My neighbours are putting a permanent tent on their roof. So far they’ve got the wood frame, covered in tightly-stretched material, and now they’re putting a sort of chicken wire round it, over which they’ll put mosquito netting. I’m sure it will come in handy as a sleeping area in the hot season, which we’re heading into.

These permanent tents are a fixture in Nouakchott, no matter the socio-economic status of the family. We have one too—we call it the gazebo, and sometimes we drag out the matlas and cushions and sit there with friends, but everyone else refers to it as our khaima, our tent. This is a culture that until recently was nomadic, and that still celebrates the nomad. Every summer, as soon as school lets out, there is an exodus from the city—pick-up trucks or small sedans piled high with all the household furniture, crammed with entire families, heading east into the desert. Families return to tiny desert villages for months on end; some live in tents after the rains, and drink camel’s milk and eat dates. This is considered the height and depth of Mauritanian culture—the deepest and best experience that life has to offer.

Poor families live in their tents, often pitched on a scrap of land between the beautiful villas of the rich. This sharp juxtaposition of two opposites is common here, in a culture that is changing so quickly you can get whiplash just watching it. Most Mauritanians, both men and women, still wear traditional garb, but it’s common to see a Moorish man, in a long flowing pale blue robe, driving a brand-new Mercedes while talking on a cell phone. Another man, in a suit coat and tie, sits in the passenger seat. On the major thoroughfare that runs from Morocco down through Senegal, connecting the entire West Coast of Africa, donkey carts slow traffic to a standstill. Sometimes when I pick up the kids from school in the heart of the city, I see cows standing mute in a bit of a shade. Herds of camels trot sedately down the street—in fact, at our old house, near to the French Embassy, our nearest neighbours were a herd of camels. Here is a picture of our car, with Donn’s surfboard on top, and the camels passing by. A friend told us that their owner “loves those camels better than his own daughters,” and certainly the camels were well-tended. I have no idea about the daughters!

Camels and car.jpg

The love affair of the nomad with the camel continues unabated, although nowadays camels are transported long distances in the back of pick-up trucks. It’s quite a sight, although it is difficult for Americans, raised on movies that say things like “no spider was harmed in the making of this film” at the end, to watch the process of the camel being loaded or unloaded. First the camel is forced to kneel, then ropes are tied around its knees (camels are double-jointed). Another rope in the mouth holds down the tongue, a sensitive part. Then, while men hang onto these ropes, a group of other men hoists the camel up, while it tries to whip its long neck round and bite them. Sometimes they drop it. The camel bellows. I’ll try to get a picture, although in our new house we don’t have camel neighbours—just goats, who try to get in and eat our garden, donkeys, and the wild dogs and cats—all these are common in all areas of the city.

 

SIF: Click on the thumbnail picture to see it bigger. It took me 2 days to get this picture to upload!

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