Into the Desert

To gather sensory information about Barth’s travels, I wanted to spend a day on a camel in the desert. Shindouk arranged it. One morning a Tuareg wearing blue robes and a long sword showed up at the hotel’s gate. Somber and unsmiling, he was riding a white mehari and leading another. His name was Agali ag-Mohamed, Ali for short. Shindouk told me was a Kel Ulli, a tribe in the Imrad class of Tuaregs.

Ali on his mehara

All this fascinated me. Mehara, for instance, are the fast slender breed long favored by desert raiders such as the Tuaregs. The Imrad are the vassal class of Tuaregs (all Tuaregs belong to one of three classes: nobles (Ihaggaren), vassals, or slaves). I knew of the Kel Ulli because they had helped Barth in Timbuktu. He described them as ferocious warriors, infamous for “totally annihilating” two other powerful Tuareg tribes.

I climbed onto the prone mehara. At a signal from Ali, it sharply lifted its hind legs,  almost pitching me headfirst into the sand. Lesson number one. Lesson number two came later, in reverse, when Ali gave the signal to lie down and my camel suddenly tilted onto its front knees, nearly launching me again.

Tuaregs use a U-shaped wooden saddle, covered with sewn goatskin, that sits in front of the hump. They ride with both bare feet resting on the left side of the camel’s neck. I mimicked Ali. At the edge of town we stopped so he could buy a new SIM card for his cell phone, which he tucked beneath his blue robes.

Acacia thorn

I enjoyed the rocking gait of the camel. The desert was greener than I expected, with grasses, bushes, and stunted trees, such as the lovely but vicious acacia, with its red bark, frilly green leaves, and long silver thorns. About an hour into the journey I became acquainted with another desert plant. I dismounted (voluntarily, shortly after learning lesson number two) to walk to a place for a photo. Within 10 yards my shoeless feet felt as if they getting stung by a mob of ground hornets.

“Kram-kram,” said Ali without interest. Kram-kram is a patchy, innocent-looking groundcover that inserts dozens of fine needles into whatever it touches. The sand was full of it, as I’m sure Ali, son of the desert, was well aware. Lessons three and four. I spent the next 15 minutes pulling spines from my feet. Barth called the burr karengia and noted that every native carried tweezers to remove the spines.

It was February, “the month of wind.” The harmattan had started and was blowing hard, kicking up sand and turning the air cloudy. I kept my hat low and my kerchief over my mouth.

After several hours we reached Ali’s village, though that was too grand a name for it, since its inhabitants were so widely scattered that most of his neighbors weren’t visible. Ali’s camp consisted of an open-sided shelter (his house), a small cooking shed made of matting, and a mud-brick room about the size of a one-car garage. Except for the brick building, the camp looked almost exactly the same as depicted in old books and photographs.

Ali’s camp. From left to right: cooking shed, windscreen, domed shelter, mud-brick building

We settled into the mud-brick room. It had a sand floor and a roof of matting laid across a frame of sticks. Ali had built the room in hopes of attracting a teacher, but now it was used mostly by women for sleeping when the winds were bad. He didn’t like being indoors and preferred his shelter. Evidently he assumed that my preferences ran closer to the women’s. He said we would rest here during the day’s hottest hours.

Roof of mud-brick room, contemplated for hours during heat of day

While three of his children watched from the doorway, Ali began the ritual of making tea. He built a small fire on the sand floor. Loose tea went into a battered metal pot that held enough water to fill three or four of the little tea glasses used by Tuaregs. He dumped in a staggering amount of sugar and put the pot on the fire. Periodically he poured tea in a long arc from pot to tiny glass, then returned the tea to the pot for more steeping. Just as I began wondering if we were ever going to drink what he poured, he handed me one of the glasses. The liquefied sugar carried a nice hint of tea.

When the first pot was empty, which didn’t take long, he refilled it with water and sugar, and restarted the process using the same leaves. We drank three pots, which passed the time and jacked up my blood sugar.

Neia, Ali’s wife, and children

Ali wasn’t much for conversation. His wife, Neia, who did sometimes smile, brought in lunch, an aluminum bowl of tasty rice with bits of gristly meat. She handed me a carved wooden spoon. Ali relied on his right hand, scooping up a wad of rice, squishing it into his palm to form a solid oblong, then popping it into his mouth.

