When the fancy takes him and when he has the time, Moussa Ag Assarid walks around the French city of Angers sporting the elaborate indigo-dyed cheche traditionally worn by Tuareg nomads, “the blue men of the desert”. In this guise, he becomes an object of curiosity. On the streets of Angers, people can instantly tell he is a Tuareg, so deeply is the image ingrained in the French psyche, according to Ag Assarid. But this soon turns to puzzlement: “If you’re a Tuareg, you should be out in the desert riding your camel. What brings you here?”
The oldest of 14 siblings, Ag Assarid, now aged about 40 (like most Tuaregs born in the Sahara desert he doesn’t know his exact date of birth), looked after his father’s livestock as a boy growing up in nomadic camps between Gao and Timbuktu in central Mali.
His long journey to north-west France began in 1988 when a French journalist covering the Dakar Rally stopped at his encampment. A book fell out of her bag, which the boy picked up. It was Le Petit Prince (1943), inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as a pilot flying over the Sahara. Fascinated by the illustrations, the 13-year-old Ag Assarid vowed he would learn to read Le Petit Prince and one day meet its author.
A gifted storyteller, Ag Assarid relates the episode in the opening chapter of his first book, There’s No Traffic Jam in the Desert: Chronicles of a Tuareg in France. It was published seven years after he moved to France in 1999. The autobiographical account flits back and forth between Ag Assarid’s formative years in the desert and his first encounter with his adoptive country. Translated into Italian, Spanish and Korean, it has sold more than 100,000 copies.
Ag Assarid’s story underscores the importance of town twinning. Bamako, the capital of Mali and the city where Ag Assarid studied, is twinned with Angers. The co-operation between the two cities dates back to 1974. At that time Bamako was looking for a French “sister town”, while Angers wanted to broaden its horizons by twinning with a non-European city. The family of a teenage boy who visited Bamako on a subsequent exchange trip invited Ag Assarid to stay with him in Angers.
Getting to France was no mean feat. Armed with an international baccalaureate and plenty of pluck, Ag Assarid managed to overcome the initial hurdles. In order to get an identity card necessary to apply for a passport and a visa, he first needed to have a birth certificate made out — a bureaucratic challenge for someone who doesn’t know exactly when they were born. Friends lent him money for the plane ticket and the financial guarantee of 3,000 francs to cover his expenses during what was meant to be just a month-long stay.
On his arrival in France, the city struck him as very tidy and full of flowers. “One of the things that impressed me is that the streets in the centre of Angers were washed with clean, drinking water,” he recalls. “Where I come from, flowers are a rare sight. They come out once a year and stay around only briefly — a week at the very most. In Angers, I would see flowers of every colour [every day].”
Ag Assarid made up his mind to remain in Angers. He was determined to pursue his studies in France, rather than return to Mali where he faced persecution and discrimination for his political views. An outspoken member of Mali’s student and pupil association, he was illegally detained in a cell for 11 days in 1996 during student protests.
Before the initial month was up, Ag Assarid donned his Tuareg outfit and, without an appointment, knocked on the door of the city’s mayor. He was in luck. The mayor, who was about to travel to Mali, promised to speak to the consul of France in Bamako on his behalf. Not only did the mayor personally vouch for him and help him enrol at a local university, where Ag Assarid studied management, he also found him work in Angers’ recycling and waste disposal compound — the first of several occupations (storyteller, actor, journalist, writer, political activist, travel agent) that the enterprising Tuareg embraced to support himself.
Thanks to the mayor and a growing circle of friends and acquaintances willing to lend him a helping hand, Ag Assarid started to feel at home in Angers. This was due in large part to the locals’ familiarity with his country of origin. “The Angevins have heard of Mali, even if they haven’t all been there,” he says. Whereas “if I tell someone on a plane ‘I come from Mali’, they immediately assume I come from Bali,” he says.
After three years spent living in northern France, the lack of daily sunshine started to get him down, however, and he moved to Montpellier to continue his studies. Though it proved easy to meet people in the south of France, he found true friendships were harder to come by. Following the completion of his masters degree, he decided to make Angers a more permanent residence. He now lives there with his Tuareg wife, whom he met back home in 2009, and their three-year-old daughter.
In 2010, Ag Assarid became a French citizen, while retaining his Malian passport. This allowed him to participate in the democratic process fully and have his say in political decisions affecting his neighbourhood. French citizenship also offered him a measure of protection, as he was involved with the MNLA, an alliance of mainly Tuareg tribes in the Azawad territory of Mali which declared its independence in April 2012. The declaration was not recognised by the international community.
Ag Assarid never realised his dream to meet the “father” of Le Petit Prince. Saint-Exupéry, whose plane disappeared during a reconnaissance mission from Corsica in 1944, was long dead by the time Ag Assarid made it to France. Years after his move, however, he did meet some of the author’s descendants.
In 2002, the School of the Sands Saint-Exupéry — bearing his hero’s name — opened in the village of Taboye in the Gao region of Mali where Ag Assarid grew up. It was partly funded by a travel agency that Ag Assarid ran from 2000 to 2009 taking French and Swiss people into the Sahara. The school aimed to respond to the needs of nomad children, who were excluded from more traditional schooling. But the secular school closed down in 2012 after it was targeted by MUJAO (an offshoot of al-Qaeda) militia. There are now plans to rebuild it in a Tuareg stronghold in northern Mali.
Ag Assarid hopes to end his days where they began. “Nomads always return to their point of departure,” writes Ag Assarid in his Chronicles, and recalls his grandfather telling him: “Tuaregs are like acacia trees: they put down deep roots but their branches can spread far and wide.”