The Shepherd Festival at Mount Semmama, near the Tunisian-Algerian border, brings a message of peace and resistance in an area often only known as a hideout for terror groups.
In the countryside outside Sbeitla, in the Kasserine governorate of western central Tunisia, lies a small hill at the foot of Mount Semmama framed by a sunset sky. Vehicles of the National Guard lined up and a smattering of soldiers could be seen on Darwish hill.
The hill, named after the acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, was the venue for “The mountains of the world meet at Mount Semmama,” the seventh edition of the Shepherd Festival.
May 11-13 saw Tunisians and international guests celebrate the rich local culture with the small communities that live in the foothills of Mount Semmama.
Organised by the Cultural Centre Djbel Semmama, the festival was initially scheduled for April 28, but was postponed to avoid an overlap with municipal elections. With 15 countries represented, the three-day event drew shepherds, activists, artists and attendees to workshops in rural schools: drama, dance, folk songs and poetry.
“There are hardly any cultural activities in the Kasserine region; the state doesn’t invest in this area. This is the curse of the mountains. But here we are, holding our event,” Adnen Helali, festival organiser and cultural activist, said with relief.
Located close to the porous border with Algeria, the remote region of Semmama has become more known since Tunisia’s 2011 uprising as a hideout and training ground for armed terror groups.
For many years now, the Tunisian army has been battling with local affiliates of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Okba Ibn Nafaa, seen as AQIM’s Tunisian branch, is based in the Semmama and Chaambi mountain range along the border with Algeria and Tunisian security agencies are worried about a resurgence as the fall of Daesh in Iraq and Syria are sending local fighters back home.
But militancy and marginalisation have not deterred Tunisians living in the mountainous terrain. They’ve shown a strong commitment to their roots and have remained put in the face of poverty, oblivion and terrorism.
“The idea of this festival is to fight terrorism through our participation, to encourage villagers not to leave and share the universality of the mountain culture with people from across the world,” stressed Abdeddayem Helali, a music teacher who directed a children’s choir for a concert, as 90-year-old singer Madame Mbarka walked by after her show clad in traditional clothes.
By recovering and promoting local traditions, residents aim to take their space back and send a powerful message to militants taking refuge in the mountain: the people of Semmama will not be run out of their homeland.
Grazing livestock, cultivating rosemary and olive bushes, and living between rare employment opportunities make for difficult conditions for the mountain communities. With militants operating in the ranges, locals find they have restricted access to the mountains, which further scaled back their limited opportunities.
“Although it’s risky, some shepherds and farmers braved the mountain till quite recently, since it’s their only real source of income,” natural science teacher Mahjoub Helali said, referring to the forest in Mount Semmama, which is rich in wood, rosemary as well as grass for goats and sheep.
Those who have stopped going up the mountain were forced to leave for other towns to find employment.
In 2016, two local women were killed and another one was injured by a landmine planted by militants in the mountain ranges. Though it is said the mines are meant to target Tunisian security forces, civilian casualties have been reported among those who cross explosives-rigged agricultural land on the heights of Semmama.
“Two years ago, my grandmother was collecting rosemary in the forest when her donkey stepped on a mine. Her foot was severely damaged,” Mariam Helali recalled. “She’s fine now thankfully,” the girl told TRT World.
“We used to take walks and play in the forest. The forest is part of our identity. That part has been taken away from us,” Shiraz Helali, another young girl, complained.
“But we’re still here, singing and dancing to challenge terrorism,” she said.
Men, women and children of Semmama expressed close attachment to their lands surrounded by several closed military zones, an area badly hit by the infiltration of militant groups as well as clashes between the army and terrorists in the past few years.
Security in the area has improved, amid concerns of increasing militant activity, in the last two years with military action, armed forces patrolling the fields daily and improved coordination with the Algerian security forces. The leadership of Okba Ibn Nafaa is often Algerian; the two AQIB militants killed by the army in Mount Semmama late January were said to be of Algerian origin.
Local and foreign media are quick to paint Semmama as a stronghold for terrorists and that negative portrayal has brought more fear to the civilian population, in Mahjoub’s opinion. But a culture of resistance has kept locals almost stubbornly tied to their mountain.
“This region is important to us; it’s part of our lives. Whatever the risk, we will continue to go to the mountain,” a shepherd named Mohamed Helali said. Mohamed, who was with other herdsmen on a little hill to graze their flocks, believed the Shephard Festival has the power to rally people, to unite and make them stronger against terrorism.
Standing by his herd, Mohamed said security restrictions had a very negative impact on local production dairy products as the mountain — ecologically rich — is where sheep could roam and graze freely, and villagers would store water for their cattle and wood for heating.
“Semmama is always in my heart,” Abdeddayem said, “The Shepherd Festival is about enhancing our cultural richness and the natural heritage of our region.”
Among other international participants, this year’s special guests were the Catalan duo Esther Roca Vila, a poet, and Josep Subirana, a musician, Catalan poet Consol Vidal Riera and Argentinian poet Edu Sivori.
“Shepherds are people who exist, but they are made invisible, and they are not the subject of poems, generally speaking,” Sivori said. “As a social poet, I incorporate them. I want to combine the liveliness of nature with the liveliness of a human being and his struggle.” One poem by Sivori reads:
“The humiliated, poor, artists, they sing,
the mountain sings and,
since the spring,
they dare to brighten up people’s lives,
the lives of the boys and girls of Semmama.
They dare to build a future…!!!”
Sivori called the shepherds of Semmama “the forgotten” but also described them as “social actors” and “saviours from the scourge of terrorism.” Just like their fellow villagers.
The poet – whose verses from Shepherds of the Mountain illustrate life in rural Semmama and the threat of militancy next door – brought his knowledge of social psychology, art therapy and poetry to the festival. After his second trip to the Kasserine region, Sivori was resolute in his mission to raise awareness abroad about the reality of Tunisia’s mountains.
Known as “the poet of the desert” after discovering the sandscape of Douz in southern Tunisia, Vidal Riera has attended the festival thrice. She now brings visitors with her to join the annual rendezvous.
Sharing a love of rural life and holding similar roots as the people of Semmama, the poet values the hard work the shepherds do and their contribution in their communities.
“Always working hard for a better life and loving your Bedouin and nomadic roots … accumulating hopes for the future generations!!!” her poem “Acrostic” for Semmama resonated with the Tunisian mountain dwellers.
Adnen admitted it was challenging to organise the festival, with delays and changes in the schedule due to security concerns. He implied similar events would continue to take place.
“We cannot be stopped from our activities, we need culture here,” he said addressing the festival audience in a little grotto below Darwish hill.
A few soldiers were quick to hint that participants had to start leaving the site, where a tense yet festive atmosphere reflected the adamance of locals to remain relevant, even in challenging times.