Two men and two women came in. Everyone began chatting in Tamasheq. Ali started a batch of fresh tea. One of the men wore a vivid turquoise robe and a flamboyant bright green neck garment with fringe. The long fingernails on his dirty hands were painted red. I naively asked Ali if this place had become a hang-out for his neighbors, but when all six began pulling little knotted bundles of jewelry from beneath their robes, I realized they were here because of me, the ensnared customer. Hucksters and retailers.

After a polite interval I escaped and took a walk. Ali’s shelter was domed, with log supports and a roof of thick matting to blunt the desert sun. On the north side the matting came to the ground. The south side was partly open, with a low roof to cut wind and sand. Inside, things hung from rafters. It felt spacious and pleasant.

South side of Ali’s shelter

Interior

A few hundred yards beyond Ali’s camp I took a photo of a fence made of acacia thorn that enclosed some goats.

A boy, maybe 10 years old, rushed over from somewhere and said, “500 francs for the photo.” I laughed. He insisted. I laughed again. He spotted the pen peeking out of my pocket.

“Give me your pen [le Bic].”

“Sorry, no, I need it.”

“500 francs for the photo.”

I told him he was amusing. He shrugged and walked off. A huckster’s gotta try.

Back in the mud-brick room, Ali was asleep. A burly dung scarab crawled across the sand floor, leaving a delicate trail. Ali’s bright-eyed daughter Fatima, maybe six or seven years old, stared at me. The sides of her head were shaved, with a spikey mohawk running down the center of her scalp. Barth had seen the same style among Tuareg boys. It gave her the look of a wild child. She pointed at my face, then herself. I didn’t understand until she leaned over and pulled at my glasses. When I jerked backward, she flashed her wild-child grin and ran off.

Ali and his son Mohamed

Tuareg saddle

In late afternoon it was finally time to go. Ali’s son Mohamed saddled the camels—first a blanket folded four times, then a thick leather pad, then the saddle itself. He put a rope under the camel’s belly and over the hump, and pulled the saddle tightly backward to stabilize it. We mounted—by that point I knew how to shift my weight—and we rode into the dunes toward Timbuktu.

Blue Men and Sovereign Women

When invading Arabic armies spread Islam across northern Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, one group ferociously resisted conquest and conversion, leading the Arabs to call them Tuaregs—“the Abandoned of God.” They called themselves Imoshag or Imajughen, meaning either “the free people” or “the noble people,” or Kel Tagelmoust, “people of the veil,” or Kel Tamasheq, “speakers of Tamasheq.” Eventually, like the rest of northern Africa, the Tuaregs adopted Islam, but with typically noncomformist twists.

Timbuktu was founded as a Tuareg encampment, and the town has always been populated by these legendary “blue men” of the desert, famous for their flowing robes and turban-veils, dyed a deep indigo that rubbed off on their skin. Tuaregs were haughty and belligerent, indifferent to hardship, merciless to enemies. 

Map of Tuareg areas, by Mark Dingemanse

For centuries they were the scourge of a vast area across north-central Africa. They moved at will across the desert with their herds of camels and goats, plundering caravans and each other. But in the 20th century, colonization, aggressive central governments, and droughts curbed much of their mobility and killed most of their animals. Their nomadic life began sputtering out. In Timbuktu many Tuaregs now live in permanent houses and sell hand-made jewelry, not camels and goats.

During the years of Barth’s journey, 1849-1855, Tuaregs still ruled the desert. Barth spent a lot of time among them, some of it life-threatening, yet he admired their toughness, elegance, and fiercely independent way of life.

Tuareg camp

Tuareg men, then as now, were distinctive because of their tagelmoust or turban-veil. They wrapped this ten-foot cloth around their head, leaving a slit for their eyes. Once a Tuareg male reached maturity and donned the tagelmoust, he never took it off in public and wore it even when eating and drinking.

Every Westerner noticed that Tuareg culture upended certain practices of Islam. The most striking was the position of women. Most Islamic women in north Africa were highly restricted and preferably invisible, kept indoors and covered from head to toe.

Not Tuareg women. They didn’t wear veils—only the men did. They didn’t hide their sexuality–in fact they emphasized it with henna and kohl. Nor were they confined to the indoors or to certain areas of the dwelling. They usually ate with the men and guests, not separately.

