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THE LIFE OF A TUAREG ARTISAN
Extract from a work in progress by Andy Morgan (c)
Kel Inedan - the masters of fire
The episode illustrates a very strange symbiotic relationship between the artisans and other Touareg. The majority image of the artisan mixes disdain, mistrust, fear with a kind of respect and dependency. If the artisan is descended from a conquered clan of aboriginal inhabitants who lived in the Sahara before the arrival of the Berber tribes from the north, then the disdain that Touareg society feels towards him is perhaps an echo of the original hauteur that the victor felt toward the vanquished. Perhaps their mistrust can be attributed to that universal contempt which dominant social groups feel towards subservient ones, especially if they are racially different and ‘closed’. Maybe this antipathy is also attributable to the natural arrogance of the warrior nobility towards those who depend on their manual labour for their livelihood. And perhaps the fear comes from a superstitious wonder at the ‘magic’ of metalworking, the fiery transformation of base raw materials that were once locked up inside soil and rocks into wondrous jewels, swords and other objects, using processes that are deeply entwined with very ancient, possibly animist, religious beliefs. One can almost picture the Berber lord shuddering, proud in his racial, cultural and religious superiority, as he looked down on the black animist metal-worker coaxing some wondrous object out of the primordial fire using mysterious and opaque gris-gris and evoking the names ancient and unknowable spirits. After all, this terror of those who work with fire, who mould and sublimate nature itself, is common amongst many early or pre-industrial societies.
But it’s the respect and licence given to the artisan, which makes their relationship with the rest of Touareg society so strange, even unique. Gabus recounts how artisans sometimes became the trusted friends and advisors of clan chiefs or other noble persons, and how they were often asked to go on delicate diplomatic missions, or to negotiate the bride price and dowry for an important wedding. Like the court-jesters of medieval Europe, the artisan was given much freer licence to express his own opinions in the presence of the rich and powerful than other members of society.
Paradoxically, the artisans were also deemed to be wise and knowledgeable, especially when it came to tribal and clan history or the useful properties of the natural world. They were respected for their extraordinary ability to produce all the good necessary for life in the desert, and their wide range of their skills and know-how. They were often prized for their loyalty and friendship. The very fact that they were not of a noble caste, and were therefore excluded from the politics and power-struggles of tribes and clans probably made their friendship less ‘dangerous’ and more secure than that of other clan members.
Like their counterparts south of the Niger, the griots of Manding, Songhai and Bamana society, the artisans were the repositories of society’s oral history and were excellent musicians. Nicolaisen tells how many noble Touareg despised and shunned Inedan for much of the time, except at weddings, feasts and ceremonies when the artisans were called on to sing and recite poetry and thereby oil the social machinery. Furthermore it was considered bad form to loose one’s temper with an artisan or his provocative words and extremely dishonourable to hit or wound one. In some ways, the artisan’s freedom to speak his mind was useful in as much as it could deflate potential conflict, thereby maintaining harmony and strengthening the equilibrium of the clan. And this free speech was more often that not softened and nuanced by a high degree of humour and hilarity. The comic genius of the Touareg is something that is very often ignored or overlooked by outsiders who fail to see beyond their characteristic haughtiness and reserve.
Gabus also claims that the artisans themselves were fully aware of and accepting of their own unique place in society. “An artisan who never asks for what he wants, or tries to get it, is worthless,” Gabus was told by an artisan. In other words, it was all about give and take. The artisan played a game of survival with his Touareg neighbours, providing them with their necessities, but remaining apart on an equal-but-different footing, accepting taunts and jibes in return for custom and grudging respect, earning the most he could for himself and his family with his keen sense of opportunity, his acute bargaining skills and his nose for a good deal.
Jewellery and the Artisan in the modern age
However timeless, anchored and ancient Touareg society might seem to the visitor who leaves the bustling frenzy of a European city and arrives in the apparently infinite calm of the Saharan bush, it is hard to overestimate the radical and painful changes that have gripped the desert in the last century. And these changes have also fundamentally affected the role and business of the artisan.
When Jean Gabus was carrying out his research in the 1940s and 1950s, he observed this changing world at first hand. The artisans were relying more and more on cash transactions and less and less on the old bartering system. In certain ways, cash freed the artisan, making him less indentured to his overlord and master higher up the Touareg hierarchy. The old tribal and clan chiefs, along with their noble retinues, were loosing influence year by year, thanks to the French ban on traditional raiding and the careful colonial management of inter-tribal conflicts. The French more or less ruled the desert through acquiescent Touareg chiefs, but this policy also weakened their reputation, at times making them appear little more than puppets and collaborators of the colonial power. The decrease in traditional inter-tribal warfare meant less demand for the once indispensible swords, daggers and lances, and the decreasing power of the nobility meant that the artisan was able to look further afield for his living.
