Movement and Stasis: Contemporary Mauritanian Literature


By July Blalack, Words without Borders, May 2021

The release of the Hollywood film The Mauritanian earlier this year made a harrowing tale of torture and injustice at Guantánamo Bay the first Mauritanian story to truly reach the world. When the book the film was based on—Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi—came out in 2015, there were only three books written by Mauritanian authors available in English.[1] The number of Mauritanian works which had been translated into other languages or won regional literary awards could be counted on one hand. However, the world literature market’s lack of interest in Mauritania—a country simultaneously Arab, West African, Saharan, and Sahelian—does not reflect its overall literary vitality.

The country’s position—straddling the Arabophone and Francophone spheres and bringing Pulaar, Wolof, Soninke, and Arab-Moorish cultures into contact with each other—lends itself to an outward-facing literature of movement, migration, and adaptation. Yet, paradoxically, Mauritania’s state of interethnic division and resistance to hybridity also brings a sense of stasis to these very same stories.

After Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960, conflicts over the character of the new nation-state played out in language policy. While Arabic speakers associated French with colonization, speakers of Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke associated arabicization with racism. In addition to interethnic tensions, occupation-based caste structures dividing nobles from craftsmen, musicians, and—in Arab Mauritanians’ case—religious scholars still influence opportunities, social status, and marriages.[2]

Yet, whether written in Arabic or in French, whether sweeping across the Sahara or tracing the Atlantic coastline, Mauritanian literature foregrounds characters on the move. Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s The Desert and the Drum (2016) alternates between life in an Arab encampment and the rebel Rayhana’s breakaway move to the city. Aichetou’s Awaiting the Stoning (2013) and Al-Sunnī ‘Abdāwa’s The Ghosts (1998) follow the nomadic routes most Arab Mauritanians lived by until decades of drought and desertification forced them into settled life on the fringes of ever-expanding cities. This migration to the city and its attendant sense of alienation is mournfully documented by Aḥmad wuld ʻAbd al-Qadir in The Gazing Eyes (1999) and Turbah Mint ʻAmmar in Two Faces in a Man’s Life (2008). Other writers show Mauritanians seeking their fortunes as far afield as Angola, as in Muḥammad Maḥmūd Wuld al-Shaykh Aḥmad’s The Chaos of Dreams: Diary of an Immigrant to Angola (2011), or opting for remote desert retreats when the promises of immigration fail as in Daḥḥān (2016) by Muḥammad wuld Muḥammad Sālim.

Yet, alongside this element of physical movement and momentum, a heavy sense of social stasis permeates Mauritanian literature as the enduring legacies of slavery, racism, and rigid caste structures keep protagonists in their place. Mimoun of The Shepherd of Fort El Barka (2015) comes to see himself as more than the caste he was born into, but is unable to move those around him to do so. Mhemid of Outside Servitude watches other Haratin—Black descendants of former slaves who speak Arabic and share many cultural practices with Arab Mauritanians—formally leave slavery only to find themselves economically unable to cut off their former masters. Cheikh Nouh’s Adabai shows that while the Iggawen (griot) caste preserves the histories, glories, and genealogies of others through their songs, this music only speaks to a small segment of the population.[3] The 1989 border war with Senegal and its aftereffects haunt Bios Diallo’s Life with a Begging Bowl (2011) and Muḥammad Fāḍil ʻAbd al-Laṭīf’s award-winning novel Hospitality (2013). Finally, for those protagonists who do escape—such as the narrator of Mist from a City That Rains (2015) by ʻAbdallāhi Aḥmad Maḥmūd and that of Munina Blanche (2014) by Muḥammad ould Amīn—their new circumstances only make them obsess even more over everything connected to the past.

As such, the five stories and two poems presented here engage with the forces drawing Mauritanians across race, caste, and language to move and migrate, as well as those forces that confine them to predetermined social roles. The dialectic of movement and stasis propel each text even as their styles and foci diverge. In Moussa Ould Ebnou’s Barzakh: The Land of In-between, Gara travels further and further into the future, searching for a better civilization. He starts in the period of the trans-Saharan slave trade, then moves to the beginning of the French conquests of Mauritania before finally arriving in an imagined future where toxic waste facilities poison the Sahara. Gara finds that while technology advances, exploitation simply shifts shape.

