Tamanrasset, Capital of the South

Monday, September 23, 2019 | Tamanrasset, Algeria

Statue with Touareg motifs in central Tamanrasset
You might assume that Algiers, Algeria's capital, located right on the shores of the Mediterranean, is the country's most cosmopolitan city. After living there for five years and visiting much of the rest of the country, I know I did.

Then last year I finally visited Tamanrasset, and I began to wonder.

In Algiers, many like to imagine themselves as worldly since they watch French TV and go on vacations to Paris. But that haughty image is often more about putting on airs than anything else. And besides, truly cosmopolitan cities are diverse, not filled with people all posing in the same way and chasing the same fantasy.

In Tamanrasset, by contrast, I discovered a city truly open to the world beyond.

Street scene in downtown Tamanrasset, Algeria
From Algiers, it's a longer flight to Tamanrasset than it is to Paris; such is the vastness of this quasi-continent of a country. No surprise, then, that one end of it looks nothing like the other.

Most of Tamanrasset's inhabitants are Touareg, the semi-nomadic "blue men of the desert" who have dominated the Sahara's inhospitable trade routes for centuries. Like Djanet and Ghat (Libya) to the east or Agadez (Niger) and Timbuktu (Mali) to the south, Tamanrasset is one of the historical poles of their loose desert empire—and one of the rare sites where the Touareg have developed a settled urban culture of their own. One obvious facet that immediately differentiates it from the north: a bustling nightlife, with—get this!—both men and women outside at night, filling the public squares, watching their children play, sipping tea, and swapping the day's news.

But what's so unique is not the Touareg themselves but Tamanrasset's cultural mix, evidenced by the many sub-Saharan Africans circulating among the Touareg, alongside Arabs and other Berbers from throughout Algeria.

As the largest city in Algeria's deep south, Tamanrasset is a pole that attracts travelers from across the Sahara. Malians, Burkinab├ęs, Nigeriens, and many more live and work throughout the city, transporting goods, selling cookware or cloth in the markets, or grilling delicious maynama meat at open-air restaurants. (Sorry, traditional mechoui fans, but this spiced mutton is the best meat I've found in all of Algeria.)

The city feels distinct from others in Algeria, even within the southern desert. With an arid climate and rugged mountains visible all around town, its terrain resembles many pockets of the American west. Tamanrasset sits on the Hoggar plateau, some 1.3 km (0.8 miles) above sea level, which puts a dent in the otherwise scorching Saharan heat. Still, markets and sidewalks throughout the city are covered to shield pedestrians from direct sun. Walk along them and you'll hear plenty of Tamaheq, the Touareg's dialect of Tamazight (a.k.a. Berber), which many here speak as their first language. I'm told it's close enough to other dialects that they can make themselves understood (albeit with some effort) to Algeria's Kabyle or Chaoui, the Chleuh or Tanerift in Morocco, even Berber speakers as far away as the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. Keep listening and you'll soon hear not just Arabic but also Hausa, Songhay, and other languages of the Sahel.

Outsiders who have heard of Tamanrasset at all might know it as the origin of homegrown Touareg music bands like Tinariwen, Tamikrest, Imarhan, and Afous d'Afous. The desert blues style that has blossomed in Tamanrasset and across the wider Sahel in recent decades is a direct byproduct of the region's unique cultural mix.

Alongside music, it's tourism that has put Tamanrasset on the map. The city is the jumping off point for excursions into the Ahaggar National Park, including to Assekrem, site of "the world's most beautiful sunset." Unfortunately my work trip was brief and didn't allow me any time to escape to the mountains. But my visit did coincide with the Forum Atakor, a national conference aimed at resurrecting regional tourism, which has all but collapsed since the implosion of neighboring Libya and Mali. During my brief time in the city, I had multiple conversations with locals frustrated with the moribund state of the local tourism industry.

Tamanrasset, like every other destination in Algeria, is bursting with potential, but much to the consternation of its residents (and we rare few foreigners who have the privilege to see it with our own eyes) hasn't yet found a formula for overcoming the hurdles separating it from the renown it so clearly deserves.

Covered sidewalk in downtown Tamanrasset

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