Tamanrasset: far from Algiers

For long, when speaking of this Algerian city I knew only by name, I pronounced it “Tamanrasset.” But when I went there for the first time, Boubekeur — I will tell you more about him later — explained to me that the correct pronunciation was “Tamenghast,” a word which represents a kind of sand embankment, be it natural or artificial.

I would find that this city held many surprises for me. In Tamenghast, when women there walk, their bodies are straight. Their posture is imposing, their gaze hard. The younger women, however, seem to flounce about; walking almost like in a dance. In their traditional outfits, the famous tissegh’ness allow glimpses of beautiful black henna tattoos to be seen. The beauty of the south mesmerises me.

I called out to one of these women. At first, she was bothered by the presence of the man who was with me, but he soon left and the two of us began to speak. I talked to her in Arabic, but she did not answer me back in Arabic. She spoke Tuareg, the language of the Tuareg people, and French, which she perfectly mastered. After a bit of conversation, this young girl that I had known only for a few minutes gave me her name and her phone number so that I could get a tattoo like hers. With this, she left with her friends.

The festival

My stay coincided with the third annual Ahaggar festival, when concerts were organised all over the city’s main square. The organisers had told me that the biggest names among Tuareg musicians would be there, coming from Mauritania, Niger and Mali. I immediately thought of Tinariwen, but instead it was other groups that completely captivated me: Tuareg rock and blues singers such as Bombino, or the diva Malouma. The sound of Bombino’s electric guitar mixed beautifully with the traditional Tuareg tunes. The Mauritanian singer Malouma’s Arabic lyrics bewitched the entire audience, which consisted largely of local townspeople and some backpackers from Algiers. The few foreign tourists in the crowd were easily identifiable.

Market vendors come to this festival from all over Algeria and the neighbouring countries. They sell very few Algerian products, instead it is henna made in India or medications from Mali that is being sold. Others sell coconuts and sugar cane. Or fabric and bijoux: the local Tamenghast people are specialists in traditional clothing and jewels. Foreigners, be they from Mali or Niger, sell counterfeit mobile phones at unbeatable prices: 4000-9000 Algerian dinars ($37-$84) for the latest iPhones. Women rush to buy cheap jewellery: things like gold plated bracelets and necklaces are very fashionable.

After several days in Tamenghast, I started feeling like a stranger in my own country. I decided to set aside my “tourist attitude,” and contact became much easier. I spoke to two young people, both under the age of 30, whom I met during the festival. According to them, Tamenghast bears little relevance for people in Algeria’s north. “Except for the folk festivals that take place every year, nothing happens here. I dare you Northerners to come and live here! We’re proud of our culture and of our region, but there’s no hope for the future in this region.”

In the desert city, which is about 1,900 km from the Algiers coast, unemployment hits young people hard. Basic infrastructure including hospitals are missing, and places of leisure are almost nonexistent. “We don’t feel very Algerian,” my newfound friends finally admitted. Yet, they do not realise how much this feeling of hogra (an Algerian word which roughly translates “contempt”) and neglect — something they think they are the only ones to feel — is shared by other Algerians too.

The retreat

The next day it was agreed that we would go to the Askrem where the retreat of Charles de Foucault is situated at an altitude of 2,700 metres. Boubekeur, our Touareg guide who appeared to be about 50 years old, knew the itinerary well. The Askrem is only 80 km from Tamenghast, about the same as trip to Alger and Blida, which is are located outside the capital. It took us five hours of on rocky, unending mountain trails to get there, but we passed by some breathtaking sights.

During the trip, we saw only little reconstruction of the many roads that had been devastated by flooding. Boubekeur explained that it is the soudes, which is understood to mean black people, who do this difficult task. When I thought about it again, I realised that the people in the Tamenghast market selling exotic fruits, junk jewellery and tea were always black (often from neighbouring countries), and never Touaregs.

When we arrived at the inn, we had only one hour before the sun would go down, so we went ahead with the hike to the retreat immediately. One Polish and one Spanish monk kept watch over the place; the two of them had lived there for five years. Their main task was to welcome visitors and to take care of the retreat and all its de Foucault books.

There was especially one piece of work that captured my interest: a Tuareg-French dictionary which de Foucault began to write together with the Tuaregs as soon as he arrived in Tamenghast. The dictionary paid an impressive attention to detail: each word in Tuareg was rewritten phonetically with Latin letters and the French definition just next to it. The two monks were happy to greet us, and informed us that only two years ago, there were lots of visitors in the region. Today, tourists were discouraged from coming by security issues along Algeria’s borders.

The time had come to make a camp and admire the sun, which began to set over the Tahat, Algeria’s highest point. In an almost divine silence, the bright colours of the day started to dissolve in the darkness of the night.

Translated to English by Adam Dexter.

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