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Takubelt, The Tuareg Festival of the Central Sahara
Sahara - Pilot Book of World Festivals

I crouched on the sand floor, sheltered from the full force of the evening desert wind by a mass of blue-veiled men. I had to bite my cheeks to double check I was really here. After twenty-five years of exploring the North Africa, I had finally made it south of the Sahara. To the north the horizon was filled by distant sand dunes, to the south by black hills, all lit by the silver-glow of a desert night. We were in the land of the Tuareg of the Adrar des Ifoghas in their Saharan valley of Tin-Essako, a good three days travel north-west from Timbuktu along a track that led to the Niger border.

I glanced around. All eyes were directed on the makeshift stage. After three days of intense use this stage, a buttress of compacted sand, was clearly on the point of collapse. So was the decorum of the first night, when two rows of ambassadors and ministers had been placed in the midst of the crowd, nervously watched-over by brisk security men. Now the ambassadors had gone and the local Tuareg audience had reclaimed the festival. The barrier between performers and audience was not a strong one, indeed by English standards it did not exist. For from time to time, one of the audience climbed up onto the stage and elbowed out the professional dancers to display to the crowd his superior technique. This had especially hotted up during the traditional sword-dance. Just now one of the professional musicians had hit back, re-entering the stage in full swirl and so had managed by his reckless swordplay to clear the entire stage for the next act. It had been an impressive exercise in brinkmanship.

In the pause there was time enough to light a cigarette and to steal yet another glance at my neighbours. A Tuareg audience is like no other on earth. The men are dressed in layer upon layer of pale-blue and dark indigo-blue kaftan-like robes. The intricate folds and easy pride with which these robes are worn recalled the dignity of the Roman Senate, all be it one given a suprising blue-rinse. No-one here was bare-headed. The Tuareg wore indigo-blue turbans, many of which twinkled with the florescent purple sheen of freshly dyed clothe - their festival best. Their faces were hidden behind the tagelmoust or litham, the veil of the Sahara. This male veil has perplexed and intrigued generations of anthropologists. Whatever its ritual function, we all wore them, for they are an invaluable tool for travel in the Central Sahara, working as a combined sun-shade, fly screen and sand-dust filter. The dyes are not fixed and easily rub off to colour your skin. Indeed the Tuareg penchant for indigo clothe earned them the nickname of 'blue-men' from the first European explorers. This nomenaculture was now working in reverse for me. My rather fetching magenta-purple turban-clothe dyed my face such a violent red that I began to attract medical concern. Rather than repeatedly explain that I wasn't suffering from acute sunburn I took a leaf from the Tuareg book and kept my head and my face permanently covered.

The attention given to the next act set off a perceptible static amongst the audience. They were the Tinariwen group. It was not for them to twist or jive at the audience, for they were the blue of the blues. The Tinariwen are ex-rebels, disarmed guerilla fighters to a man, who have learned to use song as a new weapon. They sung of the desert, the innate hardship of their homeland and the long drought that had destroyed the herds. They sung of the even greater cruelty of war that had driven their people from their land into the refugee camps of Algeria and Mauritania. It was transfixing, and despite the familiar mikes and electric guitars, a world and a half away from the trans-Atlantic music industry. It was raw, harsh stuff. I was fascinated to see that at the back of the group stood Kimber, a living legend of the Sahara whose body is scarred by twenty bullet wounds. Renowned as both smuggler, bandit and freedom fighter, he fulfills all the old heroic Tuareg role models. Right at the end of the session this tall, thin, rather shy and aloof figure was pushed forward to sing.

