Before we moved to Mauritania, I read everything I could lay my hands on that had been written about the desert country about to become my new home. Perhaps you will not be surprised to know that wasn’t much. I could not find a book, in English, with Mauritania as its subject. The best I could do were books written by people who had traveled through the Sahara, who had visited Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco and Mauritania.
In general, these travelers loved Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco, but they didn’t love Mauritania. They found it hot and dusty and dirty, and they found the people isolated, suspicious, even hostile. I think what really determined their reaction was the city of Nouakchott which, I must admit, can be isolated, suspicious and even hostile, not to mention hot, dusty and dirty.
The one writer I found who actually seemed to like the country, to accept it as he found it and respond to the people with equanimity, was Quentin Crewe who wrote In Search of the Sahara. A British journalist with MS, confined to a wheelchair, he gathered a group and headed through the desert in the mid-80s in two Unimogs. Crewe is a great writer, and I appreciate that he includes a lot of the history of Europeans in the Sahara, although I skimmed those parts because what I really wanted to learn about was the Sahara in the mid-80s.
He writes of Oulata (where we visited ourselves, one Spring Break, and that was the trip where we nicknamed our guide Uncle Pervie cuz he wouldn’t stop holding Ilsa’s hand even when we told him not to, and that was also the trip where we saw the sleeping crocodile less than 10 feet from Elliot who was shouting, “LOOK!” It was a great trip.). He comes through Nouakchott and they head up the beach to Nouadhibou, because of course the road between Mauritania’s two main cities was another 20 years away from completion. He sees the great fishing grounds before they were depleted, and sees the fishermen and the dolphins working together to allow both man and dolphin to catch and eat fish. He recognizes heat and dust and dirt and suspicion, but he transcends it because he begins with a different sort of attitude. And, heading north of Nouadhibou towards the Moroccan border, their Unimog hits a landmine and blows up! Everyone survives, but they have to fly out. I’ve heard there are still land mines along that border, and when Donn went there I warned him not to wander off. He gave me a look. In general, it’s best not to wander along borders away from official crossings but in full view of them.
Last month, Donn’s sister and her husband came to see us (YAAY!) and of course we went to Powells. We always go to Powells. Most of our friends are avid readers, and even if they’re not, it’s a Portland landmark. I am always up for a trip to Powells, even if the urgency has been lost since I started this gig with 5 Minutes for Books, which guarantees that I always have a guilt-inducing stack I’m working my way through. (I am greedy when it comes to free books.)
I was wandering through the travel section, and I saw a copy of In Search of the Sahara! It’s been out of print for years, and I’d forgotten about it. Only $6! I picked it up and it smelled musty and damp and loved , that smell of old books that seems to be dying out in this brave new world where Powells only buys your newest, most pristine books, and even I got a Kindle at Christmas. Of course I bought the book, and I’ve been enjoying it. It’s really fun to reread his descriptions all these years later (I initially got the book from the library in the late 90s) and after visiting the places described.
On that visit, I also saw copies of all the books I own on the Sahara (Sahara Unveiled, William Langewiesche’s similar trip from Algeria down across Mali and Mauritania; his account is so depressing that it scared me to death about moving there; and Mali Blues, in which the rather clueless Lieve Joris travels from Dakar, Senegal, along the bottom of Mauritania to Mali, where she interviews musicians. In one of my favorite examples of her obtuseness, she is visiting a French friend in Senegal and sees his child leave her clothes on the floor, and judges, because the child obviously only does that because she has a maid, thereby revealing herself as both childless and unmarried.) It was a little weird, like someone else had collected the same books and decided to get rid of them.
I was at Powells just before Christmas and I picked up an atlas put out by the Onion, flipped it open at random, and started that choked-down quiet giggle one gets in bookstores, shaking with laughter and blocking the aisle. It was so funny! I bought it for Donn and we’ve had lots of fun going through it. My favorite page is Sudan–slogan “All Better Now, Thanks to You,” which goes on to claim that the government, on hearing of a woman in Iowa wearing a “Save Darfur” t-shirt, was overcome with shame and changed their ways. They present Malaysia as a place for jihadists to vacation, relax, loosen their suicide belts.
But they go too far. I understand–how funny can one be about places like the Democratic Republic of Congo? Still, there’s a kind of anger that comes through, a slamming of anything that is not how the editors think the world should be, which is great if you happen to agree with them, and belittling if you don’t. That may be okay for a satirical atlas, but it’s a poor attitude for a traveler.