Tuareg: the Blue People

The masters of Sahara

  Tuareg man
The Tuareg makes you think about freedom, power and the vastness of the desert; Wolkswagen found its inspiration in the qualities of the proud nation of the Sahara.

The Berbers, together with the ancient Egyptians, are the oldest group which settled in North Africa, coming about 10,000 years ago from southwestern Asia. The word "Berber" comes from Latin "barbarus" (barbarian), as most of them were never part of the Roman empire. They call themselves "imazighen" ("free people"). The Arab conquest wiped out many of their tribes as they were arabized dafter their conquest of North Africa (Magrel el Aksa "The Extreme West"). Originally, the Berbers were White of Mediterranean race, but in time they mixed with many populations, and today they can be from blond or red-haired (in the Atlas mountains) to extremely dark skinned, a clear sign of mixing with Sub-Saharan populations. Berbers of the Atlas Mountains built villages resembling fortresses (kasbas). The edifices were made of adobe covered by branches and clay. The houses (tighremt) could have 3-4 levels and had very few windows, so that the inhabitants were protected from the high summer temperatures. The houses have terraced roofs, used for resting during the summer nights. The houses are alway painted in white or light blue.

Each village has a large store (irherm) for the harvest of wheat, rye or barley. The irherm was guarded by a mokhazni, a paid guardian. The Berber village was ruled by an old chief. The chiefs of a region formed an assembly (mokaddem) led by the oldest chief.

The farming Berber communities plow using dromedaries and on the slopes of the mountains they created terraces, irrigation ditches and canals. The main Berber crops are wheat, ray, barley and corn.

The Berbers could be the authors of the wall paintings found in the Tassili n'Ajjer (Algeria) Mountains (which are 6-8,000 years old) depicting crocodiles, ostriches, rhinos, giraffes, hippopotamuses, elephants, oryx antelopes and gazelles, from a period when Sahara was a savanna-like place.

The Tuaregs are a Berber group, having its own language (tamashek) and a writing composed of geometrical signs (tifinagh), descending directly from the original Berber script used by the Numidians (in ancient Libya) in pre-Roman times. They adapted to the hostile environment of Sahara adopting a nomad lifestyle, turning into the masters of the western Sahara, from Libya to Mauritania, including the mountains of Hoggar and el Adrar. Nomad Berbers are signaled even by Herodotus, in the fifth century BC, in the oases of Libya. But the name Tuareg is known from the XVI century.

Traditionally, the Tuareg society was hierarchal, with warrior-aristocrats who organized the group defense, livestock raids, and the long-distance caravan trade; they were traders, vassal-herdsmen who pastured, blacksmith-clients who fabricated and repaired the saddles, tools, ceramics, bronze kettle, palm-fiber carpets, household equipment and other material needs of the community and even marabout (Islamic clerics). In time, that difference has eroded, corresponding to the economic fortunes of the two groups. Formerly, the Tuareg also held Black slaves; today there are no slaves, but their descendants have been making for long various services for the healthy people. .

Proud, individualist, brave warriors, they refuse to be assimilated the urban civilization. The Tuaregs controlled for centuries the great commercial routes crossing Sahara, till the beginning of the last century; there was an important traffic of gold, ivory, slaves, salt and other African products sought on the Arab and European market from the Sub-Saharan cities to the Mediterranean ones.

Sometimes, they practiced banditry, robbery, caravan and village pillaging; they were feared by traders having to cross their territories and by the sedentary people established near their habitual routes. Tuaregs are believed to have founded during the 11th century the city of Timbuktu (today in Mali), but their life was connected generally to small settlements and the nomad life.

The Arab conquest imposed the Islam to all the Berbers. But the Tuareg Islamic religion is syncretic: they keep on worshiping the gods of the desert: the stones, water, fire and the mountains, that dwell certain caves, pools, and trees. The ritual hand washing is replaced by a symbolic washing of the hands with sand, as water is so precious in the desert. Tuareg people are convinced that behind each man an elf moves - called djenun - that can cause good or evil.

