The chariots of Awessou return, bringing joy to Sousse after tragedy

Friday 31/07/2015
Awessou on a chariot (Photos: Hassene Dridi)

Sousse, Tunisia - Appearing in his majestic grandeur from afar, the god of the sea, Awessou, holding the reins of his horses, advanced among the crowds gathered to attend the famous chariots of the carnival of Awessou in the town of Sousse on July 24th. As they cheered, the char­iot carrying the statute of Awessou continued its path announcing the return after a four-year absence of the much-anticipated festival.

Despite the tragedy, in which a gunman killed 38 people, that struck the town of Sousse in June, thousands of Tunisians and tourists attended the chariots show as par­ticipants from the country, Russia, Algeria and China took part.

In the Berber calendar, Awessou defines the period of the year ex­tending from July 24th to August 13th. The myth states that the god of the sea, Awessou — known as Neptune in Roman folklore — leaves the water to spend that period of the summer with humans on the beach­es, guarding and blessing them.

The festival of Awessou includes the carnival of chariots as well as folkloric music on the beaches and artistic workshops.

Dating back to 1958, the festival last took place in 2010 before being interrupted by the revolution.

The chariots represent different aspects of Tunisian culture as well as references to the historical back­ground of the carnival. Along with the chariot of Awessou, the chariot of culture, the chariot of the history of Sousse, the chariot of traditional wed­dings and many others rode in the procession. The fes­tival will conclude on Au­gust 13th with a fireworks show.

In June, the choreogra­pher and artistic director of the festival, Jalel Douma, organised a flash mob on the beach to announce the carnival’s return after four years during which security, financial and political factors pre­vented it from taking place. Douma emphasised the importance of the efforts put into bringing back the festival this year.

“This year I believe more than ever in this carnival. We started with a flash mob back in June as a foretaste of the carnival. It had to happen at any cost because it is our only weapon against violence and terrorism, ” Douma said.

“In the previous years, we were held back by many of the problems we encountered before in organis­ing the festivals with the munici­pality and the governorate. Since there were many positive changes this year, students of dance schools along with their parents gathered and took part in the flash mob.”

The carnival comes at a time when Tunisia is struggling to revive tourism after the deadly terror­ist attacks in June and one on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in March.

“What happened was difficult. We don’t have the right to give up now and let them win. We, even though afraid, should not let go at this point.

That fear that cripples us should end. We will do the carnival, and Tu­nisia with its children will continue despite it all, even if something else happens. Tunisians should not feel down because of this,” Douma said. “Terrorism is a global phenomenon touching all countries including the US and France. We will defend the country, especially with the pro­motion of culture. If we were more educated and aware, we would not have many Tunisians joining ISIS [Islamic State]. It is time we focus on that to protect the younger gen­erations from any threats.’’

This year’s carnival held in coop­eration with the Ministry of Tour­ism is seen as playing an important role in sending Tunisians as well as foreigners a message of reassurance regarding the security of the coun­try.

The head of the regional commis­sion of tourism in Sousse, Salwa Guedri, says the carnival comes at a critical time for the country.

“The difference this year is that it won’t just last a day but it will start on July 24th and will go on till Au­gust 13th… A lot of people [were] awaiting impatiently the carnival as it is one of the oldest festivals which marks the town of Sousse,” she said.

“We have hope that, in the cur­rent circumstances of the country and the difficulties that the tourism sector experiences, the carnival is a great opportunity for the town to come back to life. It attracts Tuni­sians as well as foreign visitors.”

As the carnival kicked off smooth­ly, Douma hoped that such cultural events would play a larger role in the community than just entertain­ment

“Culture that should gain value and power. It is our only way to pro­tect Tunisian youth,” Douma said.