In Bios Diallo’s “Say to the Tomb,” however, the future becomes not a repetition of the past, but rather a language that is shared by all Mauritanians regardless of their mother tongue. A politically engaged author who takes inspiration from Francophone Négritude literature, Diallo connects Mauritania’s struggle to form a united national identity with similar issues elsewhere on the continent. He dedicates La Saigne, the forthcoming book this poem is taken from, to the Malian city of Timbuktu.

Haratin poet and activist Cheikh Nouh’s novel Adabai (2019) shows the arbitrary nature of narratives surrounding bloodlines and purity, recording their real, deadly consequences even while showing their patent falsehood.[4] This extract captures the thoughts of the villager Musa as he meanders between his experiences growing up in Adabai, the village’s founding myth, and the community’s forbidden loves.

Herself a product of migration and métissage, feminist poet Mariem Mint Derwich pays tribute to the women of the diaspora, hailing them as the transmitters, renewers, and revitalizers of culture. In her poem “You Will Tell Them,” published originally in Anthologie des femmes poètes du monde arabe (2019), she asserts that Mauritanian cultural memory remains wherever its citizens move, declaring “You will inscribe in their blazing gazes, your name / my name / their names / And, in the infinite that is, you will become a country within.”

Aichetou, who grew up in a nomadic encampment, takes us through an outsider’s drifting, amorphous impressions of one such camp. Her historical novel I Am N’Daté . . . (2018) situates the history of slavery in Mauritania within the larger regional context of conflicts and struggles in seventeenth-century West Africa. The narrator, N’Daté, proudly claims her origins from the Balanta People of Guinea-Bissau. However, after hostilities with a neighboring community, she finds herself far from the forests she grew up in, sold into an Arab encampment. Alone with her story and unable to speak the language of the nomads, she observes the lives of the women around her closely and gradually learns of their stories and dreams.

Looking forward rather than to history, Mamadou Kalidou Ba’s resistance literature explores whether interethnic solidarity and nonviolent activism could be the answer to Mauritania’s social stasis. In “A Tactical Alliance,” from his novel The Peaceful Resistance (2017)two activist groups meet to discuss joining forces in a different type of confrontation with the state.

Finally, looking outward, Ahmed Isselmou’s science fiction novel Outsider Mode (2021) imagines a new currency that links value directly to an individual’s productivity, regardless of their nation’s exchange rate. Invented by a resident of Futurcity and adopted around the world, the T-coin becomes a global economic driving force, only to find its strength challenged by a devastating cyberattack.

While there are still fewer than ten Mauritanian books available in English translation, there has been a steady growth in regional and international recognition of the country’s literature over the past five years. Since the publication of Guantánamo Diary, the aforementioned Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s novel Le Tambour de Larmes (2016) was translated into English as The Desert and the Drum and was awarded the Ahmed Korouma Prize. Muḥammad Fāḍil ʻAbd al-Laṭīf’s second novel won the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture’s Naguib Mahfouz Award, and Aḥmad ould al-Ḥafīẓ’s The Grapes of Wrath (2016) made the Sheikh Zayed Book Award longlist. Cheikh Aḥmad al-Bān’s first novel is also due to be translated into English after winning a Katara Award last October. Lastly, in the month of The Mauritanian’s release, Mohamedou Ould Slahi broke away from the endless burden of telling and retelling his story of torture and survival by publishing an epic adventure novel in English. This issue aims to maintain this momentum by moving more of Mauritania’s vibrant literature, in both Arabic and French, into the Anglophone sphere.


© 2021 by July Blalack. All rights reserved.

[1] The other English-language Mauritanian books were The Ignored Cries of Pain and Injustice from Mauritania (2011) by Sidi Sene; Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye (2014); and Mohamed Bouya Bamba’s self-published novella Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language (2011). There were also some academic books and articles written by Mauritanians in English.

[2] See Epic Traditions of Africa by Stephen Paterson Belcher (p. 9–13); “Popular Culture in Senegal: Blending the Secular and the Religious” by Fallou Ngom in Music, Performance and African Identities edited by Toyin Falola and Tyler Fleming (p. 100); “Mauritania” by Constanze Weise in Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society, vol. 2.

[3] See “The Griot Tradition in Ḥassāniyya Music: The Iggāwen” by John Shoup in Quaderni di Studi Arabi, Nuova Serie, vol. 2 (2007), pp. 95–102

[4] For more information on narratives surrounding bloodsucking, see Erin Pettigrew’s article “The Heart of the Matter: Bloodsucking Accusations Along the Slave Routes of Mauritania.”

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