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Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa

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The Sahara has long been portrayed as a barrier that divides the Mediterranean world from Africa proper and isolates the countries of the Maghrib from their southern and eastern neighbors. Rather than viewing the desert as an isolating barrier, this volume takes up historian Fernand Braudel’s description of the Sahara as "the second face of the Mediterranean." The essays recast the history of the region with the Sahara at its center, uncovering a story of densely interdependent networks that span the desert’s vast expanse. They explore the relationship between the desert’s "islands" and "shores" and the connections and commonalities that unite the region. Contributors draw on extensive ethnographic and historical research to address topics such as trade and migration; local notions of place, territoriality, and movement; Saharan cities; and the links among ecological, regional, and world-historical approaches to understanding the Sahara.

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1. Situations Both Alike?: Connectivity, the Mediterranean, the Sahara

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Peregrine Horden

I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the ’orld, I warrant you sall find, in the comparisons, between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river at Monmouth: it is called Wye at Monmouth; but it is out of my prains what is the name of the other river; but ’tis all one, ’tis so like as my fingers is to my fingers, and there is salmons in both. —SHAKESPEARE, HENRY V

Fluellen showed the way. With ingenious selectivity, almost anything—certainly any piece of geography—can be made to seem similar enough to anything else to be classified under the same broad heading. Comparison of the two then becomes a plausible exercise.1

The attraction of comparing the Mediterranean and the Sahara derives of course not only from the applicability of nautical similes (camels as ships of the desert, oases as islands) but from the proximity of the two regions. Along with Northern Europe, the Middle East, and, from early modern times onward, the Atlantic, the Sahara is one of the big adjacent geographical expressions with which the Mediterranean historian must engage, at least since the long third millennium BCE, possibly since 120,000 years ago.2

 

2. On Being Saharan

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E. Ann McDougall

The introduction to this volume began with a brief rehearsal of Euro-American stereotypes about the Sahara, with a nod to their North and West African counterparts. My focus will be on notions of the Sahara that, albeit perhaps not any more “real” than those described and criticized there, are internal rather than external, and inform the way Saharans themselves think about the Sahara, both as a geographic space and as a marker of identity. This is a preliminary exploration and will ask more questions than it can answer. Nonetheless, I think it is central to the matter at hand: as scholars and academics, and especially as historians, it is all too easy to be seduced into a well-entrenched set of paradigms and perspectives such that even when we do seek out the “local” (be it oral, written, visual, or material), we often do not really hear, see, or understand its meaning.

This is perhaps best illustrated by two anecdotes that although very different in content, deliver, to my mind, a similar message. While I was conducting postdoctoral research in Nouakchott in the 1980s, I attended a local celebration of Mauritania and its culture organized by students.1 I was struck by the fact that over and over, young Mauritanian men (women were not much in evidence at such events yet) talked about themselves as “Saharan,” as “people of the desert,” although I knew that most of them had never traveled much closer to the desert than the suburbs of Nouakchott, while a few might have attended a family holiday or date festival in one of the many—and mostly declining—oases of the region. At the same event, a presentation on the contemporary, eastern Mauritanian desert oasis of Walata not so subtly suggested that the inhabitants of Walata were not quite as Saharan as these students were themselves: that they were in fact “people of the Sudan.”2 By implication, neither were the Walatis “really” Mauritanian, if to be Mauritanian was to be associated with a particular understanding of “being Saharan.” But what did this mean to the city-dwelling, modernizing youth of the 1980s? And who was included in this category, on what grounds, and in what particular context?

 

