spitting and biting spectacle that is camel-fighting.

Festival of the Sahara

Where? Douz, Tunisia

When? December

How long? 4 days

This festival for nomads and other fun-loving desert dwellers is situated smack in the middle of the rolling sand dunes of the Tunisian desert, in and around the pleasant town of Douz – the so-called Gateway to the Sahara. If the landscape seems familiar it’s because it was used as the backdrop for Star Wars, and the best thing to do is buy yourself the full Obi Wan Kenobi robe and search out one of the tents where the bubbling hookah action is going on. There’s a huge variety of events and spectacles – ranging from dog-racing to camel-fighting to belly-dancing – and displays of traditional local crafts, most of them taking place in the tourist zone, a couple of kilometres south of town, in the oasis. There are also music and dance events held in the town itself (at the Maison de la Culture in Place des Martyrs), leading up to a grand finale on the fourth day that’s attended by Tunisian politicians and various local bigwigs. Despite these establishment credentials, there’s a great atmosphere and it’s a fantastic location, although women should be aware that they may often find themselves the centre of unwanted attention. Bear in mind also that you’ll need to book early – Douz isn’t a big town, and its hotels fill quickly during the festival.

Festival on the Niger

Where? Segou, Mali

When? February

How long? 3 days

For those who can’t make it all the way to Essakane for Mali’s Festival in the Desert, the lesser-known Festival on the Niger (®www.festival segou.org; tickets available online), held in the riverside town of Segou, makes an appealing alternative. Featuring an exuberant mix of music, dance, art, puppets, craft workshops, theatre and debate, it may not boast the exotic location of the desert, but at night the setting on the banks of the Niger, with a full moon hanging low above the water, processions of fire-lit pirogues (dug- out canoes), and bats weaving in the air above the main stage, has its own special magic.

The Festival on the Niger only began in 2005, the brainchild of local businesspeople who sought to promote the region’s culture and boost economic development, but it’s become a regular item on the Mali festival calendar, enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. While leading acts – including, in 2006, renowned balafon player Neba Solo, griot Abdoulaye Diabate, and rising reggae star, Tikken Jah – play long into the night, there’s plenty to do and see in the daytime: you can learn how to make bogolans (blankets decorated with dye made from mud and tree bark), meet artists eager to discuss their work, marvel at puppets in the form of turtles, fish and scorpions wrestling by the water, join huddles of teenage girls swooning and giggling at the sexy antics of local boy band, Maya Maya, or simply sip a beer in the shade. Segou is a pleasant, lively town, relatively prosperous by Mali standards, and the whole event has a gentle, laid-back feel.

Fetes des Masques

Where? Pays Dogon, Mail

When? April

How long? 5 days

Famous for their unique cosmology, their beautifully carved granary doors and their fairy-tale, shaggy- topped, pepper-pot houses, the Dogon have fascinated anthropologists for decades. Their belief in the afterlife is such that they celebrate funerals with great gusto, and masks have a crucial role in these and all other ritual proceedings. Masked dancers, some on stilts, take centre stage for the dramatic and colourful Fetes des Masques, in which rival troupes compete against each other to re­enact scenes from tribal history. Purists argue that the spiritual roots of these dances have been corrupted for the benefit of visitors – ruggedly remote though it is, the Pays Dogon is far from undiscovered by tourism – but you’re still left with the feeling that you’re witnessing an ancient and thrillingly authentic event.

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