AskDefine | Define Tuareg

Dictionary Definition



1 a member of a nomadic Berber people of the Sahara
2 the dialect of Berber spoken by the Tuareg people

Extensive Definition

The Tuareg (also Twareg or Touareg, Amazigh: Imuhagh / Itargiyen , besides their own) are a nomadic pastoralist people, and are the principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa. They call themselves variously Kel Tamasheq or Kel Tamajaq ("Speakers of Tamasheq"), Imuhagh, Imazaghan or Imashaghen ("the Free people"), or Kel Tagelmust, i.e., "People of the Veil". The name Tuareg was applied to them by early explorers and historians (since Leo Africanus).
The origin and meaning of the name Twareg has long been debated with various etymologies advanced, although it would appear that Twārəg is derived from the "broken plural" of Tārgi, a name whose former meaning was "inhabitant of Targa" (the Tuareg name of the Libyan region commonly known as Fezzan. Targa in Berber means "(drainage) channel", see Alojali et al. 2003: 656, s.v. "Targa").
The Tuareg today are found mostly in West Africa, but, like many in Northern Africa, were once nomads throughout the Sahara. They have a little-used but ancient script known as the tifinaɤ.


Descended from Berbers in the region that is now Libya, the Tuareg are descendants of ancient Saharan peoples described by Herodotus, who mentions the ancient Libyan people, the Garamantes. Archaeological testimony is the ruins of Germa. Later, they expanded southward, into the Sahel.
For over two millennia, the Tuareg operated the trans-Saharan caravan trade connecting the great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara via five desert trade routes to the northern (Mediterranean) coast of Africa. the Tuareg were subdued and required to sign treaties in Mali 1905 and Niger 1917. In southern Algeria, the French met some of the strongest resistance from the Ahaggar Tuareg. Their Amenokal, traditional chief Moussa ag Amastan, fought numerous battles in defense of the region. Finally, Tuareg territories were taken under French governance and their confederations were largely dismantled and reorganized.
Before French colonization, the Tuareg were organized into loose confederations, each consisting of a dozen or so tribes. Each of the main groups had a traditional leader called Amenokal along with an assembly of tribal chiefs (imɤaran, singular amɤar). The groups were the Kel Ahaggar, Kel Ajjer, Kel Ayr, Adrar n Fughas, Iwəlləmədan, and Kel Gres.
Following the independence of African countries in 1960s, Tuareg territory was artificially divided into modern nations: Niger,Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso.
Long-standing competition for resources in the Sahel has impacted Tuareg conflicts with neighboring African groups, especially after political disruption and economic constraints following French colonization and independence, tight restrictions placed on nomadization, high population growth, and desertification exacerbated by global warming and the increased firewood needs of growing cities. Today, some Tuareg are experimenting with farming; some have been forced to abandon herding, and seek jobs in towns and cities.
In Mali, a Tuareg uprising resurfaced in the Adrar N'Fughas mountains in the 1960s, following Mali's independence. In May 1990, in the aftermath of a clash between government soldiers and Tuareg outside a prison in Tchin-Tabaraden, Niger, Tuaregs in both Mali and Niger claimed autonomy for their traditional homeland: (Tenere, capital Agadez, in Niger and the Azawad and Kidal regions of Mali). Deadly clashes between Tuareg fighters and the military of both countries followed, with deaths numbering well into the thousands. Negotiations initiated by France and Algeria led to peace agreements (January 11, 1992 in Mali and 1995 in Niger). Both agreements called for decentralization of national power and guaranteed the integration of Tuareg resistance fighters into the countries' respective national armies.
Major fighting between the Tuareg resistance and government security forces ended after the 1995 and 1996 agreements, but in 2004, sporadic fighting continued in Niger between government forces and groups struggling to obtain Tuareg independence. In 2007, a new surge in violence occurred.

Traditional social stratification

Traditionally, Tuareg society is hierarchal, with nobility and vasals. Each Tuareg clan (tawshet) is made up of several family groups, led by their collective chiefs, the amghar. A series of tribes tawsheten may bond together under an Amenokal, forming a Kel clan confederation. Tuareg self identify only as being of their specific Kel which means "those of". E.g. Kel Dinnig (those of the east), Kel Ataram (those of the west).


