Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century (African Studies)

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This article suggests a different approach. It focuses on the circulation of goods, people, and ideas, traces patterns of internal connectivity, and denotes the close relationship among mobility, outside connections, and the making of place. Keywords: Sahara , trade , kinship , mobility , Islam , connectivity , region formation , extraversion.

McDougall : Yet despite renewed interest in patterns of trans-Saharan trade and migration, now fueled by security concerns over clandestine immigration and international terrorism, more far-reaching, conceptually innovative, and empirically detailed research on both the shared world of, and the boundaries between, North and West Africa has been little pursued. Hence, studies have continued to focus, for example, on trans- Saharan rather than on Saharan trade see, most recently, Austen , on the trans-Saharan slave trade rather than on local conceptions of labor, freedom, and dependency E.

Conversely, although a range of excellent local case studies focus on internal Saharan social dynamics, these are approached most often from an anthropological angle or through geography, and they have little room for regional connections, which are, if they are mentioned at all, tagged on as an external addition, foreign to the subject matter at hand. Hence, it seems to be taken for granted even among more recent writers that histories of the Sahara ought to start in prehistoric or at least Roman times see, e.

Conversely, archaeologists working on the Garamantes freely draw on contemporary evidence, often developed elsewhere in the Sahara, to analyze their findings e. This is not in itself problematic and it has often made for riveting scholarship, but it makes questions of regional coherence over space and time pressing. Although geographical definitions of the Sahara, according to annual rainfall and vegetation, appear to be deceptively straightforward see Bisson : 9—16 , they can, here as in other historical regions, serve only as a proxy.

Internal regions that emerge from recent studies are even more restricted. If all of these works indicate different extensions of networks of exchange and frames of references, they also show similarities in the ways in which these networks interact: they draw together resources—economic, human, and spiritual—that are crucial for the constitution and maintenance of the local. Perhaps, then, it is not so much the Sahara-wide extension of connections that allow us to speak of it in terms of a historical region but rather such structural resemblances leading to mutual intelligibility over space and time.

Here, they argue, climatic and geographical conditions are such that small areas tend to specialize, and that seasonal instability has to be taken for granted. It makes no sense to think of places in isolation; rather, places of production, habitation, and exchange are made and maintained by regional interaction. Regions, then, can at times include places situated at a considerable distance from each other while excluding neighboring areas. Allowance made for clear differences in scale and complexity Horden , a similar set of conditions ecological precarity, productive specialization, and intensive resource management producing commercial interdependence; organized—often violent—mobility of people and commodities, of ideas and practices can be seen at work in the Sahara, and the reminder of this article, by focusing on the circulation of goods, people, and ideas, aims to sketch some of these.

This is so at least in the cultural realm, where much emphasis is placed on outside sources of knowledge, goods, and prestige. The availability of water and, until recently, pastures has of course curtailed the freedom of Saharan movement, but water availability is often as much a political as a geographical question, and thus it is highly volatile.

Saharan trade is the one topic that has brought the Sahara to the attention of historians and that has contributed most effectively to the dominance of trans-Saharan paradigms. Indeed, images of trans-Saharan caravans of gold, ivory, and slaves have played such a central part in European imaginations of the African continent that it is difficult to see beyond them.

Executive summary

Yet in the Sahara as elsewhere, the more mundane exchange of everyday goods and staples for local consumption clearly outweighed long-range trade in luxury items. Salt is a case in point. Paul Lovejoy estimates that the regional salt trade on the southern edge of the central Sahara by far exceeded trans-Saharan trade in value—being worth up to four times as much—and even more so in bulk: in the nineteenth century, while the number of camels involved in trans-Saharan trade through Tripoli fluctuated between 2, and 3, per year, salt caravans focused on the mines of Bilma alone involved 20, to 30, camels each year, and probably almost as many people to look after them Lovejoy : — McDougall a : If we add to these figures trade in dates against cereals see Scheele : 50—54 for one example , which, even more so than salt, was crucial for the survival of sedentary and nomadic communities alike, trans-Saharan trade, and its fluctuations over time, starts to look like an epiphenomenon of more stable and fundamental patterns of connectivity.

This argument has general implications. Saharan oases, necessarily created or at least maintained by human labor, were rarely self-sufficient. Pascon notes:. The considerable investments that are necessary to start 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.

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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 other but financial rewards, other benefits, or maybe other obligations of a system within which the agricultural sector is only a necessary, albeit loss-making, part. Although many parts of the Sahara are endowed with underground water tables, access to water still remains difficult, as springs or other spontaneously occurring surface water reservoirs are few and often extremely salty.

Saharan mechanisms of irrigation are varied, complex, and context specific although a few techniques have traveled widely: see Bisson : — for an overview ; in almost all cases, however, they are extremely labor intensive. Conversely, few areas in the Sahara allow for permanent habitation in the absence of irrigation.

