On the opening evening of the festival, a crowd gathers at the foot of the zawiya, near to the tomb of Sidi Bou Saïd where a mystic procession called kharja is about set off in the saint’s honor. A dozen men young and old wearing djebas form an inward-facing circle, chanting as they pitch forward and upright in rhythm with their voices and bendirs, green and red flags pointing high above their heads. Some who have climbed the hill to watch are still panting and beaded in sweat as the procession begins its descent down the narrow road, holding up a line of cars and stopping traffic once they reach the roundabout below. Car alarms are set off and cats dash into hiding as the river of bodies inches forward, oblivious to these distractions and continuing along its way back up towards the zawiya.

At the same time about a mile away, the park of Sidi Bou Said has been transformed into the festival’s « Rainbow Village », where a white-washed wall has been erected around a stage and rows of plastic chairs. As Rostom will indicate later in the evening, this set-up is the work of volunteers and students of the Architecture school nearby. In the hours leading up to the concert, volunteers are busy with last-minute preparations, or with documenting them for the event’s Facebook page, flush with hashtags of #Peace_and_love and #Good_Vibes.

A spiritual gathering, financed by unpaid artists

But hashtags aside, Rouhanyet is not all good vibes. The less-than-positive energy was already palpable during last year’s edition called Season of Love, when a performance by the Moroccan Ensemble Ibn Arabi was disrupted by music in a neighboring venue. The group stopped playing to complain about the noise, when the organizers took over the microphone and, to the apparent dismay of the audience, retorted with complaints about the difficulties they had encountered in bringing the group to the festival. The incident might have been forgotten, except that one year later others have given voice to frustrations regarding the festival’s failure to fulfill obligations to its artists. Amidst Rouhanyat’s slogans of « peace, love, tolerance and fraternity », several who participated in the festival’s second edition are now calling, quite simply, to be paid for their work.

Syrian-based Al Kindi Ensemble performed on the opening night of last year’s festival. In a statement posted on the group’s Facebook page days before the opening of the current edition, the band’s administrator in apparent exasperation recounts how the group was never paid for the performance: « After a year of emails / letters / supplications / threats with absolutely no results and feeling completely ignored … i feel it is really unfair that the festival happens when debts from last year editions are still pending and nothing is made to fulfill obligations for last year artists ». He admits feeling « naive and betrayed » for having convinced the band to play before being paid, and warns artists this year not to do the same.

Al Kindi Ensemble’s post was followed by a similar anecdote from photographer Mohamed Aziz Bezneiguia. Bezneguia had volunteered as a photographer for the festival in 2017, and was subsequently contacted to cover an event for the Rostom Foundation in December 2017. Nine months later, he writes, he has still not been paid in spite of numerous phone calls made to the organizers. Bezneiguia had already made up his mind to file a lawsuit when he discovered that one of his photographs had been used to market the festival:

These people who call themselves artists use my photos without even asking my permission; the poster for this edition of Rouhanyet Mystic Fest 2018 features an element of a photo that I had taken during Rouhanyet Mystic Fest 2017. Mohamed Aziz Bezneiguia

Prompted by Bezneiguia’s post, ARTE journalist and tour coordinator for the High Rock Gospel group Sophie Rosenzweig chimed in. Speaking with Nawaat from Strasbourg, Rosenzweig shares that the group had been invited to sing at Rouhanyet with the understanding that their travel expenses would be covered. It was not until arriving at the airport that they discovered such arrangements had not in fact been made, though the singers were reassured they would be reimbursed for their tickets once in Tunis. In fact, the conditions outlined in their contract with the Rostom Foundation were never honored, says Rosenzweig, who describes having been stood up on several occasions since and offered the excuse of « difficulties in changing currencies ». What it all boils down to for Rosenzweig is a simple « scam », with organizers « playing on the fact that the justice system is slow and complicated » and that the amounts owed to artists represent modest sums not likely to be pursued in court. The festival, she concludes, « puts forth beautiful ideas and takes advantage of people behind the scenes ».

Sentiments that resonate with those shared by the Ensemble Ibn Arabi, which recently evoked last year’s scandal and expressed solidarity with the festival’s « series of victims », unpaid artists. Addressing « Tunisian public opinion », the group also put out a warning to artists participating in the current edition, called the attention of Tunisia’s Ministries of Culture and Tourism to the matter, and asked of Rouhanyet organizers: « Is this what you call Sufism? Is this love and peace? »