Thursday, January 31, 2013

Languages of Timbuktu

A lot of people seem to have rather limited ideas about Timbuktu's ethnic and linguistic identity. Pan-Africanists think of it as a "black" centre of learning; Berber activists cite it as a Tuareg city; and Arab channels emphasise its Arab heritage. They're all correct, up to a point.

According to its chroniclers, such as Al-Sa`di, Timbuktu was founded by a nomadic Berber tribe, the otherwise unknown Maghsharan; they established it by settling some slaves there to take care of their property while they were away. These slaves probably spoke a Songhay language ancestral to the dominant language of modern Timbuktu, Koyra Chiini. When Ibn Battuta passed by it around 1352, he commented that "most of its inhabitants are of the Massufa [Inusufa] tribe, wearers of the face-veil". Contrary to initial appearances, this actually highlights its multiethnic history: there are still Inusufa in northern Niger, and many of them speak a language of their own mixing Songhay and Tuareg elements, Tasawaq.

During its heyday before Morocco conquered it, the world of Timbuktu scholarship was even more multiethnic than the town itself. The most famous of the Timbuktu scholars, Ahmad Baba, belonged to the Massufa, but studied under the Mande scholar Muhammad Baghayogho; other scholars came from the Soninke (such as Ahmad Kati), the Fulani (such as Muhammad al-Kaburi), and other groups. The Arab presence at this period was minimal, although Sidi Yahya came from the Thaaliba Arab tribe of north-central Algeria; that would change later, as the tribes of the western Azawad - notably the Kunta - shifted their identities and languages. But the language of scholarship linking these diverse groups was Arabic, and the vast majority of the manuscripts are written in Arabic. The exceptions have not been well-studied, but reportedly include religious poems in Songhay and Fulani and a medical manuscript in Tamashek.

In 1986, according to Jeffrey Heath, the first languages spoken at the town were as follows: 80% Koyra Chiini (Songhay), 10% Tamasheq, 10% Arabic. Most of the Tuaregs and Arabs were driven out during the Tuareg rebellion of 1990-1994, but many came back afterwards. Right now, the situation is in flux: reporting indicates that "white" people's shops are being looted in revenge for their perceived support of the rebels. (Yes, many Tuaregs are black by American or European standards; but other Malians consider them white, and not without reason when the point of reference is the skin colour of other West Africans.)


Farooq A. Kperogi said...

I followed the last link to your post and nowhere was it mentioned in the story that Black Malians considered Touregs and Arabs "white"--or that they looted their shops because they thought they were "white." If this is your interpretation, why did you insert "white" in quotation marks along with an anchor text? It gives the reader the impression that you were quoting directly from the news story.

In any case, America classifies Arabs and North Africans as "white." Plus, Arabs and Touaregs consider--and refer to-- themselves "white" when they relate with darker-skinned (West) Africans. For instance, in my presence in Nigeria 10 years ago, a Toureg female beggar who was told to wash the dishes to earn the money she was beseeching from her would-be black benefactor retorted that it was unthinkable that a "white" woman like her would be asked to wash the dishes for a "black" person.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Those were scare quotes, intended to indicate that the concepts of "black" and "white" are a bit problematic, especially in the Saharan context, where they blend into one another more than most places. But yeah, the potential ambiguity is a problem.

Anonymous said...

Interesting bits of historical info there; you mentioned "the Kunta shifting their identities and languages", AFAIK the origins of the Kunta aren't very clear, I read in a Sufi book that they were descendents of the Sheikh Ahmed El Bekkai (who came from Nul-Lamta (present-day Akka, Morocco) and that their name (Kunta) comes from the tribe of their mother who originated in the region of Ouarzazate...Not sure about the accuracy of this version