Chasing the line

I’ve just been reading anthropologist Tim Ingold’s book Lines: A Brief History (Routledge, 2007), and squaring it with my recent experience as a traveller on the Sousse to Tozeur Oasis rail line at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert.

I’m reading the text as an e-book via the Kindle app on an iPhone. On the one hand the journey carries with it the familiarity of local wayfaring, embedded travel observed in the bonhomie amongst families of travellers. Only foreign tourists don’t realise you have to scramble for a seat and that reservations are of no account. Half way into the 6 hour journey we have to wait for a replacement engine. Passengers filter out into the olive groves to pass the time, tutting at the inert locomotive.

Eventually an ambulance arrives to transport a man still on the train who collapsed in his seat, followed by the arrival of a new locomotive, and we continue. Perhaps this adventure exemplifies the remains of indigenous travel that Ingold contrasts with life on networks.

Meshworks, such as the habitual journeys of countrymen and women, are interwoven trails. On the other hand networks are arrangements of points, connected by lines. Such pale lines are mere instruments for transporting objects (or information) from one point to another, as if the means of travel is of no consequence. A train would do as well as a plane, were it not for the time it takes.

In fact my Tunisian train experience exemplifies the meeting of the two: meshworks and networks. The local train service, with its wayfaring companionability, its contact with place and habituation, its risks and pleasures, and the traces (if not the recollection) of caravans and nomadic Berbers, is mediated by both transportation and modern communications networks.

The Tunisian railways, helpful legacy of French colonial occupation, are certainly networks, but the new engine, the ambulance and waiting relatives at stations were procured or placated via mobile phones.

Breaks in the network also inflected the journey. The absence of network connectivity frustrated the journey, but also my e-reading, as there was no at-seat power, and battery charge might be needed for GPS navigation at Tozeur. My reading about lines was truncated. The network breach exposed the mesh to view.


Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. London: Routledge.


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