Tuareg is a term used to identify numerous diverse groups of people who share a common language and a common history. Tuareg camel caravans played the primary role in trans-Saharan trade until the mid-20th century when European trains and trucks took over. Goods that once were brought north to the edge of the Sahara are now taken to the coast by train and then shipped to Europe and beyond.

Tuareg history begins in northern Africa where their presence was recorded by Herodotus. Many groups have slowly moved southward over the last 2,000 years in response to pressures from the north and the promise of a more prosperous land in the south. Today, many Tuareg live in sedentary communities in the cities bordering the Sahara that once were the great centers of trade for western Africa. Although most Tuareg now practice some degree of Islam, they are not considered Arabic.

Tuareg, Berbers of the Sahara, numbering close to 2 million. They have preserved their ancient alphabet, which is related to that used by ancient Libyans. The Tuareg?s traditionally maintained a feudal system consisting of a small number of noble families, a large majority of vassals, and a lower class of black non-Tuareg serfs, who performed the agricultural tasks.

The upper classes, organized in tribes, convoyed caravans and, until subdued by France, were feared as raiders. The fiercely independent Tuareg resented European hegemony in Africa, and they long resisted conquest. Tuareg men go veiled, while the women are unveiled. Women enjoy respect and freedom, and descent and inheritance are through the female line.

In Tuareg culture, it is the men who wear the veil. The veil is a symbol of having attained adulthood but it also has the practical application of keeping wind blow sand out of the eyes, nose and mouth. Only with close family will a Tuareg man take off his veil; otherwise he wears it all the time (at mealtimes he lifts the veil from his mouth to eat).

The indigo used to dye the veil is pounded into the cloth with stones so as not to waste precious water. This pounding creates a slightly metallic sheen in the cloth. Invariably the dye rubs off onto the skin of the wearer, which is the source of the legends of the Blue Men of the Sahara. The Tuareg do not wash the veils and wear them until they completely fall apart.

Though nominally Muslim, the people still retain many pre-Islamic rites and customs. The traditional way of life for the Tuaregs (e.g., raiding neighboring tribes and exacting taxes from trans-Sahara travelers) is changing. Since the 1970s droughts and famines have forced many Tuaregs from their desert homes into urban areas, and in the 1990s political tensions caused further relocation. Groups of Tuaregs have fought for autonomy from Niger and Mali, but cease-fires were signed in both nations in the mid-1990s.