Another new and strange activity was selling to foreigners and tourists, who were less conversant with the price of goods in the desert and therefore often happy to pay more for jewels and other mementoes than local people. Furthermore tourists have tastes that aren’t necessarily shared by locals, and this had already begun to skew the production choices which the artisans made. The raw materials also began to change. Purer silver became more easily available, as did better tools, procured via mail-order catalogues from France.
Local tastes and customs were also changing. The wearing of jewellery had always been relatively regulated in traditional society. What you wore depended on your sex, your marital status and your position in society. A young girl would receive a small ‘ear-drop’ earring at the shortly after birth. As she reached puberty she would be allowed tesabit bangles and ankelets, as well as all manner of beaded jewellery. When she started courting she would don a chatchat or celebra necklace, both of which were associated with young love and flirtation. A Khomeissa pendant was more appropriate for a married woman, because of its associations with fertility and protection. The large triangular teraout pendants were often part of the bride price for a wedding, thereafter forming the centrepiece of a jewellery collection. ‘Lower’ caste women were wore relatively modest jewellery that was in no danger of upstaging that of their ‘superior’ caste peers.
Men were expected to wear jewellery in a sober and dignified fashion, especially if they were nobles. A silver, or silver and brass tchérot pendant around the neck and a few others adorning their tagelmoust or turban in addition or a tanfouk ring, with its red carnelian or agate stone which was deemed to help heal wounds and coagulate the blood, were the limits of ‘decent’ adornment. A boy would receive both his tagelmoust and his tchérot when entering puberty. They were the armoury of his manhood, and were solemnly past down to him by his father or guardian. Qur’anic verses and other protective writings were also kept in leather pouches that hung around the necks of both men and women.
Furthermore, silver, or at worse silver and bronze, were the only acceptable metals in traditional jewellery making. Gold was proscribed by the Qur’an, especially as an adornment for men, and feared for its malicious properties. Iron was also believed to be imbued with dark and malevolent forces. Silver was pure, clean, holy, luminous and warm, like the heart of a true believer.
The Touareg have the same word for both silver and money: azrouf. In the pre-cash society that existed in the desert before independence, jewellery WAS money, and vice versa. Women literally wore their wealth, in the form of pendants, earrings, bracelets, earrings, rings, anklets and head adornments. Rings and crosses were sometimes just strung along a piece of leather and worn as a necklace. When it came to paying for something, one of these items could just be detached from the rest and handed over.
To a certain extent, jewellery still serves a variety of interlinked purposes; status symbol, public display of wealth, means of exchange, protection against evil spirits and mishaps, beauty enhancement and token of flirtation. But cash has taken the place of bartering except in the remotest parts of the desert. Moreover, along with many erstwhile nomads, most artisans have now relocated to towns and cities, often grouping together to form associations or trading cooperatives, which allow them to deal with modern bureaucracy, regulation and taxes.
The artisan’s clientele has also changed considerably. Mohammed from the Association Assaghan in Tamanrasset told me that 60% of his sales are now to tourists and visitors, and 40% to locals. As in days of old, the locals order their jewels, rather than buy from existing stock. They will go and see the artisan and discuss the exact specifications, size and materials of the piece they want to buy, pay a portion of the price up front and then the balance on delivery. The artisan must make sure that the quality of the work is of an acceptable standard, otherwise his client will refuse to pay the balance and demand his deposit back. Sometimes clients come in with existing jewels and ask the artisan to melt down the silver and refashion it into an entirely new piece.
The most cataclysmic upheavals in desert life took place in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, due to the terrible droughts that afflicted the entire southern Sahara in 1971 – 1974 and 1984 – 1985. The transformation of traditional society which had begun with the arrival of the French was accelerated a hundred-fold, as the animal herds died and pastoral nomadism became almost impossible. Many Touareg men and their families left the region of their birth, to begin new lives, with different allegiances and imperatives in other parts of the desert. It’s impossible to say how many jewels and heirlooms were sold during these dark and desperate days to pay for food or transport to a refugee camp or a different country. Gabus compares these old jewels to the piles of shoes, glasses or wristwatches in the photos taken in concentration camps during the Holocaust in Europe.
