Inspiration of the Taureg

Twenty years ago, the village of Umm Giras was as unremarkable as a thousand others along the southern reaches of the Sahara desert. It had a cluster of round huts built from wood and straw, a primary school with just one tin-roofed classroom, and an unusually elegant mosque, painted white, with its grounds shaded by acacia trees. The inhabitants were unremarkable too; not obviously different from most Sudanese. Although they described themselves as nomads, and there were a number of sleek camels grazing on thorn trees and a couple of fine horses tethered in the shade next to the house of the sheikh, they were indistinguishable from their Fur, Arab, or Zaghawa neighbors in the villages up and down the road from the Darfurian regional capital, al Fashir.

But the visitor to the house of the village chief, Mansour Abdalla, immediately noted something was different. The house of a Sudanese village chief, especially if his people are proud of camel-herding origins, is hung with leather saddle-bags, swords, and the paraphernalia of a life that revolved around constant movement with animals. In Sheikh Mansour’s case, the artifacts were similar but the designs were distinctively different. The leatherwork was dyed a deep dark red and embroidered with patterns of diamonds and crosses, their shapes accentuated by curves. The saddle decorations echoed the designs of the pendants on the necklace worn by the sheikh’s wife.

All the tribes that fought with the Mahdi—the millenarian visionary leader who led a vast rebellion against the British and Egyptians in the 1880s—are proud of their swords. Mansour’s sword had a distinctive handle, topped with a round brass knob, with the same characteristic curves.

The people of Umm Giras called themselves Kinin, and had done so for a century. But before that they were known as Tuareg, as members of the far-flung confederation of Saharan peoples who live in the most inhospitable parts of the desert, from Sudan, northern Chad and southern Libya, through Niger, Mali, the Algerian desert and Mauritania. Today the Kinin speak Arabic, but their grandparents spoke a language known as Amazigh.

Tuareg jewelry, textiles and leatherwork are unique. The designs are simple, bold and creative, combining strong shapes with elegant curves, contrasting plain silver surface with polished stone. These characteristics make for a timeless design, never becoming fussy or dated. The best examples are superb demonstrations of the silversmith’s artistry, immediately recognizable. They remain a connoisseur’s choice, limited by the scarcity of the Saharan artisans who produce them.

In 1986, when Umm Giras was an unremarkable, dirt poor village, it was only these few traditions of decoration that marked the Kinin as distinct from their neighbors. Twenty years later, after the convulsions of war and massacre in Darfur, most of the 25,000 Kinin had become displaced and were living in the city of al Fashir. Their chief was now al Kheir, son of the old sheikh, who was also a senior police officer. But he prefers to describe himself as a historian and imam, as the political and spiritual leader of his community.

Over these decades, the Kinin have become more culturally Arabized, their traditional leatherwork replaced by the standardized commodities available in al Fashir’s marketplace. It is sad to see a centuries’ old tradition of artistry fading, kept alive by just a dwindling handful of artisans.

But al Kheir has something else to show off: a photograph album. Its first picture is of a demonstration in a modern city, by pale-skinned people waving placards written in Roman script. He explains, it is a demonstration by Moroccan Berbers demanding education in the Amazigh language—the common language of the Berbers of the Atlas mountains of the Maghreb, the Tuareg of the Sahara—and the grandparents of the Kinin. Al Kheir explains that Amazigh means “the free people.” The other pictures in his album show Amazigh activists and leaders across the entire breadth of northern Africa, including a photo of the French-Algerian soccer star Zinedine Zidane.

Astonishingly for a tribal sheikh who is not only a Muslim and Arabic-speaker, but also an active Islamist and a police officer in an Islamist government, al Kheir proudly mentions that the Berbers historically include Jewish communities. He has dispatched a couple of educated young men as emissaries to the Berber conventions in Morocco and Tuareg meetings in different countries, as well as himself travelling to the headquarters of the Tijaniyya Sufi sect in Senegal. Sheikh Ahmad al Tijani founded the order in Fes, Morocco, in the 1780s, but most of its followers are in the Sahelian countries, with its biggest followings in Nigeria and Sudan.

The cultural renaissance of the Amazigh is a recent flowering, following the repression of their language and identity during the reign of the former King Mohammed V. His son, Mohammed VI, has allowed the Berbers—who comprise at least half of the Moroccan population—to speak and learn their own language. In turn this has stimulated a remarkable rediscovery of cultural links across Africa and a new confidence among Amazigh speakers, as far away as Sudan. Amateur historians, such as al Kheir, are encouraging their children to learn the language and to learn about their common heritage. Al Kheir insists that, at the time when the Tijaniyya was founded, Morocco was one of the most cosmopolitan nations in the world. It was a melting pot of Arab, Andalusian and African traditions, of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And, among other things, the Moroccan kingdom had already signed a Friendship Treaty with the United States—the first nation to do so.

This cultural confidence across half a continent, will for sure bring about a renewal of artistic creativity in its original heartland of Morocco’s High Atlas. Those traditions of silverwork and textile design, preserved for generations in the face of an inhospitable climate and hostile political authorities, are being regenerated. They face new threats of mass produced clothing and cheap western imitation jewelry, but the authentic tradition remains alive.

Photo Credit: 1. Quentin Bacon

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