Outwardly the festival was all about music. The sand-stage was the centre of attention for all three nights of the festival. It started around dusk, broke for a dinner hour and then carried on deep into the night. The lynch-pin of the musical organisation turned out to be a French band called Lojo. Partly North African in their make-up and strongly inspired by the musical traditions of the Sahara and West Africa they had decided to repay their debt of inspiration by putting their technical know-how behind the festival. Financially bolstered by various cultural programmes and aid agencies, Lojo yet remained the fairy godmother of the event. In the confusion of the Lojo tent, a glorious traditional affair whose low, wide, windswept red-leather lines embraced a tangle of sleeping-mats, sleeping singers, discarded bed-rolls and teapots, the musicians discussed the programme, tried out a new number and intrigued for the best billing. There were the rival claims of Tuareg musicians from neighbouring Niger, Algeria and Mauritania to consider, aside from Mali's homegrown source, the hereditary caste of griot musicians from Gao and Timbuktu. At the calm centre of events was the English musician Justin Adams, Lojo's one-time producer and fellow Saharien enthusiast. His latest disk, Desert Road, had been produced in honour of Mali. His organisational ability had been tested early when the musical equipment had gone 'missing' a week before the festival. Fortunately his links with local Taureg groups of the ex-bandit variety allowed for its speedy recovery. After this success his role of musician threatened to become overshadowed by his skill as an arbitrator.

The festival crowd came together before sunset, emerging as if from out of nowhere in the comparative cool of the evening. The Tuareg are used to space, used to enjoying it and had no thought of camping together in a pitch or indeed respecting anything remotely sniffing of a central organisation. During the day the 'crowd' was dispersed in inumerable small camps in the surrounding desert. We were being looked after by our two Tuareg guide-drivers and slipped easily into this routine. We slept in sleeping bags on golden sand amongst a group of three polished black granite boulders. In the evening and the morning a fire would be lit in the lee of the biggest boulder to brew tea, cook and jolly things up a bit.

A desert festival is not for vegeterians. Everyday the small herd of mixed animals, tethered beside the tent of the musicians was steadily diminished. Small pools of blood were left to sink into the sand and another skin left out to dry in the sun. The Sahara if it provides anything, provides arid grazing - but even in a good year only just sufficient for mobile herds of goats, camels and a local breed of hardy sheep. This is what the land offers. The herds are lovingly tended and when their time has come the animals are slaughtered, skinned and butchered with as much ease as we unrap butter from a packet. Nothing is wasted, there is no internal organ that cannot be stewed and no bone is discarded before it has been picked clean of flesh and marrow. The flesh is grilled, roasted or stewed. All other food is to some extent in shorter supply, as even the wheat flour for bread, millet, dates and vegetables has to be imported from the steppe-land periphery of the true desert. I was travelling with two very elegant women who were not convincing meat-eaters. They loved the desert bread, a thick unleavened pancake of dough that was baked beneath the hot ashes of the fire but otherwise they merely pecked at their food. I tried to keep our Tuareg cook content by eating vast quantities which could be served in great bowls of dark wood and eaten either with a horn spoon or by hand. I devoured stewed meat cooked with dumpling like pieces of desert bread and hatched-up lamb stirred into rice with all the juices, grilled ribs and once was offered - merely as a mid afternoon snack - a great plate of crispy roast mutton.

As the sun gathered strength we moved to the dry floor of the wadhi 'river-bed' where we sheltered under the shade of the line of thorn trees that grew there. This was our picnic and siesta site, which in midday was completely silent. Our guides never thought of using it by night when the various forms of insect and reptilian wildlife woke-up. If the sun felt too strong you could fix up a sun-shade by stretching a clothe between the thorns that gripped better than any clothes-peg. This was the best time to talk, gently quizzing our guides about life in the desert and trying to understand a little bit more about what was happening. If I became too historical or shade too political in my enquires the questions were put on hold until we met up with our host, Sheikh ag Baye. Sheikh was many things to many people. As he said of himself he lived a life of three suitcases. In the Geneva suitcase Sheikh was man of the wide-world, who had worked for various international aid agencies and lived with his American wife employed by the UN. From out of his Bamakoa (the capital of Mali) suitcase Sheikh was a university educated architect involved in a number of national and regional projects as well as operating as an entepreneur travel-agent. From out of his Kidal suitcase (the Saharan town at the centre of the Tuareg populated northern region of Mali) he was a man of respect, the nephew of one of the great chiefs of the Adrar Tuareg. In the desert this dimension had grown even more visible, as had the size of his turban and the starched splendour of his voluminous gandoma robes. He was engaged in a long round of meetings, aside from listening to local greviances and acting as a mediator and interpreter to various foreign delegations.