As far as we know, labor was thus mostly imported from the south through slavery, which is an enterprise that, in itself, required capital, transport, patience, and foresight. Moreover, as Pascon notes, oases rarely seemed to have paid back the initial outlay, although they might sporadically yield a considerable surplus. Most colonial and precolonial descriptions concur that local resources on their own were rarely sufficient to feed the local population see Martin : — on the Algerian Touat.

Its land consists of salt and salt pans. It has many dates which are not good…. There is no cultivation there nor butter nor oil. Oil is only imported to it from the land of the Maghrib. The food of its people is dates and locusts. These are abundant with them; they store them as dates are stored and use them for food. Neither pastoral nor horticultural communities could survive independently, and boundaries between both were labile or nonexistent.

These blurred boundaries were reflected in property relations, as oases often acted as areas of investment for traders and pastoralists who spent most of their lives elsewhere Rohlfs ; Despois ; Chapelle ; Eldblom Interdependence was equally pronounced from the nomadic point of view. The Sahara is mostly too arid to allow for pastoral autarchy of any kind. Trans-Saharan and Saharan trade was grafted onto this underlying infrastructure, which could not subsist without it; however, it was only one aspect of complex and far-reaching patterns of interdependence. Indeed, these two forms of trade were mutually dependent, to the point where distinctions are often difficult to make.

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On the one hand, specialized trans-Saharan traders, even where they were present, were not necessarily primarily concerned with trans-Saharan goods McDougall a ; see, e. Until the s, trans-Saharan trade depended uniquely on camels, and long-distance traders—who often did not live in the Sahara proper—rarely owned pack animals; rather, they subcontracted with local pastoralists Newbury : ; Baier : ; Austen Camels rarely crossed the Sahara in a straight line E.

McDougall : 47 , and the distance traveled by one set of pack animals was, in most cases, limited to around kilometers: from one oasis belt to the next. Moreover, due to variations in pasture and the nature of the terrain, camels, finding it difficult to cope with unfamiliar pasture and ground, were bred as regional specialists. Even trans-Saharan traders thus had to rely on Saharan infrastructure, and often they turned regional patterns of movement into their own commercial advantage by selling goods on the way or by changing direction when this seemed profitable.

Today, however, many of these regional patterns persist, although transport is now provided almost exclusively by trucks or jeeps. Most trade still concerns basic staples that are exchanged against livestock and without which life both in oases towns and in nomadic camps would be impossible; although nowadays the main motivation for these exchanges are less matters of complementary production than differential import regimes and state subsidies between the relatively wealthy, oil-producing countries of North Africa and the Sahel. But as before, most profits gained in such pursuits are invested in the making of place and the strengthening of regional connections through kinship and marriage, investment in local economies, and gifts.

As a result, even cocaine smugglers, the fastest and best equipped of all Saharan travelers, tend to limit their travels to one or two sets of such regional connections: this indicates that what makes such regions function are social and political ties and limitations as much as purely technical constraints. Regional connections map out the knowable and the familiar, areas known to drivers and within which they will meet family and can rely on extensive ties of kinship and friendship for information and protection.

If, on the face of it, this fact can be seen as an argument against the regional unity of the Sahara, it is also one that can be cited for structural resemblance—the existence of a similar trame du monde Horden and Purcell : 78—80, citing Birot : 3 that is socially as much as ecologically constructed, that can be identified throughout the Sahara, and that is readily comprehensible to those who inhabit it. Given this priority of social over technical constraints, it is not surprising that local emphasis tends to be on the movement of people rather than on the exchange of goods. Kinship is salient here.

It provides an idiom for all kinds of social relations and indicates the fundamental problems inherent in exchange and interdependence: kinship establishes connections along which people circulate, but people cannot ever be truly exchanged as they are by definition linked to their family of origin and incommensurable Casajus : Moreover, marital alliances, although generally couched in terms of equality, establish hierarchies Bonte , : 75—; Caratini Marital exchange is thus marked by the same ambivalence that puts trading and raiding on a sliding scale of possibilities: people attempt to be connected as far as possible, but the circulation of people and an excess of human connectivity leads to intractable moral problems of containment, both of wealth and of status Scheele The result seems to be, in many cases, an emphasis on endogamy, the familial equivalent of autarky, in the face of the utter impossibility to adhere to it in the long run cf.

Notwithstanding, links established through marriages often underpin trade connections and, even more so than economic complementarity, they are at the heart of regional connectivity. This built-in flexibility provides tentative answers to questions of regional connectivity—and comparability.

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Despite their fundamental differences, kinship systems across the Sahara have historically all provided ways to incorporate dependents and to cement alliances, often over a wide geographical range, while emphasizing and carefully maintaining local particularity. Group endogamy, as expressed by a often largely ideological preference for marriage with patriparallel cousins among Arabic-speakers, is necessarily joined to a tendency to marry out Bonte b : Moreover, it leads to a confusion of kin and affines, and a resulting fuzziness of group boundaries, that not only results in de facto but muted bilaterality, but also in a great plasticity of kinship ties and of the political system that is expressed through them Murphy and Kasdan Although kinship systems among Tamacheq-speakers vary from patrilineal via bilateral to matrilateral ways of reckoning see, e.

