Hammamet festival showcases Tunisia’s underground art scene

A scene from the concert of Ghoula at the Hammamet International Festival

Held in a spacious amphitheatre in the middle of a vast garden of jasmine and trees, the Hammamet International Festival is one of Tunisia’s oldest cultural events.
Dating to 1964, the popular annual festival consistently draws a talented pool of artists and has become a gathering place for Tunisia’s subculture and underground art culture.
This year’s event, the 53rd edition of the festival, focused on making high-quality cultural performances accessible to all citizens by having them in public, outdoor areas.
“We are always building on the history of the festival as it has a rich history that makes it one of the highlights of the cultural centre and it is specific thanks to its location,” said Moez Mrabet, director of the festival, scheduled for July 8-August 26. “The town of Hammamet is a touristic town that attracts Tunisians and tourists and the architecture of the place is stunning.”
The festival opened with a theatrical performance but has shows scheduled from a variety of artistic disciplines, including music, theatre and contemporary dance. The diverse arrangement of performances showcases the festival’s vision for high-calibre art.
“My interest is in being more open to the town of Hammamet,” said Mrabet. “The festival has been restricted to the amphitheatre in the past years. People would come to the cultural centre to attend the shows but there was a distance between people of the town and the festival. The idea now is that the festival becomes more and more present inside the town.”
He added: “Last year we started the outdoor section, which is a programme of free shows at the fort. This year we kicked off the festival with the outdoor sessions and it is an eclectic programme open to music, dance.”
“We don’t encourage commercial shows,” Mrabet said. “The International Festival of Hammamet aspires to be a representation of the Tunisian cultural scene. We always work on a programme that is of high artistic and creative quality.”
“It showcases Tunisian creativity in all its forms,” said Mrabet, adding that “it is also open to the inter¬national scene.”
Cultural activity is not “a luxury,” Mrabet said, but vital to a community.
“One of our convictions is that Tunisians have the right to access art,” he said. “Unfortunately, a part of Tunisian youth fell victim to extremism because there was a marginalisation of culture. Culture is not a luxury. When we think of the festival, we must consider its cultural, social, economic and national impact. It is all interrelated and it must be articulated in our programme.”
While Hammamet International Festival has attracted many inter¬national stars, such as Tina Are¬na and Cesaria Evora, it has also gained a reputation as an avant-garde event focusing on urban culture.
“The festival is open to all disciplines of art: Dance, theatre and music,” said Mrabet. “Music, of course, has the major part but we are practically the one festival that always programmes contemporary dance in the festival. The programme is diverse and it is open to many forms of creative performances and expression.
“In addition to the classical arts, we have acts which now take place in the garden of the centre, where non-conventional performances and arts are hosted. This is all to break the traditional cycle of the festival.”
Mrabet also said that a new part of the festival, called “Festwave,” includes art shows for the villages near Hammamet so the villagers can “benefit from the festival, too.”
Besides art, this year’s festival included one of the event’s oldest traditions in “Majaless El Hammamet,” which are intellectual and cultural debates organised on issues of art and culture.
“It is a revival of a tradition of the festival that dates to the ‘70s,” Mrabet said. “There is a growing interest in debating and reflecting on these issues.”
“I believe that not only commercial art can fill the theatres and make a festival a success. When we propose to people artistic shows that could defend its value, Tunisians will come to attend the shows,” Mrabet said.
“It is a risk to take but last year we had so many sold-outs and even this year, so far, shows are going great. Our aim is to diffuse culture and propose things of great quality to help promote the image of the country and the town of Hammamet not only as a touristic pole but also as a cultural hub.”

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.