It soon became clear that the Takubelt festival had its own political agenda. It was an oppurtunity for the dissaffected Tuareg northern region of Mali to talk to the central government. The various foreign delegates were in attendance as honest brokers. They were all elegantly housed in a well guarded row of traditional leather tents (carefully graded in size to reflect the size of their foreign aid budget) which included the Canadian, the German, French and American ambassadors plus the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg. The ambassadors were there to help unlock the various aid budgets that had been promised by their governments to the region. The central government would however only release the funds in exchange for the destruction of Tuareg arms. It was the Northern Ireland peace process all over again, though here decomissioning wore a more pragmatic face. There was talk of some hard bargains being struck, a village would only get a new artesian well and a dozen camels in exchange for surrendering a certain quantity of kalashnikov's and so many 1,000's of rounds of ammunition. This was not just a issue for Mali, the whole region was involved for Tuareg's from northern Mali had fled into southern Algeria, Libya and Mauritania. Only when the situation was peaceful would the last of these refugee's come home.

The longer we stayed the more we began to hear about the rebellion. It rumbled like a distant drum beat to our travels in the desert. On our three day journey north from Timbuktu into the desert it was noticeable how the density and size of military check-points had steadily increased. Here I unwittingly earned a reputation for wit, for by a chance distortion of sound I misheard the inquistion of the military guards as, "bien mangé' - a polite inquiry as to whether we had eaten well. The idea that any government soldier would ever be so civil to a Taureg was a cause of immense mirth. Indeed over the next week I would hear versions of the story, followed by giggles and incredulous looks. People came out of cafés to look at the man who could think such a thing. Surely I was being ironical, for no man could be that nieve? By the time we reached the regional capital of Kidal there was no mistake that we had entered a militarized zone, complete with the tell-tale details of bored garrison posts and roving patrols. Indeed on one of the desert tracks we had come across an extremely hot and bothered group of soldiers beside a brand new armoured car. They had run out of both petrol and cigarettes and accepted our gifts with alacrity.

The rebellion had began in a similar such situation on the night of 27th June 1990 when government forces and an armed Tuareg band had accidentally bumped into each other on one of the roads out of Kidal. Once the shooting had started the revolt rapidly spread throughout the northern provinces and across into neighbouring Niger. It was clear that the Berber speaking Tuareg were at the core of the dissidence but also that the Arabic speaking tribes of the desert, the near identical looking Moors, were involved to a lesser extent. The long drought of the early 70's and the expulsion of thousands of young Tuareg (who had been illicitly working in Algeria and Libya) back into Mali in the late 80's were some of the more immediate causes of tension. The young men relied on cross-border smuggling to replace their lost income. The smuggling of cheap cigarettes up into North Africa and cars into West Africa is the cornerstone of the trade though in truth the socialist command economy of Algeria left many gaps in the market. A new distributor-head for a Peugeot, for instance, could be smuggled in at only a fifth of the price of that bearing the full weight of government import duties. To protect themselves and rejoice in the traditional Tuareg status of a free-warrior, the young smugglers aquired arms. I saw one or two dog-eared photographs of this new generation of desert warriors proudly holding a kalashnikof and wearing combat fatigues with the traditional indigo desert veil of the Sahara.

In the background were memories of the ruthless repression of a previous Tuareg revolt by the forces of the Marxist President Keita in 1963. It was a vintage year for political intrigue, for rivalry between Morocco and Algeria flared up in a now forgotten Sahara border war. It also seems possible that Moroccan and Algerian agents backed different sides in the Malian rebellion. Hard facts are difficult to varify but I have heard one horror story from that period when Tuareg rebels were driven alive into a trench filled with burning rubber and petrol.

