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Saharan Frontiers

Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa

Edited by James McDougall and Judith Scheele

Publication Year: 2012

The Sahara has long been portrayed as a barrier that divides the Mediterranean world from Africa proper and isolates the countries of the Maghrib from their southern and eastern neighbors. Rather than viewing the desert as an isolating barrier, this volume takes up historian Fernand Braudel's description of the Sahara as "the second face of the Mediterranean." The essays recast the history of the region with the Sahara at its center, uncovering a story of densely interdependent networks that span the desert's vast expanse. They explore the relationship between the desert's "islands" and "shores" and the connections and commonalities that unite the region. Contributors draw on extensive ethnographic and historical research to address topics such as trade and migration; local notions of place, territoriality, and movement; Saharan cities; and the links among ecological, regional, and world-historical approaches to understanding the Sahara.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

This book developed from a series of conversations between the editors over several years, arising from a convergence of interests between our separate projects on the history and anthropology of northwest Africa, and more particularly from a three-day, international, multidisciplinary conference...

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Note on Spelling and Transliteration

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pp. ix

For the sake of clarity, words in Berber, Arabic, or other West African languages have been transliterated according to the simplest available method in each case. For Arabic, we have adopted a simplified transliteration showing long vowels with a macron (awlād) and indicating the...

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Introduction: Time and Space in the Sahara

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pp. 1-21

In the early nineteenth century, when the young Tennyson submitted his poem “Timbuctoo” to a poetry competition launched by the chancellor of Cambridge University, attempts to reach the fabled city of gold in the heart of the Sahara had become a vivid expression of the rivalry between France and...


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1. Situations Both Alike? Connectivity, the Mediterranean, the Sahara

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pp. 25-38

The attraction of comparing the Mediterranean and the Sahara derives of course not only from the applicability of nautical similes (camels as ships of the desert, oases as islands) but from the proximity of the two regions. Along with Northern Europe, the Middle East, and, from early modern times...

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2. On Being Saharan

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pp. 39-57

The introduction to this volume began with a brief rehearsal of Euro-American stereotypes about the Sahara, with a nod to their North and West African counterparts. My focus will be on notions of the Sahara that, albeit perhaps not any more “real” than those described and criticized there, are internal rather than...

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3. Saharan Trade in Classical Antiquity

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pp. 58-72

In classical antiquity, the Sahara (whether called deserta or solitudines Africae in Latin, or eremoi in Greek; Desanges 1999a: 239) was constructed by Greek and Roman writers alike as a place of distinctive otherness. Exotic, empty, wild, or peopled by bizarre creatures, it served to represent the...

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4. Frontiers, Borderlands, and Saharan/World History

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pp. 73-90

It would not be much of an exaggeration, and may even be a commonplace, to say that the question of how best to assess northwest Africa’s place within the wider world and its history has engaged travelers, writers, and scholars since Herodotus. For the great Greek compiler of eyewitness veracity and...


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5. The Rites of Baba Merzug: Diaspora, Ibadism, and Social Status in the Valley of the Mzab

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pp. 93-108

It is well known that for centuries, oft en intense patterns of exchange—of goods, ideas, architectural forms, beliefs—have developed in and across the Sahara. People and goods have moved through trade, but also through the dynamics of conquest, pilgrimage, and religious education. Like the...

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6. Celebrating Mawlid in Timimoun: Ritual as Words in Motion, Space as Time Stood Still

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pp. 109-130

At Ouled Saïd, the whole oasis awaits the arrival of the procession. The standard of Sidi al-Hājj Bu M’hammad appears over the dunes just as the sun begins to set, enflaming the horizon red and ochre. Men, women, and children, scattered across the ridges of the dunes that border the oasis and...

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7. Villages and Crossroads: Changing Territorialities among the Tuareg of Northern Mali

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pp. 131-145

Let us begin with a historical observation: at the end of the nineteenth century, territorial control as exerted by the various dominant Tuareg groups in the area of what is today the north of the Republic of Mali was flexible, based on alliances with, and control over, people...

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8. Ethnicity and Interdependence: Moors and Haalpulaaren in the Senegal Valley

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pp. 146-161

The history of the relationship between Moorish and Haalpulaar societies has mainly been described in terms of their opposition, understood especially through their competition over the control of resources in the Senegal valley. Adopting a different perspective, the aim...


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9. Mauritania and the New Frontier of Europe: From Transit to Residence

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pp. 165-184

In September 2007, Mauritanians watched, not without surprise, as the first Moroccan semi-trailer trucks, brand new and loaded with perishable goods, came down the new road between Nouadhibou and Nouakchott. One month later, a local newspaper reported...

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10. Living Together and Living Apart in Nouakchott

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pp. 185-199

As a result of long-standing habits of mobility throughout West Africa, but also, and especially since 2006, due to EU policies aiming to stop African migration to Europe, the number of West African migrants who live on a more or less temporary basis in Mauritania is...

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11. Cultural Interaction and the Artisanal Economy in Tamanrasset

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pp. 200-211

This chapter investigates cultural interactions between the Sahara and its Sahelian borderlands, based on an analysis of skills and techniques shared by craftsmen who supply the markets of Tamanrasset and, to a lesser degree, Djanet and Illizi. Since the 1970s, these...


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12. Notes on the Informal Economy in Southern Morocco

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pp. 215-221

Contraband activity is a typical feature of frontier zones in developing countries as elsewhere but particularly where the frontier itself is relatively unstable. Where borders are closed, contraband networks provide the only means of organizing commercial exchange...

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13. Garage or Caravanserail: Saharan Connectivity in Al-Khalīl, Northern Mali

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pp. 222-237

Al-Khalīl is a trading town in the northern Malian desert near the Algerian border that, as its inhabitants like to stress, is marked on no map, but is known to all. Its location makes it a haven for smugglers and traders of all kinds, and it has therefore come to...

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14. Movements of People and Goods: Local Impacts and Dynamics of Migration to and through the Central Sahara

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pp. 238-256

The central Sahara, an area long characterized by mobility, has experienced large-scale migration since the beginning of the 1990s. Despite the many obstacles to movement in this region—effects of the malfunctioning government of Niger, general...


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pp. 257-258


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pp. 259-281

List of Contributors

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pp. 283-284


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pp. 285-291

Further Reading

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pp. 293

E-ISBN-13: 9780253001313
E-ISBN-10: 0253001315
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253001245

Page Count: 306
Illustrations: 10 maps
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Africa, North -- Relations -- Africa, West.
  • Sahara -- Ethnic relations.
  • Trade routes -- Sahara.
  • Sahara -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Africans -- Sahara -- Migrations.
  • Africa, West -- Relations -- Africa, North.
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