I don’t think I will ever forget the warmth with which, as foreigners, myself and our little band of travellers were received by the Tuareg at the Festival au Désert. Even though this traditional gathering for Tuareg has been open to tourism since 2001, the welcome received is, in my experience, unique. Chatting to people about how accepted foreigners were, a theme emerged: this is the desert, and these are desert people.
As one Tuareg put it, “Never refuse to allow someone’s camel to drink from your well; you never know when your camel may need to drink from their well.” That seems like a good philosophy for life, but one that is uniquely the product of living in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Cooperation seems to be more than just desirable in the desert, it may be necessary for survival.
The literal translation of the word, Tuareg, means abandoned by god – a title possibly given to them by Arabs who struggled to convert them. They are better known as the Blue Men of the Sahara, because they traditionally wear the indigo tagelmust, or turban, which stains the skin blue. Although the Tuareg practice varying degrees of Islam, they retain many pre-Islamic traditions and beliefs. Strikingly, Tuareg women don’t wear veils and have a great degree of freedom and authority in family and community decision making.
I feel a bit ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ recalling the Tuareg I met, but it would be wrong to over-romanticise. Historically they have a fearsome reputation, attacking the great Saharan caravans that carried gold, salt, grain and slaves across the desert. With France embroiled in the First World War, the Tuareg rose up against colonial rule in 1915-16. More recently, there has been an armed uprising in this region since Malian independence in 1960. The Tuareg continue to struggle for independence from Mali (albeit an uneven struggle against a Malian military supplied by France and the United States).
Despite a new peace accord, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (the name for the Tuareg homeland) remains armed and active, and separatist sentiment continues to run through the region. This situation is complicated by the Tuareg diaspora; there are up to one million Tuareg living in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Libya. Many Tuareg don’t identify with their own governments and are seeking varying degrees of autonomy – all of which has been met with resistance.
That said, it is impossible not to be affected by the dignity and warmth of the Tuareg, and that is even before you’ve heard their music. If there is something sublimely beautiful about the vast Sahara Desert, it is doubly so for those who inhabit it. The image of brightly dressed Tuareg, riding their camels against a backdrop of golden sand, is seared into my memory.
One day there were some dramatic camels races, an event taken very seriously by the many camel enthusiasts amongst the crowd. I’d never seen a camel in full flight before – no wonder they inspired fear in people when Tuareg attacked travellers in the Sahara. Sitting on a sand dune watching this semi-martial display, memories of reading about the fearsome Tuareg, fighting the French Foreign Legion in the novel Beau Geste, inevitably popped into my head.