Zig zagging our way through the Atlas mountains and down into the Draa valley we drive until we can literally drive no further. We have arrived in M’Hamid el Ghizlaine.
Our journey started in Marrakech, a group of 17 strangers from 6 different countries, and over 2 days of travelling to this small town on the very edge of the Sahara, we have become family.
We are here for the 7th edition of the Festival Taragalte, this year on the theme of ‘Oasis, source of life at the heart of the Sahara’. It is dark as we make our way to the desert camp, finding our tents by torchlight and the canopy of stars above us. It’s not until the next day dawns and the sun rises over the dunes that we become aware of the majesty of the desert that surrounds us.
All life here revolves around the bivouac at Le Petit Prince, the last oasis before the vast expanse of the deep desert beyond. Taragalte means ‘meeting place’ and this is truly what happens here, a meeting of many peoples on many levels.
The desert has no borders apart from those falsely created by political geography and military conflict, and it is these toxic forces which have resulted in the exile of large numbers of nomadic Saharan tribes from their traditional homelands and trade routes.
But we are here to celebrate, and the festival stands as a symbol of life in the desert, a safe place where people can gather in the spirit of peace and tolerance, an opportunity for cultural exchange and shared understandings. United by the universal language of music, groups from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Senegal come to play. The heritage, culture and beauty of these lands is rich, and the festival plays an important role in preserving the traditions of the region.
The following 3 days are spent in surrender to the vast and timeless desert, a welcome digital detox and rare opportunity to exist in the moment. We are invited to learn more about the network of organisations which work together to make the festival a fully immersive and educational experience. Sahara Roots protecting the fragile environment against creeping desertification through tree planting, Association Zaila who organise the clearing of plastic bags and waste from the desert along with projects for sustainable development, and the Cultural Caravan for Peace a platform to promote social cohesion to the people of the Sahel and Sahara through art and music.
During the day the dunes surrounding the camp are a spectacle of costume and colour as the musicians of the tribes provide the soundtrack; Arabs, Berber (Amazigh), Gnaoua, Sahraoui and Tuareg (Kel Tamashak). Aziz, a larger than life local character, dressed in a sky blue Daraa robe and white Chech turban stands tall on his gentle camel and strikes a pose.
As night falls and the deep indigo sky fills with stars we follow the flow of bodies to the main stage to be entranced by the music of Tinariwen, Imarhan, Oum and Aziz Sahmaoui. The driving rhythms and haunting vocals transporting us to another realm, a magical other worldly place, we float on waves of sound high above the dunes. Intoxicated by the song and the dance we party long into the night, finally falling into our tents to drift into a sleep lulled by the whisper of voices and instruments that carry far on the cool desert air.
This festival is unlike any other I have been to, there are no barriers here between the artists and the audience, we all hang out together, sleep in the same tented camps and share meals. We must number 150 European visitors in an audience of 1,500 but we are all family, thoroughly modern nomads wherever we hail from.
With no place for pretension or faux new-age attitudes, it is a place to experience a profound expansiveness bestowed by the desert and to be humbled by the grace and kindness of the nomadic peoples who share their home with open hearts.
To leave is the hardest part, and for me it is when I become intimately acquainted with the ‘desert blues’. Inshallah we will return again next year.