No your eyes did not decisive you, yes a person dresses as a chewbacka just walked past you on the way into a big white tent. The festival setting is cocooned by sand dunes, and the backstage area is the film set for the town of Mos Espa on the fictional planet of Tatooine. Sound familar, it should. Tatooine was made famous by the Star Wars films.
Lucus and current director used southern Tunisia as their dusty backdrop, borrowing heavily from traditional Berber fashion and architecture. Of course, Mos Espa is a fictitious. Local Tunisians call this place Ong Jemal (“neck of the camel”), near the villages of Nefta and Tozeur, which lie on the edge of the vast Chott el-Gharsa salt lake.
But some in the local crowd embrace the “Star Wars” theme, donning Darth Vader masks or sporting Princess Leia hair. Some dancers opt for selfie sticks to wave in the air; others brandish lightsabers.
At first glance, it could be a dance festival anywhere in the world, but this one is distinctively Tunisian.
Ravers from the capital dance alongside locals wearing traditional burnooses, the long brown wool cloaks well known to “Star Wars” fans, over their jeans.
The clash of modern with the old at the unusual event strikes a chord with some of the cultural shifts, economic issues and political transitions that Tunisia is facing in these tumultuous times.
A military helicopter swoops down over the dunes, with airmen playfully waving at the crowd.
The event’s organizers have been in close communication with the Interior Ministry, and more than 1,000 security officers are on hand to assure that everything runs smoothly.
“Tunisia has become a symbol of creativity,” referring to the blossoming counterculture that has emerged since the 2011 uprising. “Yet there’s no real support or venues for young artists.”
For the French DJ Fakear, the festival is unique for very different reasons, because he is a “Star Wars” lover and because of the audience. “It’s like a dream for me. I’m a huge ‘Star Wars’ fan,” he says, sitting in a Berber tent in the middle of Mos Espa after his performance. He was a child when “The Phantom Menace” came out and describes the experience as “magic.”
Juliette Loubens from Paris: “We wanted to see the Sahara, we love Star Wars and we love electro, so [this] was exceptional.”
For this small North African country, such festivals carry seeds of hope for the future — culturally as well as economically.
Tourism has suffered in recent years, struck hard by the economic downturn in Europe and by international perceptions of insecurity. The country’s tourism model is still dominated by low-budget package holidays focusing on a predominantly middle-aged clientele. Dunes Electroniques appeals to a younger, more adventurous market, outside the usual tourist season.
Wahida Jaiet, the director of the National Tourism Office, says the festival fits with the Tourism Ministry’s broader strategy of re-branding southwestern Tunisia. “The success of the event is also the success of the region,” Jaiet says, adding that the festival is an opportunity to give new energy to the local economy by encouraging locals to be involved.
In the main square of Tozeur, souvenir shops were doing bustling trade. In a boutique stacked to the roof with leather handcrafts, exquisite ceramics, water pipes and traditional slippers, Akam Miadi is in good spirits. He has even printed his own Dunes Electroniques T-shirts, which he says are going fast.
“For three days, we did more business than in the school holidays,” the shopkeeper says. His previous clients include the film crew for “The Phantom Menace”; Anthony Minghella, director of “The English Patient”; and actor Antonio Banderas, who was filming “Black Gold.”
After nearly five years of false starts, it wasn’t until February 2014 — a month after the new constitution was passed — that the first edition of Dunes Electroniques finally came together.
“It was the first time that [young Tunisians] had been able to attend a festival like this,” says Benoit Geli, one of the brains behind Dunes Electroniques. He is an event organizer from Nice, France, and his team has adapted the Plages Electroniques festival from the French Riviera to the Tunisian desert.
Tunisia, for all its political instability and deep divides, can sometimes appear immune from much of the violence that blights much of the rest of the region. And the feel-good atmosphere of Dunes Electroniques is in tune with some people’s idea of a Tunisian exceptionalism.
Yet whether Tunisia will remain immune from regional tensions is increasingly unclear. Security forces have for months been battling with armed groups hiding out on Mount Chaambi, on the border with Algeria.
There are also the approximately 5,000 young Tunisians believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, many of whom are thought to be members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As many as 2,000 are estimated to have been killed in that conflict, and an unknown number are being held by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But sooner or later, many are likely to return home, battle hardened and posing a serious domestic challenge for Tunisian authorities.
Then there is the chaotic violence gripping neighboring Libya, which is divided between two competing governments and a tangled web of militias. As talks stall, ISIL has gained a foothold in the Libyan town of Sirte, 600 miles to the east of the festival venue.
Due to ISIL will this be the last year for the rave in it’s current location or will the music influence Tunisia to keep their minds open and receive the gift of musical enlightenment in a land far far away.