Indeed, in this respect, Arab and Tuareg systems can be read as different expression of similar underlying logics Bonte , c. Yet for the Tubu, extroversion is key, and endogamy is indeed viewed with much suspicion: it is perhaps not surprising that the Tubu, in clear opposition to their Saharan neighbors, show little interest in sweeping genealogical connections, as they can easily draw on their own to encompass the whole world—or at least the often extensive parts of it that matter.

These longstanding connections are today put under pressure by nation-states and their redefinition of legal identity through national citizenship. This is particularly true as connectedness in no way implies equality. On an individual level, meanwhile, it is difficult to deny claims to relatedness outright. Similarly, although Algerian and Libyan passports are at times handed out freely to border populations, these are of any practical use only if they can be backed up by local witnesses, thereby reinvigorating the kind of human connectivity that they are officially designed to dispel.

Much as individual connections are never value neutral, Saharan kinships systems share a general emphasis on status distinctions. Saharan societies have relied heavily on servile and slave labor, for herding, guarding the flocks, and salt mining Lovejoy , but even more so for irrigated horticulture Bonte , religious settlement E. McDougall ; Gutelius , and, especially in the eastern Sahara, military endeavors Johnson Slaves were also crucial to local and regional reproductive strategies, leading to complex gradations of hierarchy and status within families E. McDougall In the Sahara as elsewhere cf.

Meillassoux ; Testart , slaves were first and foremost strangers who could claim no prior ties with their captors or buyers; their servile status was defined by their lack of connectivity and, hence, mobility Rossi , in addition to their presumed religious shortcomings Hall They were opposed to the stereotypical noble or saint, widely traveled or widely read, of prestigious descent, who was mobile and autonomous.

Although status hierarchies were intensely local, and terms might take on very different meanings from one place to the next, certain structural oppositions run through them all, making them mutually intelligible. More recently, former slaves have pushed their way onto the political stage, either by publicly endorsing their status and clamoring for social justice or by redefining it on an individual basis—an option that is open to many, due to the fine intermeshing of slave and free families E.

McDougall b : Alongside real continuities in status and exploitation, slavery has become a rhetorical device that can be drawn on by all participants to voice conflicting claims and that take their full meaning only in their respective political context E. Something similar might have been at issue, alongside brute coercion and the need for labor, in the historical Sahara.

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Human connectivity pervades all aspects of Saharan life, shaping the history of the region, conceptually as well as statistically. Few people in the area claim to be indigenous, and many if not most Saharan settlements have founding legends that link them to the arrival of holy men with known Islamic genealogies, thereby physically inscribing the local into a wider moral world see, e. In a similar way, most people can trace their descent to figures known from Islamic history. These stories of migration tell us little about where people might have come from, but they describe an imagination of connectivity that was and still is central to internal visions of the area.

Characteristically, perhaps, these imaginations do not speak of a coherent region, but of cultural extraversion: prestigious origins are situated outside the Sahara, and the Sahara offers at best a few well-known recurrent staging posts. But these imaginations are shared, as are the founding figures they refer to Norris , : Aand it is perhaps in this common cultural extraversion, imagined through an idiom of human connectivity, that the Sahara can be discerned as a cultural region.

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Genealogies act as historical charters, linking people and place and creating a particular Saharan geography that relies on external references and imbues space with moral value; they constitute a visible sign of belonging to a wider world. This is true for the making of people as much as for the making of place: in a permanent reenactment of history, people are not merely named after illustrious ancestors, but they are made to correspond to them see, e. A similar logic is at play in Islamic rituals and other social practices.

Mammeri , again working in the Algerian south, situates Berber religious chants in the Gourara with regard to both a broader Berber heritage and a religious inscription into a universal spiritual tradition. Pastoral strategies in southern Mauritania are interpreted through paradigms drawn from the Prophetic hijra move from Mecca to Medina, see Cleaveland The movement of saints thus not only constitutes the conceptual framework of an interconnected world, but also shapes local ecologies in concrete ways.

Similar connections are established by the chains of religious transmission. The Sahara has long been a center of Islamic scholarship in its own right.

The glories of Timbuktu do not need to be further rehearsed Saad , nor does the importance of western Saharan scholars more generally Batran ; El Hamel ; the manuscript libraries of many Mauritanian oases, in particular, are by now widely known to the public, and indeed they constitute tourist attractions. This becomes apparent in irrigation records from the Algerian Touat Grandguillaume ; Scheele : ff. It is also seen in the importance of local institutions of learning Hall and Stewart and in the high status that was accorded in the area to writing and scholarship more generally.

But we certainly cannot talk about Islam as an external force or, since the sixteenth century at least, as an import to the Sahara. Some of this is clearly due to the sources, internal and external, that insist on the wild and ruthless nature of desert dwellers and that tend to define the Sahara as an archetypical land of missionary necessity Touati , ; yet, the repetition of these assertions shows clearly that we are dealing here with a structural relationship of different parts that are both firmly situated within the Islamic world.