...the lande of mauritania [is] a province that hathe been gretelie named by cosmographours past, for thei take this place for the ende of the worlde.
Roger Barlow, A brief summe of geographie, c.1540-41
This is Mauritania: the end of the world. It is without doubt the most amazing place that I have ever seen. Sometimes, on being asked my impression of it, I reply with only one word: sand. Although only a fifth of the Sahara lies properly under the stuff, Mauritania does more than most countries to uphold the commonly held notion of deserts being limitless oceans of undulating dunes, rolling endlessly unto shimmering mirages under the sweltering gaze of a merciless sky.
With the exception of the eroded Adrar Mountains at the heart of the country, and a thin strip of cultivated land straddling the River Senegal in the south, much of the 'Vacuum' - as the French referred to Mauritania - consists of dunes. Covering an area of over a million square kilometres, Mauritania is a huge and empty land, a desolate and disconsolate place of burning sands, hopeless plains and blazing skies. Mauritania is a land of hyenas and jackals, lions and leopards of old, of holy lizards and accursed locusts. It is a land where bird song is rarely heard, a land whose dust fills the eyes and heart of man, a land punished by the perennial trade winds that carry the desert inexorably onwards. Medieval maps of the region are adorned with the wild beasts and monsters of fertile imaginations: snakes as long as rivers; dragons and devils and demons that live beyond the pale of Allah's ordered realm; armoured dogs whose horns are impaled with human heads; and the terrible mantichora, a man-eater with the body of a lion, the face and ears of a man, the quills of a porcupine, and the fatal sting of a scorpion...
So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o'er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
Jonathan Swift, On poetry: a rapsody
Mauritania is also a land that has been raped and pillaged by the droughts of the last two decades, a land trampled under the bloodied boots of poverty and famine. In summer, when for much of the day the sun hovers directly overhead, temperatures commonly surpass 60ºC (140ºF). In winter, they plummet to below freezing. There is little in the way of tall mountains, or even vegetation, to halt the lethal wind, and rainfall, of course, is almost non-existent.
Yet this apparently hellish land is home to over two million people, a figure set to double within the next twenty years. The great majority are Moors [Maure, from the Phoenician Mahour, Men of the West]. Their origins, like that of their Berber, Tuareg and Saharawi cousins, are shrouded in confusion. Of what can be garnered as fact, it seems that three major displacements brought about the existence of these remarkable people.
The first took place in the seventh century, when the first southward Arab-Berber migrations took place, mostly traders and Muslim proselytisers leaving the comfort of the Maghreb for the geographical Sudan, an area corresponding to Mauritania and part of Mali. The subsequent intermarriage of the indigenous Negroes with the white Semite settlers produced the first true ancestors of the Sahara's most important ethnic groups: the Tuareg, the Tibbu, and the Moors. The Moors themselves claim descent from the Sanhaja tribe of Berbers, founders of Northwest Africa's first Berber dynasty, the Almoravids. The next influx of new blood took place in the fifteenth century, when Yemeni pillagers belonging to the Beni Hassan tribe were hounded out of Morocco by the Merinids. They, in turn, intermarried with the Sanhaja's descendants, and imposed their own language upon them. Hassiniyah, a dialect of Arabic closely related to the classical, is still spoken today. In contrast to the sometimes harsh accents of Moroccan Arabic, Hassiniyah has a soft and pleasant rhythm, easily lending itself to poetry and song. The last great input came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when descendants of the Moroccan sultan Ahmad al-Mansour's army of conquest (many of whose soldiers had settled in the Sudan), shed their past to merge with the nomads.
Not surprisingly, this rich racial heritage is still very much in evidence, with a roughly equal proportion of light and dark skins, and a similar blend of Caucasian and Negro features. The swarthy Moors of European legend are very much a generalisation.
Like the Tuareg, the Moors were - and a minority still are - an essentially nomadic people. But here the comparisons end, for there is one important difference between the two peoples, and that is Islam. As the Arabic language spread westwards from the Middle East, and then south along with the Maghrebi migrations, so did Islam, and in consequence we find that Moorish history runs almost parallel to that of the religion in North and West Africa. The puritanical Almoravids were the first heirs to this legacy, zealots who were to conquer not only Morocco, but the Iberian peninsula and the ancient empires of West Africa. Without the Almoravids, it is possible to argue that Islam would never have survived as long as it did in Spain. Whatever, when Moorish influence in Europe began to wane in the fifteenth century, many Moors returned to the desert and have lived there to this day.
In the twentieth century, the Moors stand alone among other Saharan nomads not only in their religious fervour, but in the fact that they have succeeded in creating their own independent state.
Indeed, until the fifteenth century, no European (excepting Hanno the Carthaginian, the unfortunate Vivaldi brothers, and a remarkable foray by the legions of Julius Maternus) had even ventured further south than the Maghreb. Even Hannibal, who had dreamed of conquering Europe, never once considered the continent whence he came. Naturally, the desert itself was a formidable barrier to overland conquest, and furthermore, the Moors and the Tuareg (and their ancestors) had acquired awesome reputations for warlike savagery. The Victorians used the fearsome spectres of the moor and blackamoor, alongside that of the bogeyman, to frighten naughty children into behaving. As nomads, the Moors were long regarded by Europeans as being somewhat less than human. According to Dom João de Castro, writing in 1541, they were:
wild men, amongst whom is no civill societie, no truth nor civilitie... above all other People they are given to Stealths and Rapine; they eate raw flesh... their habit is vile and filthy.
Even Walter Harris, who on the whole seemed to respect the Moors, wrote:
the Moors are not far removed from savages. They possess very little feeling of any sort; love little but their women - whom they treat as an English costermonger treats his donkey...
Not surprisingly, quelling these people was long deemed both impossible and futile, especially when given that most sub-Saharan goods such as gold and slaves were in any case freely available in the souks of the Maghreb.
European involvement in Mauritania dates from 1441, when Portuguese mariners reached Cap Blanc, a narrow peninsula now forming the northernmost extremity of Mauritania's Atlantic coastline. Nearby, on the tiny isle of Arguin, traders established a factoria in anticipation of a massive trade in gold dust. In time, though, the factoria was to prove rather more useful in trading gum arabic and slaves. But despite the florid and often exaggerated claims of contemporary historians, European influence was at best negligible beyond the confines of coast, and its few inland adventures invariably ended in disaster, cursed either by the desert or its unruly inhabitants. It is a measure of the Moors' power to remain independent that it took the French until 1934 - 117 years after the Treaty of Paris that had granted her the territory, and not even thirty before independence was regained - to achieve their 'pacification'. In consequence, both the land and its people remain to this day largely untouched by external influences.
For my part, I am ashamed to admit that it was only until halfway through my stay in the country that I even managed to recall, spell and speak the name of Mauritania. I sincerely hope that the following chapters in some way atone for my initial ignorance.
* * *
Las Palmas International Airport, Gran Canaria:
Innumerable strange voices swelling and falling like the surface of a deep ocean, filled the waiting lounge for the delayed twice-weekly flight to Nouâdhibou. It was a soothing hubbub to while away the long wait. Despite being in the Canary Islands, I seemed already to be back in Africa, and the Spanish announcements over the tannoy sounded alien and out of place. The majority of the travellers were Moroccan, invariably wealthy businessmen. Most were dressed in the traditional jellabas (despite the heat), but the younger among them wore loosely-tailored suits and ties. The Mauritanians, both black and white, wore boubous, looser and lighter versions of the jellaba that, when indigo-dyed, closely resemble the garb of the Tuareg. The other passengers were mainly Negroes from the sedentary Tukolor and Wolof tribes of the very south of the country. The Tukolor spoke a dialect of Fulfulde, common throughout Senegal and southern Mauritania. The language is easily distinguishable by its typically sub-Saharan glottal stops used in the pronunciation of some consonants. A man called N'dour amused himself no end with my attempts to pronounce his name, the 'N' being articulated at the same time as clicking one's throat. The Wolofs, for their part, gabbled non-stop, the women clucking and tutting like hens. The Wolof are known throughout West Africa for their garrulousness, and who were they to disappoint me? For some reason, they were all travelling with their families, and their conversations were punctuated with searing peals of laughter. It is said that Africa boasts over one thousand languages - the richest and most vibrant oral tradition in the world.
