Tag Archives: Judith Scheele

Kidnapping and Smuggling in the Sahara; two books reviewed


In late 2008 Canadian UN special envoy Robert Fowler was kidnapped near Niamey with his assistant Louis Guay and their local Malian driver, Soumana Moukaila (left). All were held captive in northern Mali by Moktar Belmoktar’s (MBM) AQIM katiba or group.
Following the lull after the mass kidnappings of 2003 in Algeria, it was a pattern that came to be repeated frequently from 2008. Excluding what’s currently going on in Nigeria, in north Mali today there ought to be nine non-African captives of six nationalities (mostly French) as well as five Africans taken from five separate abductions across the Sahara. Full list of dates, locations and outcomes at the bottom of this page.

But just a year before Fowler was grabbed, Oxford-based anthropologist, Judith Scheele was travelling up and down the Tanezrouft, principally between Gao and the Touat region around Adrar in western Algeria, researching the origins and nature of the ‘connectivity’ that has long linked the two regions.

Her book, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century is an anthropological treatise on south Algeria and north Mali. Fowler’s book is A Season in Hell, my 130 days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda – a self-explanatory title.

judsteelSmugglers and Saints of the Sahara; Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century
Judith Scheele
Cambridge University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781107022126; 286pp
£60 – $99
From CUP catalogue:
Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara describes life on and around the contemporary border between Algeria and Mali, exploring current developments in a broad historical and socioeconomic context. Basing her findings on long-term fieldwork with trading families, truckers, smugglers and scholars, Judith Scheele investigates the history of contemporary patterns of mobility from the late nineteenth century to the present. Through a careful analysis of family ties and local economic records, this book shows how long-standing mobility and interdependence have shaped not only local economies, but also notions of social hierarchy, morality and political legitimacy, creating patterns that endure today and that need to be taken into account in any empirically-grounded study of the region.

Smugglers and Saints caught my eye as it mentioned al Khalil, a frontier trading settlement that slipped out of the state control around the turn of the century to become a rough smugglers’ entrepôt right on the Algerian-Mali border and just 18km from the Algerian outpost and military base of Bordj Moktar (BBM) on which al Khalil depends. Steele writes in the introduction:

… On closer inspection, the various institutions that might turn al-Khalil into a town turn out to be optical illusions… The gendarmerie post is … empty, and here everybody knows what happened: “the government built this post, a nice building, you can see, and then they sent soldiers with guns, suwadin (‘blacks,’ that is to say people from southern Mali) who were already shaking with fear when they arrived. They lasted two days: on the second night, we stole there guns, and we never saw them again.”

Sounds like an interesting place. I visited the outpost twice in 2006, a short while after I was told the Malian douaniers (Customs) like the gendarmes above, had been kicked out, leaving the place to its own devices. One of my visits was while passing through with a car to offload in Mali (it was actually getting reprofiled to return to Algeria as my guide’s car). I took the chance to get in with the chummy crew who were my guide’s contacts in Al Khalil; what the exact connection was I did not ask. They occupied l’Ambassade (possibly an in-joke with those that frequented it), a compound or garaj like many others in town, composed of a head-high mud-brick wall where ancient MAN or Mercedes trucks were being overloaded or refuelled. Beaten up oil drums, axles and other junk lay all around and a couple of shacks or shaded reed zeribas perched against the perimeter wall. There was no running water or electricity other than truck batteries. The toilet was like a deleted scene from a slasher movie.


Al Khalil was by that time a stateless entity in No Man’s Land, some 100km north of the first Malian town at Tessalit where in 2006 at least the Malian army had a presence and stamped us in. The crew at the l’Ambassade weren’t like the braggarts that Judith Scheele describes, and  seemed a rather amiable  bunch of possibly Berabich Arabs, a consequence one likes to think, of their avowed trade in ‘soft’ commodities between Algeria or Zouerat and their distant home town of Timbuktu. I sold some sat phones or GPSs and promised to return with solar panels and other requests – something I occasionally do to help establish a connection with guides or other local contacts. In this case my motivation was to help ease my imminent traverse of northern Mali should I get in trouble.
In a way I was participating in the mutually beneficial connectivity about which Judith Scheele writes, while not going quite as far as marrying one of the ‘Ambassadors” daughters to seal a trading communion. Sure enough, two months later I was in trouble before I even got out of eastern Mauritania and was able to call in a truck via the Ambassade to recover me back to In Khalil. Last I heard my Hilux still rests under an oily tarp in the corner of the Ambassade  (right).

