In a hurry to get to a movie screening yesterday, I was speeding down a San Francisco street when a gas-guzzling SUV pulled in front. Already predisposed to distrust the driver (for lurching into my lane and polluting the atmosphere with an excessive vehicle), I really got agitated when I noticed the SUV’s name: Touareg. Volkswagen makes these monstrosities, which get a woeful 14 miles-per-gallon and take their name from a North African people who (mostly) are followers of Islam.
Yes, VW named its SUV after Muslims. It’s the darndest thing. The Touareg (or Tuareg, which is the more common spelling) live in and near the Saharan Desert, spread across the countries of Mali, Libya, Algeria, and Niger. They’ve lived there for more than 2,000 years – a desert-going people known for surviving (and thriving) in inhospitable conditions. They accepted Islam when the religion spread to North Africa, though they never really accepted the “Tuareg” label, which was given them by early European colonizers. As I’ve been reminded in different reporting trips to North and West Africa, the Tuareg people prefer the name “Kel Tamashek” (“those who speak Tamashek”) to “Tuareg,” which means, according to one translation, “those abandoned by God.”
Of course, VW doesn’t volunteer this background in its advertisements, which emphasize the vehicle’s grittiness and pluckiness in all terrains, including the desert (hence, its connection to the real Tuareg). If the German car company admitted that it stole the name from native North Africans, it would be admitting to a corporate co-opting that reeks of Orientalism, the practice of Westerners to project their own views onto Muslim people. VW makes it worse by using an Arab motif in some of its Touareg TV advertisements, as in this one, which appeared in New Zealand:
VW isn’t the first car company to inappropriately use the name of native people. Native Americans have seen their names slapped on everything from Jeep vehicles (“Cherokee”) to those by Mazda (“Navajo”). A select group of academics and others have protested or noted the name abuse (see here and here and here), but little has come of it – except a greater recognition that the behavior exists. VW started its Touareg line in 2002. You’d think that Volkswagen – a German car concern with historical connections to Hitler – would be more sensitive to labels it chooses. Needless to say, VW, Mazda and other automakers would never originate a car called “The Hasidim” or “The Adventist.” Seemingly, Volkswagen is trying to assuage its guilt by sponsoring a Tuareg music festival in Mali, but that still doesn’t make its SUV more acceptable – especially when one of them cuts in front of me.
Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local,” but I would modify that to say, “all experience is local.” People can pontificate all they want about issues and ideas, but issues and ideas are always made more real by personal encounters. Yesterday was my first face-to-face experience with a Touareg vehicle. I’ve known about them since 2005, but my blood didn’t boil until the exhaust of one blew right into my window.