Eventually, we were herded on to the tarmac and into a sweltering forty-degree heat, whereupon a handful of passengers produced prayer mats and knelt down beside the bedraggled Air Mauritania Fokker F-28 to offer their prayers to Allah. The rugs disappeared as the cabin door opened, and in the crushing surge of ninety people, all shouting and pushing with their mountains of hand luggage, I somehow managed to worm myself up the steps and into the plane. There was no air-conditioning, which seemed to suit only the flies, and so, with my clothes sodden with sweat, I sank wearily into a too-soft seat on the portside aisle, feeling most uncomfortable.
Once inside, the passengers fell distinctly quiet and subdued, and with good reason. Three passenger planes had so far been downed by Polisario, and six months later an American insecticide-spraying plane was to be accidentally shot down over the desert. A thin young Moor sitting to my right was nervously rubbing his hands together. Trickles of sweat from his brow ran down past his eyes and angular Roman nose, to drip off his pointed goatee (the goatee is typical among Moorish men). The man returned my greeting with a wavering smile, under which a gold-capped tooth struggled to be seen.
In the row in front, a black Wolof girl from Senegal - about seven or eight years old - stared at me with inquisitive brown eyes through the gap between the seats. Her hair was woven into five thick plaits, each threaded with a dozen colourful beads. Like her mother, she was dressed in a glistening ochre robe mottled with saffron and overlaid with olive-green leaves outlined in a rich earthy brown. She gazed unflinchingly at me for over ten minutes, until the plane dipped suddenly in an air pocket and she started crying.
Across the aisle and further back sat a Berber salesman I had seen at Layoune airport. There, he had kicked up a fuss with the customs officials about having to unpack and repack each one of six large bundles of carpets, destined for the Canary Islands. A small and wiry man in his late fifties, at the time I had wondered at his deceptive strength in being able to carry the bundles at all. His worn and wrinkled face - a weather beaten bronze finely beaded with sweat - sported a small ashen goatee and narrow moustache. He wore a battered but dignified grey jellaba, from under which protruded a new pair of bright yellow slippers. He wore his white turban like a doughnut about his crown, and a shiny balding head poked out from above. Small beady eyes were busily scanning Le Monde.
As the plane cruised away from the civilisation of the Canary Islands and took me across the Tropic of Cancer, I experienced a sense of anticipation to the forthcoming adventure that I had not felt since crossing over the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara for the first time. I was hungry for the solitude, the desolation, and even the hardship that desert travel had brought me so far. Yet, I had no real idea as to what awaited. I was going with eyes and heart open into a land I knew next to nothing about. With hindsight, it was a wonderfully childish thing to do (as well as being potentially stupid), simply to go into the unknown to see if it really was as I dreamt it would be. Dreamy desert images filled my mind. Hazy pictures of cycling over silky sand dunes; days on end without seeing any form of life; vast camel trains snaking from the mirrored horizon towards the alluring greenery of imaginary desert oases; the feeling of the desert heat burning my nostrils; the astounded expressions of nomads mounted on camels as they would confront me and my bicycle... I remembered staring at the bottom of my Moroccan road-map, adorned not merely with splashes but with a great wash of yellow ink. This was Mauritania, and for the first time it dawned on me that I might actually succeed in my crazy dream. I had begun to realise that I was no longer going to cross the Sahara, but that I was already in the act of doing so.
'Le déjeuner, m'sieur?' A pretty air hostess, her veil worn only loosely, interrupted my reverie. I gazed back vacantly at her smile, momentarily confused.
After barely half an hour we reached the southwestern coastline of the Western Sahara and proceeded to follow it southwards. From an altitude of twenty thousand feet, the view was simply awe-inspiring. Although aerial views are always stunning, perhaps even clichéd, this particular panorama held an especially dreamlike quality. To the east and my left spread a vast blanket of featureless orange-beige sand, sprawling beyond the murky horizon and punctuated only by scattered patches of deep ochre on the few remaining hills. Stretching all the way from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic in the west, here, below me, the Sahara ended in spectacular and abrupt contrast with the turquoise depths of the ocean. The constant northeasterly trades threw up the surf so that the water sparkled. Once or twice, ships could be made out, given away by long and wispy tails. As the plane began its slow descent towards Mauritania, the harshness of this rugged landscape became more visible, and at the same time more enticing, alluring. Vast crescentic barkhan sand dunes sharpened into focus, their starkly outlined claws pointing south towards the now unmistakable shape of the Cap Blanc peninsula. The barkhan are unique to the Atlantic coast of Mauritania and to the Borku region of Chad, and are among the most rapidly moving dunes in the world. They are therefore also the most destructive. The scars of the clasping dunes and exposed rock were all that now remained of once endless forests and a lush agricultural land, long since overwhelmed by the burning desert sands.
Four hundred kilometres south of Rio de Oro, Cap Blanc represents the westernmost tip of the Sahara. Fifty kilometres long, and ten at its narrowest, the peninsula typifies the Western Saharan conflict. Nominally, it is halved laterally, albeit contentiously, between Morocco on the west and Mauritania on the east. Morocco, however, has been unable to station troops there, and in consequence Polisario at one time used the peninsula to launch attacks on Morocco-friendly shipping. But the recent completion of the defensive wall has more or less eliminated such activity. The western slice of Cap Blanc is now no-man's-land.
The peninsula's only settlements - Cansado, Nouâdhibou, and Lagouera - are situated at its southern end. Nouâdhibou (the Jackal's Well, or the Desired of the Fox) is Mauritania's second largest city, with an official population of around 30,000. It began life in 1907 as the major fish processing centre for French West Africa, and today survives as Mauritania's only significant port. By the 1960s and the birth of the new nation, both Nouâdhibou and its port were massively expanded in order to cope with what was hoped would be Mauritania's key to future prosperity: iron. With it lie Mauritania's hopes of material wealth, of self-sufficiency, and industry. It is the dream of almost all Third World countries. With the tenacity of a spider clinging to her web in a sudden downpour, two thin slivers of steel skirt the sandy wastes of the frontier between Mauritania and the Western Sahara. Upon them, runs the world's longest train, commonly hauling a retinue of over two hundred carriages, rumbling and rattling their way across the interminable desert. The iron ore train is the modern-day incarnation of the camel trains of yore. The first to have mentioned the metal in Mauritania was el-Bekri, who in 1067 referred to an 'Iron Mountain'. Several similar reports followed, but it was only in the 1930s that attention turned seriously to this hidden wealth, when mail pilots flying south towards Dakar reported that their compass needles went berserk over the region.
To the east of the railway on the peninsula lies an abandoned road, once leading all the way to Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital. The road lies forgotten, eroded and half-buried under the dunes. It is still land mined, as the English traveller Quentin Crewe and his companions found out in 1982, by managing to get themselves blown-up! Similarly, the few kilometres between Nouâdhibou and Lagouera (on the Moroccan side) are also mined. Almost everyone in Nouâdhibou had a story to tell about some distant friend or relative having been killed trying to cross the divide. Lagouera was evacuated - some say massacred - during the first engagements with Polisario, and is now inhabited only by a colony of monk seals and a few fearless (or foolish) fishermen. Several young men were to offer to guide me across the minefields to see the ghost town, but I had been warned by others that my guides would in all probability demand extra payment once there in order to bring me safely back. What is certain is that Cap Blanc is more or less isolated from overland contact with the capital, and that my journey to Nouakchott was going to be harder than I had anticipated.
I had heard that the only way to reach Nouakchott nowadays, without using camels or reliable high-axle-clearance four-wheel-drive trucks along the risky coastal road, was to take the iron ore train north along the peninsula, then due east along the frontier for four hundred kilometres to the first village - Choum - where the railroad veers north again and a road apparently heads off south towards Nouakchott.
The plane circled the peninsula in order to land against the wind. At its southern tip, and at the northern end of the rich fishing grounds of the Baie du Lévrier (Greyhound Bay), the sand continued its southward march into the sea, destroying the otherwise razor-sharp coastline with a mêlée of silty sand banks. In consequence, the bay was dotted with shipwrecks, dozens of them beached or grounded on the submerged sands, some of them deliberately scuttled in insurance scams. I was later told a rather dubious theory about all the captains having been drunk, but being the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, this story sounded rather more like a useful yarn to warn people off alcohol than anything else, especially as the Moors say that: 'wine is the key to all evil' (the only places in Mauritania legally permitted to sell alcohol are a handful of extortionately expensive hotels in the capital, well out of the reach of ordinary people).