3. Saharan Trade in Classical Antiquity

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Katia Schörle

In classical antiquity, the Sahara (whether called deserta or solitudines Africae in Latin, or eremoi in Greek; Desanges 1999a: 239) was constructed by Greek and Roman writers alike as a place of distinctive otherness. Exotic, empty, wild, or peopled by bizarre creatures, it served to represent the antithesis of the known civilized world (Liverani 2000a: 498; J. McDougall this volume). Yet, much like the classical Mediterranean as described by Horden and Purcell in The Corrupting Sea (2000), the Sahara is perhaps best imagined as constituted by shifting interactions, related microcosms, and overlapping networks than by rigid patterns: a network of hubs, central nodes around which activities revolved and which were involved in multidirectional exchange (Wilson 2009). Settled at the edges of the Sahara or in oases—islands in the Saharan sea—Saharan populations relied and throve on interactions with their neighbors (Crawley Quinn 2009). This chapter’s main emphasis is on the Libyan Sahara between the sixth century BC and the sixth century AD, a period that corresponds to the rise and fall of the Garamantian civilization and roughly to the classical Greek and Roman period in the Mediterranean.1 The Garamantian kingdom (ca. 500 BC–AD 650), whose territories were centered on the oasis belts in the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya, communicated with both North Africa and sub-Saharan regions. The Fezzan is one of the few areas in the Sahara to have received much archaeological attention, and findings strongly suggest that it constituted a powerful center of trading activity within the Sahara (Mattingly 2003, 2007, 2010). Although there has been some past debate over the exact nature of these long-distance trading networks (see, for instance, Law 1967; Swanson 1975), more recent archaeological work in the Fezzan by both Italian and British teams dispels any doubt about their existence (Mattingly 2003, 2007, 2010; Liverani 2005). Goods from the Mediterranean or (to a lesser extent) from sub-Saharan Africa are found in burial sites associated with Garamantian settlements. These trading activities across various parts of the Sahara varied over time and space, both in the intensity of exchange and in the routes taken, showing a pattern that is much more varied and flexible than we might expect.

 

4. Frontiers, Borderlands, and Saharan/World History

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James McDougall

Places which yield only the bare necessities of men’s lives must be inhabited by barbarous peoples, since no political society is possible. … The least populous countries are thus the most fitted to tyranny; wild beasts reign only in deserts.

—ROUSSEAU, THE SOCIAL CONTRACT

It would not be much of an exaggeration, and may even be a commonplace, to say that the question of how best to assess northwest Africa’s place within the wider world and its history has engaged travelers, writers, and scholars since Herodotus. For the great Greek compiler of eyewitness veracity and astounding tales alike, the imaginable world (centered, of course, on the Mediterranean) was bounded to the south by what he believed to be the curve of the Nile, cutting east and north through the desert, and to the north by the Danube, meandering symmetrically east and south from the land of the Celts. Beyond both were unimaginable barbarian lands without comprehensible language or civilization.1 The Sahara’s credentials as a limit, an edge of the world, are thus well anchored in the European history of ideas about the world and its inhabitants, and the extent to which they might be known; unlike the deep forests of Central Europe, of course, the great desert maintained this ancient mystique well into modern times. Even from the much closer perspective of medieval Arabic writers, the bild al-sdn functioned in historical and geographical literature as a limit to what (and whom) could be known and included in the recognizable world, and what could be left to the imagination. Somewhere out across the desert there was a modicum of law, religion, manners, and settled life, and contacts between Sijilmassa and Awdaghust or between Ouargla and Tadmekka/Essouk were so regular that Ibadi texts could use them as the setting for morality tales (Levtzion and Hopkins 1981: 90–91). But there were also single-breasted women and kings riding horned beasts. From the dimly perceived states and potentates of the medieval era (like those depicted on the famous Catalan Atlas of 1356, showing the fourteenth-century Malian king Mansa Musa holding an apple-sized nugget of gold) through to much more recent images of the region, the Sahara’s vast attraction as an unknowable frontier, alternately empty of anything or full of fears, has been inversely proportional to the extent to which it has been understood. This continues to be a barrier to broader understanding of the region in the wider world, and to some degree a potential danger for the region’s peoples today (E. A. McDougall, ed., 2007).

 