The rebels decalred an independent Saharan Republic of Azawad, supported by a new flag and the young fighters of the Revolutionnary Army of Liberation. The central governments of Algeria, Mali and Niger assisted each other in a military clamp-down while a new democratically elected President of Mali worked tirelessly for peace. Against the nomads of the Sahara the government had the support of the black population of the Niger river, such as the Songhai, who for centuries have had to keep a watch against raiders coming from out of the desert. Mano Dayak, a charismatic Tuareg who had studied anthropology and had seen service in the French army, emerged as one of the key leaders of the insurrection. With his death, his plane mysteriously crashed somewhere in the Ténéré desert on 15 December 1995, the back dropped out of the fighting. On March 27 1996 a new deal between the central government and the dissafected Tuareg of the north was celebrated with the Flame of Peace at Timbuktu, a public bonfire of weaponry. Clearly the process was a success. It was now possible to hold a public festival right in the heart of the old area of dissidence, to mix Tuareg tribesman, ex-bandits, government ministers and ambassadors in the same desert audience. There were also a few tourists, flown out on a direct Paris to Gao charter flight for the week. However on closer inspection these French tourists individually revealed themselves to be doctors, aid-workers, researchers and teachers, all with many years of experience of working in Mali. Apart from a pair of music journalists from London (who were ecstatic about the music and so suprised by the physical rejuvenation of a drug and alcohol free week in the desert air that they immediately booked themselves into next years festival) we apppeared to be the only amateur travellers.

Still there were enough European purses around to keep the three tents filled with Saharan craftsmen at the festival in a high state of commercial excitement. There is hardly a Saharan traveller who has not felt like awarding themselves with a Tuareg cross. It is like a badge of identity, especially when worn on an over-tanned neck with a leather strap over a sand-grubby shirt. The early European explorers in the Sahara made much of the Tuareg cross. It was commonly supposed that it was a remnant of an ancient period as a Christian nation. This is now regarded as no-more than wishful thinking by the colonial powers, who all saw great political mileage in trying to divide and rule the people of North Africa and the Sahara, by seperating Arab and Berber speakers into rival camps. The cross is a perfect symbol for nomads, its arms poining out to all four points of the compass where they are free to roam. The cross is also a symbol of renewal, of the cycle of the seasons. Indeed the Tuareg cross with its closed upper circle has a very direct stylistic affinity to the Ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of the eternal cycle of life. It used to be awarded by a father to his son after puberty when he first took to the desert veil. Angela Fisher records that a Tuareg father would declare at this time, "My son, I give you the four corners of the world becuase one cannot know where one will die". Whatever the inherited cultural symbolism might mean to a contemporary Tuareg, the power of the cross stood very high amongst the European travellers. The blessing would have worked very well on my two well-travelled companions, one whose heart was pledged to India the other to the wilderness's of South Africa.

The Tuaregs have always preferred to deal, work and wear silver. It was the preferred metal of the Prophet who equated gold and costly coloured fabrics with the pride-filled and compassion-less courts of the pagan pre-Islamic Kings. To this day, a traditional Muslim gentleman will prefer sober colours and a modest display of silver. Although there are silver mines on the northern edge of the Sahara, gold is much more freely available in Mali. Indeed throughout the medieval era, the black Muslim Empires of Mali, was the most important production centre for gold in the old world. The Tuareg never seized control of the mines but were yet an important component of state power in the region. For they alone could guide, water and protect the camel caravans that took the gold north across the Sahara. Despite this the Tuareg continued to treat gold as the metal of the devil that draws upon the wearer the evil eye. Although the Tuareg tribes of the central desert made vast fortunes in conducting the gold caravans across the Sahara, it is said that their noble chiefs refused to even touch the stuff. One tale recalls how one of their great chiefs used to divide out his fifth by moving the parcels (quills packed with alluvial gold dust) with his riding stick.

