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Circulation and containment: region formation in the Sahara

Dr Judith Scheele

As the archetypical ‘desert’, the Sahara tends to be pictured as an empty waste, a natural borderland; one of the many afflictions visited on continental Africa, and one that has, by impeding internal movement, effectively separated it from world history – or so the story goes. As a result, scholarship has long been divided into North and sub-Saharan African studies, with the Maghreb most usually subsumed under the Middle East. Most scholarly works on the Sahara itself have focussed on trans-Saharan movement and connections of one kind or the other – trans-Saharan trade or migration, for instance, or the ‘spread of Islam’ from North to South – thereby implicitly bracketing out the Sahara, defining it negatively, as a space that simply needs to be crossed. Yet there is a strong argument to be made that most exchange and mobility occurs within rather than across the Sahara; and moreover, that these patterns of internal connectivity are crucial to life within the region. Indeed, recent events that have rather suddenly brought the Sahara to international attention – most famously, rebellion and armed conflict in northern Mali – can only be understood if this internal connectivity is taken into account. My project aims to do this, drawing on regional studies elsewhere, Saharan ethnographies and archives, and my own prior research in Algeria, Mali and Chad.