The work of pastoralism was specialized according to social class. Tels are ruled by the imúšaɤ (Imajaghan, The Proud and Free) nobility, warrior-aristocrats who organized group defense, livestock raids, and the long-distance caravan trade. Below them were a number of specialised metier castes. The ímɤad (Imghad, sing. Amghid), the second rank of Tuareg society, were free vassal-herdsmen and warriors, who pastured and tended most of the confederation's livestock. Formerly bonded vassals of specific Imajaghan, they are said by tradition to be decended from nobility in the distant past, and thus maintain a degree of social distance from lower orders. Traditionally, some merchant castes had a higher status than all but the nobility among their more settled compatriots to the south. With time, the difference between the two castes has eroded in some places, following the economic fortunes of the two groups. Imajaghan have traditionally disdained certain types of labor and prided themselves in their warrior skills. The existence of lower servile and semi servile classes has allowed for the development of highly ritualised poetic, sport, and courtship traditions. Following colonial subjection, independence, and the famines of the 1970s and 1980s, noble classes have more and more been forced to abandon their caste differences and have taken on labor and lifestyles they might traditionally have rejected.

Client castes

After the adoption of Islam, a separate class of religious clerics, the Ineslemen marabouts, also became integral to Tuareg social structure. Following the decimation of many clans' noble Imajaghan caste in the colonial wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ineslemen gained leadership in some clans, despite their often servile origins. Traditionally Ineslemen clans had been unarmed, providing spiritual guidance for the nobility, and receiving protection and alms in return.
Inhædˤæn (Inadan), were a blacksmith-client caste who fabricated and repaired the saddles, tools, household equipment and other material needs of the community. In most communities the Inadin were freedmen drawn from the servile éklan caste and considered outside the Tel, and thus outside Tuareg society proper.

Bonded castes and slaves

As did many other ethnic groups in West Africa, the Tuareg once held slaves (éklan / Ikelan in Tamasheq, Bouzou in Hausa, Bella in Songhai). Tuareg skin color in general is considerably darker than most Mediterranean Berbers, and lighter, in general, than sub-Saharan populations. The Tuareg refer to themselves as "red-skinned," like most other Saharan peoples including the Maures, Tubu, and Amhara. Slaves were taken as prisoners of war as the Tuareg moved south beginning in the 11th century AD, and many slaves may have originated among Songhay, Djerma and Hausa communities, groups that also held slaves. These éklan once formed a distinct social class in Tuareg society. Slaves lived near their owners as domestic servants and herders, and functioned as part of the family, with close social interactions. Some Tuareg noble and vassal men married slaves, and their children became freemen. In this sense, éklan formed distinct sub-communities: a class held in an inherited serfdom like condition, common in pre-colonial West Africa. French colonial governments passed legislation to abolish slavery but did not enforce it; this was more in the interest of dismantling the traditional Tuareg political economy, which depended on slave labor for herding, as well as "pacification" of the fiercely resistant Tuareg, than a blanket liberation of slaves. While post independence states have sought to outlaw slavery, results have been mixed, and old caste relationships remain in many places. According to the Travel Channel show Bob Geldof in Africa, the descendants of those slaves (known as the Bella) are still slaves in all but name. In Niger, where the practice of slavery was outlawed in 2003, a study found that almost 8% of the population are still slaves.

Tuareg territory

The Tuareg people inhabit a large area covering almost all the middle and western Sahara and the north-central Sahel. In Tuareg terms, the Sahara is not one desert but many, so they call it Tinariwen ("the Deserts"). Among the many deserts in Africa there is the true desert Tenere. Then we can cite numerous deserts more and less arid, flat and mountainous: Adrar, Tagant, Tawat (Touat) Tanezruft, Adghagh n Fughas, Tamasna, Azawagh, Adar, Damargu, Tagama, Manga, Ayr, Tarramit (Termit), Kawar, Djado, Tadmait, Admer, Igharghar, Ahaggar, Tassili N'Ajjer, Tadrart, Idhan, Tanghart, Fezzan, Tibesti, Kalansho, Libyan Desert, etc.