The plane spluttered to a halt in front of an angular concrete building. Windowless and with ageing whitewash yellowed and flaking, it had nothing to distinguish it from any other construction save for an old battered sign that read 'Nouâdhibou International Airport' in both French and Arabic. The control tower was little more than a shed on stilts, crowned with a frayed orange windsock. My first impression on stepping out of the plane was of extreme dryness, dust and heat, an atmosphere altogether much harsher than in the Moroccan or Western Sahara. It was an all-consuming heat, so overwhelming at first that I felt as though it would swallow me up there and then. As my body recovered from the initial shock, I noticed that the landing strip was covered with a sheet of airborne sand, several feet from the ground, that was being blown south from vaguely outlined dunes to the north.
Along with the other passengers, I ran towards the building, my eyes streaming in the assault. Within minutes, the plane's wheels had acquired miniature sand dunes of their own, whilst the runway could hardly be distinguished at all. As usual, there was a massive crush, even though only twenty passengers had disembarked (the plane was flying on to Nouakchott). The same heated arguments over queue jumping and pushing ensued, and again the same solution, more queue jumping and pushing. The ability of Africans to transform even the smallest group of people into a heaving swelter never ceased to amaze. But slowly, the throng advanced into and through the single door in the side of the building. In all the commotion, a young Moor behind me accidentally struck an old woman's face with his suitcase, and still managed to look mortally offended as she swore and cursed at him whilst theatrically clasping her flushed cheek. I offered to let her pass in front of me, but she just stared back, bemused at my gesture.
Out of the crowd, a benevolent hand reached out, waving a piece of paper that turned out to be a stencilled customs declaration. Suddenly, a middle-aged Wolof man lent forward and gestured that I use his back to write on. The man disappeared before I'd even had time to say thank you, and so I smiled instead at the immigration officer, who eyed me suspiciously.
Customs consisted of a muscular black man in his late twenties, his thick neck bulging with blood vessels. He was dressed in a myrtle green uniform adorned with a colourful array of military stripes, a peaked cap with a chrome badge reading 'Commissariat des Douanes', and the obligatory (in West Africa) pair of dark sunglasses - the inevitable caricature of some banana republic dictator. I offered him my passport, which he snatched away before striding off in the direction of a similarly attired colleague. He, looking simultaneously both at the passport and me, only shrugged his shoulders and skulked away into the gloomy far side of the room. The first dictator returned and queried, in punctuated French: 'What is your business in Mauritania?' I tried my best to explain that I was sightseeing. He was incredulous. 'Here? In Mauritania?'
'Why not?' I replied, to which he paused, and then, to my relief, handed me back my papers and said: 'Yes, why not. You may pass, Toubab [the West African version of N'srani]. Come along. Please be welcome in our country... Next!'
The exit seemed to be through a grey-curtained door in the far corner of the room. This door, however, turned out to be the entrance of a converted photo booth where a short, squat elderly woman was being searched in the gloom by the second dictator, still wearing his shades. I apologised for the intrusion but they took no notice, so I clambered over them and into the equally gloomy foyer, where the other passengers were already being accosted by a dishevelled assortment of beggars. To my surprise, my arrival warranted no extra attention whatsoever. Perhaps a detour to the strange white Toubab wasn't worth the effort, since the beggars seemed to be doing quite well without me. It stands to logic, because, after all, the other passengers too had been able to afford the equivalent of six months' wages - $200 - for a ticket to fly to one of the world's poorest countries.
A broken conveyor belt poked into the room through an opaque plastic flap in the wall - baggage reclaim. The toilet door was boarded-up with what looked like driftwood, and in front of it, squatting in the corner, was a hefty pair of baggage scales. On it, someone had placed an empty crate bearing the immortal Coca-Cola legend (the bloody stuff gets everywhere). As I watched the commotion, a large brown rat scurried unnoticed across the floor and darted under the conveyor belt. On it, my bicycle had just appeared, along with heaps of sand.
I was still busy tying the panniers back onto the bike when one of the beggars approached. With only a stump for his right leg and the bones in the other bent forward at an impossible angle, he moved himself around by sliding face down on the sandy floor, propelled by his stringy arms. His skin was flaking badly, although his face remained somehow little touched by his overall wretchedness. He spoke in a soft but broken French lilt, and didn't ask for money, but just wanted to talk. Messmoud Ould Mohammed had contracted polio when he was five years old, and had consequently been abandoned by his parents. His only 'family' now were the other beggars who lived beside the airport, and against whom he vied for the attentions of the guilt-stricken passengers. In spite of his pathetic condition, Messmoud maintained a solidly determined disposition, and asked of me a lot of questions. They were simple questions, concerning my name, my family, my country, my home, my brothers and sisters...
'Are you here to help us?' he asked, not understanding why else I might have come to this drought-riven country. Simple questions, yet I could answer only with great difficulty. I felt damned even in my modest wealth, and felt patronising as I looked down into his eyes, pleading pools at the bottom of deep wells that brimmed full with questions. I tried, in vain, to place myself in his position, to understand his thoughts and to wonder at his dreams, if he dreamed at all. Again, he asked me why I had chosen to come to Mauritania. He could (and would) never comprehend my desire to see the desert, never mind my intention to cycle through it, and all the more so when I told him that I'd already seen the Moroccan half. Sahara - a land of no shadows in the heart of darkness - figured only as hostility in Messmoud's imagination. If I really wanted to see the desert, he suggested, then why did I not simply go and buy a jeep or a truck? Was I sure that I hadn't got off the plane by mistake?
'Sir, my friend, there is nothing here. Nothing but sand and rock. Why do you want to see nothing?' Then he hesitated (for the first time in our conversation): 'Sir, from where you come... is it true that there is snow?' I felt as though I had been given the task of informing a condemned criminal that his last appeal had been rejected. Of course, I replied. He nodded, thoughtfully, as though pieces of a mental jigsaw were falling slowly into place, a jigsaw that would never be completed. Then he would ask another question. I gave him my Berlitz phrase book for Morocco, full of pictures of the snowy Atlas Mountains in midwinter. I felt awful. With each answer, I encouraged and strengthened his dreams still further, but what galled me most was the thought that they would never be fulfilled, a truth that contrasted painfully with mine. I felt a dreadful emptiness inside of me as I left Messmoud and his dreams in the concrete shade of the airport. Messmoud was fourteen years old.
* * *
Nouâdhibou is a motley collection of early twentieth-century French colonial buildings, bland post-independence offices, and shabby alleyways cramped to overflowing with squalid and decrepit huts. Except for a mosque minaret, a handful of defunct telegraph poles and the cranes in the port, the town is almost completely flat. There is a single dusty tarmac road running from the airport through Nouâdhibou to Cansado, but there are hardly any cars. Sandbreaks have been constructed on the northeastern side of town to guard against the dust-laden Harmattan, but with little success. Small dunes rise on almost every street corner and the road is often completely buried, as are the once-green gardens of boarded up tumble-down French villas. The construction of Nouâdhibou was financed by foreigners, and the town now depends on foreigners to buy its iron ore and fish. But even the fishing is done mainly by foreign fleets, and once the fish and the iron have been exhausted, there will be nothing left.
Nouâdhibou exudes a lumbering end-of-land sadness. I suppose that any town situated at the end of a peninsula is bound to be a dead end in some way or other, but Nouâdhibou is worse than that. It has no history of which it can be proud, no culture, no customs, no past and, arguably, no future. It does not even have a hospital to cure the sick, though it does have a burgeoning population that is both hungry and thirsty. Neither is the peninsula able to grow food to feed its people, for it has no natural water supply. Cap Blanc receives only an inch or so of rain every year, and so supplies have to be brought in by train from Bou-Lanouar, a deep well ninety kilometres away. The irony of all this is that prior to 1960 - the year Bou-Lanouar first started being heavily exploited - water was distilled locally from the sea, which did not deplete the precious underground reserves. If the present arrangement continues, we shall find that within a few decades, the short term interests of economy will have bled dry the wells of Bou-Lanouar, and there will be no more water left at all.