5. The Rites of Baba Merzug: Diaspora, Ibadism, and Social Status in the Valley of the Mzab

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Fatma Oussedik

It is well known that for centuries, often intense patterns of exchange—of goods, ideas, architectural forms, beliefs—have developed in and across the Sahara. People and goods have moved through trade, but also through the dynamics of conquest, pilgrimage, and religious education. Like the Mediterranean world, the Sahara has experienced cycles of flourishing and reduced prosperity as these forces have ebbed and flowed across the longue durée and into the present. The end of the centuries-long caravan trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marginalized or ruined the oasis cities whose lifeblood it had been; the recrudescence of movement and exchange within and across the desert today is having other effects on the populations that have for centuries inhabited these spaces. The inhabitants of the valley of the Mzab, situated in a rocky plateau whose altitude varies between 300 and 800 meters above sea level, 600 kilometers south of Algiers at the edge of the northern Sahara, have always depended on commercial activity for their survival. Ever since their arrival in the eleventh century CE, the Berber-speaking Zenata Muslims of the Ibadi rite who settled in the arid valley and built their cities here have been engaged in commerce.1 Successfully adapting to changing economic circumstances over many centuries, the Ibadis of the Mzab were considered by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1958) as classic exemplars of the combination of “puritanism” and capital: commercial and financial entrepreneurs adhering strictly to a particularly rigorous form of Islamic doctrine.2 For the people of the Mzab, a community whose social and political life was determined by their particular interpretation of Islam, Ibadism was a determining factor in relations with other social groups. It has therefore played a major role in the history of their exchanges with other populations, mandating a certain distinctiveness relative to other Muslim groups, requiring particular social and educational practices for the survival of the community, but also regulating the integration into the community of other ethnic groups, particularly those emerging from slavery within the Mzab itself.

 

6. Celebrating Mawlid in Timimoun: Ritual as Words in Motion, Space as Time Stood Still

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Abderrahmane Moussaoui

At Ouled Saïd, the whole oasis awaits the arrival of the procession. The standard of Sidi al-Hjj Bu M’hammad appears over the dunes just as the sun begins to set, enflaming the horizon red and ochre. Men, women, and children, scattered across the ridges of the dunes that border the oasis and its palm groves, stand up to meet it. Even the tolb, the students of religion who just now were chanting verses from the Qur’an on the flank of the highest dune, and who seemed to be settled there forever, suddenly get to their feet. A group of men goes out to meet the procession that has now stopped at the foot of the last dune, beyond the limits of the oasis on its northern edge, and a large semicircle forms around three musicians playing the tar, a kind of drum. In a little valley between the dunes bordering the oasis, one of its inhabitants welcomes the group of visitors, presenting to them the members of the jm‘a, the council, and the notables of the qsar.1 The visitors and most of those who have awaited their arrival now form a large circle some fifty meters across, at the center of which stand six tar players and a dozen men carrying between them the green banner of Sidi al-Hjj Bu M’hammad. The drummers provide a backdrop to a chorus of voices in which the names of God and of his Prophet are profusely repeated. A du‘a, an invocation or prayer of salutation addressed to the Prophet, is raised in chorus by men and women together, in low voices, in devotion: as-salmu ‘alayka y rasl Allh (May peace be upon you, O messenger of God). One man, the muqaddam (guardian) of the zwiya, is the focus of attention; he is everyone’s host.2 All the visitors seek to approach him, while the inhabitants of Ouled Saïd try to get close to the banner of Sidi Bu M’hammad. After about half an hour, everyone moves to the hollow of another little valley among the dunes. The circle is reformed, and the chorus begins again, as does the rhythm of the drums: a rasl Allh (O messenger of God). After a last prayer, the procession enters the qsar just as the sun sets. The Qur’an will be recited throughout the night—the salka (reading of the entire Qur’an at one sitting) will not be complete until the first light of dawn. Couscous is eaten, tea drunk, and rifles discharged into the air.

 

7. Villages and Crossroads: Changing Territorialities among the Tuareg of Northern Mali

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Charles Grémont

Let us begin with a historical observation: at the end of the nineteenth century, territorial control as exerted by the various dominant Tuareg groups in the area of what is today the north of the Republic of Mali was flexible, based on alliances with, and control over, people who were relatively mobile. Today, Tuareg livelihoods and political influence, like those of their neighbors, are increasingly defined with reference to geographical limits, while the control over specific locations and areas has become both the object of power struggles and a way of expressing them. My aim here is to show why local concepts of power have changed so drastically, under which circumstances this happened, and with what kinds of resistance these changes were met—resistances that bear witness to the profound impact of these transformations, but that also question the validity of the territorial model imposed by the colonial state and endorsed by the national state after independence.

