Sons of the Desert

4 minute read

In Tuareg folklore, the hills are alive with the sound of jealous rage. Once upon a time, a tall lava plug called Mount Amjer spurned the advances of a volcanic vixen named Mount Tioueyin and refused to leave Mount Tahat, even though Tahat was already married to another mountain. So Tioueyin did what any self-respecting monolith would do: she left town. She moved 150 km southwest and took a suitor, Mount Iherhé, with her.

In Sahara Man: Travelling with the Tuareg (John Murray; 274 pages), British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan returns to that land of lusty mountains, his first visit to Algeria in three decades. In the 1960s, he lived in the camps of the blue-veiled tribesmen, immersed in their language and culture. He studied the people intensely — “as academic subjects,” he now says, “not as human beings” — before leaving to tell the world. His academic ambitions and the region’s politics prevented his return. It wasn’t until 1999 that this man, who still considers himself a Tuareg expert, realized that he couldn’t even answer a simple question: What had happened to them since?

Even in the ’60s, Tuareg society was struggling. Drought and government decree were relegating traditions — nomadism, historic hierarchies, the methodology for naming children — to the social scrap heap. The pace of change has only quickened. Tamanrasset, once a sleepy Sahara town, is now a real city, full of “big trucks, smaller trucks, jalopies, pickups of every conceivable make and era, cars, mopeds and bicycles; but no camels.” Many Tuareg who have shunned city life make camp with government-issue tents instead of animal skins and wooden poles. Tagella, an unleavened flatbread, is still a staple. But these days, it’s dipped in “apricot jam that must rival tinned sardines as colonialism’s most profound legacy to Saharan nutrition.”

Some customs endure. There’s the unspoken language of the veil, the tagelmoust, worn by the men. It covers the mouth, a “zone of pollution . . . disrespectful to expose before others.” Each man adjusts his veil subtly, constantly, in response to others and in accordance with status. One of high rank may let the veil fall. “Only someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca,” Keenan writes, “can divest himself entirely.”

Such Tuareg arcana emerge in dribs and drabs, interspersed with the travels mentioned in the subtitle. But Travelling with the Tuareg isn’t about traveling with the Tuareg at all. Instead, the Tuareg are traveling with Keenan, on a single-minded (i.e., Keenan’s) mission: to find rock art.

Cave paintings, all pre-Tuareg, don’t interest the tribesmen. But Keenan says they should. After all, what wealthy Westerner wouldn’t pay to view ancient paintings in a gallery carved by the elements? So he and his entourage roam, from the black-and-white chessboard flats of Amadror — “I had no idea Nature could be so kitsch” — to the stone steeples of the Tin Ghergoh range, searching for fading ocher smears of mountain goats and jellyfish. Much of the art has been damaged, some by Islamic fundamentalists on a Taliban-like crusade to chisel the world into compliance with their interpretation of religious law. But most of the embellishments are by tourists. “Loulou,” one writes. Most scrawl dates. A German tells Keenan he likes “the way in which modern artists’ had made their own contributions to the sites.” Keenan’s subsequent rants take Sahara Man far off the Tuareg trail. He has already gone in search of things that don’t interest the Tuareg at all. Art may be salvation tomorrow, but wasn’t the book supposed to be about the people today?

Keenan says he wanted to capture “the essence of the Tuareg people.” In between visits to the rock art sites, with anecdotes about jealous volcanic piles and impromptu gazelle hunts, terrifying sandstorms and quiet nights under the Sahara sky, he somehow does. Pity then that he subjects his work to treatment strangely similar to the desecration he decries. For in his book, there is beauty beneath, a vivid portrait of his embattled Sahara Man, the Tuareg. But to see it, you have to look past the marks of an outsider, the signature of one who likes to say, all too often, “Jeremy Keenan was here.”

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