How to better begin this issue than by reading the words of Maïa Tellit Hawad? In this text, she describes the neo-colonial extractivism of uranium in northern Niger, the erasure from history of the Sahara—a name she challenges to favor the names of the many deserts it is made of—and Tuareg modes of resisting the radical changes of their lands and the impeding of their nomadic practices.
“And at lightning speed / the red advances / Wall eclipse tintamarre / hurricane of noise / sand of all the chaos / of the dead voices / resurrecting from the desert.”
Hawad, Vent Rouge. Éditions de l’Institut du Tout-Monde, 2019, translated from Tuareg.
One morning of March 2022, Paris awoke under a thin layer of ochre sand. Overnight, the red wind had meticulously stained the roofs, cars, and streets of the French capital. A faint whisper rose from the streets and the press: this time, the annual springtime occurrence for the Mediterranean coastline was of exceptional scale. The Spanish sky was turning crimson, the snows of the Alps were “stained” with yellow, and the sandy wind was reaching as far as Luxembourg. A subterranean rumor followed the gusts: the Saharan sands, carried all this way by the Sirocco winds, were said to be radioactive. Such news came with scientific reassurance. The toxicity was supposed to be minor and these infinitesimal particles would not entail any health risks for the inhabitants of Europe.
In the reporting’s blind spot lies a geography: the Sahara itself and the beings—humans, animals, plants—who live in the heart of these poisoned soils. How does the Sahara speak? Can the solitary voices and bodies have a say in the eye of the storm? Let’s trace the wind back to its origins and settle in the center of the fracture, where it blows the hardest.
Atomic plowing and toxic pastures: the Sahara of states ///
Between 1960 and 1966, fifty-seven nuclear experiments and chemical tests were carried out by France in the colonial Sahara and later in the “independent” Algeria. To talk about this nuclear episode that plowed the soil of Ahaggar, my father used to share a memory-image with me. In the Aïr, hundreds of kilometers southeast, he saw the day in the middle of the night. He was drinking his milk when behind him, a flash of light and a dull roar tore space and time apart.