 

8. Ethnicity and Interdependence: Moors and Haalpulaaren in the Senegal Valley

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Olivier Leservoisier

The history of the relationship between Moorish and Haalpulaar1 societies has mainly been described in terms of their opposition, understood especially through their competition over the control of resources in the Senegal valley. Adopting a different perspective, the aim of this chapter is to underline the numerous relations that link these societies by emphasizing their interdependence, which has often been neglected by researchers. Indeed, apart from the observations made by Paul Marty (1921), Shaykh Muusa Kamara (1998), O. Kané (1974), and I. Sal (1978), historical commentary has tended to focus on conflicts rather than alliances, thus perpetuating, at times unintentionally, the image of two antagonistic blocs composed, on the one hand, of Moors (bdn),2 who are Arabo-Berbers of a pastoral nomadic tradition, and, on the other hand, black African minorities (Haalpulaaren, Soninké, and Wolof), who are mainly agriculturalists living along the Senegal River.

 

9. Mauritania and the New Frontier of Europe: From Transit to Residence

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Armelle Choplin

In September 2007, Mauritanians watched, not without surprise, as the first Moroccan semi-trailer trucks, brand new and loaded with perishable goods, came down the new road between Nouadhibou and Nouakchott. One month later, a local newspaper reported, “Mauritanian security forces have arrested fifty-one nationals of various sub-Saharan countries who were attempting to enter Nouadhibou illegally.”1 This implied that, for sub-Saharan Africans, to try to reach Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city, had become a crime. These two events reveal many of the paradoxes that govern the western Sahara: although the liberalization of Mauritanian transport has led to an intensification of transborder exchange, the movements of people from neighboring countries, in particular Senegal and Mali, are increasingly restricted. This can only be understood with reference to the new dividing line between north and south, transplanted to the western Sahara by European policies.

 

10. Living Together and Living Apart in Nouakchott

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Laurence Marfaing

As a result of long-standing habits of mobility throughout West Africa, but also, and especially since 2006, due to EU policies aiming to stop African migration to Europe, the number of West African migrants who live on a more or less temporary basis in Mauritania is currently estimated at 65,000, which is 2.5 percent of the total population of 2.7 million inhabitants.1 A government survey carried out in 2007 shows that 60 percent of all foreign nationals in Mauritania have lived there since 2000, without, however, differentiating between their various migratory projects (République Islamique de Mauritanie [hereafter, RIM] 2007: 14). Most of these foreign residents are from neighboring countries, such as Senegal (60 percent) and Mali (30 percent). The remaining 10 percent are from other sub-Saharan countries, Asia, and the Maghreb (Marfaing 2009a). The majority live in cities: Nouakchott, the capital; Nouadhibou, an important harbor and industrial center; and Rosso, on the border between Senegal and Mauritania on the Senegal River. According to government statistics, the foreign residents account for 4.5 percent of the total population of these cities, and mostly live in districts primarily inhabited by black Mauritanians or nationals of neighboring countries, where they settle following community boundaries (RIM 2007: 11–12). Whole sections of these cities have become “intermediary spaces” both for migrants who ultimately aim to reach Europe and for those who are mainly looking for employment in Mauritania.2 Moreover, for both categories, these areas of transit often turn into places of more permanent residence.

 

11. Cultural Interaction and the Artisanal Economy in Tamanrasset

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Dida Badi

This chapter investigates cultural interactions between the Sahara and its Sahelian borderlands, based on an analysis of skills and techniques shared by craftsmen who supply the markets of Tamanrasset and, to a lesser degree, Djanet and Illizi.1 Since the 1970s, these towns, situated in the extreme south of the Algerian Sahara, have become privileged sites of interaction and exchange between local people and more or less temporary migrants. This has resulted in the revival of traditional sets of knowledge and skills that have long been shared by both, and that are today skillfully adapted to a changing social and economic context. In this analysis, I will use two key notions: “revivals” and “transformations.” A “revival” indicates the use of traditional knowledge and skills in a modern context, while a “transformation” shows the dynamic nature of this use. Modern Sahelian industries found in southern Algeria today largely draw on a common cultural patrimony shared between the Sahara and the Sahel, one that, far from being immutable and outmoded, proves to be highly adaptable and to have an important part to play in local economic development and the regional integration of Tamanrasset.

