The Festival au Desert in Essakane is originally a Tuareg festival where several clans from the region meet each other. At the 9th festival in 2009 also the Tuareg clans gathered and many came with their camels. I could still feel the spirit of the proud 'the masters of the desert', looking at the Tuareg men sitting on their camels with colourful saddles, bags and ornaments.
The Tuareg nomads, well known as the 'masters of the desert', have protected -or raided- the camel caravans crossing the Sahara desert for many centuries. Sometimes they also took control of Timbuktu in case of political absence of overlords.
The Tuareg nomads call themselves 'Kel Tamasheq', meaning 'those who speak the Tamasheq language'. The name 'Tuareg' is used by outsiders. Traditionally the Tuareg raised cattle like camels and goats and provided security to the huge trading caravans crossing the desert. Traditionally the Tuareg society knew the warriors and artisans as most known groups, but they had also scholars and Bella slaves.
Since the long distance trade through the Sahara almost stopped, since the severe droughts and the official abolition of slavery, the lives of the Tuareg changed a lot.
Tuareg men veil traditionally their face (picture 1, 2 & 3). Their veil is called tagelmust. It is a good protection against the harsh desert sands, but it is also meant to give protection against evil spirits. Most of the Tuareg men wear indigo robes and turbans. A Tuareg man from Timia in Niger told me once because the indigo keeps the scorpions and snakes away when you spend the night in the desert. The indigo of their robes and turbans colours their skin blue. So the Tuareg people are called often the blue people.
Unlike some Muslim communities the Tuareg women are not veiled. I am used to the fact that the Tuareg men are veiled after my visits to the south of Libya and Algeria. Back home I found out that people were surprised at the moment I showed the pictures. That's why I decided to make this local custom tip. Many of the veiled Tuareg men (picture 1, 2 & 4) at the festival liked it to pose to be photographed. Some of them posed even a little been unveiled (picture 3 & 5), though not as unveiled they have to be for the ID-picture for their formal passport.
At the festival in Essakane I was invited by Mohamed Alher to drink tea with him. So I did several times. He told me he is an artisan, who repairs old manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu. When I was back home it was a big surprise that I found two huge full colour pictures of him in the book 'The hidden treasures of Timbuktu', which I bought one month before I came to Timbuktu.
When you are invited to drink tea with Tuareg friends, take your time. The tea is made in a small teapot. After the water is cooked the tea is added. After the tea cooks again a lot of sugar is added. The tea is poured in the small glasses from high (picture 1). First the tea is poured back in the teapot several times (picture 2) before it is ready to drink.
The first glass of tea is called the tea of death (thé du mort). This one is very strong. The bitterness brings almost tears in your eyes. Drinking tea is like ceremony. Alltogether you drink three glasses of tea. The second tea is made in the same teapot with the same tea, but with new water. This second tea, the tea of life (thé de la vie) tastes a lot sweeter. For the third and last tea there is the same process: same tea in the same teapot, with new water. This last tea is really lovely and sweet. It is the tea of love ( thé de l'amour).