Songs of Desert Wanderers
I was drawn to Mali’s nomads and their musical pleas for a homeland, until they allied with Islamists
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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A birthday visit with M.H. Abrams, peer of Trilling, teacher of Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology