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date: 14 October 2019

Crossroads Regions: The Sahara

Abstract and Keywords

While the Sahara was long seen as a barrier between sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghrib, it has more recently been described as a bridge: scholarship has thus focused on trans-Saharan trade and migration. Both images exclude internal Saharan production, consumption, and agency: the “desert” remains an empty space that needs to be crossed and whose history is dictated by outside patterns of movement. This article suggests a different approach. It focuses on the circulation of goods, people, and ideas, traces patterns of internal connectivity, and denotes the close relationship among mobility, outside connections, and the making of place.

Keywords: Sahara, trade, kinship, mobility, Islam, connectivity, region formation, extraversion

Comme la mer, le désert est mouvement (Braudel 1966: 170)

Despite Braudel’s early insight, the image that springs to mind most readily when thinking of the Sahara is one not of movement but rather of immobility: of a barrier dividing the Mediterranean world from “real” (i.e., sub-Saharan) Africa, isolating the countries of North Africa from their southern and eastern neighbors, and demarcating entirely distinct areas of study. As the archetypical “desert,” the Sahara tends to be pictured as an empty waste, a natural borderland; one more of the many afflictions visited on continental Africa and one that has, by impeding internal movement, effectively separated it from world history—or so the story goes.1 This perception of discontinuity at the heart of the African continent has been echoed in colonial historiography, based on the assumption of a radical break between “white” and “black” Africa requiring different kinds of imperial rule. But it has also made its way into a certain kind of postcolonial revisionism through attempts to locate the sources of “civilization” within Africa proper and that discount, as a result, North African, or “Arab,” influence as “foreign” (J. McDougall 2012: 81). Academic categories, dividing fields of research and literature among Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Arab/Islamic, and African studies, have often replicated these assumptions. North Africa is thus most commonly seen as a (marginal and somewhat uncouth) part of the Middle East; while “West Africa” is forcibly turned to the south, and always only rather inauthentically Islamic. Undoubtedly, the Sahara has acted as a barrier in some aspects—medieval and early modern pan-European plague epidemics never made it across, and one could hardly claim that West Africa “breathed at the same rhythm” (to paraphrase Braudel) as the Mediterranean. But much of the notion of a “desert void” was of the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy, influencing not only scholarship, but also policymakers.

More recently, it has become popular to suggest that the Sahara has, in fact, never constituted a serious obstacle to cross-regional interaction but has, in the manner of seas, rivers, and oceans, furthered it: that it has been less a “barrier” than a “bridge” in African history (Zartman 1963). Yet despite renewed interest in patterns of trans-Saharan trade and migration, now fueled by security concerns over clandestine immigration and international terrorism, more far-reaching, conceptually innovative, and empirically detailed research on both the shared world of, and the boundaries between, North and West Africa has been little pursued. Indeed, one might argue that images of the Sahara as a “bridge” risk reiterating older notions of the region as an empty interior, a gap that must simply be crossed. Hence, studies have continued to focus, for example, on trans-Saharan rather than on Saharan trade (see, most recently, Austen 2010), on the trans-Saharan slave trade rather than on local conceptions of labor, freedom, and dependency (E. A. McDougall 2002), or on the “spread of Islam” from Mediterranean to West Africa rather than on local Islamic dynamics (Meunier 1997). This approach, despite its intention to open up study of the region across an “African divide” (Lydon 2005), has tended to perpetuate isolatable ideas of place, space, race, and culture as belonging to distinct worlds of North and West Africa, leaving us without a way of grasping the subtler realities of regional interdependence. Conversely, although a range of excellent local case studies focus on internal Saharan social dynamics, these are approached most often from an anthropological angle or through geography, and they have little room for regional connections, which are, if they are mentioned at all, tagged on as an external addition, foreign to the subject matter at hand.

As a result, “history” often seems to be implicitly limited to outside connections rather than to internal Saharan dynamics: things happen to the Sahara rather than in the Sahara. Hence, it seems to be taken for granted even among more recent writers that histories of the Sahara ought to start in prehistoric or at least Roman times (see, e.g., Bovill 1968, but even Lydon 2009). Conversely, archaeologists working on the Garamantes freely draw on contemporary evidence, often developed elsewhere in the Sahara, to analyze their findings (e.g., Mattingly, Sterry, and Thomas 2013; Wilson 2012). This is not in itself problematic and it has often made for riveting scholarship, but it makes questions of regional coherence over space and time pressing. Although geographical definitions of the Sahara, according to annual rainfall and vegetation, appear to be deceptively straightforward (see Bisson 2003: 9–16), they can, here as in other historical regions, serve only as a proxy. In 1968, Monod suggested a division of the Sahara into three areas of interaction divided by truly arid zones, each dominated by one linguistic group: Arabic-speakers in the West, Tamacheq-speakers in the center, and Tedaga/Dazaga-speakers in the East. More recently, Retaillé made much the same argument, rephrasing it in terms of “meridian regional units” (1998: 72); were these divisions pertinent in all contexts, it would be difficult to speak of the Sahara as a unit of any kind, in particular as there is no local equivalent to our use of the term “Sahara.”2 Indeed, both authors stress the importance of north-south corridors that overlap with the edges of the Sahara as conventionally defined: “we think that the desert can only be understood with reference to a wider geographical whole that includes its non-desert peripheries and the social and political organisations that govern them” (Retaillé 1986: 2).

Internal regions that emerge from recent studies are even more restricted. Lydon (2009), despite the trans-Saharan title of her work, traces a trading network based on southern Morocco, with few ties beyond the Senegal River and southern Algeria; a similar pattern is described, in different terms, by Ann McDougall, who, moreover, points to the way in which commerce of all kinds “reflected local social and political structures and influenced them” (2005a: 378). Pascon (1980, 1984) carefully describes the widely dispersed “hinterland” of the zāwiya (religious stronghold, plural zawāyā) of Ilīgh, also in southern Morocco, held together not only by trade, but also by common attendance at fairs, spiritual influence, gift exchange, debt relations, and the provision of services.3 Regional connections here were crucial to the constitution of local economies, as profits made elsewhere were invested in irrigated agriculture. Baier and Lovejoy (1975) speak of “Tuareg firms” on the desert edge in Niger that allow nomadic pastoralists to invest in all aspects of the desert-side economy, and hence to protect themselves against risk; similar “firms” could be detected among the Ahaggar Tuareg in southern Algeria, who relied on pastoralism, salt mining, caravan trading, and irrigated agriculture, in an area stretching from northern Niger to central Algeria (Nicolaisen 1963; Keenan 1977a). Regional saints invoked in local pilgrimages or festivals, as described by Moussaoui (2002) in the Algerian south, indicate another kind of “region” that matters for the spiritual existence of the local, as do genealogical recitations and memories of past migrations (Batran 2001). If all of these works indicate different extensions of networks of exchange and frames of references, they also show similarities in the ways in which these networks interact: they draw together resources—economic, human, and spiritual—that are crucial for the constitution and maintenance of the local. Perhaps, then, it is not so much the Sahara-wide extension of connections that allow us to speak of it in terms of a historical region but rather such structural resemblances leading to mutual intelligibility over space and time.

Horden and Purcell (2000: 53) describe a similar “continuum of discontinuities” in the Mediterranean. Here, they argue, climatic and geographical conditions are such that small areas tend to specialize, and that seasonal instability has to be taken for granted. Hence, life depends on exchange, or, in their words, on “connectivity,” a term borrowed from mathematics and geography to denote the ways in which ecological micro-regions coalesce internally and cohere across distance with one another (Horden and Purcell 2000: 123). It makes no sense to think of places in isolation; rather, places (of production, habitation, and exchange) are made and maintained by regional interaction. In turn, “regions” are not given, but develop through sustained communication. Regions, then, can at times include places situated at a considerable distance from each other while excluding neighboring areas. Allowance made for clear differences in scale and complexity (Horden 2012), a similar set of conditions (ecological precarity, productive specialization, and intensive resource management producing commercial interdependence; organized—often violent—mobility of people and commodities, of ideas and practices) can be seen at work in the Sahara, and the reminder of this article, by focusing on the circulation of goods, people, and ideas, aims to sketch some of these. There is one caveat, however: where Horden and Purcell describe the Mediterranean as an area of “net introversion,” and indeed base their claims to Mediterranean specificity on this (2006: 735), even when brought into focus, the Sahara is more probably marked by “net extraversion” (J. McDougall 2012: 83). This is so at least in the cultural realm, where much emphasis is placed on outside sources of knowledge, goods, and prestige. Even more so than the Mediterranean, then, the Sahara cannot be understood without reference to its “hinterland,” and this “hinterland” can be made to stretch infinitely wide—as long as the starting point remains Saharan.

This emphasis on connectivity rather than, say, trade or migration means that the “crossroads” of the title are not necessarily apposite: not only has the Sahara rarely lent itself to road-building (even today, dreams of trans-Saharan highways or railways remain just that: dreams of circulation and control, mostly concocted by planners outside of the Sahara), but even the more metaphorical image of “roads” has little purchase on the variety of Saharan interconnections, from pastoral exchange to the circulation of manuscripts and prayer. The availability of water and, until recently, pastures has of course curtailed the freedom of Saharan movement, but water availability is often as much a political as a geographical question, and thus it is highly volatile. Moreover, crossroads evoke images of bridges, as one might travel along them without paying much attention to their surroundings: if the Sahara clearly has been an area that has brought together people from a range of places and cultures from outside its boundaries—one has to think only of the slave trade that has provided Saharan oases with the necessary manpower to construct and maintain them over time—these “culture contacts” happened within an area that was already shaped by a high degree of internal connectivity, and it is the latter that necessarily conditioned the former.

The Circulation of Goods

Saharan trade is the one topic that has brought the Sahara to the attention of historians and that has contributed most effectively to the dominance of trans-Saharan paradigms. Indeed, images of trans-Saharan caravans of gold, ivory, and slaves have played such a central part in European imaginations of the African continent that it is difficult to see beyond them. Yet in the Sahara as elsewhere, the more mundane exchange of everyday goods and staples for local consumption clearly outweighed long-range trade in luxury items. Salt is a case in point. Paul Lovejoy estimates that the regional salt trade on the southern edge of the central Sahara by far exceeded trans-Saharan trade in value—being worth up to four times as much—and even more so in bulk: in the nineteenth century, while the number of camels involved in trans-Saharan trade through Tripoli fluctuated between 2,000 and 3,000 per year, salt caravans focused on the mines of Bilma alone involved 20,000 to 30,000 camels each year, and probably almost as many people to look after them (Lovejoy 1984: 106–107). “A comparison of salt, slaves, ostrich feathers, tanned skins and ivory established clearly that regional demands were still determinant in the economy” (Lovejoy 1984: 110). Studying the registers of the Bayrūk, a leading commercial family in southern Morocco, Ann McDougall describes the close integration of local, regional, and trans-Saharan affairs, again largely but not exclusively centered on salt (E. A. McDougall 2005a: 376). A similar conclusion can be drawn from Lydon’s (2009) research on southern Morocco, and from Haarmann’s (2008) collection and translation of commercial letters produced by traders in Ghadāmis in what is now southwestern Libya. If we add to these figures trade in dates against cereals (see Scheele 2012: 50–54 for one example), which, even more so than salt, was crucial for the survival of sedentary and nomadic communities alike, trans-Saharan trade, and its fluctuations over time, starts to look like an epiphenomenon of more stable and fundamental patterns of connectivity. This seems to echo, albeit in a much more basic fashion, “the basic engagement of the primary producer with maritime connectivity” that Horden and Purcell (2006: 738) identify as unique to the Mediterranean.

This argument has general implications. Saharan oases, necessarily created or at least maintained by human labor, were rarely self-sufficient. Pascon notes:

The considerable investments that are necessary to start the irrigation of the smallest plot of land, the cost of the development and the maintenance of intensive arboriculture in an extremely dry environment cannot be justified solely by their financial return nor even by general economy. Furthermore, we noticed very often that, for various reasons (political, military, demographic, and so on), oases decline long before they have finished paying back the initial capital outlay. We might thus be surprised by the optimism and the voluntarism of the founders of oases, or in other words by their naivety, if we only consider the economic benefit that they might hope for. Maybe there are other but financial rewards, other benefits, or maybe other obligations of a system within which the agricultural sector is only a necessary, albeit loss-making, part. (1984: 9)

Although many parts of the Sahara are endowed with underground water tables, access to water still remains difficult, as springs or other spontaneously occurring surface water reservoirs are few and often extremely salty. Saharan mechanisms of irrigation are varied, complex, and context specific (although a few techniques have traveled widely: see Bisson 2003: 193–215 for an overview); in almost all cases, however, they are extremely labor intensive. Conversely, few areas in the Sahara allow for permanent habitation in the absence of irrigation. As far as we know, labor was thus mostly imported from the south through slavery, which is an enterprise that, in itself, required capital, transport, patience, and foresight.

Moreover, as Pascon notes, oases rarely seemed to have paid back the initial outlay, although they might sporadically yield a considerable surplus. Most colonial and precolonial descriptions concur that local resources on their own were rarely sufficient to feed the local population (see Martin 1908: 306–308 on the Algerian Touat). This fact is echoed by Ibn Battūta in the fourteenth century:

Then we arrived at Būda, which is one of the biggest villages of Tuwāt. Its land consists of salt and salt pans. It has many dates which are not good…. There is no cultivation there nor butter nor oil. Oil is only imported to it from the land of the Maghrib. The food of its people is dates and locusts. These are abundant with them; they store them as dates are stored and use them for food.

(in Hopkins and Levtzion 1981: 304)

More commonly, oasis dwellers everywhere relied on exchange with “outsiders,” in particular pastoral nomads who exchanged cereals, which they had obtained either near the Mediterranean or in the Sahel, against dates and salt. Neither pastoral nor horticultural communities could survive independently, and boundaries between both were labile or nonexistent. “In the Shāti at least,” writes Despois (1946: 192) of the northernmost valley in the Fazzān, nomadic families “often have such an intimate relationship with oasis dwellers that it is not always easy to distinguish one from the other.” Conversions from one lifestyle to the other were thus frequent, as were intermediate forms: throughout the Sahara, sedentarists have long seized any possible occasion to become nomadic (Chapelle 1957: 146, 181), while pastoralists, grown wealthy through husbandry and trade, might well decide to finish their days in the comfort of urban living (Bonte 1998, 2000a) or renounce their pastoral ways for religious reasons (Cleaveland 2002).

These blurred boundaries were reflected in property relations, as oases often acted as areas of investment for traders and pastoralists who spent most of their lives elsewhere (Rohlfs 1881; Despois 1946; Chapelle 1957; Eldblom 1968). Interdependence was equally pronounced from the nomadic point of view. The Sahara is mostly too arid to allow for pastoral autarchy of any kind.4 Hence, nomadic pastoralists relied on goods and opportunities provided by trade and sedentary agriculture to supplement their income and, in particular, to spread risk and diversify. In the southern central Sahara, Baier and Lovejoy (1975: 554) noted how Tuareg elites “invested in diverse activities ranging from stock breeding to transport, trade in salt, dates, grain, and manufactures, land ownership, slave labor, the finance of craft production, and commercial brokerage,” both in the southern Sahara and in the Sahel. A yearly budget established by Geoffroy in 1887 for a nomadic family from the federation of the Arbā‘ on the northern edge of the Algerian Sahara shows that about a third of the family’s annual income derived directly or indirectly from trade, mostly cereals against dates, conducted as part of their seasonal migration from the northern Sahara to the Tell. Farther west, the various tribal groups related in one way or another to the Awlād Sīdi Shaykh functioned in similar ways (Boukhobza 1982); in the center and east, the Awlād Nā’il, Sha‘anba, and Sīdi ‘Atbā did the same (Cauneille 1968; Romey 1983); while to the south, the Taïtoq and Ahaggar followed a reverse pattern of migration and exchange (Nicolaisen 1963). These patterns could easily be extended farther east: and it would then appear that, with the exception of particularly arid zones that loosely separate the three main linguistic groups in the Sahara—Arabic, Tamasheq, and Tedaga/Dazaga—all parts of the Sahara are covered in areas of seasonal migration that facilitate communication and transport.

Trans-Saharan and Saharan trade was grafted onto this underlying infrastructure, which could not subsist without it; however, it was only one aspect of complex and far-reaching patterns of interdependence. Indeed, these two forms of trade were mutually dependent, to the point where distinctions are often difficult to make. On the one hand, specialized trans-Saharan traders, even where they were present, were not necessarily primarily concerned with trans-Saharan goods (McDougall 2005a; see, e.g., Haarmann 2008; Pascon 1980). On the other, the fact that certain goods eventually crossed the Sahara does not always indicate the presence of trans-Saharan traders, as nomadic pastoralists, mostly preoccupied with procuring good pastures and exchanging dates for grain for their own supplies, always also had room for “perfume, knick-knacks, jewellery, coffee, tobacco, cloths, ostrich feathers, incense and musk” that they peddled through outlying Saharan settlements—thereby keeping transport costs low, or rather unaccounted for (Geoffroy 1887). Until the 1940s, trans-Saharan trade depended uniquely on camels, and long-distance traders—who often did not live in the Sahara proper—rarely owned pack animals; rather, they subcontracted with local pastoralists (Newbury 1966: 239; Baier 1980: 237; Austen 1990). Camels rarely crossed the Sahara in a straight line (E. A. McDougall 2012: 47), and the distance traveled by one set of pack animals was, in most cases, limited to around 500 kilometers: from one oasis belt to the next. Moreover, due to variations in pasture and the nature of the terrain, camels, finding it difficult to cope with unfamiliar pasture and ground, were bred as regional specialists. Even trans-Saharan traders thus had to rely on Saharan infrastructure, and often they turned regional patterns of movement into their own commercial advantage by selling goods on the way or by changing direction when this seemed profitable. This is what Ibn Battūta observed in the northern Sahara in the fourteenth-century (in Hopkins and Levtzion 1981: 340). Five centuries later, for reasons of infrastructure and regional ecology, goods from Bornu bound for Timbuktu transited via Ghadāmis and the Touat, thereby crossing the Sahara twice (Haarmann 1998: 28); and traders in southern Algeria and Morocco followed trajectories that were closer to Braudel’s notion of cabotage than to explicitly trans-Saharan designs (Scheele 2012: 55–58).

Today, however, many of these regional patterns persist, although transport is now provided almost exclusively by trucks or jeeps. Most trade still concerns basic staples that are exchanged against livestock and without which life both in oases towns and in nomadic camps would be impossible; although nowadays the main motivation for these exchanges are less matters of complementary production than differential import regimes and state subsidies between the relatively wealthy, oil-producing countries of North Africa and the Sahel. But as before, most profits gained in such pursuits are invested in the making of place and the strengthening of regional connections through kinship and marriage, investment in local economies, and gifts. As a result, even cocaine smugglers, the fastest and best equipped of all Saharan travelers, tend to limit their travels to one or two sets of such regional connections: this indicates that what makes such regions function are social and political ties and limitations as much as purely technical constraints. Regional connections map out the knowable and the familiar, areas known to drivers and within which they will meet family and can rely on extensive ties of kinship and friendship for information and protection. They also indicate limits of morally sound movement and interaction: locally, al-frūd al-halāl (licit smuggling) is thus opposed to al-frūd al-harām (illicit smuggling) less in terms of the kinds of good transported than of the patterns of movement and social ties they generate (Scheele 2012). Much like the trans-Saharan trade of old relied on regional infrastructure, contemporary smugglers—even the “mafias” who run the drug business—thus tend to “piggy-back” on regional patterns of exchange, thereby reinforcing them. If, on the face of it, this fact can be seen as an argument against the regional unity of the Sahara, it is also one that can be cited for structural resemblance—the existence of a similar trame du monde (Horden and Purcell 2000: 78–80, citing Birot 1964: 3) that is socially as much as ecologically constructed, that can be identified throughout the Sahara, and that is readily comprehensible to those who inhabit it.

The Movement of People

Given this priority of social over technical constraints, it is not surprising that local emphasis tends to be on the movement of people rather than on the exchange of goods. Kinship is salient here. It provides an idiom for all kinds of social relations and indicates the fundamental problems inherent in exchange and interdependence: kinship establishes connections along which people circulate, but people cannot ever be truly exchanged as they are by definition linked to their family of origin and incommensurable (Casajus 1982: 111). They can be “shared,” but not given away (Bonte 2000b: 58). Moreover, marital alliances, although generally couched in terms of equality, establish hierarchies (Bonte 1987, 2008: 75–105; Caratini 1989). Marital exchange is thus marked by the same ambivalence that puts trading and raiding on a sliding scale of possibilities: people attempt to be connected as far as possible, but the circulation of people and an excess of human connectivity leads to intractable moral problems of containment, both of wealth and of status (Scheele 2014). Excessive connectivity might result in loss, “loss of blood, rank, status, even identity” (Caratini 1995: 41): menfolk sent out to trade might never come back, allured by wives taken elsewhere; children born to such unions might be quite simply “out of control”; in-laws are always a danger as they disrupt distinctions between here and there, inside and outside, public and private (Scheele 2012: 73–87). The result seems to be, in many cases, an emphasis on endogamy, the familial equivalent of autarky, in the face of the utter impossibility to adhere to it in the long run (cf. Dresch 1998); or else the opposite, “an introverted social system that speaks in the language of extraversion,” as Murphy (1967: 170) observed among Tamacheq-speakers in Agades. “Hybridity” or “métissage,” terms that have become popular for the analysis of cultural interaction elsewhere, are thus of little use here; rather, an emphasis is placed on continued difference and containment in the face of practical intermingling, an inherent tension between the necessity to exchange and the desire for closure, expressed in the illusory denial of reciprocity that also comes to the fore in raids. “It is not so much the differences as their loss that can arouse rivalry, even violence,” as Bromberger (2006: 103) aptly notes with regard to the Mediterranean.

Notwithstanding, links established through marriages often underpin trade connections and, even more so than economic complementarity, they are at the heart of regional connectivity. Hence, “the [Western Saharan] Rgaybāt matrimonial sphere roughly overlaps with their area of economic activity” (Caratini 1989: 44) and changes accordingly over time (Caratini 1995). Indeed, “the example of the Rgaybāt shows that the same proposition, in this instance preferential patriparallel cousin marriage, can result in the most contradictory practices, all of which are logically consistent with the system” (Caratini 1995: 48). This built-in flexibility provides (tentative) answers to questions of regional connectivity—and comparability. Despite their fundamental differences, kinship systems across the Sahara have historically all provided ways to incorporate dependents and to cement alliances, often over a wide geographical range, while emphasizing and carefully maintaining local particularity. Caratini (1995: 37) thus estimates that about two-thirds of people who today identify themselves as Rgaybāt are descendants of people incorporated through marriage; while Casajus (1982: 99) notes that among the Tuareg of Niger, “marriage creates kin as much as it takes place among kin,” as consanguinity tends to “encompass affinity.” Tubu marital prescriptions, meanwhile, rely on the constant absorption of outsiders (Baroin 1990).

Group endogamy, as expressed by a (often largely ideological) preference for marriage with patriparallel cousins among Arabic-speakers, is necessarily joined to a tendency to marry out (Bonte 2000b: 42). Moreover, it leads to a confusion of kin and affines, and a resulting fuzziness of group boundaries, that not only results in de facto but muted bilaterality, but also in a great plasticity of kinship ties and of the political system that is expressed through them (Murphy and Kasdan 1959). Although kinship systems among Tamacheq-speakers vary from patrilineal via bilateral to matrilateral ways of reckoning (see, e.g., Claudot 1977; Keenan 1977b), they also stress lineage endogamy (Casajus 1982), leading to a similar tension between extraversion and introversion, status ambiguity, and the ability to incorporate elements from neighboring, often Sudanic idioms of relatedness, without changing the basic premises of the system (Murphy 1967). Indeed, in this respect, Arab and Tuareg systems can be read as different expression of similar underlying logics (Bonte 1986, 2000c). Tubu systems, meanwhile, although they look radically different as they are based on bilateral exogamy over four to seven generations (Baroin 1985), similarly eschew the establishment of permanent groups and emphasize the “atomistic individualism” said to be typical of the “Arab” system (Murphy and Kasdan 1959: 21). Yet for the Tubu, extroversion is key, and endogamy is indeed viewed with much suspicion: it is perhaps not surprising that the Tubu, in clear opposition to their Saharan neighbors, show little interest in sweeping genealogical connections, as they can easily draw on their own to encompass the whole world—or at least the (often extensive) parts of it that matter.

These longstanding connections are today put under pressure by nation-states and their redefinition of legal identity through national citizenship. With the influx of poor Sahelian “cousins” into oil-rich North African countries, their Algerian or Libyan counterparts might be loath to recognize longstanding connections, and act accordingly; similarly, in the Sahel, northern connections might evoke painful memories or conflicting loyalties in areas marked by recent (or not so recent) civil wars and imperial appetites, such as northern Mali and northern Chad (Scheele 2016). This is particularly true as connectedness in no way implies equality. As they probably have always been, connections are thus redefined and sorted into “desirable” and “undesirable.” In the Maghreb, Sahelian “cousins” are packed off into local “ghettoes,” defined not so much by their lack of nationality as by their putative lack of morality; in northern Chad, during the Libyan civil war in 2011, refugees from Libya were treated with a mixture of disappointment and contempt. Yet despite assertions to the contrary, both refugees and “ghettoes” are part and parcel of Saharan life, not only in economic terms, but also through the many kin connections that link them to their surroundings; indeed, these connections often seem to thrive on moral differentials (as virtue finds it hard to persist without vice). On an individual level, meanwhile, it is difficult to deny claims to relatedness outright. Several Sahelian groups, mostly Arabic-speakers, have thus succeeded, brandishing their genealogies, to lay claims to localities or saints’ tombs in southern Algeria and Morocco (di Tolla 1996; Scheele 2014). Similarly, although Algerian and Libyan passports are at times handed out freely to border populations, these are of any practical use only if they can be backed up by local witnesses, thereby reinvigorating the kind of human connectivity that they are officially designed to dispel.

Much as individual connections are never value neutral, Saharan kinships systems share a general emphasis on status distinctions. Saharan societies have relied heavily on servile and slave labor, for herding, guarding the flocks, and salt mining (Lovejoy 1986), but even more so for irrigated horticulture (Bonte 1998), religious settlement (E. A. McDougall 1986; Gutelius 2002), and, especially in the eastern Sahara, military endeavors (Johnson 1989). Slaves were also crucial to local and regional reproductive strategies, leading to complex gradations of hierarchy and status within families (E. A. McDougall 1998). But even in areas where slavery was of little importance historically, the idea of slavery and dependency, or rather of the need to be “protected,” remained crucial to local status hierarchies, as was the pressing need for outside sources of labor, and thus for mechanisms through which outsiders can be incorporated, often on the lowest rung of social hierarchies. In the Sahara as elsewhere (cf. Meillassoux 1986; Testart 1998), slaves were first and foremost strangers who could claim no prior ties with their captors or buyers; their servile status was defined by their lack of connectivity and, hence, mobility (Rossi 2009), in addition to their presumed religious shortcomings (Hall 2011). They were opposed to the stereotypical noble or saint, widely traveled or widely read, of prestigious descent, who was mobile and autonomous. Although status hierarchies were intensely local, and terms might take on very different meanings from one place to the next, certain structural oppositions run through them all, making them mutually intelligible. The classic account of such hierarchies is given by Stewart (1973) on Mauritania, who provides a description of a complex system of gradations between full slavery and “nobility,” on the one hand, and Islamic excellence, on the other, with tribute-paying free men and freedman somewhere in between. Corresponding status categories can be found among Tamacheq-speakers (Clauzel 1962), although authors more recently are especially keen to stress status ambiguities and flexibility (Villasante-de Beauvais 2000) and indicate how translations of local terms into European terms imbued with history—such as “vassals”—has often obscured more than they reveal.

More recently, former slaves have pushed their way onto the political stage, either by publicly endorsing their status and clamoring for social justice or by redefining it on an individual basis—an option that is open to many, due to the fine intermeshing of slave and free families (E. A. McDougall 2005b: 982). Alongside real continuities in status and exploitation, slavery has become a rhetorical device that can be drawn on by all participants to voice conflicting claims and that take their full meaning only in their respective political context (E. A. McDougall 2005b: 957). Something similar might have been at issue, alongside brute coercion and the need for labor, in the historical Sahara. In this respect also, it is important not to be seduced into “cross-road” thinking: in an area such as the Sahara, where most people claim to be of outside origins, slaves and their descendants are no more external to society than anybody else, and assertions of exteriority often have their roots in local presentations of slaves as archetypical “strangers.” Like kinship, slavery thus needs to be situated within broader patterns of inclusion and exclusion and within a wider context of migration, human connectivity, and the need to incorporate strangers.

The Circulation of Ideas

Human connectivity pervades all aspects of Saharan life, shaping the history of the region, conceptually as well as statistically. Few people in the area claim to be indigenous, and many if not most Saharan settlements have founding legends that link them to the arrival of holy men with known Islamic genealogies, thereby physically inscribing the local into a wider moral world (see, e.g., Bellil 1999–2000: 144 ff.). In a similar way, most people can trace their descent to figures known from Islamic history. These stories of migration tell us little about where people might have come from, but they describe an imagination of connectivity that was and still is central to internal visions of the area. Characteristically, perhaps, these imaginations do not speak of a coherent region, but of cultural extraversion: prestigious origins are situated outside the Sahara, and the Sahara offers at best a few well-known recurrent staging posts. But these imaginations are shared, as are the founding figures they refer to (Norris 1972, 1986): Aand it is perhaps in this common cultural extraversion, imagined through an idiom of human connectivity, that the Sahara can be discerned as a cultural region. Genealogies act as historical charters, linking people and place and creating a particular Saharan geography that relies on external references and imbues space with moral value; they constitute a visible sign of belonging to a wider world. This is true for the making of people as much as for the making of place: in a permanent reenactment of history, people are not merely named after illustrious ancestors, but they are made to correspond to them (see, e.g., Klute 1995).

A similar logic is at play in Islamic rituals and other social practices. Moussaoui (2002) describes a pilgrimage in the Algerian Touat, noting how local geographical features are renamed after pilgrimage sites in Mecca, and how local pilgrimages, if performed often enough, are understood to be equivalent to the hājj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Oussedik (2012) speaks of a similar transposition, of sub-Saharan junūn (spirits) to the northern Saharan Mzab. Mammeri (1984), again working in the Algerian south, situates Berber religious chants in the Gourara with regard to both a broader Berber heritage and a religious inscription into a universal spiritual tradition. Pastoral strategies in southern Mauritania are interpreted through paradigms drawn from the Prophetic hijra (move from Mecca to Medina, see Cleaveland 2002). Tadmekka, once a central trading post in what is now northern Mali, is called thus because “of all towns in the world [it] is the one that resembles Mecca the most” (al-Bakrī, in Hopkins and Levtzion 1981: 85); and the ninety-nine saints buried in Timbuktu visibly inscribe the city into the wider Islamic world. Throughout the history of the Sahara, the tombs of saints have been at the heart not only of permanent settlement, but also of regional fairs and more permanent zawāyā that have been crucial to the economic and political makeup of the region. Indeed, one might argue that in the western and central Sahara at least, zawāyā are the central organizing force of transregional trade and often also of political control. Examples of this are the southern Moroccan zawāyā described by Pascon (1984) and Gutelius (2002), and, farther east, the zawāyā set up by the Sanūsiyya in what is now southern Libya, northern Niger, and northern Chad (Triaud 1995). The movement of saints thus not only constitutes the conceptual framework of an interconnected world, but also shapes local ecologies in concrete ways.

Similar connections are established by the chains of religious transmission. The Sahara has long been a center of Islamic scholarship in its own right. The glories of Timbuktu do not need to be further rehearsed (Saad 1983), nor does the importance of western Saharan scholars more generally (Batran 2001; El Hamel 2002); the manuscript libraries of many Mauritanian oases, in particular, are by now widely known to the public, and indeed they constitute tourist attractions.5 Beyond these visible cases, much day-to-day life in the historical Sahara was conducted according to texts, religious texts held by local scholars, or written documents of trade and contracts (Lydon 2008). For many Saharans, access to the written word was of crucial importance, and considerable effort was made to make local actions accord with the universal terms of the sharī‘ah. This becomes apparent in irrigation records from the Algerian Touat (Grandguillaume 1975; Scheele 2012: 164 ff.) and in local nawāzil (legal questions and answers) collections that were often copied far and wide throughout the Sahara (Warscheid 2013). It is also seen in the importance of local institutions of learning (Hall and Stewart 2011) and in the high status that was accorded in the area to writing and scholarship more generally. Although it is thus futile to define a “Saharan Islam,” as local intellectual argument partook through travel, education, and the circulation of books in worldwide Islamic intellectual trends and practices, we can, by following manuscript traditions (such as the use of “Saharan script” [Blair 2008] or reference to Saharan Islamic textbooks), potentially map regional traditions in much the same way in which we can identify socioeconomic regions. But we certainly cannot talk about Islam as an external force or, since the sixteenth century at least, as an import to the Sahara. However, this is still often the case, both in scholarly works that focus on the “Islamicization” of the area and in contemporary news coverage, where external “Islamists” invade and take over passive desert populations. Some of this is clearly due to the sources, internal and external, that insist on the wild and ruthless nature of desert dwellers and that tend to define the Sahara as an archetypical land of missionary necessity (Touati 1993, 1996); yet, the repetition of these assertions shows clearly that we are dealing here with a structural relationship of different parts that are both firmly situated within the Islamic world. Similarly, the “cultural extraversion” noted above is inherent in the system itself rather than providing an accurate description of the flow of ideas.

Hence, accusations of “paganism” and missionary endeavors are best understood as part of regional interactions, with the apparent unevenness of Islamic conversion or, at least, good practice leading to patterns of exchange between different moral and spiritual ecologies, or internal distinctions and hierarchical orderings (Casajus 1990; Hall 2011). Seen from the inside, the Sahara remained a missionary frontier, with the barbarians always just around the corner: pastoral nomads for many sedentarists, whose livelihood was seen to be so much based on raiding and theft that it was questionable whether any lawful transactions could be concluded with them at all (Berque 1970: 1340–1342; Voguet 2006: 151); Berber- or Tubu-speaking populations hanging on to their “custom” (Layish 2006); “warrior groups” as opposed to religious scholars, and whose only path to salvation, according to the latter, was that of repentance and renouncement of all worldly goods (Bonte 2008: 307–311); non-Ibadis for Ibadis, and vice versa (Lewicki 1955); slaves who were never quite converted enough, and their sub-Saharan African “cousins” (Hall 2011); and whole linguistic groups such as the Tuareg (Murphy 1964: 1262) or the Tubu, who, although historical sources say had converted to Islam in the sixteenth century, were still described as “pagan” by their Arab neighbors in the late nineteenth century (Rohlfs 1881: 267). Today, missionary activities in the Sahara continue, most notable by the Jamā‘at al-Tablīgh everywhere, but also by Nigerians in Chad and Algerians in Mali: they are part of the religious landscapes and have been incorporated into local redefinitions of knowledge and legitimacy (Scheele 2013). Much like the coupling of free/unfree, or protector/protected, the opposition between lawful and lawless, Muslim and “pagan” informs Saharan rhetoric and patterns of social ordering, but they cannot be taken at face value or as descriptive of historical fact. Rather, the (relative) refusal to be defined as part of a wider world that they express is yet another example of the tension, noted above, between containment and extraversion, between endogamy and necessary human connectivity, that runs through Saharan societies more generally. But much of it is rhetorical, and, even here, the fact of necessary connectivity remains all-pervasive.

Conclusion: The Limits of Ecology

The attempt has been made in this article to make a case for treating the Sahara as a region, despite the obvious difficulties inherent in such an approach. The Sahara can easily be subdivided into internal regions of heightened social interaction and economic interdependence, but these tend to have fuzzy boundaries, are themselves mobile, shift according to circumstance, and overlap in a way that makes it difficult not to treat them as parts of a larger whole. Moreover, although connections beyond them might be tenuous, these internal regions are linked to each other through structural similarities and mutual recognizability; people expect the world beyond their immediate social interactions to be structured in similar ways. This structural similarity is best summed up in a shared necessity for interaction, the priority—logical and temporal—of movement over place, the importance of outside connections—real or imagined, material or spiritual—and the acknowledgment of mobility as a normal form of life. In economic terms, this is an easy argument to make, as all life in the Sahara depends on exchange. Locally, however, people privilege the movement of people over the exchange of goods; and this shift of emphasis introduces an inherent disequilibrium, an awareness of the dangers of exchange, and a tension between openness and closure that appears to be the counterpart to structural outside dependency (cf. Murphy 1967: 169). Raiding rather than trading appears as the key metaphor of social interaction (Casajus 1982: 102), while terms such as “exchange” and even “circulation” have to be used with caution. This disequilibrium is also acknowledged in intellectual and spiritual matters: all good things come from the outside, and the local is often produced through conscious reference to a wider world, mostly that of Islam. In many cases, this is achieved by branding others as perpetual pagans: this in itself is part of a rhetoric that is shared throughout the Sahara, inscribing it firmly into the Islamic world and contributing to regionwide mutual recognizability.

Scholarship on the Sahara has long been dominated by trans-Saharan paradigms. As a result, “history” in the Sahara was more often than not ascribed to movements that originated from outside it: trade and Islam are often implicitly treated as alien, and migrations into the Sahara—forced or voluntary, historical or contemporary—are understood either as exceptional or aberrant. This speaks of a tendency within Western historiography to overlook Saharan agency, consumption, and production; but it also reflects an emphasis in much internal Saharan historiography on stability over change, on external over internal inspiration. Those who wrote history in the area were closely embedded in Islamic civilization and saw themselves at the forefront of the fight against the surrounding barbarity—change in such cases was apostasy rather than agency (cf. Wink 2002: 431) and the past often an ambition to conform to external standards rather than an accurate account of what had happened. This has given environmental factors a peculiar visibility and a particular role: where elsewhere, an undue reliance on ecology postulates too much stability for historians’ tastes, in the Sahara, it is through ecology that change is often most easily conceptualized (see, e.g., Webb 1995). If ecology is going to maintain this positive role in Saharan history, it has to go beyond commonsense notions of lack of surface water and the cultivation of date palms, or narratives of “desertification,” and develop along the lines suggested by Horden and Purcell (2000) for Mediterranean studies: the Sahara is of great ecological variety leading to complex regional interactions, many of which are still waiting to be described. More importantly, people will have to be written back into Saharan history, through the bias of human ecology or otherwise, with all their ingenuity, cosmopolitanism, and internal and external connectivity. Similarly, the relations of Saharan economies and societies with those next to them, too easily seen as one of mere dependency with regard to the north and rapine with regard to the south, need to be thoroughly investigated not only to undermine (or confirm, as it might be) notions of structural extraversion, but also to bring into focus the impact of Saharan connectivity on the region’s neighbors—and, in particular, on its overbearing older cousin, the Mediterranean.

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(1) This “isolation” is, in any case, largely a myth: see, e.g., Cooper 1981, Bayart 2000.

(2) The Arabic term saharā used to be reserved to truly deserted patches within the Sahara, and it was part of a much broader and detailed conceptual vocabulary. Today it is often used to refer to the region as a whole, especially when speaking of “people of the Sahara,” but this seems to be largely a recent development and a reaction to external categorization.

(3) A zāwiya (pl. zawāyā) is a religious stronghold, school, and pilgrimage site funded by endowments and donations. It is mostlyconstructed around the tomb of a founding saint and managed by his descendants or followers. In many but not all cases, zawāyā are affiliated to Sufi orders. In the Sahara, much emphasis is put on their functions as hostels, safe storehouses, and regular or seasonal markets. Larger zawāyā, such as Ilīgh, acted also as financial institutions, extending loans to traders, leasing land to sharecroppers, and organizing and funding caravans.

(4) Even in less arid surroundings, “pastoral autarchy” is mostly an illusion: see Khazanov 1984.

(5) On Saharan book trade and manuscript libraries, see Gaudio 2002; Bouterfa 2005; Jeppie and Diagne 2008; and Krätli and Lydon 2011.