The Tuareg

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Many had travelled to the south and learned at least a few words of Bambara.

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They listened to southern music and watched TV programmes made in Bamako. But the bitterness and frustration remained. Their hurt is still visceral and deep and so is their mistrust of the government in Bamako. Islamism, however, is an entirely new element in this story. Until the mids, no Tuareg leader had ever fought a rebellion in order to impose his brand of Islam on others by force. Iyad Ag Ghali, fascinated by their message, invited them up to Kidal in the northeast.

He was disillusioned by the fractiousness of Tuareg tribal politics and, although he does not belong to the sub-clan of the Ifoghas amongst whom the clan chief is chosen, he hoped to reinforce his prospects of becoming the first non-hereditary leader of the Ifoghas Tuareg. No one doubted his supreme talents as a military and political leader, but Ag Ghaly lacked legitimacy as a religious figure. Some, including Iyad, went so far as to further their studies at a Tablighi centre near the city of Lahore in Pakistan and at mosques in Bamako and Paris.

He also became very strict and puritanical in his outlook and personal habits. After Islamist terror groups from Algeria started to operate in northern Mali from about onwards, they soon made common cause with Iyad and a small but growing group of Tuareg Salafists. Moreover, the Algerian terror group the GSPC, the precursor of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb AQIM , began to earn large sums from kidnapping, smuggling and money-laundering and the economy of northeastern Mali, such as it was, realigned itself around a new axis in which the smuggling of drugs, cigarettes, stolen cars and people featured prominently.

Tourism died a swift death, and, more in desperation than religious fervour, some young Tuareg accepted employment with the Islamists as drivers, informers, foot soldiers and runners. Inevitably, the prophesied dangers of the Islamist presence became self-fulfilling.

In order to undermine the continuing Tuareg insurgency, the governments of Mali and Algeria at best tolerated this presence and, at worst, actually encouraged it in dark clandestine ways. Confusing the cause of Tuareg self-determination with that of Islamic militancy bought them kudos among the international community and enrolled their secessionist problem in the much wider and better publicised global war on terror. France and the US reacted to the creeping presence of al-Qaeda affiliates in the southern Sahara by boosting military aid to Mali and other Sahelian countries - money that often disappeared into the pockets of corrupt politicians and generals.

The Tuareg nationalist cause became synonymous with Islamism, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the global war on terror.

The Tuareg: Nomads of the Sahara

The effect was a very neat emasculation of Tuareg dreams and a deep tarnishing of the Tuareg image in the eyes of the rest of the world. With weapons stolen from Muammar Gaddafi, a man who had always dampened Tuareg ambitions whilst seeming to support their cause, the latest and most far reaching rebellion was launched a year ago.

But it was hobbled from the outset by the old devilish disunity. A large number of the Tuareg soldiers who returned from Libya belonged to a tribe called the Idnan who had traditionally competed with the Ifoghas for dominance in the northeast. Iyad Ag Ghali demanded to become leader of the new rebellion but he was refused. He also tried to impose his Salafi philosophy on the movement, but he was once again turned down. Smarting from this rejection he formed his own militia, Ansar Dine, to which the best Ifoghas fighters soon swore allegiance. Perhaps, on deep reflection, it is possible to define a few hopes and dreams that unite most Tuareg.

A visceral attachment to their earth, to the beauty, pristine wildness, simplicity and space of their desert home seems to be almost universal. So is the deep nostalgia or assouf felt by most Tuareg when they are absent from it, either by compulsion or of their own free will.

This feeling alone accounts for the emotional power of 90 percent of all Tuareg music, including that of world famous Tuareg guitar groups like Tinariwen, Tamikrest and Terakaft. Most Tuareg want to see this natural beauty, this freedom of the wide open spaces preserved and with it the nomadic pastoralism that has been practised there for millennia. Then again, there are some, a few, that consider nomadism to have no future at all and who urge their fellow Tuareg to accept the sedentary life as the only route to a modern and sustainable future. Keeping Tamasheq alive has been a major motivation behind the Tuareg rebellions of the past, spurring demands for Tamasheq education and Tamasheq speaking television channels.

