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The Sahara Desert is full of paradoxes. It seems so empty and yet it has been populated for centuries by one of the most fascinating nomadic peoples on earth; the Tuareg, or Kel Tamashek as they call themselves.
The dunes, black hills and stony plains of the Sahara comprise such a raw primeval landscape, and yet the Tuaregs possess one of the oldest cultures known to man, the the oldest alphabet, known as Tifinar, in continuous use. The desert appears so harsh and cruel, and yet the Tuareg blacksmiths are among the most skilled jewellers in the whole continent.
In the old days, the blacksmiths, or Kel Ineddan, were the traditional 'Mr Fixits' in the nomadic Tuareg camps. If you needed a camel saddle made, you called for the blacksmith. If you needed some traditional leather wall decorations for your tent or a lock for your dowry chest, the blacksmith could oblige. If you needed a sharp knife to skin a goat, a traditioanl takouba sword with which to slay your enemy, or some beautiful silver jewellery to wear at a wedding or feast day, the blacksmith was your man.
Myths and legends about the 'blue men', so-called because the dye of their indigo turbans turn their skin a deep shade of purply blue have permeated the European conscience for well over a century, but he reality defies both myth and legend. The traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Tuareg revolves around the core activity of herding animals, cattle, camels, goats and sheep from pasture to pasture and well to well. It is governed by the seasonal availability of water. In essence however, a nomad is an emblem of the mutually beneficial pact between man and nature that existed for millennia throughout the world before the rise of industrialism and mass consumerism. The Tuareg know their enviornment intimately, and treat it with respect. They must, because without this knowledge, survival under the brutal rays of the desert sun would be impossible.
ABOUT THE SAHARA
These multi-skilled people have always formed a caste apart. You cannot become a blacksmith. You must be born into the role and serve a seven year apprenticeship before you can call yourself a fully-fledged practitioner. The caste has mysterious origins that no historian or anthropologist has been able to trace. Some say that the blacksmiths came from Morocco, some from the Middle East, or the depths of Africa. Others say that they are Jewish in origin. They even have their own dialect, which is incomprehensible to their fellow Tuaregs.
What is certain is that the blacksmiths have always played a crucial role in Tuareg society. As well as making the most beautiful jewels, swords and saddles etc., they would often act as go betweens on diplomatic missions between different tribes, clans and families. Some Blacksmiths are also skilled musicians and are often called upon to animate a wedding or other special occassion. In return for his or her skills a Blacksmith can always expect food, hospitality and protection from other Tuaregs.