In the sweltering afternoon heat, the task of obtaining water was utmost in my mind, for I didn't much feel like rushing about madly the next day trying to fill my bottles without knowing when, if at all, the iron ore train was due to leave. A tall and handsome black youth said that I could get water at his home not far away. We tramped past a school. At first glance it was not too dissimilar from my old junior school in Manchester: an austere building with a yard enclosed by iron railings, and children's paintings and drawings stuck to the windows. The railings, and the old inscriptions on the gates - one for 'Garçons' and the other for 'Filles' - placed the building in the 1930s during the period of French colonisation. Nowadays, the majority of girls are withdrawn from school at the age of fourteen. As we passed by, most of the children in the yard - grubby and skinny ten year olds - ran out and started following us, much to the dismay of their teacher. His futile shouts faded away as we rounded the next corner into a dark passageway littered with broken bottles and cans, bits of plastic laundry baskets and dog shit. The youth stopped and suggested that I stay the night with his family. Normally, I would have accepted, but having just arrived in Mauritania, I felt that I needed some time alone, away from the pressure of new people and new places, and so I declined. We carried on walking, but he seemed to feel ill at ease with the train of children following us, and repeatedly told them to go away, slapping one of them. As I couldn't understand why the children should bother him so, I grew suspicious. Again, he asked if I would spend the night with him, and again I declined. Then he asked whether I had any money on me. I lied, and said that I hadn't. He then became visibly nervous, insisting that I could not sleep rough and that I had to accept his hospitality. He stopped and moved in front of me, blocking the passageway, and demanded that I pay him twenty dollars whether I wanted a bed or not. Trying to remain as calm as possible, I told him that there was no way that I would spend that much for a bed anyway. He scowled and moved closer. I looked round at the expectant crowd but they just stared back in silence. Dredging the depths of my French and Arabic, I let loose a violet tirade of abuse and threats, much to the delight of the onlookers. We stared at each other for what seemed an age, until he turned, pushed through the children, and slunk away under a hail of pebbles and insults.
Shaken, I turned to the children. One of them had taken an empty water bottle from my bicycle and was motioning 'drink'. I nodded, and almost immediately a mass of children surged forward, each trying to take one of the remaining bottles away for filling. In the end, they had to satisfy themselves by holding the bottles two or three at a time and a few minutes later, seven bottles complete with grinning faces traipsed back, dribbling dark patches over the sand. I walked the children back to school, thanked them for everything, apologised to their irate teacher, and shook goodbye with thirty little pairs of bony black, brown and white hands.
By late afternoon, I was feeling drained. I needed to rest, but as the three hotels in town were all too expensive for my budget, I decided that the best place would be the beach beside the bay near the airport, a couple of miles to the north.
Coming off the road, the only way to the coast without a substantial detour was through a makeshift bidonville (literally 'barrel-town', from the flattened oil drums used for construction) of slum dwellings on the southern skirts of the airfield. The bidonville sprang up during the drought of 1968 to 1973, as people sought refuge from famine; the desert having completely destroyed what little remained of Mauritania's agriculture. Following independence, and in the heady spirit of unity and modernism, the government had proudly adopted the proverb: 'Men resemble their times much more than they resemble their fathers.' In these slums, it was so true as to be perverse. Threading the bicycle through the shacks, I was knocked senseless by the saddest and most pitiful sights I had ever seen. Packed into an area not even one kilometre square lived at least ten thousand people, of every race and generation, all of them in the most abject poverty and disease ridden shambles imaginable. The once sandy path along which I was passing was choked ankle deep in excrement, broken bottles, mud, odd pieces of metal and wood, dead dogs and rats festering with maggots, and rotting food: rice, rancid meat, peels and skins of all kinds, and discarded fish offal, all swarming in flies and mosquitoes. The claustrophobic squalor gave the wind no chance of ventilation, resulting in a foul and all-pervading stench. The dwellings, if one can call them such, were made from anything available. Many were constructed simply from cardboard packaging, either washed up, or somehow obtained at the port. The boards were held together with bottle tops and old nails or wooden sticks, the bottle tops acting as rivets when driven through with the nails. Many other huts were merely adapted nomad tents. Ideal in the desert, here they stood no chance of ventilation and provided little protection against anything. Even the occasional whiff of boiled goat meat or fish only slightly disguised the reek. More saddening still was the despondency of the people. Old men squatted against the more stable structures, fiddling idly with pebbles or beads, and children, instead of shouting or chasing after me as in any other African town, sat or stood still, their tiny naked limbs hanging motionless, and their small weary eyes gazing sadly at the passing European. They stood frozen, barefoot, clasping their hands behind their backs, their bellies faintly distended, and just stared and stared, devoid of any emotion.
The children are the disinherited generation. Their clothes were rags: shirts torn down at the shoulders, trousers missing a leg, the skeletal remains of T-shirts... Many - usually the youngest - went about naked but for an old pair of much-darned underpants or a scabby cloth wrap, flies clustered around their noses and eyes and mouths. Not even thirty years after the hopeful dawn of independence, Mauritania is on the brink of disaster. Average life expectancy is 42 years for men and 46 for women. They wait, trapped, as their world, their civilisation, collapses about their feet. The story is the same throughout the Sahara and the Sahel. It is estimated that over the last twenty years, a quarter of a million people have died from starvation, as well as three and a half million cattle. Poverty and racial strife, too, have become rampant in recent years, although, unlike other African countries, it is not the legacy of colonialism that has destroyed the ancient status quo, but rather the unstoppable expansion of the desert. Over the last two decades, the once creeping advance of the Sahara has become a stampede. Countless wells have been lost to the sands, agriculture has been destroyed, and hundreds of villages lie abandoned and in ruins. By tradition, the Moors are nomadic. The land of these people is the Sahara. They are Saharans first and Mauritanians second. Yet they have been forced to leave their desert and their nomadic ways of life to seek refuge instead in the towns. Towns with very little work and towns that have very quickly become overcrowded. In 1960, over 80% of the population was nomadic. Now it is about 20%, a figure that dwindles from year to year. During the worst times, it was not unknown for mothers to rent out or even sell their daughters in return for a little rice or sugar. It was saddening beyond words to realise that I was witnessing, in effect, the death of a way of life that dates back tens of thousands of years, older even than the first settled civilisation. I was witnessing not only the death of a nation, but, I truly believe, the death of humanity itself.
* * *
Between the bidonville and the bay lay a short stretch of windswept sand, known locally as the la Table Remarquable. Like the landing strip nearby, sand was blowing over it at waist height, forever extending the desert into the bay, and where I was standing would have been water a few years ago. In the bay rotted the corpses of the wrecks that I'd seen from the plane, though what I hadn't noticed before were the masts and bows of other ancient ships protruding from the dunes ahead of me, like huge sundials, far from the sea. The debris cast long, doubting shadows across the sand. At some angles, the old ships' wheels and broken masts resembled graveside crosses.
In July 1816, in apparently calm weather, a brigantine called the Méduse foundered on hidden reefs some ninety kilometres off Cap Blanc. It was one of a flotilla of four French ships carrying future colonists to Senegal (including a young René Caillié). The officers of the Méduse took to the lifeboats, leaving 147 people to save themselves on a makeshift raft. By the time they were picked up, thirteen days later, only fifteen remained alive. When news of the disaster broke in France, the harrowing (not to mention salacious) tales of death on the high seas - drowning, murder, suicide and cannibalism - captured the public imagination, and inspired the artist Théodore Géricault to paint his masterpiece, Le Radeau de la Méduse.
As I moved closer to the shore, patches of quicksand became visible, given away by telltale white crusts. I skirted these, but still managed to cover the bicycle chain with a soggy goo of salty sand. Half in and half out of the water lay a rusty iron trawler, coated and tainted with the same sand that embraced it. I scrambled on to the deck, and eased myself tentatively down a hatch in the centre, landing on a soft pile of silty sand. From the inside, the hull resembled the belly of the whale in Pinnochio, all black and ribbed. The sea came in through a gaping hole in the bow, and settled into small pools. I stared at a few small fish for a while, before I got depressed and climbed out to sit in the shade of the hull, gazing out over the bay. The setting sun struck low, starkly illuminating the ships against a deceptively alluring backdrop of sapphire shot, through with streaks of gold.