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Then there are the other mainstays of Tuareg culture that most Tuareg treasure. Among them are music, poetry, jewellery-making, leather-working, story-telling, traditional healing, camel breeding and more. But, once again, this cultural pride is not unanimous. Some Salafi Tuareg consider their Berber culture to be backward and irrelevant in the modern world, a folksy throw-back kept alive by meddling Western anthropologists. They would prefer their people to adopt Arabic, the language of the Quran and of the wider Muslim community.

Centre: It means the mother's tent is the heart of the community - although they do not eat together, and do much separately. Beautiful: It is the men who cover up their faces, while the women are happy to show off their faces - although they often cover their hair. Boundaries: The Tuareg travel across countries, but it has become harder since the colonialists carved Africa up.

As a result, the Tuareg have been arguing for secession in Niger and Mali, which has often descended into violent conflict. Class system: Tuareg women pictured in Niger. The Tuareg are divided into castes, with the nobles at the top and peasants at the bottom. Lyrical: A Tuareg woman at a music festival in Young couples write beautiful poetry to each other. Lifeline: The camels are of vital importance in the Sahara, and are often the only thing a man is left with when he gets divorced. Ownership: Women keep the tent and all the possessions when they split, including the domestic animals which the tribe relies on to survive.

Any visitor who goes to a camp would be vastly underestimating the power of the women in the tent if they believe their sole duty is to make the food and look after children. In fact, she owns the home and the animals. And the animals are an invaluable resource to the Tuareg in the middle of the Sahara.

We drink their milk, we eat their meat, we use their skin, we trade them. When the animals die, the Tuareg dies.

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Many marriages end in divorce among the Tuareg. And when it happens, it is the wife who keeps both the animals and the tent. The Tuareg's many small groups are joined together by the same family tree - and at the top of that tree is the person who bought them all together. And it should probably come as no surprise for a tribe which views women in such regard, that person was a queen.

Tin Hinan is said to have travelled south from modern day Morocco to what would one day become Algeria in the fourth century, where she became the first queen of the Tuaregs. It is from Tin Hinan - whose name translates as 'she of the tents' - that every noble family is said to descend. Takamet, her handmaiden who travelled by her side, is believed to be the ancestor of the peasant caste.

It is unlikely there will be any quibbling over who gets what. Pre-nuptial agreements are the norm. In practice, this often means a man is forced to return home to his mother, possibly with just his camel and nothing else. His wife, meanwhile, will keep possession of everything she brought to the marriage and that includes the children. The mother's camp, Butler explains, is the root of the community, the home everyone returns to - and this arrangement ensures it stays that way. And there is no shame in divorce. Families will often throw their daughters a divorce party, to let other men know they are available once more.

But this is not a matriarchal society, where the women are in charge.

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Butler explains it is still the men 'who sit and talk politics'. But even here, the women can be deferred to.

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They are often consulted for their views by their sons or husbands, and are quietly pulling the strings behind the scenes. However, Tuareg society is matri-lineal, which means the families trace their lines through the women, rather than the men, right the way back to their first queen. So, Butler explained: 'Traditionally, the man would belong to the woman's group, rather than the other way around. The preference for the women's line goes as far as man leaving his possessions to his sister's son as it 'is considered a stronger link to your family than to your own son'.

In other words, it can be guaranteed that your sister's child belongs to your sister, rather than a man's son, who cannot be absolutely guaranteed to share his genes. But there is one tradition which is certainly far more unusual: it is highly rude for a man to eat in front of a woman who he cannot have sexual relations with, or any of his elders. Many make daily prayers to Allah, but strict adherence to other religious requirements is rare.


Most of the feasts are observed and celebrated with relish, but the fasting that is required during Ramadan is often excused because Tuareg travel so much. Like most followers of Islam in northern Africa, Tuareg believe in the continuous presence of various spirits djinns. Most Tuareg men wear protective amulets that contain verses from the Koran.