Tuareg confederations, political centers, and leaders

At the turn of the 19th century the Tuareg country was organized into confederations, each ruled by a supreme Chief (Amenokal), along with a counsel of senior tribes people elected to assist the chief.
  • Kel Ajjer or Azjar, center Aghat (Ghat).
  • Kel Ahaggar, in Ahaggar mountains
  • Kel Adagh, or Kel Assuk, Kidal, and Tin Buktu
  • Iwillimmidan Kel Ataram, Manaka, and Azawagh region
  • Iwillimmidan Kel Denneg, In Tibaraden, Abalagh, Teliya Azawagh.
  • Kel Gres, Zinder and Tanut (Tanout).
  • Kel Ayr, Asode, Agadez, In Gal, Timia and Ifrwan.
The most famous Tuareg leader was a woman, Tin Hinan, heroine and spiritual leader, who founded a legendary kingdom in the Ahaggar mountains. Other confederation leaders followed under the title of Amenokal (Chief), of whom the most famous include:
  • Karidanna, of the Iwillimmidan
  • Waisimudan, of Iwillimidan
  • Aljilani Ag Ibrahim, of Iwillimidan
  • Busari Ag Akhmad, of Iwillimidan
  • Musa Ag Amastan, of Kel Ahaggar
  • Ibrahim Ag Abakkada, of Kel Azjar
  • Amud, of Kel Azjar
  • Makhammad Ag Katami, of Iwillimmidan
  • Balkhu, of Kel Ayr
  • Wan Agoda, of Kel Faday (Kel Ayr)
  • Ahitaghal, of Kel Ahaggar
  • Akhanokhan, of Kel Azjar
  • Khadakhada, of Iwillimidan
  • Alkhurer, of Iwillimidan
  • Bazu, Iwillimidan
  • Makhammad Wan Ag Alkhurer Iwillimidan
  • Abdurrakhman Tagama, of Kel Ayr
  • Hammed Almomin Iwillimidan
  • Fihrun Ag Amansar, of Iwillimidan
  • Atisi Ag Amellal of Kel Ahaggar
  • Akhamok Ag Ihemma of Kel Ahaggar
  • Bay Ag Akhamok of Kel Ahaggar
  • Khamzata Ag Makhammad, of Iwillimidan
  • Edaber Ag Makhammad the new Amenokal of Kel Ahaggar


The Tuareg are matrilineal, though not matriarchal. Unlike many Muslim societies, women do not traditionally wear the veil, whereas men do. The most famous Tuareg symbol is the Tagelmust(also called éghéwed in Malian Tamasheq, or referred to as a Cheche, pronounced: Shesh from Berber), an often blue indigo coloured veil called Alasho. The men's facial covering originates from the belief that such action wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well; in any event, it is a firmly established tradition (as is the wearing of amulets containing verses from the Qur'an). Men begin wearing a veil when they reach maturity which usually conceals their entire face excluding their eyes and the top of the nose.
Tuareg people have a very personal wedding, there's an unspoken law about other people not interfering with marriage. The only tradition they know is a 'quarantine' period after one's husband's/wife's death. The widow is supposed to make something whereby her husband should be remembered during this period, and she's not to see other men. Men usually have to cleanse themselves physically and mentally. Nor was there a common punishment for women or men who were unfaithful Although Tuareg aren't supposed to have more than one lifepartner (a relationship is practically equal to an engagement and once you're a couple you're expected to get married) it is highly unusual for them to stay single. When a partner passes away, they are expected to get married again (when the quarantine is finished). If there are no potential partners or the widow or widower is too old to get married there are exceptions.
Many Tuareg today are either settled agriculturalists or nomadic cattle breeders; though there are also blacksmiths and caravan leaders.
The Tuareg are sometimes called the "Blue People" because the indigo pigment in the cloth of their traditional robes and turbans stained the wearer's skin dark blue. Today, the traditional indigo turban is still preferred for celebrations, and generally Tuaregs wear clothing and turbans in a variety of colors.