To my left a small group of fishermen worked the evening catch. Three lines, about thirty metres long, stretched out into the bay. Several vividly painted wooden bobs bounced about on each, betraying the poisonous traps hidden below. Every so often, a naked black boy with thin limbs and shorn hair would wade out along one of the lines to check the nets. It was a sign of the times that even the smallest fish would elicit a great commotion amongst the fishermen, whereas a few decades ago, vast shoals could be caught within a matter of minutes.
Nevertheless, at Nouâmghâr, a small and isolated village on the coast half way between Nouâdhibou and Nouakchott, there still exists a most fantastic tradition, unparalleled anywhere in the world. In an act of the most exquisite symbiosis between man and animal, dolphins and men work together to reap a rich harvest. Responding to the vibrations of sticks beaten on the surface of the water, the dolphins round up and then chase shoals of fish towards the shore. Whereas the fish would normally skitter away to safety in the shallows, on seeing the approach of the dolphins, the fishermen of Nouâmghâr rush out into the sea with long snaking nets, trapping fish not only for the villagers but also for the dolphins. The fishermen are the Imraguen, and are considered by the Moors to be society's outcasts, similar in status to the former Indian caste of untouchables. Yet, like so many 'outcasts', the Imraguen have lived in this land well before the Moors even came about, and are believed by some anthropologists to be their proper ancestors. Like the Chnagla fishermen of the Western Sahara, the Imraguen have distinctly Negroid features. And like the Chnagla, the Imraguen are proud of their pariah status.
A while later, night creeping up fast, the fishermen collected their nets and made to leave. The few fish that they had caught were threaded together by their tails, perhaps to be dried out, or perhaps to make tié-bou-dienne (Wolof for rice-with-fish), a traditional West African dish made with huge quantities of peanut oil that is eaten at lunchtime. The men, though, looked sullen, and walked towards me with their heads bowed. As they passed, one of them - a withered old man in the ubiquitous white boubou and turban - turned to me.
'Hey. Toubab. It is not safe in these parts, I think. Why do you not go home?'
'I have no home,' I replied.
'But the wild beasts,' he retorted. I relaxed, for I had thought at first that he meant marauding bands of robbers or murderers, but the prospect of vicious animals seemed rather tame and unlikely in comparison. Still, just to make sure, I moved back over the quicksand to one of the larger dunes near the airfield, and chose a welcoming sandy hollow to sleep in, overlooked by the protruding masts of a buried ship. The light faded to leave only the twinkling of the stars and the ships in the bay. Although I was naturally excited to be back in the desert, I could not help thinking of the contrast between the noble life of the nomads and the pathetic squalor to which they had been reduced in the shanty town only a few hundred yards behind me.
* * *
Nouâdhibou was deserted in the morning, just empty shadows and the stench of drying fish wafting through the thick air as I cycled past the naval base to Cansado to catch my train. A battered road sign read: 'Cansado / Ville Neuve / Vous Souhai...' The rest of the greeting had vanished over the years.
A largely residential town, Cansado (which means 'tired' in Portuguese) was built jointly by the French and Mauritanian governments in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to house the new generation of miners, railwaymen and dockers that were needed to turn the Mauritanian industrial dream into reality. Thirty years on, that dream has become a nightmare. Half the houses are shattered, and the others are either massively overcrowded or else occupied by various governmental functionaries and secretive European 'technical advisers'. Modest concrete blocks rise to three storeys, aligned in neat and antiseptic rows as ugly and monotonous as anything that the Man of Steel, Joseph Stalin, ever provided. Of necessity, the doors and windows are tiny to protect against the dust and the sand and the heat, a feature that only adds to the stifling austerity of the place. Still, I was surprised to find, tucked away amongst all the greydom, a French-style supermarket owned by 'la société industrielle de la grande pêche', known, like everything else in Mauritania, by its acronym, SIGP. To my horror, the prices of the pitifully few goods on sale were astronomical. Cans of sardines cost over £2, a small can of Ivory Coast pineapple slices cost £4, and a bottle of French mineral water would have set me back by a fiver. On seeing the only well-stocked shelf crammed with caviar and fish roe, I turned tail and headed back out into the relative sanity of Africa.
The heat was considerable and clung cloyingly to my skin. As I'd already drunk two litres of water, I asked a bunch of nosy children where I might find some more. They showed me to the house of a French doctor, where I knocked and waited. After a few moments, a makeshift shutter cautiously opened, and a white woman's face appeared at the slat.
'Oui?' I said hello, and all the usual stuff, and asked whether I could come in.
'No. The doctor isn't in,' she snapped. 'He won't be back until Wednesday.'
'Oh, I see. Well, I was wondering whether I could have some water, you see, urm, I...' The shutter closed and I waited some more, much to the amusement of the children who were keeping a polite distance. Then, the door opened, slightly, and an arm beckoned me in.
'I just hate this place,' she said, as she secured the last of four metal bars across the door.
'Oh.' She was middle-aged, grey-haired and extremely paranoid.
'There's nothing that works in this pays foutu,' she said as I entered the kitchen. 'I cannot wait to get out of here. It's driving me mad.'
In one corner stood a shiny white fridge with a freezer placed on top, and under the small shuttered window was an electric cooker with an oven. Beside it, and combined with a neat set of fitted drawers, was the kitchen sink, complete with two taps, one painted red and the other blue. None of which worked. I was given a bottle of that expensive French spring water, along with a curt smile, and was then ushered back into the street. The door slammed shut behind me to hoots of appreciation from the waiting children, who had obviously been thinking of something else.
Back to the road fork, and then south for a few miles, was the entrance to Point Central, the iron ore terminal. It was marked by a concrete sculpture not unlike the three-legged Manx emblem. It was inscribed: 'Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière' (SNIM). About half a mile past the junction were two whitewashed cabins, each protruding a frail red iron barrier. The checkpoint seemed to be deserted, but I stopped anyway, not wishing to complicate matters later on. The two guards were fast asleep on the blind side of one of the boxes, their revolvers lying on the ground beside them. The older guard, a black Moor with fine facial features that betrayed a nomadic background, wore a simple grey-green boubou, blue plastic flip-flops, and a turban dyed batik-style in orange, maroon, sky blue and white. The other guard, a Wolof or Tukolor, seemed more urbanised in his tastes, and wore an amazingly thick fur-lined leather jacket, black tailored trousers with worn out pleats, black patent leather shoes and a white woollen hat. His face was muffled in a green blanket that was slung over his head.
'Salaam Alaikum!' I shouted. The younger man immediately jumped to his feet, and was about to salute when he realised that it was only a teenage Toubab with a bicycle who was stood grinning at him. Meanwhile the older guard, who had almost fallen off his chair, slowly got up and held out his hand.
'Salaam Alaikum,' I repeated, determined for once to get the hang of the customary greetings.
'Labass? No evil?'
'No evil,' he replied, violently shaking my hand. 'Allah is indeed merciful, alhamdulillahi.'
'No evil? Ah, praise be to Allah,' I reiterated.
'Akh, labass... Ash halak?' he continued: how are you?
'Fine, thank you. Praise be to Allah. How are you?'
'May you only be burdened with light loads!'
'May no one intend to harm you!'
'Akh, Praise be to Allah! May only good things happen to you!'
'Praise be to Allah, Allah the Merciful, the always Merciful...'
The greetings eventually returned to the more usual rounds of 'Labass' and 'Yak labass', and I lied and said that I was still fine, although I was sure that my crushed hand was beginning to turn blue under his vice-like grip.
'And your children?' I asked, dredging the phrase from some murky shelf inside my brain. 'Are they fine too?'
'They too are fine, alhamdulillahi!' and I was chuffed that he'd understood. 'And your children?' he asked. I started giggling, whereupon he thankfully loosened his clasp and allowed a bucktoothed grin to spread wide across his face. He then continued, in French: 'I am Bâ Oumar, and this is my colleague, Abou Gueye.' More handshaking and greetings followed.
'Do you want to see my passport?' I asked, after the introductions had fizzled out. Bâ pondered this for a while.
'Erm... No, not really. Unless you insist.'