The wealthier Touareg who were able to seek refuge in the cities of North Africa, Nigeria and even the Middle East, returned with mutated values. Gold, which is more favoured in the Arab world than it is in traditional Berber societies, became more fashionable and desirable. Women, who had traditionally worn a sober mixture of dark blue and white robes, or shiny luxurious indigo on special occasions, adopted the multi-coloured fashions of Mauretania, Algeria, Libya or Burkina Faso, where many Touareg families took refuge during the worst parts of the famine. The old restrictions on the appropriate wearing of jewellery according to age and status began to fade and disappear.
It must be said that the artisans reacted to these changes with considerable ingenuity, resourcefulness, self-reliance and a fatalism that Europeans find hard to understand, but which is necessary psychological armour in times of hardship. God willed it all, and there was nothing more to be said. In the absence of the old symbiosis with his noble lord, and his exclusive mandate to manufacture all the objects necessary for desert existence, the artisan was faced between the stark choice of adapting to the new realities, or disappearing.
From the 1950s onwards boutiques began to appear in Tamanrasset, Agadez, Timbuktu and further afield, catering for the tourist trade and offering a wide range of jewellery, leatherwork, swords, saddles, padlocks, souvenirs and knickknacks. Today, almost any desert city or town of 5,000 inhabitants or more has its artisans’ association, usually with a purpose built premises in the centre of town with a showroom and a salesman or two conversant in English, French and German, at the very least.
Since the late 1970s the market for Touareg jewellery and crafts has become global. Many artisans’ associations will elect a trusted person to become an international representative and send him to Europe or North America with several suitcases laden down with stock for international retail clients. These same reps will attend international tourism and crafts fairs and exhibit their wares at museums and festivals. The number of shops and websites the world over offering Touareg jewellery has grown exponentially in the last two decades.
Thomas Seligman has written a detailed account of how the revered French fashion house Hermès commissioned Touareg artisans to make a range of silver clasps, buckles and other objects, as well as using Touareg motifs and designs across all manner of expensive fashion goods in the early 1990s. With the help of an intermediary facilitator and fixer called Jean Yves Brizot, Hermès even set up and funded an entire workshop of artisans in Agadez, which employed over thirty craftsmen for a number of years. Touareg jewellery, crafts and clothing have also been used by fashion designers such Jean-Paul Gautier, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent for high-end photo shoots and as the inspiration for new ranges and models. Touareg chic is a good option for those western fashionistas who desire to ‘go ethnic’ and yet remain sober, minimal and elegant.
How easy and yet somehow futile it is to mourn the gradual loss of paradise. It’s a pastime that not only preoccupies the minds of westerners who come to the desert in search of some kind of pre-industrial ideal of human nobility but also, in an admittedly different way, the minds of the Touareg themselves, especially those over the age of 50. I have always been struck by the potency of nostalgia for the past in Touareg society. It’s as if the process of assimilation into the modern world has occurred so suddenly, so brutally and in such an unwarranted way that many older Touareg just can’t cope with it, and prefer to dream of bygone days when there was more water, more respect, more peace and more freedom. Things today are just kerzat kerzat, a comical piece of Tamashek slang meaning ‘shoddy’, ‘cheap’ and ‘worthless’.
The artisans, however, cannot afford to indulge regrets, even though they might still lurk deep inside. They know that survival is a matter of looking ahead, not backwards, of using cunning and instinct to find customers and make the goods that those customers want to buy, whether they’re desert dwellers or tourists browsing idly at shops or stalls in Mopti, Tamanrasset, Tangiers, Barcelona, Brussels, Paris, San Francisco or on the world wide web. An acute and unsentimental instinct for survival whatever context God provides has been hardwired into their mental circuitry.
And it could be argued that this survival instinct has served Touareg culture better than many Touareg themselves realise. For it is in part thanks to the artisans that the skill, range and depth of Touareg crafts survive and even thrive when the social context that first gave birth to it has long been consigned to history. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of the artisans, their ability to travel and assume the role of desert ambassadors in far-flung parts of the world, their talent for dealing with strangers, their openness and autonomy have preserved the essence of the Touareg cultural identity, keeping it alive, vital, breathing and even growing. The Touareg owe their artisans a great deal.
Gabus expresses the misunderstandings and tensions of modernity very well, and remember, he was writing about the desert of the 1950s!:
“Preservation at all costs of the traditional heritage by means of a kind of isolation, of egotistical
protectionism, false romanticism and backwards thinking bears no relation either to the desires, nor to
the reality of the people themselves (the artisans). These people, like everyone else all over the world,
dream of something other, want to earn money, live better and be in harmony with the times.”