Al Khalil 2016 – a bombed-out war zone

Back to the book. It is of course a little unfair for a ‘civilian’ like myself to judge a painstakingly researched academic work like Saints. I suspect such works follow a certain well-defined format and other rigid conventions that pass over my head. But as I’ve had dealings in Al Khalil and know south Algeria as a tourist, I gave it a go, curious to learn a little more on how the outpost survives right under the nose of BBM and where the author speculates: “… by all accounts state officials are deeply involved in all aspects of transborder business.”

Steele describes the drivers and dealers in Al Khalil as a recognisable mix of bravado and exaggeration, boasting about their contrabanders’ adventures running goods along the hidden pistes while dodging patrols and ambushes from competitors. These traders claimed a distinct moral separation between ‘soft’ goods like sugar, fuel and staples, and harder items, the hardest of all being cocaine. It’s fair to speculate that as much as AQIM’s occupation of northern Mali, it is the similarly recent advent of a new cocaine route to Europe, from Colombia via Guinea Bissau or Mauritania right across to the Red Sea that has upset the trading traditions she documents. No longer can a plucky young guy knock out a couple of trans-border runs for a patron to earn himself the HJZ79 he was provided. As you’d expect with hard drugs, now much more organised mafias – in some places not far removed from state institutions – are running the show and paying flat rates for young guns in search of nothing more than adventure.

“Although al-Khalil might for all intents and purposes look like a town, it lacks in morality and is therefore locally understood to be part of the badiya…  As such it remains beyond the bounds of civilisation and is described as potentially dangerous to “proper” family life and sociabilities. This is perhaps why, in their interminable boasts, Khalilis endlessly endorse “traditional” morality, as though they were trying to integrate al-Khalil within known frameworks of excellence and moral propriety: al-Khalil is decried as a place where men can be men, although everybody knows that the moral autonomy and social responsibility this implies are often illusory.


The series of  traders’ compounds or garajs  shown in the sat image on the left isn’t a place where a European stranger idly noses around for too long, and you get the feeling that even with her protectors, the author didn’t spend much time there, as she did in the regular settlements in Mali and Algeria. That she achieved what she did over months in this area is a testament in her ability in getting to know the right people and gaining their trust. A short while after both I and Judith Scheele visited, Al Khalil became quite a dangerous place indeed and now, a few months following the French led Operation Serval, you imagine things may have turned full circle.


It has to be said that once beyond the lively and engaging  introduction, the book gets down to business and at times becomes a bit of an effort to read. The chapters are listed on the right give you an idea of what to expect. Credit is due to the author’s tenacity, bravery and fluency in local languages, although part her success may have been in being perceived by the men as just a ‘harmless woman’. It gave her the best of both worlds: sisterly access to local women no male counterpart could have achieved, while at other times able to move around as a protected ‘honorary male’, as lone women travellers often find, particularly in Muslim lands.


At one point her convoy is held up in southern Algeria en route to Mali until the driver explains to the brigands that he’s travelling en famille – as in ‘steady on chum, there are women present’. Travelling sans famille, on the way to meet us in 2006, the Ambassade’s truck (left) had a similar encounter and was less fortunate.

It’s a touching example of the sort of code of honour we like to imagine exists among Saharan smugglers. They are after all merely engaged in tax-exempt trading that was disrupted or penalised when the French began their century-long project of colonising Algeria in the early 19th century. Since then, following the post-colonial era of the early 1960s, new governments settled age-old racial scores. I have long assumed that the neglect of the desert Tuareg in Mali’s Ifoghas and the Aïr in Niger was a form of payback for the bad old slave trading days. It forced places like the Ifoghas to rely heavily on subsidised goods coming down from Algeria and until very recently the Malian government still professed that the ‘Tuareg problem’ in the north was a greater threat than AQIM and associated terrorist groups.

In Saints we learn much about the demography, racial make up and historical links across the region. The Tilemsi Arabs who originated from Mauritania and include the shady mayor or Tarkint (more of him below). Or the Kunta Arabs, a sect that led by a ‘saint’, settled from an oasis in the Touat Algeria a century or two ago. Indeed it was Arab traders from there who founded Kidal, the current ‘capital’ of the Kel Ifoghas Tuareg.

“Most [pre-colonial] settlements in the Sahara are said to have been found by saints, following divine guidance… [it] is always an achievement and relates to larger projects of civilisation, generally bound up in Islamic standards of justice and order. As such it can as easily be swallowed up by moral shortcoming and internal strife as by the shifting sands and greedy raiders”

These early traders and other notables have metamorphosed into ‘saints’ possessed of baraka (blessing) or even got upgraded to ‘sharif’, noble descendants of the Prophet. It’s a form of religious aristocracy mentioned in an earlier post about Judith Scheele’s visit to Arawan around the same time. Staying with PCVs in Mauritania in the late ’80s, I recall coming across a term ‘hassan’, with the same meaning or ‘legitimacy’ as sharif.

At one point the author profiles the ‘Alkacem’ clan of Tamanrasset, a successful trading family of business-minded Chaambi Arabs who moved there from northern Algeria around Ouargla and Ghardaia. From the earliest days of the French colonisation the Chaambi worked with the administration rather than fighting it, like the Ahaggar Tuareg  right up to their decisive defeat near Tam in 1911.
We learn that similarly, the modern Alkacem have shrewdly developed ties with the government to their great advantage. It chimes with a meeting I had with what I took to be a patriarch of that family a couple of years ago while organising a tour. I could tell this guy was a busy homme d’affairs who these days, more than ever, surely couldn’t be making a living from his tour agency. With his shiny fleet of Hiluxes, I assumed he must have more profitable interests like property or transport, his agency being a hang over from the good years and which had been palm-off to his somewhat feckless son. The patriarch told me his family had moved down a century ago from their home oasis of Metlili Chaamba just south of Ghardaia.

These passing connections made Saints a little more digestible for me but while there must be a certain received form to academic writing that is indubitably objective and correct, the jargon (satirised rather amusingly here) doesn’t exactly leap from the page with arms outstretched. It is after all a meticulous report on the author’s fieldwork to be pored over by her peers, not an adventure travelogue.

Nevertheless, as a tourist in the region you frequently feel that you’re skimming over what’s really going on around you, especially when pre-occupied with keeping your own all-terrain show on the piste. Saints helps fill in the blanks about a Sahara where people actually live, a place beyond the string of waypoints linking fuel stations, junctions and wells. We learn a lot about the complex interconnectivity of race, skin colour and Arab assumptions of moral, intellectual and religious superiority, despite the envied lure of the licentious suwadeen. About appearances, status, how to get ahead in business as an Arabic woman of standing while scrupulously maintaining a respectful pubic image (in short: travel for business but lock up your daughters).

Along the way Judith Scheele has amassed a bibliography on associated  topics that could keep you reading for years. There are many other anthropologists out there working to unravel the secrets of the Sahara. She concludes by politely scoffing at what you suspect she views is a rather male-oriented view of today’s Sahara as a lawless “swamp of terror” to quote an American general. A wilderness of wily bandits and fanatical mudjihadeen  that must be brought under control before it all gets out of hand. It’s an image that’s carried by the mainstream media too and the author admits that much of her research was completed before current AQIM activities hit their stride, let along the recent fall of Gaddafi’s Libya which has further stoked the fire. Al Khalil may get pushed off the map she concludes, but it will simply pop up somewhere else because in the Sahara, like elsewhere else, life goes on.

Continue reading

A is for Arawan

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.

Photo Alistair Bestow
Photo Alistair Bestow

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.


Now over 70, Aebi (left) does sound like quite a character. Pick on any post from his blog and you’ll get the picture of the guy who is still living full life.

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.

Gregg Butensky. Madnomad.com

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.

Arawan mosque. Wieland Schmidt