 

12. Notes on the Informal Economy in Southern Morocco

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Mohamed Oudada

Contraband activity is a typical feature of frontier zones in developing countries as elsewhere but particularly where the frontier itself is relatively unstable. Where borders are closed, contraband networks provide the only means of organizing commercial exchange in response to local and regional requirements across the frontier zone; where borders are open, but policed by entry tariffs, contraband activity avoids customs and tariff controls and their limitations on “free” trade. Morocco’s militarily controlled land borders provide two major points of exchange with neighboring states: the customs post on the Algerian border at Oujda, currently closed; and the post on the open frontier with Mauritania, at Fort Guergerrat south of Dakhla.1 Southern Morocco and the western Saharan region therefore sit at the junction of two different frontiers: the Algerian border is illegally crossed by only the most valuable exchanges, while the Mauritanian border is open to trade in goods of all kinds.

 

13. Garage or Caravanserail: Saharan Connectivity in Al-Khalīl, Northern Mali

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Judith Scheele

The considerable investments that are necessary to begin the irrigation of the smallest plot of land, the cost of the development and the maintenance of intensive arboriculture in an extremely dry environment cannot be justified solely by their financial return nor even by general economy. Furthermore, we noticed very often that, for various reasons (political, military, demographic, and so on), oases decline long before they have finished paying back the initial capital outlay. We might thus be surprised by the optimism and the voluntarism of the founders of oases, or in other words by their naivety, if we only consider the economic benefit that they might hope for. Maybe there are rewards other than financial, other benefits, or maybe other obligations of a system within which the agricultural sector is only a necessary, albeit loss-making, part.

—PASCON, LA MAISON D’ILIGH

Al-Khall is a trading town in the northern Malian desert near the Algerian border that, as its inhabitants like to stress, is marked on no map, but is known to all.1 Its location makes it a haven for smugglers and traders of all kinds, and it has therefore come to represent the rather harsh face of contemporary trans-Saharan exchanges: first and foremost, drug trafficking, but also arms dealing and people smuggling. Al-Khall’s rise was rapid, carrying within it the promise of an equally rapid decline; its population is stereotypically cosmopolitan; its very survival is dependent on its connections with the outside, as it produces nothing but trades in “everything.” It proclaims itself “stateless,” but thrives because it is located in the interstices of regional states. It is organized along close-knit networks that stretch far beyond its geographical boundaries, but that nonetheless regulate social interaction and individual status within it. Its fame is legendary throughout northern Mali and southern Algeria, where members of trading families never tire of debating the moral quandaries it brings up, rejecting it while also intimately relying on the revenue it generates. At first sight, then, Al-Khall hardly brings to mind the well-known images of historic Saharan trading outposts: dunes, camels, and palm trees, Timbuktu or Ghadamès. However, as a Saharan town in the making, it might help us formulate questions about Saharan settlements more generally, questions that otherwise risk being overlooked due to the sedentary bias of much scholarship, which necessarily sees them as “finished products.” Most important, the case of Al-Khall draws attention to the intrinsic dependency of settlement on movement and on outside connections, as hinted at by Paul Pascon in the epigraph, and to the effects such dependency might have on the internal organization of settlements.2

 

14. Movements of People and Goods: Local Impacts and Dynamics of Migration to and through the Central Sahara

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Julien Brachet

The central Sahara, an area long characterized by mobility, has experienced large-scale migration since the beginning of the 1990s. Despite the many obstacles to movement in this region—effects of the malfunctioning government of Niger, general insecurity, and the tightening of North African migration policies—several thousand sub-Saharan African migrants travel each year to North Africa via Agadez in northern Niger. Although these migrations have, since the late 1990s, become an important issue in relations between sub-Saharan, North African, and European countries, they are anything but a new phenomenon: citizens of what are now the countries of the Sahel have been in the habit of taking up seasonal employment in Algeria since the 1950s. Yet in the early 2000s, the focus of the media and of European and African governments on migrants traveling to Europe has meant that virtually all journeys undertaken by sub-Saharans in the Sahara are misinterpreted as intercontinental economic migrations. This particular emphasis on transit migration to Europe, endorsed by much academic writing, feeds an unfounded fear of invasion in the countries north of the Mediterranean, while obscuring the diversity and flexibility of contemporary Saharan mobilities and their local impacts. In order to better understand the roles of and relations between the different actors, we need to analyze the history and the broad organizational features of this migration system, with particular attention paid to the ways in which the transporting of people toward and through the central Sahara is linked to the movement of goods, especially in northern Niger, hence illuminating the local impacts and dynamics of regional and transnational migrations.1

 

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