This roadblock marks the boundary of Point Central. Almost half a billion tons of iron ore - half of Mauritania's export trade - are processed here every year. The roadblock is consequently of the utmost national and strategic importance, to which, inexplicably, the gendarmerie had managed to post two utterly incompetent (if wholly charming) guards. All the time that we conversed, my impromptu hosts paid scant if any attention to the vehicles driving by on the other side of the road. Occasionally, as though to impress me, they would try to flag down a car or a truck. Most of the drivers, though, would ignore them completely, although some would have the courtesy to wave back, or else pull a silly face. But nobody ever stopped. The normal routine was something like this: waving his arms wildly in the air and shouting 'Stop! stop! stop!' Abou would then exclaim: 'Hey, he isn't slowing down!' to the inevitable sight of a passing car showering him in clouds of sand and dust. He would then continue: 'By Almighty Allah, the cheeky runt didn't stop! Hey, Bâ Oumar, did you get his number?' But by the time that Bâ Oumar had wearily heaved himself up to look, the car was no more than a rapidly disappearing speck on the hazy horizon. Usually though, they couldn't even be bothered to get up, but instead cursed dutifully whenever a vehicle sped by.
Presently, the phone in the hut rang. There are only 5,200 working phones in Mauritania, and this was one of them. Bâ, who had meanwhile sat down again, leapt to his feet to pick up the receiver, carefully wiping and dusting it before holding it to his ear and answering. As he listened, his face clouded over and became more serious, and as he put down the receiver, he said: 'The Chief.' Suddenly, the slackest checkpoint in all Mauritania became magically transformed into the most efficient. Barriers were lowered, vehicles were stopped and papers demanded. The boots, luggage and even undersides of the cars were meticulously checked and examined, to the intense fury of the frustrated drivers who swore and cursed angrily at the guards. But only when Bâ was completely satisfied, or more likely became sick of the insults, did he let Abou open the barricade to let the vehicle through. Meanwhile, I had had to hide myself and the bicycle, since my presence would only have complicated matters for the two guards. Squatting inside the cabin amidst clouds of flies, I could see the road reflected in a grimy cracked mirror on the table beside the telephone. Shortly, a well-maintained Citroën - and as such, rare in Mauritania - appeared in the distance. As it approached, the barrier was raised, as were the hands of Band Abou in salute. The Chief nodded in acknowledgement as he drove past the two motionless guards, but as soon as he had sped out of range, Bâ muttered 'Espèce de con' - probably for my benefit - and once more the checkpoint reverted to its old happy self, oblivious to any vehicle that happened to pass it by.
Bâ told me that there were two trains a day, one at four o'clock, the other at half past six, and confirmed that the trip was free if I rode on an open waggon. However, he stressed that these were merely official times, and so were prone to vary. As it was already two o'clock, I decided that it would be wise to leave for the railyard as soon as possible, and so I bade the two guards farewell, and cycled off towards the end of the peninsula, though not before I had been cajoled into taking a picture of them in action!
* * *
Despite being situated on the beautifully named Pointe des Mouettes (Seagull Point), Point Central is just as ugly as any other large industrial combine. It processes all the haematite ore (63% pure and therefore top-grade) mined in Mauritania and as a result, sky-high corroded funnels spew dark noxious fumes, coolers belch great clouds of grey steam, and the sound and sparks of welders escape from hangars. On the far side of the complex, across a log jam of rails and pipes, a strange contraption was tipping rail waggons upside-down to empty the ore onto a conveyor belt that snaked around virtually all the site. As I arrived, workers were busy pouring molten tar on to the railroad to keep down the dust that billowed everywhere.
I was greeted by a welding foreman who handed me his face mask. His digs consisted of an old rusty container crate, propped up at each corner with a pile of rocks. The gap this created between the sand and the base provided a storage area where water and cartons of UHT milk were kept. Two bunk beds took up half the room. In the other half were sat about a dozen bloodshot-eyed workers about to start their shift. They sucked nervously on the cardboard roaches of their last joints. The foreman said to make myself at home, and then disappeared, only to return with a bowl of steaming rice and goat meat. I wanted to pay, but he refused, saying that it was his duty as a good Muslim to offer me hospitality, and that Allah was Great.
As I clambered awkwardly on to the open carriage, my gaze was met by eight other pairs of eyes, not hostile, but then not particularly friendly either. They were already perched precariously alongside their baggage on a consignment of gas cylinders bound for the mines at F'dérik. I sandwiched the bike between the two pyramids of canisters, hoping that they would neither fall off, nor roll together to crush my bike. Making myself comfortable wasn't easy either, balanced on top of the cylinders, hessian sacks, mysterious wooden boxes, suitcases, and various other containers, all of which were secured with tangled green netting. There was also an albino billy goat, tended by a young pale-skinned girl.
At first, conversation proceeded extremely slowly and monotonously. I greeted an elderly black man who was staring at me with piercing eyes.
'Salaam Alaikum.' A pause.
'Salaam,' he eventually offered, but only grudgingly.
'How are you?' I asked. He grunted.
'Where are you from?' No answer.
'Where are you going?'
'Mali,' he mumbled.
'What were you doing in Nouâdhibou?'
'Business,' he said abruptly, and then looked away, seemingly offended. I felt stupid having to ask the same, tiresome questions that were usually demanded of me, and so I gave up trying conversation and started rummaging through the bicycle panniers in search of my diary. On seeing that my flow of questions had dried up, one of the men, ditching the usual string of formalities, asked whether I travelled with them because I was too poor to take the aeroplane. I shook my head, so he continued: 'Then what, by Almighty Allah, are you doing here?' and then added, almost as an afterthought: 'On that thing?' He pointed to my bicycle. Pleased that I'd attracted some attention, I shrugged, and lifting my arms up skyward replied: 'Allah only knows. I wish to travel to Nouakchott, Insha Allah.'
The man introduced himself as Diur Fall, a Saharawi.
'I am the son of the desert,' he said proudly, and indeed, he looked the part. He wore by far the largest turban of all the passengers, and his face was sharp and gaunt. He looked at me through the same piercing eyes as that of the old man, and so I asked Diur why the old man seemed so aggrieved. Diur explained that many nomads disliked Toubabs because they thought that the Toubab did not like the nomad. I told him that that was ridiculous, because I wouldn't be wanting to speak with him otherwise. Diur turned briefly to say a few words to the old man, who then smiled an uneasy smile at me.
'Ingleez?' Diur ventured unexpectedly. What else? Apparently the last Ingleez he had seen was in the late 1960s, when a couple on motorbikes had crossed the Sahara from Algeria. It was a thought that conjured up images of two groovy and spaced easy-riding hippies freaking out and digging those mellow far-out cool desert vibes, man. If I ever cross the desert again, I swore, it would either be by camel or motorbike.
The old man, meanwhile, had clambered off the canisters in order to inspect my bicycle, and was gesturing at the water bottles strapped to the frame. He looked puzzled, so I said that he could have some if he wanted. But still he looked baffled, as though he expected them to be full of petrol. I tried to explain the bicycle to him (how does one explain a bicycle?) and pointed to my legs. To prove the point, I clambered down and took a sip from one of the bottles, before offering it to him. It was hardly surprising that he'd never seen a bicycle before. Most 'proper' nomads rarely if ever leave the desert fringes. The few that do manage to see the larger towns more often than not go in connection with smuggling: diamonds, gold and weapons.
Diur got up to examine my pedal machine when, at that very instant, the train jerked into motion and sent him sprawling into the goat and the girl, who started giggling. For a moment, Diur lay unceremoniously spread-eagled on the floor, his turban caught on the goat's horns. The rest of us, including the old man, started laughing. Diur picked himself up gingerly, his sheepishly grinning face flushed and embarrassed. Retrieving his turban in as dignified a manner as was possible, he turned to us and exclaimed: 'In the name of Allah the most Gracious and most Merciful, I hope that you are all pleased now!'
Over one hundred and fifty waggons long, and capable of carrying twenty-two thousand tons of ore, the train's full length of two and a half kilometres only became apparent as we snaked our way slowly around the circular track at the southern end of Cap Blanc. Soon, we were passing again through Point Central, the clouds of thick grey dust from the waggon tipper still billowing over the complex and into our faces. But the dust from Point Central paled into insignificance compared to the sand and dust thrown up by the howling wind and the speeding train. I was watched with intense curiosity as the Toubab draped his face with his turban, but even with the cheche wrapped tightly, there was little I could do to avoid the incessant onslaught. After an hour or so of tying and retying turbans, we all resigned ourselves to the fact that for the next day at least, our eyes would be almost constantly streaming and sore, and that there was nothing that could be done about it, for even closed eyes were found wanting.