Tuaregs are nomad, traveling with their camels, sheep, goats and horses, looking continuously for new pastures, refusing entering cities or settlements, demanding passing fees to the caravans crossing their territories. They are called the blue people, after their clothes and the veil covering their face. But the veil covers only the men's faces! It is the most famous Tuareg symbol: the Tagelmust, the often blue indigo colored combination of veil and turban, up to 10-12 m (33-40 ft) long, extremely useful in the desert where temperatures rise to 50-60o C. Other tribes too use tagelmust, like Fulani (Peul) and Songhai, which are African Blacks. The use of the talgemust is an obligation and since the age of 25, when the men marry, men must wear it even when they sleep! The passing from boyhood to manhood is made at the age of 16, when the boys receive their tagelmust and a double-cut sword to turn into warriors, in conformity with an old tradition. The wearing of the tagelmust is linked to the fact that the husband lives at least one year (sometimes his whole life) with the family of his wife. The blue veil has hygienic, moral and magic meanings. Men wear long clothes made of camel hair to protect them against the hot sun and sand storms and sandals.

Unlike amongst other Muslim populations, the women do not cover their faces with the veil. It was originally thought that the man's veil wards off evil spirits but now it is rather for protecting him against the sand of the desert. Men start to wear the veil when they reach maturity. Today, the traditional indigo turban is still preferred for celebrations, and generally, Tuaregs wear clothing and turbans in a variety of colors. Tuaregs enjoy adornments and jewelry, like collars, beds, bracelets, earings and others, made of gold, silver or amber. The friends and the guests of the husband had access to the husband's harem (unlike to the situation of the Arab world).

The Tuareg women enjoy a great deal of freedom, and they are allowed, before marriage, to have relationships with men. Women wore large tunics, which at occasions could be bordered with gold or silver threads.

The Tuareg are matrilineal (they belong to the mother's line), though not matriarchal (the power is not in the hands of the women). Their tents are made of camel skin or materials made of goat or camel hair. Their camps are surrounded by a barrier of thorny bushes. A big tent is also used as mosque. The tent protects both against the sun heat during the day and sand storms.

As nomads, the Tuaregs do not cultivate plants, they change skin, meat, milk, and dairy products (cheese and butter) for cereals (mainly wheat), to make yeastless bread. Wheat was ground using wooden mortars and thick sticks. The flour mixes with sand in the desert, fact that induce great wear of the teeth amongst Berbers. Goat herds were usually cared by young boys and women.

The trade was made in markets called souks. The bargaining was a rule and could last for hours.

Water is so precious in the desert, that it is rarely used for washing. The main diet of the Tuaregs was made of dates and camel and goat cheese.

Only in 1917, the French Legion managed - after years of fight and massacres - to pacify the nomads of the desert. Before the French colonization, the Tuaregs were organized into 6 confederations, each consisting of a dozen or so tribes. Following the independence of the African countries in 1960s, the Tuareg territory was artificially divided into modern nations: Niger,Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso.

Long-standing competition for resources in the Sahel has influenced the Tuareg tensions with neighboring African groups, especially after political disruption and economic constraints following the French colonization, tight restrictions placed on nomadization, and desertification exacerbated by global warming and the increased firewood needs of growing cities. Today, some Tuaregs are experimenting with farming; some have been forced to abandon herding, and seek jobs in towns and cities. The discovery of oil and uranium fields in their territories meant an industrialization process which broke the fragile balance of the traditional Tuareg society, as many did not adapt to the new conditions: in some cases, the nomads committed suicide after a few weeks passed on the oil wells or the yard of the Trans-Saharan highways.

The independence of Algeria was felt as even worse than the French colonization: 200,000 were deported in Niger and other 200,000 in Mali, in extremely dry zones, with water shortages. In Niger and Mali, Tuareg forces have been fighting with the governmental forces since 1960 for a Tuareg territory.

Severe droughts in 1968-1973 and 1981-1985 hit hard the Tuareg: millions of their livestock died (80 %), and 2 million Tuaregs had to take refuge in the outskirts of the cities, in slums. Many children died; and while children received food from international organizations, the too proud adults refused it.

Today 300,000 Tuaregs live in Algeria, Tunis, Mali, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso, about 20,000 continuing the traditional way of life.

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By    26 Jun 2007, 20:16 GMT