Tunisia

The Desert Sessions

Writer

Robert Joyce

Photographer

Sophia Baraket

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It reminds me of the way life used to be, the traditional way of life

In a dusty field, Bou Karouba and three other players from the group are about to perform for the thousands gathered at the 35th annual Festival of the K’sour Saharien. The event, featuring several days of performances, seeks to showcase local culture and to drag tourists away from the sea for a look at what Tunisia’s less-developed southern interior can offer.

Pre-dating the arrival of the Arab armies in the seventh century, Tataouine was historically a trading centre. The name means ‘water source’ in the language of North Africa’s original inhabitants, the Amazigh. The Romans referred to the Amazigh as ‘berber’, a word that shares its roots with ‘barbarian’, because they did not speak Latin.

Many now will recognise the name Tataouine as the home planet of Luke Skywalker. Filming for certain scenes of ‘Star Wars’ took place outside the city, a fact proudly advertised in tourist haunts. Tunisia’s Ministry of Tourism even commissioned a video of the iconic ‘Star Wars’ characters grooving to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ recently, in an effort to draw tourism inland.

The festival gets its name from the ancient cave-like structures found across Tataouine. These k’sour, Arabic for castles, were either lived in or used to store grain, according to Tahor Ennour from Tataouine’s tourism office, one of the festival’s organisers.

K’sour are either carved out of the earth or built up from rock and mud. Each one is made of a stack of dozens of rooms, sometimes with internal passageways, communal rooms and even staircases. Standing inside one, the air is cool, if cramped. Here, families and food were safe from both the heat and any enemies outside.

Today, it is common to see modern houses built around the k’sour dotting Tataouine’s landscape. Each k’sour belonged to a tribe, with each family controlling one or two rooms. Tribal leaders lost much of their power during the rule of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, but they still hold symbolic importance in the south.

Now, these clans work together to transform k’sour into hotels or museums. But refinishing the caverns has become an expensive business lately and many sit in a state of half-finished repair. During the festival, as cars full of people pour into the k’sour for music and poetry performances, children play in the caves, climbing to the roofs.

Bou Karouba and his team wear white shirts, red vests and long baby-blue skirts. Some also wear red and white hats, with a long thick tassel attached at the top. A team of three drummers use thick clubs, thin sticks or their hands to command the song’s rhythm, which varies in tempo but always remains hypnotic. A fourth member plays a zukra, a wooden bagpipe-like instrument common to traditional Tunisian music. Most of the time though, the music is only part of the performance.

Mohamed Injan, about 60 years old, dances with the band. Despite his age, Injan’s hips never cease moving and his shuffling feet kick up an impressive amount of dust. But it’s on the stone vase above his head that most of the crowd is focused. Quickly after the music begins, Injan picks it up and balances it on his head. One vase soon becomes a stack of three – and then it’s time to get the ladder.

The crowd forms a circle outside one of the k’sour, and after every lap or two of dancing around it, Injan retreats to a frail-looking ladder where an assistant, around his age, stacks another vase, knocking it to fit snuggly with the one below. Once Injan gets to a stack of five, the vases are now taller than he is, but still his feet keep shuffling. As the crowd grows more excited, middle-aged men join Injan in busting a move, to the embarrassment of their children.

The music grows louder and the stack grows taller. At nine vases, it’s clear from the focused discomfort on Injan’s face that all his concentration is on keeping the two-metre tower – and himself – vertical. The drums reach a frenzied pace and the crowd applauds. All told, the vases weigh around 40 kilogrammes. But do they ever fall? ‘Sometimes,’ his assistant says, quickly adding, ‘but rarely.’

‘The people love this music because it’s our inheritance. It’s very old, passed down from generation to generation,’ Bou Karouba says. Tunisians, he explains, usually seek out this type of music more than visitors to the country. The musicians are able to make their living playing weddings and festivals like these, travelling the country.

The audience at the festival is overwhelmingly Tunisian, with small handfuls of European tourists shepherded in by watchful tour guides. Many are from towns around Tataouine, but some families have driven in from cities like Gafsa, Sfax and Tunis for the festival, creating an atmosphere of a rural county fair. The crowd hasn’t come to see something new, they’ve come to be proud of what they already know.

‘It reminds me of the way life used to be, the traditional way of life,’ Safiya, a 24 year old Tunisian visiting the festival, explains during a drum performance. Residents say the relief is welcome. ‘It helps the city be more lively and has positive impacts on the economy,’ Fahim Othman, deputy director of Festival of the K’sour Saharien, shares. ‘I wish we had more events like this, it’s a relief to the people and the area in general.’

Assal Zid, 54, is a wood carver in Tataouine. During the festival he is able to display his work and receive more visitors, even selling a couple of small pieces. Located so far south from the major cities, he usually has trouble attracting customers, buying supplies and transporting his goods. ‘This festival is all we have,’ he says.

Back in the band, Bou Karouba thinks Tataouine’s traditions are safe for the moment. Young people, he says, are eager to learn traditional music and the demand for performances is still strong. He’s also doing his part. Just before starting his performance, Bou Karouba calls his 12 year old son, Oussama, down from the stands. Taking his drum off, he straps it around the boy, and tells him to play. The familiar rhythm naturally flows from the boy’s hands. ‘They’re raised on this,’ Bou Karouba smiles.

This article appears in the issue45Buy Now