Looking at the other passengers - who were all coated in the same drab dust as me - I was jolted to reflect on why I was actually sitting there as a stranger amidst all these strange people in this strange land. Simply saying that I hoped to travel through the desert to get to Senegal was an insufficient explanation. I found that as I had slowly travelled further south, and therefore further away from Europe and home, that travel per se had become not only a source of great pleasure, but something that was now necessary for my continued well-being. Even the five days that I had spent in the Canary Islands had found me bored and impatient, and only too anxious to be off again. Travel, like a virus, had infected my blood. Much as a junkie gets his fix of 'security' from the tip of a needle, I got mine from the road, from the constancy of movement. 'Our nature consists in motion;' wrote Pascal, 'complete rest is death.' Similarly, the Arabs advise: 'Change your dwelling place often, for the sweetness of life consists in variety.'
In Mauritania, I was to be pleased to find that I had lost my hectic haste. I no longer felt the need to charge blindly across the kilometres as I had done in the Western Sahara. I had decided that I was here to enjoy myself, to listen, to see, and to experience: to soak up experiences like a sponge soaks up water. I'd done enough already to absolve myself of my insecurity, and so I now felt refreshed, even innocent, and yet I was conscious that I was actually living out a dream. To live out a dream. Perhaps that was why I found myself here.
For whatever reason, I was once again travelling through hot and hostile desert. The same old descriptions, the same old desert. Screwing up my eyes, all I could see was a vast, flat void of sand, occasionally strangling an isolated tree or bush. With my eyes fully open, the desert was only an empty blinding pallor, enough to dazzle even the fiery bloodstone eyes of the Medusa herself, perpetually shocking one's mind and one's vision. Again, I felt the apprehension that one feels before launching into the unknown. As such this was adventure in its starkest form. The prospect of travelling alone through Mauritania excited and intimidated me - that blank corner which on ancient maps had been adorned with dragons and demons to signify the end of the world.
I was writing my diary when, out of the wind, I heard: 'Excuse me, Sir, are you acquainted with Chelsea?' The sudden appearance of outlandish English startled me greatly. A short, plump, middle-aged Liberian sidled up to me and introduced himself.
'Mister Jacob Clarkson, Sir, but please call me Clarkson.' Clarkson bore none of the features that distinguish the black nomadic Saharans from other blacks. The long gaunt faces, the wary penetrating eyes and the tight lips have all softened south of the desert. Clarkson's best friend, it transpired, had emigrated to London a few years earlier, to Chelsea, in fact. I was informed, rather proudly (and with no hint of irony) that Clarkson heralded from the 'Great Urban Metropolis of Monrovia,' a place that had already variously been described to me as an infernal nightmare, hell on earth and, worst of all, as bad as Lagos.
Clarkson was astonished that I, as a city dweller too, did not find nomads necessarily crude, vulgar, uncivilised, uncouth, primitive or even just plain stupid. 'Do you mean to say that you actually like these people?' As our conversation continued, I found Clarkson's seemingly irrational hatred of nomads increasingly irritating, as well as embarrassing. He represented everything that I was fleeing from, whilst to him I must undoubtedly have represented all the things that he craved. It was as though we had met along the same road, travelling in opposite directions. I have to admit, though, that it was only much later that I realised that Clarkson could hardly be blamed for his prejudice. For hundreds of years, long before the Europeans even set foot in Africa, both the Moors and the Tuareg had actively been engaged in the slave trade. Over the centuries, tens of millions of Negroes had been sold into shackles, to work not only for the Moors and the Tuareg who organised the hunts, but also for the Arabs of the Maghreb. By the time the Europeans arrived in West Africa, the practice of slavery was far from new, though colonial rule did help establish the trade more permanently and thoroughly than it had ever been before. In Mauritania, slavery was so well established, in fact, that it was only officially abolished in 1980! Even now, there are still an estimated 100,000 slaves in the country. It is hardly surprising then that blacks whose parents, or even themselves, had once lived in perpetual fear of the slavers, have reacted against that racism and violence by using it themselves. In Mauritania, the years since 1980 have seen an upsurge of racial tension between the Moors and the Negro communities in the south. After all, Mauritania's present frontiers were decided not by tribal, nor even by national or geographic considerations, but by the interests of colonial France. The racial problem was highlighted in October 1987 in an attempted coup by Negro army officers against the predominantly Moorish government, and thereafter, in bloody race riots and murders, which culminated two years after I left with Mauritania and Senegal severing both diplomatic and physical ties. But as I talked then with Clarkson, I found him stupid in his bigotry, and so (in my ignorance) I returned to my diary as soon as I could.
Towards evening, as the sun began its rapid flight from its daytime perch, Diur clambered over to talk me. With a dramatic flourish, he removed his turban to reveal a large oval scar on his forehead. 'A present from Morocco,' he said as he showed me the offending bullet, now hung on a chain. Then, in a deliberately dramatic whisper, he confessed that he had once fought with Polisario. That is, until the day he woke up in a hospital bed having miraculously survived that bullet.
That was in 1978, or so he said, for how it was possible to survive a bullet to the head that left such a scar was beyond my comprehension. 'I still fight in the Polisario,' he said, to my surprise. Rather than fight militarily, he was now on what he euphemistically referred to as service diplomatique for the Saharawan Arab Democratic Republic, the exiled Saharawi government based in the refugee camps at Tindouf. It was Diur's job to secure contacts, to organise the supply of school and agricultural materials, and to provide arms for the guerrillas in the desert. It would not surprise me if half the baggage that we were sitting on had contained munitions or other military provisions. It was probably also part of Diur's job to talk to foreigners. The war in the Western Sahara has dragged on for almost as long as the troubles in Lebanon, and yet whereas almost everyone is aware of the latter, hardly anyone in the West is aware even of the former's existence. It is not in the West's interests to let us be aware of this conflict, because Morocco is an ally, and a useful one at that. Morocco buys Western arms, leases bases to the United States and NATO, stands against communism and Islamic fundamentalism (and therefore Algeria), and, most recently, provided forces for the war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Until his injury, Diur had fought against both Morocco and Mauritania, but now that Mauritania was no longer involved, he told me that he considered the Moors to be both his friends and his comrades. Then how, I asked, did he feel about still fighting fellow Arabs and Muslims? 'They have occupied my country,' he said curtly, 'so how can they be my fellows?' The official Moroccan line, of course, is that they are not occupying the Western Sahara at all, but that they are historically entitled to it as part of Greater Morocco. That is to say, that King Hassan's government believes the Saharawis to be Moroccans, though that does not disguise the fact that most Saharawis do not see themselves as Moroccan, for surely then they would not have fled or have been expelled? Indeed, the guards that I had spoken to at the roadblock in Dakhla, all told of the general feeling among Moroccan soldiers that they had been posted in a hostile land. Playing the devil's advocate, I put it to Diur that the Moroccans were surely still good Arabs and good Muslims, irrespective of their government, and that therefore they were in the same boat as himself. 'On the contrary,' he replied, 'the Moroccans despise the nomad, and therefore they cannot be good Arabs or good Muslims.' Mauritania, he said, was to her credit one of the few countries where the nomad was not just tolerated, but welcomed. Why else, he asked, had Morocco built the system of defensive walls in the desert, if not to keep out the nomads?
The sun sank like a drop of blood into the sad Saharan night. The train rumbled on, and after a few hours, a few flickering lights appeared in the distance. The lights grew brighter, the train slowed down, and then stopped. Silence. This was evidently not Choum, for it was too early, and even in the dull obscurity, there was nothing at all to be seen except for the now huge outlines of the Azeffâl dunes, the train already having passed through a two hundred kilometre stretch of low, wavelike méréyé dunes. No one got off. Then, suddenly, the lights reappeared, this time unmistakable as the dancing headlights of vehicles driving alongside the railroad. Two open-topped jeeps drove slowly by, each containing eight men. Some wore light turbans, all wore khaki battledress and all were armed with Kalashnikov AK-47s. A couple of rocket-propelled grenade launchers were also visible. As they saw us, they stood up and shouted greetings, raising clenched fists into the cool night air. The old man, Diur, and most of the other passengers on our waggon, did likewise.
