Travel in music: Chapter 18 - 2001, Mauritania

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!

2001 – Chapter 18 | I can never forget my departure for Mauritania because it happened on September 11th. Our project briefing had just ended at headquarters in Madrid. Documents and tickets in hand, we were on our way to the airport when we saw the first plane crash into the World Trade Center on the office television. We reached Barajas international airport in time to see the towers collapse to rubble on the departure hall screens. The relationship between the West and the Muslim world had just taken a nosedive but we were boarding a plane for the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.


True to form, our employers were concerned it might affect the profitability of the project. My teammates were worried about their safety. The Mauritanians, on the other hand, were worried about a trio of foreign journalists poking their nose into their clan-driven affairs. They tapped our phones and followed us everywhere. As for me, as always, I was excited to be on the fringes and to be living such a monumental event from such a particular prism. How could a country twice the size of Spain, 80% of its surface covered by sand dunes, populated by a mere 2.5 million people, a majority of which were still nomads, not offer a ‘different’ perspective?


Time and space are commodities that have total different meaning than in the navel-gazing ‘modern world’. Here in the Sahara, time is measured in tea cups. Literally. The same elaborate tea-pouring ritual punctuated all our meetings. While the ‘tea person’ (every office and every house seemed to have one) brewed the tea and mint leaves over a small coal stove in a corner of the room, no one spoke of business. We exchanged pleasantries and enquired about the health of hosts/guests and their families. The first cup would contain little to no sugar but, hopefully, lots of foam, to signify your welcome. It also signaled the start of the meeting. From there on, you had until the third cup to state your business – roughly an hour in clock time, sometimes more if the host was enjoying himself. The second cup was therefore a warning that you were about halfway through your meeting and you should attempt to reach a conclusion. Should no conclusion arise by the third cup, all business was immediately suspended and postponed to a future meeting. The tea ritual also mimes the cycle of life. How many times did we not hear it explained by our hosts? “The first cup is bitter, like life. The second is strong, like love, and the third is sweet, like death…”


The holy month of Ramadan took place while we were in Nouakchott. The entire country adopted a different rhythm. The few restaurants in town shut. Office hours trickled to a bare minimum: a few hours in the morning, even in Ministries. At midday, long naps in the shade were law. The fast encouraged introspection and reflection. If possible, in some remote tent in the desert close to the oasis of your clan’s origins – on a couple of occasions, we had the privilege. Ramadan also duplicated hospitality. Far from shunning us (we were impure non-believers after all), people took pity on us for not having anyone inviting us over to break the fast after sundown. Invitations poured in. Every night, like clockwork, someone invited us to sit on the floor of his house and share an array of dishes placed in the center of the room. The houses varied in luxury and size tremendously but everywhere, we all reached into the same communal dish, with our right hand.


Surprisingly, religion was not a taboo subject. As pious as they were, most of our hosts welcomed my questions on their faith and never took offense when these took an inquisitive, sometimes challenging stance. I had always thought that Muslims tolerated believers of a different faith but did not have much consideration for atheists. Many Mauritanians proved this wrong. In the middle of their holiest of months, I enjoyed profound discussions on life, death, human interpretation of the ‘divine’ word, and the value of ritualized faith. These conversations felt like intellectual duels with no victor, where each comes out enriched by philosophically jostling the other. I cherish them still.


Spatially, Mauritania is on a different plane too. At the time, no road connected the two main cities, Nouadhibou, on the coast’s northern edge, and Nouakchott the capital. The only way to reach Nouadhibou, was to drive on the hard sand the retreating tide left behind. At high tide, trucks queued on the access road to the beach. As soon as the tide showed signs of retreating, they piled on the gas and drove pedal to the metal, hoping to make it before the tide rose up again. Time it wrong and you risked either being stuck on the softer sand further up the beach or having the waves drag your vehicle into the ocean. On the way in, we made the 8-hour crossing without problems, at night. On the way back, our 4X4’s engine stalled a few kilometers away from Nouakchott. The waves started licking the tires and the jeep started tilting at a very dangerous angle when a passing truck managed to tow us into the soft sand where the ocean did not reach. We climbed on the truck and left our driver behind to sort out a lift back to Nouakchott…


We took an eerie trip to Néma, almost to the border of Mali, on the aptly named ‘Road of Hope’. Nothing but sand dunes on either side for more than 1000 kilometers. Somewhere along the way, in the middle of nowhere, we met a Swiss snowplow operator. He was stationed there to keep the traveling dunes from obliterating the asphalt road. On another occasion, we drove to Saint-Louis, crossing the border on the dam at Rosso and spending a night in a warthog-hunting lodge on the banks of the Senegal River. Aside from a few palm trees and some reeds in the desert oases, this is the only place I remember seeing vegetation in the entire country. The most memorable place of all was the Banc d’Arguin, a marine reserve where we sailed a slow dhow into the most amazing of sunsets. There, the Imraguen still fish by calling dolphins to chase mullets into their nets. They cannot explain the symbiosis they entertain with these wild animals. They just say they inherited the practice from their ancestors and the dolphins’ forebears, over centuries.


In spite of its surreal beauty, Mauritania is a hard place, where nature and humans are unforgiving (slavery was only formally outlawed in 1982 – in practice, it is still widespread). Professionally, it was a tough assignment too, not least because I had to protect my female colleague from persistent harassment on the part of a powerful government figure. The success of our project was a constant balancing act between obtaining his support and pushing back on his overt amorous advances. Yet, this place really left a lasting mark. Its music is similar: out of place, out of time, admirable yet hard to love, impenetrable but lastingly haunting.

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