It’s not every day that we encounter novels by Mauritanian writers. The Sahel region usually gets into the news because of terrorist attacks on beach resorts, hotels, cafes and restaurants visited by foreigners, facilitated by the porousness of borders in the area making them hard to control. As more books in translation are published that engage with the contemporary world, the recent publication of a couple of novels by Mauritanian writers gives English readers the opportunity to expand their literary horizon.
The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated by Rachael McGill, is the first novel from Mauritania to have been translated into English. Published by Dedalus Books, it won the Ahmadou-Kourouma Prize in 2016 and was shortlisted for The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2018. Past and present collide as the ancient traditions of the nomadic, desert tribes are eroded by different values and ways of being. When government contractors with strange machines arrive to mine for metals or oil near the Bedouin camp, Rayhana is seduced by Yahya, and she falls pregnant. Taken away by her mother to give birth far away from her tribal community since the honour of the tribe is at stake, she is then married off and the baby given away. The girl’s husband finds out about the baby and he sets out to find it to adopt it as his own, but the baby has disappeared. So Rayhana steals the tribe’s ceremonial drum and flees across the desert to the city, experiencing all manner of adventures (and dangers) as she goes.
Abdallah Uld Uld Mohamadi Bah’s Birds of Nabaa, translated by Raphael Cohen, published by Banipal Books, is in essence a physical and spiritual journey, recounted in the form of a fragmented travelogue. Inspired by the Sahara of his childhood and devoted from an early age to the vagabond life of the pre-Islamic poets, the narrator’s life on the move in search of the inner stillness known to desert dwellers leads him back to the music, song and poetry that informs Mauritanian life and the spiritual universe of Sufism. “The Bedouin spirit lives in us even when we live in Paris. Whenever we change places, we believe we are going somewhere better. But in reality, we always live in our original places. Ultimately, we are prisoners of our being Bedouin. And as you can see, it’s a life sentence.”
The narrator, an embassy accountant, returns home to Mauritania after ten years in Madrid. He had turned his back on his family and village of Nabaa to strike out on his own at a youthful age. Before his return, an old friend writes to him that, “There’s nothing here except for people’s kindness, glasses of green tea, and a little music.”
Landing in the capital, Nouakchott, he is given a glorious welcome, and attends a glitzy party at a smart hotel celebrating the launch of the national currency. (President Ghazouani was inaugurated on 1 August 2019, marking the first constitutional transfer of power in Mauritania since independence in 1960.) “Now that I have turned forty it is no longer seemly to indulge my passions. True, the Madrid night is rowdy and alluring making it easy to be caught in its seductive web, but since not too long ago I have become used to curbing the unruly passions of my soul and following my rational mind as it urges me to seek calm and tranquillity.”
He reminisces about Kuwait, Qatar and Guinea where he was posted before ending up in Madrid, and the people he had met who left a strong impression on him. In doing so we get a non-Western perspective of daily life and diverse North African cultures; of what drives migration; and the political complexities that lie between the Palestinians of Israel, those of the occupied territories, those of Jordan and the refugee camps, the Palestinians of the diaspora, and those of the resistance.
“Many Mauritanians say that the French did not bequeath them a civilised capital. But how long did the French stay in Nouakchot? No more than twenty years. Yet instead of civilising the peoples of the Sahara that they colonised, they themselves became Bedouin, drinking tea, riding camels, falling in love with fat women.”
He returns to his village which is now becoming a town with worldly affairs coming up against religious traditions. He embarks on a road trip with a friend rough-driving in a Land Rover across the Saharan wastes that are under the control of the Sheikh of Kanz, “where former slaves lived in small villages on the edge of the fertile plain irrigated by the flood of the Senegal River.” Not only the capital is suffering a terrible drought, desertification is taking hold across the land. As wells dry out and livelihoods shatter, migration to other African states intensifies. A prophetic warning not to be ignored . . .
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