'They are my brothers,' said Diur, after they had passed. 'May Allah give them strength and be with them always.' I only found out later that it was the fifteenth anniversary, almost to the day, of the first ever Polisario offensive (against an outpost of Spanish Tropas Nómadas at El-Khanga in eastern Saguia el-Hamra).
The train trundled off once more, and conversation dwindled as tiredness set in. I yawned, turned and tried to fall asleep at the same time as keeping a hold on the green netting to stop myself from falling off the train. I'd been told that Choum would be reached after midnight.
I awoke suddenly, sweating and covered in sand. The steady rumbling and hissing of brakes had stopped and three hurricane lamps were burning in the distance. The only other light came from the stars, but the dusty sky made them indistinct. This didn't seem to be Choum either, but when I turned around, there remained only one other passenger.
'What's up?' I asked. He shrugged his shoulders.
'Where are we? Is this Choum?' Again, he shrugged his shoulders. Then he pointed to his chest and, apologetically, said 'Guinea.' Guinea Bissau, south of Senegal, was a Portuguese possession until 1974, and this guy spoke only pidgin Portuguese and Mandingo. Realising the futility of asking him, I shouted the same questions to a group of figures huddled beside the train, but heard no reply. And then, with a jolt, the train started off again, veering to the left and straightening out towards the Pole Star. Damn.
I moved to sit cross-legged on the floor beside the Guinean. He had an amiable face, small, round and cheerful, topped with short black hair. His head looked like it was supported by his turban which was coiled like a snake around his neck. We decided that the best thing was sleep.
The train had stopped again. The sun burned my skin. I tried to open my eyes, but found that dust had fused with my tears to stick my eyelids firmly together. I rubbed them with my knuckles, and stared out at the blurred desert. About thirty carriages had been uncoupled overnight, and we were left stranded in a siding somewhere between Choum and F'dérik. Or, to be more precise, we were sandwiched between the northernmost spur of the Azeffâl dunes and the southernmost spur of the El Hammâmi dunes, surrounded by nothing but bright orange sand. For a while, I considered cycling the two hundred or so kilometres back to Choum but, on reflection, decided against the idea, for the sand was both far too thick and too soft to cycle over, and there would be no guarantee of water. In 1963, the year the railway was completed, these naked sands were covered with grasses that provided enough grazing for thousands of camels and goats, and the road that straddled the railway was proudly known as the 'Trans-Mauritanian Highway'. It was said to be completely passable by all kinds of vehicles in all kinds of weather. Twenty-five years later, the road had vanished into oblivion and there was not a single blade of grass to be seen. Even the rails were only just peeking out from beneath their sandy shrouds. Moreover, the railroad was supposedly still mined in parts, and was littered everywhere with viciously large fragments of metal from abandoned vehicles, from the construction of the railway, and from the war. It is a graveyard of man's iron machines in a fluid desert of sand, and a poetic justice of sorts.
The sun shot up quickly, that blasted sun, and the Guinean and I soon found ourselves sheltering in the gap between the waggon and the raised base of a container crate. There was no sign of a locomotive, and we began to get worried. A short while later, and to our surprise, we were joined by a thin black man with long frizzy hair who had been sat on another waggon but had seen me pissing beside the train. He introduced himself by holding out his hand, saying: 'I am Mahmoud. I am Mauritanian.' I responded in kind, we shook hands, and that was that. Although Mahmoud didn't look Mauritanian, and his greeting was certainly somewhat shorter and more to the point than was usual, he lived in Choum and offered to put us up if we needed to rest. Apart from that, he didn't say much more except to express his relief at having found some other people on the train. He too had missed the stop the night before.
At around midday, with the sun blazing down from directly overhead, a locomotive appeared from the north to couple with our stranded rump of train, shattering the strange silence of the desert. The two-tiered diesel-electric loco was brightly painted in green, yellow and white livery, and bore the name 'Alsthom'. Before long the train jerked into motion and we were off again, but to our dismay in a northerly direction. Even Mahmoud didn't know why. Before long, the train slowed and then stopped. We clambered off to see what was happening. Nearby, a small group of workers were busy hauling wide plastic piping towards a container waggon further down the train. Once attached, the distant and muffled thumping of a motor started up. We were told that we were near Touâjîl. With the notable exception of Chinguetti, there are few other significant oases in Mauritania. Those that do exist are either pumping stations such as Touâjîl and Bou-Lanouar, or else simple hand-dug wells that quickly become silted-up or else collapse in on themselves. Even so, water can generally be found in most areas of the Sahara, if one digs deep enough, though in most places it is too salty to be drinkable. Criminally, however, the massive overuse of this invaluable and irreplaceable underground resource by short-sighted irrigation projects - notably those of Algeria and Libya - is fast reducing the water table. At Al-Kufrah, in Libya, irrigation projects are conservatively estimated to be reducing the water table at the alarming rate of 35 metres every forty years.
The train itself was taking on supplies for settlements of nomads-turned-railwaymen along the line to the south. The railway is laid over both 'active' and 'stabilised' dunes, and therefore requires constant maintenance to prevent its erosion or undermining. Water is given to the new railway people as a form of payment by the mining company, SNIM, in return for the maintenance of part of the track. During the day, we stopped numerous times to give water to these settlers small and invariably glum-looking groups of people who would crowd beside the water waggon with various receptacles, and who would offer us, as travellers, the traditional Arab gifts of sun-dried dates and the deliciously refreshing zrig, a mixture of cold water, sugar, sour milk culture and milk. Their kindness was all the more touching because we were only passing by on the train, and had no real need of their hospitality. Their kindness was such that we felt as though we had been invited into their dwellings as honoured guests of the family. I felt sorry that these people had been forced to give up their ancient existence in return for dependency on the mining company. Desertification, combined with the power of SNIM (which controls the wells), has effectively rendered these people powerless to choose their own destinies, for they have all long since sold or lost their livestock, which makes returning to a nomadic existence near impossible. It is said that only the richest can still afford the luxury of being nomads, for nowadays, a life of wandering is indeed a luxury.
A few hours later, the train stopped again, this time in the middle of nowhere. A few minutes later, as we were beginning to wonder what had gone wrong, a company of eighty or ninety soldiers appeared in unison from behind some sand dunes to the left of the track, also to refill on water. Mahmoud anxiously advised me to hide on the blind side of the train because I might cause trouble with them. After all, we had passed a Polisario unit the night before. Instead, I just readjusted my turban to cover my face and neck. So long as I didn't speak, I reckoned I could easily pass for a white Moor, or so I flattered myself in believing.
This was the aptly named oasis of Châr, which, in Hassiniyah, signifies an armed conflict bereft of religious significance. Châr is an important and abundant source of brackish water. It is adequate for most purposes except drinking, and hence the need for the soldiers to fill up on fresh water from Touâjîl. The importance of Châr stems not only from its abundant water supply, but from its position. Fifty kilometres north of Choum, during the war with Polisario it was of great strategic importance (though admittedly of little effect) in protecting both the railway and the Adrar massif (further to the south) from guerrilla attack. Nominally, it is still important in ensuring that Polisario units do not pass through Mauritanian territory in their raids against Moroccan bases, but the effectiveness (or indeed willingness) of Mauritania to prevent Polisario's incursions is at the very least questionable. This was well illustrated by the fact that the Polisario jeeps of last night would have passed very near here, and had evidently not been challenged. The Moroccan government has frequently accused Mauritania of actively allowing Polisario guerrillas free passage across its territory, and has threatened in the past to pursue raiders across the border. On the question of aiding and abetting the guerrillas, Mauritania has always claimed that with only about ten thousand soldiers, airmen and sailors all found, it can hardly be expected to prevent all incursions (the Polisario fighters are estimated at 15,000 to 25,000). More to the point, Mauritania can ill-afford to once again become embroiled in the conflict, for the country is bankrupt. Indeed, hardship caused by the war led directly to the 1978 coup d'état that installed the military government presently still in power. Having subsequently survived two more coup attempts, the political situation in Mauritania is hardly one that can support another conflict.