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The nomad liberation front

“Touareg, swim, swim until we reach our day and if we perish in the ocean of the liberation of our nation, then our resistance will be a lesson for the worlds to come.”
Mohamed Aliag Ataher Insar, chief of the Kel Intesar, aged 95

Photographer Alberto Arzoz’s personal odyssey led him to identify with the nomadic peoples of the Sahara desert. Corinna Lotz reports.

Alberto Arzoz: Erg Mehejbet

Alberto Arzoz hails from the Basque country, whose language, culture and aspirations were brutally suppressed by the fascist Franco regime which ruled Spain from 1939 to the dictator’s death in 1975.  “As I grew up, I experienced what it means to be in a minority in a larger state – to suffer discrimination. But I was also inspired by the renaissance which took place after Franco died as the Basque language was revived,” he says. When he came to London 20 years ago, he began to see the way in which globalisation was erasing people’s identities and making their lives homogenous, ironing out the cultural expression that gives people an identity.

Trained as an architectural photographer he went on to do portraiture and reportage. Then, about five years ago, he decided to quit commercial photography and do projects he was really interested in.

“For me photography needs to have a political and philosophical message but also an aesthetic one. It is not being simply about pictures and images, but a form of communication. It can provide a spark, an incentive for people to talk, to exchange ideas, to collaborate. I’m learning how to use this art form as a bridge, to create a snowball effect. A project can acquire a life of its own, separately from you, stimulate debate and, hopefully, change people’s lives."

Alberto Arzoz: Illizi The New Saharan Metropolis

Arzoz explains how he was led to photograph the Touareg nomads:

“These ideas matured when I worked on my Crow Indian tribe project which was on view at the Horniman Museum in south London in 2006. On my second visit to the Crow reservation, I came back with a big idea. The main thought was that we need to learn as much from indigenous peoples as they can from us. On the whole, the prevailing ideology is that the developed world, or the West has all the ideas. But, if anything, we need small nations and indigenous peoples even more than they need us.

“I’ve always felt very passionately about north Africa, especially the Sahara. Suddenly I felt that all the knowledge I had been acquiring had to be put to use. I knew what I wanted to do. My visit to the Touareg nomads was brief, but I knew what I wanted, since I had done a lot of research. I wanted to go to a part of the Sahara called the Tanezrouft, in south central Algeria, which means the land of  thirst – it is a desert within a desert. I found a travel agency which took its name from this part of the desert. It was set up by the Touareg along with a Saharan enthusiast in Switzerland. Obviously it is a business, but it probably helps the Touareg as much as the people running it in Switzerland. Unfortunately, eco-tourism is one of the few sources of income for the Touareg today. Eventually I got enough money together and found that the agency was really receptive to what I was trying to do. I wanted to be with the nomads, not just see the scenery. That big desert without the people is nothing.

Alberto Arzoz:Praying by Tumulus of Ancestor in Afara

“The Sahara is huge – it’s nine million square kilometres. That’s as big as the United States. It comprises many countries, with pools of populations scattered all around the Sahara.  Most of today’s Touareg nomads are descended from the indigenous Berber peoples who inhabited north Africa, even before the Phoenicians and then the Romans invaded from the north and eastern Mediterranean. From the seventh century, successive waves of Arabs descended on the coastal areas were invaded. The nomadic peoples, the Touareg and the Bedouin (who are of Arab descent) tended to move south into the desert. There are around three million living in the desert itself, away from the populous coast.  The Touareg live in what is known as the central Sahara, which includes a big chunk of Algeria, as well as Niger, Mali, Libya, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso.

“Today’s Touareg are mainly of Berber descent, with light complexions and very tall, but they may also be mixed race, or purely black peoples from the southernmost part of the Sahara. They are the only Berbers to have preserved the original Berber script, Tifinagh. But to be a Touareg is not the same as most other nationalities. They have a unique way of defining themselves. Elsewhere in the world you become what you are because of your race or where you come from. But for someone to be called Touareg it is nothing to do with their ethnic background or their wealth or class. If you follow the customs and speak the language you are a Touareg. In this way they have incorporated some of the Arab traditions and peoples who live around the southern edge of the Sahara – not just light-skinned people, but even former slaves. (One of the dark sides of the Touareg’s history is that they were involved in the former slave trade).”

