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Songs of Desert Wanderers

I was drawn to Mali’s nomads and their musical pleas for a homeland, until they allied with Islamists

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Militiamen from the Ansar Dine Islamic group approach a vehicle in the desert of northeastern Mali, June, 2012. (Reuters)
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In addition to Tuareg and other Malian bands, there were a few Western acts as well—including my band, the Sway Machinery. Part of the mission of the festival was to present as many international acts as possible, to turn the Festival of the Desert into a true world music festival. We were the first band presenting any aspect of Jewish culture at the festival, and it was humbling and inspiring to see thousands of turbaned men pumping their fists in the air and dancing along as I sang my grandfather’s Aveinu Malkeinu Z’khor.

In the heat of the day, sitting in a circle in a Tuareg tent with a family singing and clapping, I had visions of sitting around my grandfather’s table with my cousins singing nigunim. Throughout my life, the image of a dream past has focused around the sound of words I can’t fully understand and images of a childhood home that has disappeared. The longing for a homeland troubles my sleep. I’ve long been bothered by an uneasy feeling that the world of modernity is in opposition to the place of imagined belonging. The rupture between my dream past and the present I inhabit was riven both by political violence and by an internalization of the received wisdom that the world of my ancestors is irredeemably lost. But, as is well known, the past is never dead, and resurrection can be enacted through the imagination. I looked to Tuareg as brothers in the fight for agency in the struggle for self-naming and self-knowledge.

It is understandable to me why the Tuareg rebels would take a by-any-means-necessary approach to attaining the feverishly anticipated goal of independence and align themselves in political marriages of convenience with terrible forces. But I now fear that the poetic imaginings of the rebel poets in Tinariwen may bear bitter fruit for those who follow that dream into battle. In their classic recording “Amassakoul ‘n’ Ténéré,” Ibrahim conjures up an image of unity between personal identity and the desert he has know since birth:

I know how to go and walk
Until the setting of the sun
In the desert, flat and empty,
where nothing is given
My head is alert, awake
I have climbed up and climbed down
The mountains where I was born
I know in which caves the water is hidden
These worries are my friends
I’m always on familiar
terms with them and that
Gives birth to the stories of my life

The song paints a clear image of the individual embodying the virtues of the landscape and of the primacy of personal memory and experience in framing a true knowledge of home. What a far cry these deeply poetic and pointedly individualist musings are from the reality at play in Azawad today, with the black flag of Salafist militants flying over Timbuktu and all secular music having been banned.

In recent weeks the discourse about Tuareg agency in the rebellion and the power play between the Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine has grown more pointed. There have been intense about-faces, as the MNLA have made proclamations denouncing Ansar Dine and then the next day announcing a treaty between the two parties as equals in establishing the fledgling state. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis mounts daily, and the likelihood of international coalitions imposing bloody military solutions grows.

As far as I can see there is no actual homeland that can offer what the poetic image of home has to offer. There is no bloodshed in nostalgia or murder in a prayer. Once these feelings are harnessed to political realities, they make us weak and susceptible to the influence of untrustworthy charlatans and soulless extremists. It is tragic to see this pattern played out on the grounds of the Festival of the Desert, one of the places in the world that seemed to speak of the true potential for art and culture to create real reconciliation. It makes me think about Jerusalem.

And I think about my friend Khaira, whose grief over the current situation is the most eloquent statement I have found in my reading on the conflict. It is all I can do to remain hopeful that the vision she holds of a shared life in Timbuktu for all of the city’s people will be reestablished, speedily and in our days.

Yes. The song says, “We need peace. Without peace we can’t do anything. Without peace we can’t travel. Without peace we can’t sing. And we, the Africans, we have to be helped, but not with arms. We prefer schools. We prefer vehicles. We prefer tools to farm with. We prefer water pumps. And this Mali, this country that I love, we do not deserve this. Mali does not deserve this. Above all, Timbuktu does not deserve this. We are sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters.” In Timbuktu, you can say you are black and I am white. That never existed with us. That is not our history. I am sick. I am sick. I am too sick to sing, but despite that, I will sing to have peace.

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julis123 says:

Since their struggle has been completely ignored by the world I suggest that they start attacking Israel. Look how well it’s worked for the Palestinians–billions of dollars of aid money that can be put into various corrupt pockets, free propaganda from the BBC and NYT and best of all the more they spit on the Western world the more free publicity and money they will get.

You should be commended for your honesty, willingness to admit mistakes.

( And anyone who takes Khaira Arby as a guide is on the path of righteousness. That was a wonderful show, and you do well in describing the sadness without despair in her voice when she spoke with the audience.)

But seriously, it was only when parts of the armed group you romanticized allied with part of a group you hate, that this struck you?

Examine the history of unique separateness and ethnic oppression and organized crime you repeat here in that light. A lot of what you are still repeating is as manipulated as the call to join an ethnic war in someone else’s country you’ve now seen through.

For instance, you might examine the European notion of uni-ethnic states. Touareg groups do not make up a majority of the population in the two most populous of the three northern Regions of Mali where they declared war. THIS is why the comparatively tiny group of Algerian Salafists now flourish. The population in Gao and Tomboutcou are majority non-Tamasheq speakers, and most Touareg groups there are traditionally rivals of those who lead the MNLA (and from whom most on Tinariwen are drawn). This is a multi-ethnic nation, in a land where ethnicities are long interwoven both communally and geographically. There have been conflicts, but these groups are interdependent and intermarried. There is no “Touareg-Land” to liberate. Or to suppress.

Whatever your feelings about nationalism and ethnicity and what states should be, they are your ideas. The source of the problem you are so forthrightly grappling with is not born of the actions of the armed men you once idealized. It’s born of our imposing our own political ideals and ‘order’ on another people’s history.

Be well

David Mozes says:

Jeremiah,
Your writing touched this old hippie’s heart. Bob Dylan has a line, “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.” I realized my life long Zionist dreams two and a half years ago. These days a block from the Mediterranean Sea. Keep your heart wide open but think, think hard my dear friend. Israel is Zion. And my little Nahariya is Zion. Take a few minutes and listen to Echo Ranks, “Send Another Moses”. I’m glad I’m here so that I can come and hear you play at Beit AviChai on September 13th. I’ll catch up with you then. Shalom and Love.

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Songs of Desert Wanderers

I was drawn to Mali’s nomads and their musical pleas for a homeland, until they allied with Islamists

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