Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Looking at the screenshot of the Google sat image on the right (direct link), the village of Arawan some 250km north of Timbuktu seems to resemble the debris of a shipwreck adrift in a caramel swell.
I’ve never been there, though passed some 80km to the northeast during our SEQ transit to Algeria in 2006.
Some might recognise ‘Arawan’ as the rap track from a Tinariwen album, Amassakoul or ‘The Traveller’. As far as I can tell the lyrics match the received assumption of a once great but now near-abandoned town slowly being either swallowed up by the pitiless desert or simply changing times.
Arawan is the only permanently occupied village on the 700-km azalaï caravan route (left) to the salt mines of Taoudenni in the far northwest of Mali. Today, depending on the time of year, a couple of hundred live in Arawan, including an imam who tends to the shrine or mosque of the holy man or saint, Cheikh Sıdi Ahmed ag Ada (or Agadda; 1570-1640). It was he who refounded the settlement in the 17th century and is venerated as the ancestor of all the ahl Arawan (‘ahl’ being to Arabic as ‘kel’ is in Tamachek: ‘people of…’). The ruins of Dar Taleb (or Alphahou), just to the north of the village, have been dated back to the third century AD, making the site much older than Timbuktu.
The basis of any settlement is a reliable water source and Arawan once had scores of wells to enable the speedy watering of the passing caravans. You can only assume that nearly 500 years ago there was more pasture to sustain a livelihood than there is today. As it is, this flat expanse of northern Mali seems to be typified by enigmatic patches of grassy tussocks scattered across entirely barren sand sheets and the very occasional escarpment.
Fast forward from Sıdi Ahmed a few centuries and the Swiss American Ernst Aebi comes to Arawan. He’d made his fortune developing property in New York and had raced the Dakar. In the late 1980s he discovered the semi-derelict Arawan and decided to establish the ‘Arbres pour Araouane’ project to help revive the village.
He helped build a small market garden, a tamarisk plantation and eventually even a small hotel; all typical ‘Aebian’ ventures, which owe more to his dynamism and energy than sustainable, long-term goals. Little remains of the hotel today and the garden was ransacked in the early 90s at which time he was forced to leave the region during a Tuareg rebellion and the vicious army reprisals which followed. He wrote a book, Seasons of Sand, about his time there, and later a film: ‘Barefoot in Timbuktu‘, was made about his return to Arawan, which had of course reverted to the state he’d found it in 20 years earlier.
More recently social anthropologist Judith Scheele wrote an interesting paper about a pilgrimage of urban, well-to-do ahl Arawani from Bamako to the shrine of their ancestor, Sıdi Ahmed ag Ada. I don’t read such material by habit, but her digestible account of the complex social interplay of the long departed ahl Arawan and their timely piety set against the poverty-stricken and somewhat cynical villagers is amusingly absorbing. It turns out their trek was not just a spur of the moment adventure. At that time in 2007 oil exploration was underway in the Taoudenni basin to the north, and throughout history the ahl Arawan traditionally had a stake in the control and subsequent revenue from the salt mines. By marching into town, the dilettante ahl Arawani hoped to flag up their credentials for all to see as historically legitimate beneficiaries of the region’s resources.
Her short paper also sheds a light on the complex ethnicity of northern Mali; doubtless no less than any other region of Africa. I’d assumed it as just desert Tuareg or void, but the Tuareg homeland is specifically in the Ifoghas or ‘Adagh’ as some like to call it; northeastern Mali centred around Kidal. To the west of the Tanezrouft piste are the Tilemsi Arabs, Kounta, also Arabs and what might be called ‘Moors‘ around Timbuktu, with Songhai (indigenous West Africans) spread right through.
Setting aside the thorny issue of former slaves of both Arabs and Tuareg, there are added hierarchies based on religious ancestry or legitimacy – those who called themselves sharif or descended from the Prophet. I learned about the similar status of ‘Hassans’ from American PCVs in Mauritania in the late 80s. In this way a penniless nomad in Arawan may claim to be higher up the social scale than an ahl Arawan who’s just driven up from Bamako in a flash Land Cruiser.
Some scoff at the holy man of Arawan. It’s clear from his name that Sıdi Ahmed ag Ada was no more than a Tuareg, probably from Essouk in the Ifoghas (‘ag’ being a Tamachek equivalent of the Arabic ‘bin’).
Essouk, 60km northwest of Kidal, was the site of a Tuareg music festival (above) for some years; Gregg Butensky wrote about it in my Sahara Overland book. Nearby are the pre-medieval ruins of Tadmakka excavated by Sam Nixon Nixon and on a par with the better known former entrepôts of Koumbi Saleh or Aoudaghost in southern Mauritania, or Ouadane (left) further north.
For a good impression of the region north of Arawan here’s a detailed report and gallery from 2007 by Barbara and Henner Papendieck who paid a visit to Taoudenni as part of their humanitarian work in the region (map right, click for full size). This was just before the spate of kidnappings kicked in, but even then they needed to organise an armed military escort.
There are some great images of the actual mine site as well as the old prison. Below is a dramatic picture of the Sidi’s mosque in Arawan.