Alberto Arzoz: Tuareg mounting moody camel

Dividing the Sahara

During the 19th century, the Tuoareg put up a prolonged resistance to the French invasion of their Central Saharan homelands, specially in the Ahaggar mountains. The courage of the Blue Men, as the fighters became known, due to their indigo headscarves, became legendary. Finally, however, they were subdued and made to sign treaties and their confederations were largely dismantled and reorganized.

When the French finally departed as a result of the Algerian and other independence struggles of the 1950s and 1960s in the Maghreb, the desert was divided amongst post-colonial Arab nation-states. Now the Touareg exist as minorities within many countries, in scattered groups who are very far apart. For example in Niger, the half a million Touareg form only 10% of the population, but most of the country had actually formed part of their ancient lands. In any case, as a nomadic people they did not recognise any national boundaries. “They lost their liberty, their nation and their freedom of movement. They lost the right to name children in a way that allowed them to trace their ancestry and were forbidden to speak Berber languages,” Arzoz explains.

Alberto Arzoz: Tuareg Camp Ahnet

Traditional Touareg culture was based on matriarchy and monogamy. Women had a powerful role and were seen as the bearers of culture and language. The most famous Touareg leader was a woman, Tin Hinan, heroine and spiritual leader, who founded a legendary kingdom in the Ahaggar mountains. But now, along with Islamicisation, polygamy has begun to appear. As they moved into cities, many nomads became unemployed. Most insidious and hard to resist is the assimilation policy exercised by the Algerian government. Government-run education has become a form of control. Most youth now see Arabic as the language of the mobile phone and television – and their traditional language appears old fashioned. In short, the whole world has been turned upside down since the end of the colonial era in the late 1960s. It is only in the far-flung parts of Mali and Niger that the old traditions are still strong. These areas are the least-developed and are starved of funds by central governments.

Alberto Arzoz: Tuareg Camp Ahnet

The 1960s saw largely unreported bloody conflicts between the Touareg and the armed forces of the newly independent countries, which led to thousands of deaths.  Political and social oppression tore the social fabric of Touareg society to shreds. Young men became refugees and took up paid work for the first time in their lives. In 1980, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya appealed to disaffected Touareg to join his revolutionary training camps. Many responded and met fellow fighters from the PLO, SWAPO and the ANC. In 1990 there were armed uprisings of Touareg freedom fighters in both Mali and Niger which were brutally suppressed with massive loss of life. Hundreds of thousands fled the fighting and became refugees. Negotiations initiated by France and Algeria led to an uneasy peace in the late 1990s, but renewed conflict broke out in Niger in 2004, and again in May 2006 in Mali. 

A recent United Nations Council for Refugees document sums things up:

“Northern Mali and Niger are today among the poorest regions in Africa. Traditionally, the population depended on nomadism, livestock raising and the trans-Saharan trade, all of which have been seriously curtailed in recent times by a combination of political, economic and environmental factors. The new nation-states established artificial boundaries which interrupted trade routes and subjected the population to rule from distant capitals, while its livelihood was undermined by the big droughts of 1973 and 1984, which led to major losses of livestock and large-scale desertification in the Sahel area.” 

The Sahel, the border zone of the southern Sahara, which is part of the Touareg homeland, is in fact a green belt on the edge of the desert, but it is highly vulnerable to desertification, according to the Niger-based Eden Foundation.

Alberto Arzoz: Erg Tisseline

The ‘war on terror’ and Sahara’s oil

Today, there is a dangerous new dimension in the chessboard of interests in the Saharan desert and countries that border on it. The thirst for oil and minerals and geo-politics are intertwined in an inflammatory way.  In the US, the Cheney Report of 2001 forecast that Africa would provide 25% of America’s imported oil by 2015. In 2002, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner declared that “African oil is of strategic national interest to us” and “it will increase and become more important as we go forward”. Although Africa’s largest oil producer is Nigeria, significant reserves of oil, much of it high quality, have been found in the Sahelian countries of Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. At the same time the US seeks rapprochement with the ruling elites in Algeria and Libya, which are North Africa’s major oil producing countries.

In 2003, the United States military launched a second front in its so-called “war on terror”, working closely with the Algerian government. Its target was the Sahel. Under its Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI),  the US sent 500 troops and 400 US Rangers into the Chad-Niger border region in January 2004. The US military has built a base and listening station outside Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. By 2005, the PSI was renamed and expanded into the Trans Sahara Counter-Terrorist Initiative (TSCTI)  in a $500 million programme to include Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Nigeria.

The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC), opposing these strategies, has said that the US initiative is “placing indigenous peoples in a more vulnerable situation,” and “the reasons stated by the US for its military and political interventions are less convincing that its overt interest in securing access to oil and other fuel sources.”  The IPACC sees the US government as provoking terrorist activities and then blaming it on the nomadic peoples.

Jeremy Keenan, Saharan specialist at the University of East Anglia pulls no punches in his analysis of events:

“Within a year [of launching the Pan Sahel Initiative], the United States and its allies had transformed the Sahara-Sahel region into a second front in the global ‘war on terror’. Prior to the hostage-taking in March 2003 [when 32 tourists were taken hostage in the Algerian Sahara] no act of terror in the conventional meaning of the term, had occurred in this vast region. Yet, by the following year, US military commanders were describing terrorists as ‘swarming’ across the Sahel and the region as a ‘Swamp of Terror’. The area was, in the words of European Command’s deputy commander General Charles F. Wald, a ‘terrorist infestation’ that ‘we need to drain’.

“The incidents used to justify the launch of this new front in the ‘war on terror’,” Keenan adds, “were either fiction, in that they simply did not happen, or fabricated by the US and Algerian military intelligence services.” In a wholesale condemnation of what he calls “the Second Front deception”, he notes that the launch of the Sahara front “has created immense anger, frustration, rebellion, political instability and insecurity across the entire region”. (A Think Tank Without Walls, September 26, 2006)

Alberto Arzoz: Stallholder from Niger in Tamanrasset Market

The Touareg federation project

Nomadic peoples – and not only the Touareg – are paying a heavy price for the adventures of the US and its allies in the Maghreb. US air strikes in Somalia earlier this year killed at least 70 nomads tending their animals. They were bombed day and night as they searched for water after they were “misidentified” as al-Qaida leaders by the US military. But in the Sahara area, the special forces of the United States, Niger and Algeria have been met by stiff resistance and daring raids by Touareg freedom fighters such as Hassan Fagaga, a former leader of the 1990s rebellion and other deserters from the Malian army.

And, over the years, help has come from Libya. At a celebration of the Mawlid (the anniversary of the prophet Mohammed) in Timbuktu in April 2005 Gaddafi led the prayers. He invited Christians and Jews to enter the grand mosque in Mecca, in defiance of the House of Saud and less tolerant Islamicists. He launched his idea for a greater Saharan state in which the Touareg of Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria would form a federation with Libya as its base. Not surprisingly this has caused no little concern in Algerian and other ruling circles.

Sahara Focus, a political risk analysis journal, warns:

“the US presence and increased provocation of the Touareg holds the potential for a Saharan-wide conflagration… If unrest does spread, the recent incursions of oil and other extractive companies into Touareg and adjoining territory, without any consideration of indigenous land rights, may come to present a new type of security problem in the Sahara-Sahel.”

But greater issues than the collapse of US-Algerian machinations are posed by the extraordinary events in the Sahara areas and elsewhere in Africa. As ethnologist Helene Claudot-Hawad has said:

“The Touareg, simply by their existence, offer a perfect alternative to the legitimacy of the state conceived of as a closed, homogenous entity excluding the other. They embody in this sense the transgression of the established order which, stuck in its centralising logic, has finally only one interest : that they should disappear, whether politically, culturally or physically”.

Alberto Arzoz: Camp Ahnet

Arzoz believes that the Touareg’s flexible and unique concept of citizenship, and belonging, the idea of stewardship of resources rather than private land ownership can give indicators for a different approach to life.

“My key motivation is to discover the values of these people. They don’t have private property. You just use things but you don’t own them. You live in a place but it doesn’t belong to you. It’s yours while you use it. When I lived in a camp with three families who still lived as nomads, following pools of water, I experienced a sense of happiness which was difficult to express. Here in London we have the other extreme of globalisation. But here also, you can see both ends up close and this is important for a creative person.”

The Photographs

In Arzoz’ immensely clear pictures of the desert and its inhabitants, we feel simultaneously how exotic this existence is, and how far away from our own reality.  The unrelenting contrasts of light and dark, the slender people, their heads swathed in thick turbans to protect them from extreme heat, light and wind. They seem the archetypal, original humans, our ancestors, brothers and sisters at the same time. Their way of life looks biblical, timeless – until we see the younger generation.  They are the same proud, cheeky boys you might meet just about anywhere. Except the lads in this picture pose casually at the foot of a monument to a warrior-hero.

Alberto Arzoz: Glorious Past - Uncertain Future

All photos ©Alberto Arzoz, Photographer

31 January 2007

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