The Festival in the Desert by Intagrist El Ansari

La trompette et le méhari (photo by Intagrist El Ansari)

by Intagrist El Ansari

Established in 2001, the Festival in the Desert has seen its success grow each year, exceeding all expectations for attendance, international recognition and its socio-economic impact on the Sahara desert region, including the region of Timbuktu  in Mali, where it takes place every January. The success of this event is driven by Manny Ansar, the Director of the Festival in the Desert and an originator of the project. He says happily, “This festival has transformed my life.” This is a story of a gathering both diverse and singular  –  the largest the desert has ever known.



I must have been approximately six years old when one day we had pitched our tents in the desert

Le site du festival, à Essakane, au crépuscule de la première soirée (photo by Intagrist El Ansari)

near the village of Gargando, west of the city of Timbuktu, heading towards Mauritania. As I stood outside our nomadic encampment on a high spot, I was puzzled as I watched something move through the camp. The image I saw was of a group of men arriving on the backs of proud-faced camels, walking in caravans or galloping. The men of our camp welcomed the guests and led them to the reception tents a few metres away from the houses. The women got busy – some organizing things inside the tents, others striking their tambourines to announce the event being prepared and to send a call to the neighboring camps.

The sky was blue and orange, crossing in an arc, forming a gradient of an infinity of colours only the desert lets one see. The solar spectrum shot out through the empty air of the desert plain. The shepherds and their animals returned to the camp under the gaze of the travelers who rested in front of the tents that had been oriented towards the sunset. Migratory birds in the sky sang in their choked voices the music of great spaces, a melody announcing prophecies. Listening to their concert of grief, I came down from my dune and made a wish to fly away with them one day.

Performance surréaliste en off du groupe inuit (photo by Intagrist El Ansari)

Arriving at the camp, I asked my mother, “What are all these people doing here? Is it the feast of Ramadan once again? My mother smiled, “No! These travellers stop by all the camps. They are going to Temakanit for a festival that celebrates the reunion of all the nomads. She spoke a lot about this event, its importance and its interest for the desert and its inhabitants. These people were not making the trip alone. The people from my camp would also join them in a long caravan, whose pattern evokes the Yemeni Kingdom of Sheba, homeland of the majority of the Tuareg tribes. Thus, camp upon camp, the camel riders would lead everyone to their final destination, a central point known to all in advance. There they will meet other nomads who came from the four corners of the desert to celebrate the great feast of the Temakanit.

Internationalization: Dynamics of Evolution and of Opening

The Festival in the Desert, in its current form is an international musical gathering and was established in 2001. But it has existed since time immemorial. Somehow, this event has always existed, under different guises according to the times (but in harmony with those times) while remaining faithful to its traditional roots.

Un spot dans le désert (photo by Intagrist El Ansari)

The January 2010 edition marked ten years of existence of what is today one of the largest gatherings of diversity in the world. That gigantic unprecedented meeting took place in Timbuktu, gateway to Sahara. The festival extended over three days with the rhythms of the camel parades, the music and songs of the Tuareg’s traditional repertoire, and also with concerts of international and national artists in front of a crowd of 10,000 people.

Nomads and sedentary people, foreigners coming from the four corners of the world, officials, journalists, the festival-goers – the diversity reflected accurately the heterogeneity of today’s world.

What does one discover coming here? The desert’s immensity, of course. But in particular the singularity of a culture and civilization in harmony with this aridity for whom the desert has served as a “bulwark” for centuries. In the words of a French writer, farmer and environmentalist Pierre Rabhi, the standardization of lifestyles that leads to a single model is contrary to the spirit of openness.

The meaning of the message sent out to the world

The largest desert of the world is known to be an open and welcoming place through the magic of the tradition of hospitality of its inhabitants. Through this image, the Festival in the Desert warmly invites people of all cultures to come and share their traditions, to discover and recognize each other in a musical encounter on a grand scale. But the Festival also poses this question: “What do the Saharan cultures and civilizations have to bring to the world today.” Men of the Sahara have developed a life in harmony with the environment, and have adapted to the most inhospitable space in the world.

The intercultural exchange that the Festival in the Desert promotes is authentic and reinforced by the conducive and poetic framework of the desert.

Saharan civilization contains some remnants and vestiges of cultures ancient and lost. Seclusion, the search for solitude and contemplation has led men to populate the desert spaces. Their isolation resulted in the conservation of ancient cultural traits.

Observation of international geopolitics permits us to easily understand the pessimism that feeds the reports about the Sahara region by the mainstream media. For a long time, the largest desert in the world was only valued for its sand dunes and sensual, huge and majestic infinite landscapes! The wind of international interests, of geostrategic desires for natural resources – water, oil, gas, uranium and solar energy – blows across the Sahara region today.

In this atmosphere, however, the security of foreigners who came to the festival has never been disturbed. Here one can meet ministers, ambassadors, Princess Caroline of Monaco, a millionaire co-founder of the MTV, a shepherd who supports his eight children with 15 goats, or a craftsman who offers his creation of the day. All so different and yet so similar take their place on the same large white dune of fine and pristine sand. And every night on this common grandstand groups spontaneously form around campfires. The simplicity of the meeting. In front of them, a large open stage able to sound defiance to the deserts’ silence with its power. The spotlights illuminate the desert without competing with the stars.


Jean-Marc Phillips Varjabédian, a violinist trained at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris, interprets Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne. A gradual and feverish tension overtakes the crowd. Music spreads across the dryness of the air and space. At this precise moment, I feel the push like grains of sand in my body! The trance is broken. I regain awareness, a return from my distant baroque escape. The public regains its spirits and breaks into applause, while the group, Tartit, an emblematic ensemble of Tuareg women, arrive for their turn on the stage.

Really, this evening is dedicated to the XVIII century, between Bach or the culmination of European Baroque and the epic tales that evoke the Sahara victories of the Tuareg. In effect, this evening Tartit interprets “Abacabok”, which traces the history of Hawalen Ag Hammada al-Ansari “The Pius”, the mystical Saharan of the XVIII century.

In this inner adventure, I remember that day where as a child I arrived at the camp on the long caravan and discovered the Temakanit.

NEXT EDITION:  Festival au Désert –  January 12- 14, 2012

To come to Timbuktu, you will have to travel through the capital of Mali Bamako. The festival  hosts a flight from there.

Intagrist El Ansari used to work as a PR and communications officer for the Festival in the Desert. He is a documentary film director and reporter based in the Sahel/Sahara region.

Born to the Tuareg tribe Kel Ansar, he spent his childhood in the desert near Timbuktu and then, driven by curiosity and adventure, lived for over 10 years in France. He worked on Yann Arthus-Bertrand‘s project 6 Billion Others as a translator, assistant director, cameraman and assistant editor. Intagrist’s collaboration with Bertrand continued when he got involved in the filming of Home in Mali and the Sahara. Currently,  Intagrist is involved with SAHARA Patrimoine & Cultures.

Steppes in Sync is glad to have him join the team of our contributors.

You can reach him on


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