When oil was discovered near the coast of Mauritania and it was announced that Woodside, an Australian company, would be moving several families to Nouakchott in the process of developing it, all the homeowners in the area got dollar signs in their eyes. Houses that had been renting for 100,000 ouguiya per month (approx $400) had their rents raised overnight to $600, or $800. People announced prices of 2000 euros, for a house in Nouakchott, where the streets aren’t paved and you have to keep the door in the wall locked or a herd of goats will come in and eat your garden, where electricity and water work most of the time and even bad housekeepers dust daily because the dust is so bad.

We pointed this out to our friend, who had started working as a housing agent. “These prices are RIDICULOUS!” we griped. “After all, this is Nouakchott, not New York.”

He thought about this for a while. Next time we saw him, he told us, “Nouakchott is the New York of Mauritania.”

Of course he’s right, in a way. Nouakchott is the closest thing to a city in the country; it’s the capital, and just got its very first ATM machines, and DSL, so modernity is right round the corner. Also sometimes they water the palm trees planted in a line down the main streets, although sometimes they just uproot all the dead dry stalks and start over.

But if Nouakchott is the New York of Mauritania, it is also the Tunbridge Wells of Mauritania, or the Kuala Lampur of Mauritania, or the Tokyo. You get the idea. It’s not really anything like any of these other cities, but it’s more like them than the dusty villages of the desert.

We got an email the other day from Tim, who just got back to Nouakchott after a summer in the US. It was a painful reminder of what it’s often like when you first get back: they arrived at 3:30 a.m. but didn’t get into their house till about 5, at which point they discovered the power was out and the phone had been cut and their car wouldn’t start. Life’s like that in the teeming metropolis that is Nouakchott.

After I read the email, I experienced a strong sense of contentment that I wasn’t in Nouakchott right now. September is basically the worst month there—your skin prickles with heat and humidity, the nights are heavy and still, and the electricity fluctuates with wild abandon, always going out on the hottest nights when you really need AC if you are going to get any sleep.  I know that my friends there have several such nights in store for them in the upcoming weeks, if they haven’t had one yet already. And then there are the many people who live in houses without electricity. 

This is not to say that I don’t miss things about Mauritania. Donn and I were talking about it last night, over a late-night snack that’s not going to help me fit into all these new clothes I’ve had to buy. (Funny how my thin cotton skirts and sandals aren’t so comfortable anymore now that it’s started raining and the temperature has dropped to the level we get in Nouakchott on a January night)

Donn misses the lack of rules and regulation in everyday life. People have more time in Mauritania. He’d stop by the gas station and chat with the men working there, who’d become his friends over the years. They would teach him phrases in Pulaar, and he’d ask about their families and friends. The lack of regulation has its downsides—for example, a man might be smoking as he pumped our gas, a practice frowned upon in the US. But it’s strange to go from there to here, where the kids can’t rollerblade without a helmet and we have to read a whole manual practically before we can go for a car ride, to learn who can sit where and if they should still technically have booster seats.

Me, I miss the people. I miss my friends. I miss Aisha, who’s going to give birth any day now. I miss Ghalouiya, who just decided not to become someone’s second wife, and whose mother makes the best harira soup I’ve ever had. I miss all the people I was just getting to know, in the way that relationships always seem to develop, to open out into possibilities, right when you’re leaving. I miss Michelle, and Tim and Debbie, and Jeremy and Steph, and so many more. I miss my life there.

It’s Ramadan, which isn’t my favorite time of year—people are tired during the day and out-of-sorts, it’s impossible to get things done because everyone takes time off to sleep. The mosques put new batteries in their loudspeakers, so that normal conversation (or sleep) is impossible during the broadcasts. But at nightfall, for the breaking of the fast, we “infidels” are sometimes invited to people’s homes, where we eat dates and crème fraiche, harira soup (made with lamb and garbanzo beans and lemon and spices—delicious), bread. We drink tea and recline on matlas and talk about our days. People have time. We miss that.

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