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The International Festival of the Sahara in Douz

The reality was that we were crossing southern Tunisia’s Chott el Djerid, the Lake Triton of legends, and, as we could now confirm, a place of mirages on the grandest scale. We were on our way to Douz, an oasis at the edge of the Sahara.

Palm trees outnumber residents 25 to 1 in Douz, making the town of 12,000 the largest of Tunisia’s desert oases. But each fall, the town’s population swells considerably when it plays host to the four-day International Festival of the Sahara, a spectacular celebration of the arts and traditions of the desert people drawing both performers and audience from across Northern Africa.

Ramshackle Town

We arrived on the first day of festivities and our shared taxi driver pulled up at a chaotic louage station that, initially, did little to endear us to the ramshackle town. But we soon took to Douz, where men in flowing white robes disappeared in clouds of dust and sand, and blue doorways added a touch of whimsy to the somber brick and mud buildings.

That first day, and for the next three, we strolled through the cool shadows of the spring-fed palmeraie to the grandstand just beyond town. Here, on the very edge of the Sahara, we visited the smoky tents of Berber women.

Faces etched with tattoos, they tended open fires and toasted rounds of stuffed bread they called Berber pizza and we called the best food in town.

Never quite early enough to secure a sheltered seat in the stands, we tried to beat the heat by fashioning our shawls into miniature tents, while puzzling over the Tunisian men quite comfortably bundled in their trademark black ski jackets.

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