They are mostly made in either Agadez in Niger or in Tamanrasset in Algeria where most of the hereditary smiths of the Tuareg have settled. This sealed caste of technicians are like an extraordinary cultural deposit of Tuareg culture, making use of the ancient Tifinagh alphabet (derived from that of Punic Carthage) for inscriptions on the jewelry and the famous sheath knives and broadswords. They are also the makers of tcherot, highly decorated talisman boxes that contain a protective verse from the Koran, shell pendants and the famous decorative leather-work of the Tuareg. Others of their class moved swiftly into repairing the metal-work of the first cars and from their mobile forges established the first garages and dealerships. The smiths are both at the centre of the desert culture but also curiously apart. It is almost if their business acumen makes them a source of faint derision to the rest of the population. They remain as vital as ever, and most of the traditional groups of griot musicians are supported to a greater or lesser extent by the Tuareg caste of smiths. The central Sahara is not a land of textile manufacture, whatever an energetic carpet or blanket seller in Morocco or Tunisia might tell you about the precious products of the blue-men. All the traditional energy of the weaver in wool is directed on the working of leather, the making of tents, harness, leather-woven reed screens, ornamental tassels, cushions, wallets, purses and boxes. We haggled for many a happy hour, trying to learn about the symbols and designs as we attempted to lower the price.

The Tifinagh script was already firmly imprinted in our imagination as we had already gone out of our way to visit Tamaradant. This drystone fortress is perched on the largest of the great black granite boulders that overlook a wadhi bed. In itself it is nothing exceptional, indeed it felt remarkably akin to the drystone brochs and duns that litter the Western Highlands of Scotland. However all the rocks around have been worked with stone to create an extraordinary art gallery of prehistoric art, the pink of the worked stone set against the sun-baked black rock. Snaking across the various animal and human depictions or on empty boulders were long lines of Tifinagh script. Elsewhere there were excited sketches of horses, ostriches, warriors and the camel.

It was the camel that made the Tuareg. Sometime around the birth of Christ the camel was introduced to North Africa but it took a few centuries for it to become sufficiently acclimatised to breed in large numbers. By the 5th century AD the camel had transformed the political realities of North Africa. Trade began to move away from the pirate strewn coast and hed inland, following the camel tracks across the sub-Sahara. The desert nomads were transformed from backwoodsmen to centre stage. The Byzantine chroniclers are full of the mysterious doings of the camel-borne Luwata who could cross the Sahara from north to south and cut out the Mediteranean middle-man to trade directly with Egypt and Arabia. This was the route that the Arab armies and Muslim missionaries would enter to transform North Africa and the Sahara.

The Tuareg remember all this. Their histories identify which of the clans and tribes were camel-borne and noble, and which were descended from indigenous goat-herders. We were also treated to remarkable Mumming performance when a group of young Tuareg men came out of the black hills in their ancient dress of leather skins. They acted out the old, old days when the people of the desert had neither camel or goat herds to support them but survived by hunting in groups. For all its tomfoolery and slapstick, for all the menace of the booming drum so big that it had to be carried by two men (and the origin of that smallest military sub-division of the Tuareg - the drum group) it was an extraordinary example of the collective memory at work.

The camel race was a boisterous, dusty and highly confusing affair. Over the morning dozens of riders gradually collected near the festival tents, splitting up, reforming and re-grouping until the camp was seemingly menaced by a whole regiment of camel cavalry. Then at some unguarded moment one rider snatched up an indigo veil and the race was on. He and his stolen veil were the fox which led a 12 mile chase into the mountains on the southern horizon and back.

On another evening this vision of martial anarchy was replaced by the Tuareg camel-born nomads in a quite different mood. They were all dressed in their finest indigo robes, many armed with their traditional Crusader-like broad-swords and long riding crops. Their magnificence was only matched by their beasts dressed in their finest harness. Just before dusk a tight knot of ullullating women initaiated the show, beating out a rhythmn with small tinde goatskin drums, handclaps and their singing. Around this lodestone the riders circled in an intersecting figure of eight. Their was no winner, no first past the post, this night. The sole object was to ride your camel in total harmony to the music of the women. Lit by a spectacular golden-red desert sunset it was a haunting, mesmeric display of chivalry. The Lords of the Desert still ride the Sahara to the music of love.

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