Fancy getting away from it all? After the nationwide Passover vacation pandemonium of traffic jams, jam-packed beaches, crowded country trails and museums and all manner of bursting-at-the-seams leisure time sites, what could be better than going down to the Arava for some desert-seasoned tranquility? That and much more are on offer at the fourth annual Sufi Festival, which will take place at the Desert Ashram, at Shittim on April 23 to 25.
If the term “Sufi” immediately sparks images of whirling dervishes and people sitting crosslegged, with hands upturned and eyes closed, chanting some ancient mantra, you’d be missing a large part of the festival’s intent. The three-day weekender features a rich program of workshops, dance slots, lectures, discussion circles and musical entertainment. And judging by the lineup of the latter, the organizers have spared no effort in making sure the patrons return home with some quality sounds ringing in their ears.
When a new festival starts up, the artistic director invariably expresses the hope that a “new tradition” is being established. The juxtaposition of “new” and “tradition” may make for a st range grammatical and temporal combination, but it is designed to convey the wish that the event will not be a one-off.
With three previous festival programs behind them, the organizers of the spiritually oriented Arava happening must be happy with the way the project has grown and expanded.
Says Asim Shaul Bracha, who, along Gil Ron Shema and Kohra Yuval Itach, is the driving force behind the venture, “In my personal experience, the festival is relevant and touches people deep down.”
The ongoing success, says Bracha, is also indicated by some effective word of mouth.
“If you asked people what Sufism is, the majority might not be able to tell you, but today many more people in Israel recognize the concept of Sufi compared with four years ago,” he says.
According to Bracha, people make the trek down south for all sorts of reasons, not least to catch some good shows.
“There are those who come for the music. There is a live show every couple of hours,” he says.
Considering the lineup, that is hardly surprising. Some of the best Israel has to offer from the ethnic music scene will be at the ashram. These include veteran oud player-violinist Yair Dalal with Beduin musicians; iconic percussionist-vocalist Shlomo Bar and his long-standing Habreira Hativit (Natural Choice) band; stellar kamancha [spiked violin] player Mark Elyahu; Arabic flute player-percussionist-singer Amir Shahasar; and Shema, who will perform with a band of musicians from Israel and Turkey.
That alone will bring in the crowds, but there is much more on the three-day agenda. The core of the festival is a gathering of academics and other leading scholars, while artists and musicians will present master classes. In addition, a wide range of workshops pertaining to voice, dance, studying, knowledge, wisdom and experiential activities will be on offer in the festival’s six activity areas. The speaker schedule includes poet and Kabbala researcher Shelly Elkayam, Iranian affairs specialist Eldad Pardo and educator Miriam Peretz.
There will also be an arts & crafts stall area, games and play facilities for kids, an alternative treatment compound and, naturally, a place where patrons can add tasty sustenance to the spiritual enrichment.
Bracha attributes part of the Sufi Festival’s allure to its alternative elements.
“Shelly Alkayam told me that she asked people who attended one of her workshops why they made the four-hour trip down to the festival.
They said that they got something very meaningful from the festival that they don’t really find elsewhere. I don’t know exactly what that means – you’d have to ask those people that question. But I do feel that the style of the music, the workshops and the people here, and Sufism, which is a vibe or a frequency... when you have that vibe among 1,000 people in the desert spaces, a vibe that is connected to love, dedication, beauty and depth, it generates a very meaningful domain.”
Bracha adds that one’s choice of activity or participation does not necessarily matter.
“The fact that they spend time in such an environment generates a very significant experience for people, regardless of what show they may have gone to or which workshops they attended.”
Bracha also feels that the festival is very much about communicating with the others around you and with your inner self.
“There is something special about the emptiness of the desert,” he notes. “There is also something about emptying yourself. There is the Sufi saying ‘Be empty, and you will know.’” Part of the benefit of the Sufi Festival, he says, is a direct result of human synthesis.
“You get 1,000 people, which sounds like a lot in one place, and you still have depth, space and quiet simply to be. We have a famous sound man at the festival, Uri Barak. I think it was after the second festival, and he said that he was amazed at the level of attentiveness we generated. And that’s a sound man!” he says.
Geography may also offer some added value.
“I remember, at the second festival, I spoke to this older man and I suggested that maybe more people would come to the festival if it took place nearer Tel Aviv,” Bracha recalls.
“And he said something I really liked.
He said he’d come all the way from Rosh Pina and had driven six hours to get to the festival. He said that people who come to the Arava after driving for several hours come because they really want to be there.
People don’t just happen along.
They come to the festival with an open heart, curious about what the festival has to offer and with a desire to interact with others. They can, of course, choose just to lie around soaking up the great energies and the peace and quiet of the desert.
That’s cool, too,” he says.
Laissez-faire and general chilling out are clearly the order of the day at Shittim.For tickets and more information: 052-544-3349; http://www.sufifestival.co.il; and https://www.facebook.com/Sufifestival