The life of a Tuareg Artisan

In the old days, the Touareg artisan blacksmith (enad sing., inedan pl.) lived towards the bottom of the social heap. His status wasn’t quite as lowly as that of the slaves (iklan) or even freed slaves (iderfan).   But there’s no doubt that he was subservient to the warrior nobility (imajeren), the tribute paying vassals (imrhad) and the marabouts and judges (ineslemen).   There’s an old Mauritanian proverb which says that the artisan must always be tah-ktab or tah-erkab, either under the power of the ‘book’, in other words, the holy man and his Qur’an, or under the ‘shield’, in other words, the noble warrior.  Nevertheless, like most social relationships in this ancient feudal world, the artisan was tied to his superiors and inferiors by bonds of reciprocity that made each class indispensible to the survival of the whole.  It was a supple system of give and take that gave society its unity, its strength and sinew.

The artisan made almost everything that was necessary for daily life and survival in the desert; tents, bags, saddles, swords, pottery, padlocks, keys, shields, lances, beds, musical instruments and, of course, jewellery.   But his usefulness extended beyond that of a craftsman, a maker of objects.   In fact, if you list every role ever attributed to the artisan class, you end up with an extraordinary array of trades and skills; jeweller, saddle-maker, leather-worker, carpenter, sword-maker, cobbler, potter, bead-maker, tanner, mat maker, teacher, historian, musician, nuptial negotiator or matchmaker, wedding organiser, midwife, messenger, diplomat, adviser, general repairman, knife-sharpener, circumciser, cattle-brander, hairdresser, surgeon, dentist, doctor, vet, apothecary…even magician!

Of course, no single artisan ever performed all these roles.   To begin with, some of them were reserved for female artisans or tinedan, notably tent making, leatherworking and bead making.    And there was also a hierarchy of activity within the artisan class itself.   Jewellers were considered to be the masters, below them came the potters, then the woodworkers and so on.   But it was not uncommon for a master jeweller to also be called on to fix a broken sword or saddle, pull a tooth, circumcise a young boy, take part in the negotiation of a wedding between the offspring of two noble families, or play music and recite epic poetry at some grand feast or event.\

The most important characteristic of the artisans is that they belong to a hereditary ‘closed’ caste.  You are born an artisan, you cannot become one.  Your career choices are limited, albeit within the extraordinarily wide range of traditional artisan activity.  Boys usually start their apprenticeship at around the age of seven, working the bellows while their fathers, uncles and elder brothers melt down and fashion the medial, tidying up around the workshop, making tea.  After a few years the apprentice might be allowed to finish off a cross or a bangle, or make a very simple ring or earring.   Gradually, after about fifteen years gradually ascending the hierarchy of skills he becomes a master artisan.

The artisans even had their own special language called Ténet.   Nicolaisen concludes that Ténet is an invented language, like cockney rhyming-slang or Parisian verlan (backslang), which gave the artisans the means to communicate secretly in the presence of non-artisans, thus increasing their chances of boosting business and surviving.   Most of the time the artisans spoke Tamashek, even when amongst their own family.  Ténet seems to have been only an supplementary form of linguistic ‘armour’.   Strangely, Gabus makes no mention of Ténet at all, stating merely that the artisans generally spoke too much, with lax manners of speech and a smaller vocabulary than the nobles.

In traditional society there were both nomadic and sedentary artisans.   The nomadic artisan would live in the camp of a noble, vassal or marabout, travelling with them from pasture to pasture which his own family.   They would make a huge number of goods and provide other services to their lord in return for protection, food, millet, milk, sugar, tea and clothing.  He would also work for inhabitants of other camps in the vicinity, always in exchange for food and goods rather than money.  His collection of tools was perforce small and easily portable from place to place.   Gabus lists the usual barter price for different jewels, according to an artisan from the Hoggar region of southern Algeria:


A tchérot amulet pendant = 1 young camel

Two rings = one kid goat

A small padlock = one goat

A large padlock = two goats

A dagine style bracelet = two goats

A veil weight / padlock key = one goat


It is said that the nomadic artisans were generally less skilled, and their work was more basic and primitive than that of their sedentary counterparts, who lived in houses in towns like Boutilimit, Oualata, Timbuktu, Agadez, In-Gall and Tahoua.  These Sahelian ‘ports’ were linked by trade routes to the sophisticated urban centres of North Africa, the Middle East and even Europe.   New ideas, complex skills, tools, metals and other raw materials travelled with the caravans into the deepest Sahara via these trade routes and enriched the repertoire of the sedentary artisans.  Out in the bush, the nomadic artisans lived a remoter and more isolated existence, and therefore found it harder to benefit from imported ways.


The origins and character of the artisan blacksmith; The artisans themselves have their own set of poetic origin myths.   They claim that their tools, especially their hammer, tongs and anvil were handed down to them by Father Adam and the Prophet David or Sidna Daouda taught them the dark art of iron smelting, and other less problematic skills like stone-cutting, moulding and engraving.

