Report from ‘Saharan Crossroads: Views from the North’

25 June 2009

From the American Institute for Maghrib Studies:

The AIMS Annual Conference had many firsts this year. It was our first collaborative effort as we paired with our sister ORC the West African Rearch Association, WARA. It was the first conference where we received over 100 proposals, and it was our first three-day event. We had noteable attendees including Mary Ellen Lane, CAORC director, and our first Donna Lee Bowen Travel Awardee, Tara Deubel. Her research interests are highlighted in the latest AIMS newsletter, which you all should have received, and it is also available online on the AIMS website. Also on the website are the final conference program and a compilation of presenter absracts.

It was a remarkable event, and sincere thanks go to the conference organizers Cynthia Becker, Jennifer Yanco and Wendy Fall. TALIM Director Thor Kuniholm and his assistant director, Ytimade, deserve special recognition for their efforts in all logisitical efforts and support.

As outlined by conference organizers, here are some of the highlights of the Sahara Crossroads – “View from the North” Conference held in Tangier, Morocco, June 6th – 9th

The purpose of the Sahara Crossroads conference was to promote scholarly discussions and reflection around the dynamic nature of the Sahara as a site of encounter and synergy, exchange and creativity, that has multiple streams of people, ideas, and processes moving through, and sometimes originating in, the Sahara desert and its oases. Organizers from the American Institute for Maghrebi Studies and the West African Research Association determined that Africa has traditionally been viewed through a bifocal lens in which the Sahara Desert has been perceived as an impenetrable barrier dividing the continent into the northern “white” and sub-Saharan “black” Africa. Despite trans-Saharan cultural contact spanning centuries, the conceptual divide separating North and sub-Saharan Africa remains strong. Countries to the north find themselves placed in Mediterranean, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies with little consideration of cultural, historical, or artistic contact with sub-Saharan countries, which are often considered more authentically “African.” Much scholarship has failed to recognize that communication, correspondence, trade and travel has been going on for several millennia, often in partnership with nomadic movements across the Sahara. In fact, the arbitrary and removed perception of Africa as separate zones may be growing.

The conference was tremendously successful in bringing together diverse scholars from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal and the U.S. to present their ideas and research on these dynamic movements of people, ideas, and material culture. Papers presented evidenced that indeed, contact among traders, scholars, artisans, and nomads set the stage for the emergence of richly diverse aesthetic expressions along the web of North to South and East to West routes crossing the Sahara as well as at their beginning and ending points. The breadth of topics ranged from the life of Jewish communities in oases in pre-colonial times to the dynamic movement of Islamic intellectual traditions, more recent exchanges of people (migrants from south to north) in the 20th and 21st centuries, and artistic expression in the plastic arts, calligraphy, music and dance. In terms of the latter, participants were pleased to see a Gnawa performance and a Sahrawi performance. The Sahrawi performance included a synthesis of Sahara and Sahelian musical forms, and most of the participants joined in enthusiastically dancing, clapping, and humming along!

Another highlight of the conference was the showing of the film by Abderrahmane Sissako, Waiting for Happiness, by Professor Charles Sugnet. This film was a wonderful choice as it depicts life in Mauritania covering moments and experiences that are familiar to all who have lived and worked in the Sahel – Sahara zones, including recent tragic attempts by youth to travel from Sahelian regions to the coast of Morocco in order to take clandestine boat rides to Spain.. Equally riveting was a presentation by scholar Salim Khiat from Algeria, who showed a video of descendents of former captives who were brought north in nineteenth century caravans. The video was accompanied by his lecture which described the spiritual life, oral transmissions of history, and social coherence fostered by the community’s practice of a form of spirit possession. The conference also was an opportunity for discovery for many of the scholars who learned from each other. For instance, Salim Khiat was excited to learn that much of the language and practice he knew from Algeria were consonant, if not identical, to the Bori practice of Hausa people in Niger, which was discussed by West African scholar Boube Namaiwa.

Ghyslaine Lydon’s recent publication on the history of 19th century trade in the Sahara proved to be a pivotal point of discussion. Other presentations ranged from the world of creating art (Essaouria), to creating and sustaining local frameworks of femininity (Algeria) to creating and imagining diaspora identities (Gnawa). The American Legation hosted the event and the Director Thor Kuniholm was present with his usual unsurpassed charm and hospitality. The conference participants and organizers (Jennifer Yanco, WARA and Cynthia Becker, Boston University) were supported by the counsel and work of Jim Miller of AIMS, and the presence of Mary Ellen Lane, Director of CAORC.

This conference demonstrated the wonderful synergy that can take place when AORCs collaborate on special projects. It also showed how AORC projects, such as this one which began with a small meeting at UCLA in 2004, can evolve into truly meaningful scholarly production and exchange. The topic has attracted the attention of a high caliber of scholars and fomented written works which will have an important impact on the communities studying West Africa, the Sahel in particular, and the Maghreb.

For Part II in 2010, “Views from the South,” we envision reversing these roles so that WARA takes the lead, incorporating a delegation from AIMS. In this way, the conferences should lead to new and enduring scholarly linkages

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.