Unlike their fellow Muslims, Tuaregs didn’t fetishize female purity. Young Tuaregs of both sexes mixed at social events filled with music, dancing, and flirting. Couples wandered off into the desert night. This time of courtship and experimentation was called asri, “to gallop with free reins.” After marriage, a woman wasn’t put into seclusion but could visit her friends at will. Westerners universally commented on the easy respect between Tuareg men and women, and on their tenderness for their children. Though Islam allowed a man four wives, monogamy was typical among Tuaregs.

In fact the culture was matrilineal. At marriage, a Tuareg groom left his village and joined his wife’s. She could accumulate property of her own, and if the couple divorced—a matter of simply declaring it—she took her wealth with her. She also kept the children. As Barth noted, “the women appear to have the superiority over the male sex in the country of [Aïr], at least to a certain extent.”

All of this, plus their mystique as wandering blue warriors, made them fascinating to Westerners, including Barth. His experiences among them, from the desert mountains of Aïr to the dunes of Timbuktu, are among the highlights of Travels and Discoveries.

How Do You Spell That?

Western spellings of African names and places are notoriously various. Until all the versions of certain words became familiar to me, the discrepancies sometimes made my eyes spin (and my spell-checker run red).

The causes of confusion seem clear. Imagine a panel of 17th-century Europeans—a Spaniard, a Portuguese, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German—listening to a Wampanoag Indian say the word that we have come to know as “Massachusetts.” Now imagine how each panelist would spell that new word after filtering its sounds through the phonics, diphthongs, diacritics, and other idiosyncrasies peculiar to his native language. It’s safe to predict that the resulting phonetic guesses would not be uniform.

Similar “sounds-like” spellings occurred when explorers asked Africans the name of some river or mountain. The confusion was further complicated because different peoples in Africa spoke unrelated languages, and naturally had different names for the same places, tribes, landmarks, plants, and animals. Travelers brought all the different words home and put them onto maps and into accounts and letters.

Sometimes the variations are easy to decipher. For instance, in the journals of Barth and James Richardson, and in dispatches by Foreign Office personnel, Richardson’s interpreter is variously referred to as Yusuf, Yusef, Yousef, and Youseff, with a last name of Moknee, Mukni, Muckeni, and Mokumee. The founder of Islam is likewise recognizable whether spelled Mohammed, Muhammad, or Muhammed.

Murzuk, from Travels and Discoveries

Things can get a bit more confusing with geographic names. In different accounts, the desert town of Murzuk, for example, is called Murzuq, Mourzuk, Morzouk, and Murzuch. There’s Timbuktu, Timbuctoo, and Tombouctou. Lake Chad also appears as Tschad and Tchad.

Tribal names often undergo phonetic mutations. The Tebu people of Niger and Chad may be called Toubou, Tibbu, Tibu, Tubu, Tebou, or Tibboo. The great ethnic group who dominate the Central Sudan may be referred to as Fula, Fulani, Fellani, or Fulbe. Barth rode for a while with a tribe of mercenary Arabs, “certainly the most lawless robbers in the world,” whom he called the Welad Sliman–but other writers spell their initial name Walid, Ouled, Oulad, or Uelad, sometimes followed by Soliman, Suliman, or Suleiman. A researcher needs to recognize the many possible combinations.

Tuareg” comes in multiple alternate spellings: Tawarek (Barth), Tuarick (Richardson), Touareg (French), and Twareg, among others. The same is true for the Tuaregs’ name for themselves: Imoshagh, Imohag, Imohagh, Imashaghen, Imuhagh, Imajaghan, Imajughen, and Imazaghan are a few of the variations. The Tuaregs’ language is usually, but not always, spelled Tamasheq, Tamashek, or Tamajaq, which uses an alphabet called Tifinagh.

Carving in Tifinagh script ©Tim Brookes 2011

To a researcher combing through books and encountering these peoples under all their different names, it’s as if they carry multiple passports and wear disguises, a mustache in one place, an eyepatch in another.

Sometimes the disguises are confounding. Old travel accounts and histories may refer to the Niger River as the Isa, Quorra, Kworra, or Kwara. The Niger’s major tributary, the Benue, might appear under the names Shary, Shari, Tchadda, or Chadda. Such wild discrepancies also underline the unsettled state of geographic knowledge about these river systems in the 18th and 19th centuries.

To make sense of old accounts and historical documents, a researcher must learn to recognize the variants. Otherwise, references will be missed or misunderstood. Someone inexperienced who searched Barth’s index for “Tuareg,” for instance, could get the misimpression that the explorer had nothing to say about that extraordinary desert tribe, when in fact he spent a good portion of his journey among them.