The Tuareg speak Tamajaq/Tamasheq/Tamahaq, a southern Berber language having several dialects among the different regions. The Berber dialects spoken in the Rif (Tamazight), Atlas and Souss regions of Morocco differ somewhat from each other and also from the Tuareg dialects spoken further south. Berber is an Afro-Asiatic language closely related to Pharaonic Egyptian. The language is called Tamasheq by western Tuareg in Mali, Tamahaq among Algerian and Libyan Tuareg, and Tamajaq in the Azawagh and Aïr regions, Niger. The Tamajaq writing system, Tifinagh (also called Shifinagh), descends directly from the original Berber script used by the Numidians in pre-Roman times. The exhibition is also being shown at UCLA Fowler Museum in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC.
Across History the Tuareg are renowned and respected warriors. Their decline a military Might came with the introduction of the fire arms, weapons which the Tuareg do not possess. The Tuareg warrior attire consists of a Takoba (sword), Allagh (lance) and Aghar (shield) made of antelope's skin.

Traditional music

Traditional Tuareg music has two major components: the moncord violin Anzad played often during night parties and a small tambour covered with goatskin called Tende, performed during camel races and horse races. and other festivities. Traditional vocal songs called Asak (songs), and Tisiway (poems) sung by women and men during feats and social occasions. Another popular Tuareg musical genre is Takamba, characteristic for its Afro-Berber percussions.
Tinariwen, a Tuareg band that fuses electric guitars and indigenous musical styles, was founded in the 1980s by rebel fighters. They released their first CD in 2000, and toured in Europe and the United States in 2004. The Niger-based band Etran Finatawa combines Tuareg and Wodaabe members, playing a combination of traditional instruments and electric guitars.
Many music groups emerged after the 1980s cultural revival. Among them Tartit, Imaran and known artists are: Abdallah Oumbadougou from Ayr, Baly Othmany of Djanet.
Tuareg Music genres, Music groups and artists
  • Majila Ag Khamed Ahmad, singer Asak (vocal music), of Aduk, Niger
  • Almuntaha female Anzad (Tuareg violin) player, of Aduk, Niger
  • Ajju female Anzad (Tuareg violin) player, of Agadez, Niger
  • Islaman singer, genre Asak (vocal music), of Abalagh, Niger
  • Tambatan singer, genre Asak (vocal music), Tchin-Tabaraden, Niger
  • Alghadawiat female Anzad (Tuareg violin) player, of Akoubounou, Niger
  • Taghdu female Anzad (Tuareg violin) player, of Aduk, Niger
  • In Tayaden singer and guitar player, Mali
  • Kiddu Ag Hossad singer and guitar player, Mali
  • Baly Othmani singer, luth player, Djanet Algeria
  • Abdalla Ag Umbadugu, singer and guitar player, Agadez, Niger
Music and Culture Festivals
The Desert Festival in Mali's Timbuktu is the best place to see Tuareg culture and dance and hear their music. The event has the easiest access for tourists and is not yet very commercialised (though the process is happening).
Other festivals include:


Tuareg Traditional Games include:
  • Tiddas a game played with small stones and sticks.
  • Izagag a game played with small stones or dried fruits.
  • Iswa a game played by picking up stones while throwing another stone.
  • Melgha a game where children hide themselves and another tries to find and touch them before they reach the well and drink.
  • Tabillant traditional Tuareg wrestling
  • Alamom wrestling while running
  • Solagh another type of wrestling
  • Tammazaga or Tammalagha race on camel back
  • Takket consists of staying awake singing and playing all night.
  • Takadant a game that make children try to imagine what the others are thinking.
  • Shishagheren consists of writing the name of one's lover to see if this person brings good luck.
  • Taqqanen telling devinettes and enigmas.
  • Maru Maru young people mime how the tribe works.


The Tuareg are a pastoral people, having an economy based on livestock breeding, trading, and agriculture. This is probably part of the reason for the widely varying estimates of the number of Tuareg in the world.