Other non-artisan members of desert society recount less charitable legends about the origins of the Kel Inedan.   The great Jean Gabus was told the story that one day the Prophet Mohammed was bathing, and some children happened to see him.   One of them mocked the Prophet and that wayward youth was the ancestor of the artisans.   Another story he heard tells how the angel Gabriel asked Eve to show him her children so that they could be blessed.   Eve dutifully brought out all her offspring except one, whom she hid away from the angel’s beatific gaze.   That child was the ancestor of all artisans.   In Mauretania, Gabus was also informed that the artisans took lessons in magic from the Ehel Belhamar or ‘People of the Devil’ so that they could protect themselves from the evil influence of the metals with which they were obliged to work.

 Academics have searched for metaphorical truth in these myths and legends and some have come to the conclusion that the figure of Saint David proves the theory that the artisans are descended from Jewish jewellers from the Souss and Drâa valleys in the southern Atlas mountains or the Touat and M’zab regions north of Tamanrasset, all of which did have sizeable Jewish populations in the middle ages.    It seems almost certain that some desert clans or tribes do have Jewish origins, notably the Kel Gress and the Daoussak (‘Sons of Issac’), and it must also be remembered that the whole of North Africa has ancient roots in Jewish culture, thanks to the Phoenicians and later cultures from the Levant who colonized most of the Mediterranean littoral before and during the days of the Roman empire.


Artisan at Assoc. Assaghan; However, the theory that all Touareg artisans are descended from Jews who came down from the north is tenuous.   What is most striking about many Inedan is their Negroid appearance, or rather, their completely distinct physiognomy, in which Negroid traces are often very clear.   A Touareg can identify an artisan merely from his facial features, even if he comes from a region thousands of miles away across the desert.   This has lead to speculation that the Inedan are descended from an ancient black race who lived in the desert before the Berber tribes of the north came south and who were subsequently subdued and forced to work for their new ‘whiter’ overlords.

At times the assertion that the craftsmen who make such beautiful and sophisticated jewellery could only be descended from Jews or maybe Arab jewellers who came to the desert from Cairo and Baghdad in the early middle ages, smacks of mild racism and a reprehensible disbelief that such artistry can have its roots in black Africa itself.   But if you consider the extremely sophisticated societies that existed in sub-Saharan West Africa, from the end of the Roman Empire right through to the 17th century, such as the Ghana, Mali and Songhai Empires, all famously rich in gold, as well as the extraordinary bronzes that were produced over 900 years ago in the Yoruban city of Ifé, in modern day Benin, using precisely the same lost wax technique that the Touareg artisans employ to make their famous crosses, then it seems perfectly possible that the source of the artisan’s craft lies to the south, rather than to the north.

 Helen Hagan champions yet another origin theory, which holds that the Inedan’s ancestors came from the Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia in the east, that they had a red ochreish skin colour and that they were conquered by the fairer-skinned imajeren.   It’s true that some Touareg bear a striking resemblance to native Americans, and that they are often referred to by their southern black neighbours as les peaux rouges, ‘the redskins’, but once again this theory is tenuous.

The fact is that all artisan origin theories are tenuous, and will probably remain so until same serious DNA ancestry-tracing work is done in the region.  Despite the ‘closed’ endogamous nature of the artisan clan, I prefer to believe that a variety of different racial and cultural traits are bundled together in the modern-day Inedan.   No doubt the skill and knowledge of Jewish jewellers from the Anti-Atlas and the Algerian plateaux did filter further south gradually over the centuries, no doubt grandees who travelled to the Sahara from Cairo, Jerusalem and Baghdad brought their own artisans with them, no doubt Berber craftsmen from the North travelled south in baggage trains of successive military conquerors, no doubt there were already considerable metal working skills amongst the black peoples of the Niger Rivers and since the Peulh or Fulani people who populate the whole of West Africa almost certainly came originally from what is now The Sudan and Ethiopia, there was probably a major influence from that region as well.   What we probably have in the Touareg artisan of today is a mongrel racial and cultural mixture that has been created over centuries of Saharan interchange or brassage, as the French say.

Some further clues about the origins of the Kel Inedan can be wrung from the attitudes of Touareg society towards the artisan caste.  Disdainful, mistrustful, fearful and mildly racist, these attitudes are a remarkable echo of baser cultural prejudices in our own society, especially towards Jews, Gypsies, immigrants and manual labourers.   The litany of derogation that appears in the academic studies makes for potent reading.   In the eyes of decent Touareg society, the artisans are crafty, mischievous, lazy, greedy, indiscreet, loose-tongued, ill mannered, badly dressed, duplicitous, untrustworthy, stupid, in league with evil spirits and tangled up with dark magic.

I remember chatting with some Touareg friends about a common acquaintance of ours who had apparently embezzled a small sum of money.   “What do you expect,” one of my friends said without the slightest shadow of shame or embarrassment.  “He’s a fourgeron (a blacksmith)!”  The man whose reputation was thus being sullied came from the artisan caste, but wasn’t in fact involved in any of the traditional artisan activities.   He was a driver, car-mechanic and odd-jobber.   My friend flung this mild insult his way with no malice or rancour, and the artisan was back amongst us laughing and joking that very same evening.   A subtext of the insult was that our artisan friend just couldn’t help who he was!   It’s just the way he was born, and there was nothing that anyone, least of all the artisans themselves, could do about it.  But it didn’t mean that the artisan was to be ostracized or rejected in any way.

Kate Morgan