Letters to My Nephew (In the Event of My Death): Tinariwen

Hey buddy, 

I feel like I have useful things to tell you, and most of them won’t be appropriate to share for six years at a minimum. Since there is a non-zero probability that I will die between now and then, I thought I’d write them down. 

So, this video… We watched it together in 2022, and then we looked at your globe. We found the Sahara desert, and it had a little ‘camel’ icon there. We talked about how caravans used to cross that desert, carrying things from one place to another, and how the French arrived there at a certain point and (barely) asserted European control over, among others, the Tuareg people. 

So, this is a video for a song by a band of Tuareg musicians. In the context of oil wars, rebellions and violent repression, many Tuareg people were displaced from their homes or killed. They survived and their culture did as well. 

Ideas travel. In the context of very difficult times, members of this band played and people came to see them. They recorded their performances on cassettes, and these cassettes passed from one person to another over great distances. 

Currently (as of March, 2022), music still travels throughout the Sahara and beyond through cellphone video, and (lucky for us) some makes it to the West. I find it interesting that there’s been a flattening of the technology curve, where cellphone videos are the way that adolescents in the United States and Mali figure out what they like. Capitalism creates a lot of cheap stuff, and that’s not always a terrible thing. 

So that’s the context of this song: The desert, a traditional culture, a modern world, oil war, life, death. 

Here it goes.

We open with the camel. She’s making her way through the desert, going from one place to another. I imagine that in the open desert, such an animal is the way you stay alive. She casts a shadow, carries you, or your things. It wouldn’t be possible to cross all those miles without her. You couldn’t see your relatives. You couldn’t explore. You couldn’t have adventures. I think that in the context of this video she represents life. 

We see that she’s carrying drums, guitars and amplifiers. It is significant to me that there are two guitars and two drums. It indicates a bond between two people on the part of whoever stowed this gear. Friendship is an integral part of life. I think you get that already. 

The amps speak to this as well. Amplifiers are great, and fun to play through, but at their heart they’re for sharing. They’re for a crowd, and assembling a crowd builds a community. A life is best when shared, and a life should be worth sharing.

On her back is a tea set. I am ignorant of the true significance of this, but it strikes me that there are three cups, and for me, in the context of this video, tea is a symbol of rest and safety, of ease and pleasure, and also, again, of community. It is also the security and comfort of traditions. This life, with guitars, amplifiers, and tea is at once modern and rooted in the best parts of the culture it emerges from. 

So, she walks through the desert. We see a bird and some beautiful desert plants (I believe this record was recorded in Joshua Tree, which makes sense, as prickly pear and agave are plants of the Southwestern US). They are gifts, worth seeing, and existing on their own merits. They speak to something constant, and their presence indicates that things make sense. 

Then, something dark bubbles up from the ground. This requires little interpretation. It is oil. It casts a shadow. Oil has defined the past two centuries of human life. Control over it has been decided by vicious wars and ruthless dictatorships and this misery will very likely still be occurring when you’re old enough to read this.  

Next, there is a truck racing across the desert and a woman leans out the window. She looks concerned and she looks angry. I think she knows what to expect. I think she’s seen all of this before. 

This oil monster means to crush the prickly pear and the agave under its feet, but desert plants are tough, and so I’m not surprised at the resistance we see. Conquest is never really easy, but it always paints things that way after the fact. Regardless, its blow lands and shockwaves ripple outward. 

That’s a thing to keep in mind as you go through life: Events always ripple outward. Things that happen to other people in distant places will affect you. You should pay attention and you should care. 

The shockwaves reach the camel. We feel concerned. She might be killed. 

She is thrown into the air- the guitars, the drums, the amps, the tea set, it’s all disturbed and disrupted and we viewers have every reason to think that her journey is over. 

It’s not. She lands on her feet and she doesn’t lose her cargo and she keeps going into the night. The camp fire atop her back ignites. It provides a beacon for others. 

We watch her pass through vicious winds and deep darkness. The fire doesn’t go out, and mystical figures are drawn in the night sky. I don’t know what the final one, the one written in gold that is symmetrical, means. God, maybe? It seems very powerful. 

She walks to the base of the monster’s foot. It lifts, revealing the woman from the truck. They consider one another. The camel keeps going. We see that there are other monsters on the horizon, but we know that she will not be defeated and she will not lose her cargo. 

You will find that there are times of darkness and fear and hardship in your life. You will have to persevere. It will be hard. But you will have things to keep with you on your journey. Don’t drop them. 

If I’m alive in… let’s say 2028, I’ll be available for consultation. 

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3 Comments

  1. Captroy says:

    So beautiful, the song and the message of hope. Timely as we witness the

  2. CousinKelly says:

    Beautiful song and powerful video. I think the three cups for qawah might represent a slice of Arabic culture. Of course, it varies regionally, but I was taught that Bedouins always offer qawah, a coffee brew, to guests. It is polite for the guest to accept exactly three of these small cups, turning over the glass after the third and saying “always.” This indicates that there will always be the means and method of sharing this coffee together in the future.

    1. becomingmycelial says:

      Thank you! That’s great information! Do you have any sense of the meaning of the symbol that appears in the darkness?

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