In Popular Culture

A fictionalized group of Tuareg are one of the primary factions in a civil war underway in Mali featured in the 2005 film Sahara. They're pitted against an enemy who has greater military power and weaponry but they ultimately defeat their adversary in a climactic scene near the movies end.
Bruce Sterling used a fictionalized Tuareg tribe in his novel Islands in the Net. The Tuareg were portrayed as post-pastoralist nomads who had renounced herding animals in favor of using solar power and eating single-celled protein, and as fine musicians.


  • Ghoubeid Alojaly, Karl Prasse, Ghabdouane Mohamed, Dictionnaire touareg-français, Copenhague, Museum Tusculanum, 2003 (2 vols., 1031 p.) - ISBN 8772898445
  • Francis James Rennell Rodd, People of the veil. Being an account of the habits, organisation and history of the wandering Tuareg tribes which inhabit the mountains of Air or Asben in the Central Sahara, London, MacMillian & Co., 1926 (repr. Oosterhout, N.B., Anthropological Publications, 1966)
  • Heath Jeffrey 2005: A Grammar of Tamashek (Tuareg of Mali). New York: Mouton de Gruyer. Mouton Grammar Library, 35. ISBN 3-11-018484-2
  • Rando et al. (1998) Mitochondrial DNA analysis of northwest African populations reveals genetic exchanges with European, near-eastern, and sub-Saharan populations. Annals of Human Genetics 62(6): 531-50; Watson et al. (1996) mtDNA sequence diversity in Africa. American Journal of Human Genetics 59(2): 437-44; Salas et al. (2002) The Making of the African mtDNA Landscape. American Journal of Human Genetics 71: 1082-1111. These are good sources for information on the genetic heritage of the Tuareg and their relatedness to other populations.

Further reading

  • Edmond Bernus, "Les Touareg," pp. 162-171 in Vallées du Niger, Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993.
  • Andre Bourgeot, Les Sociétés Touarègues, Nomadisme, Identité, Résistances, Paris: Karthala, 1995.
  • Hélène Claudot-Hawad, ed., Touregs: Exil et Résistance. Révue du Monde Musulman et de la Méiterranée No. 57, Aix en Provence: Edisud, 1991.
  • Claudot-Hawad, Touaregs, Portrait en Fragments, Aix en Provence: Edisud, 1993.
  • Hélène and Hawad Claudot-Hawad, Touaregs: Voix Solitaires sous l'Horizon Confisque, Ethnies-Documents No. 20-21, Hiver, 1996.
  • Mano Dayak, Touareg: La Tragedie, Paris: Éditions Lattes, 1992.
  • Sylvie Ramir, Les Pistes de l'Oubli: Touaregs au Niger, Paris: éditions du Felin, 1991.
Tuareg in Arabic: طوارق
Tuareg in Bulgarian: Туареги
Tuareg in Catalan: Tuareg
Tuareg in Czech: Tuaregové
Tuareg in Danish: Tuareg
Tuareg in German: Tuareg
Tuareg in Modern Greek (1453-): Τουαρέγκ
Tuareg in Spanish: Tuareg
Tuareg in Esperanto: Tuaregoj
Tuareg in Persian: طوارق
Tuareg in French: Touareg
Tuareg in Galician: Tuareg
Tuareg in Indonesian: Tuareg
Tuareg in Italian: Tuareg
Tuareg in Lithuanian: Tuaregai
Tuareg in Hungarian: Tuaregek
Tuareg in Dutch: Toeareg
Tuareg in Japanese: トゥアレグ
Tuareg in Norwegian: Tuareg
Tuareg in Norwegian Nynorsk: Tuaregar
Tuareg in Low German: Tuareg
Tuareg in Polish: Tuaregowie
Tuareg in Portuguese: Tuaregues
Tuareg in Romanian: Tuaregi
Tuareg in Russian: Туареги
Tuareg in Simple English: Tuareg people
Tuareg in Slovenian: Tuaregi
Tuareg in Serbian: Туарези
Tuareg in Serbo-Croatian: Tuarezi
Tuareg in Finnish: Tuaregit
Tuareg in Swedish: Tuareger
Tuareg in Kabyle: Imuhaɣ
Tuareg in Venetian: Tuareg
Tuareg in Chinese: 圖瓦雷克
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