Donn and I have been spending quite a bit of time at Barnes & Noble lately. He was given a $25 gift card as a thank you for some work he did, and for some reason wouldn’t give it to me.

I have explained to him that I’m sure the nice people at the airlines won’t mind if our suitcases are overweight. Airlines are casual about these things, I tell him. But he won’t be convinced, and is really adamant about No More Books.

While we were there, he was perusing photo books he wanted and didn’t get (he’s nothing if not consistent), and music CD s that were too expensive, and I was browsing and adding titles to the mental list I keep yet always manage to forget if I‘m in a library or actually have money in a bookstore. I came across a book called My Mercedes is Not for Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou…An Auto-Misadventure Across the Sahara” Fascinated, I picked it up. I flipped through, found the chapter on Senegal (called “All Africans are Cheats”), went back a bit knowing the previous chapter would be on Mauritania which borders Senegal to the north, and sure enough, found it in the chapter titled “Heart of Darkness.”

This guy HATED Mauritania (in case the chapter headings weren’t clues). I can’t quote him exactly, but he went on and on about how dusty and ugly and backward Nouakchott was, and how terrible the driving was. (Actual quote: Drivers there fear neither God nor man.) Considering that this guy drove from Europe all the way down to Benin or Togo, through many African countries, and that he singled out Mauritania for traffic comments, makes me feel somewhat vindicated in my own complaints. Now do you believe me when I said you had to experience it to be able to even imagine it?

Mauritania can be hard to love, with the exception of those remarkable individuals who thrive on sandstorms and being cheated by random strangers. I have added this new book to my list of things written about Mauritania in English, mostly travel books by people who visited most of the North African and Saharan countries, all of them negative reviews. That’s one of the reasons why I want to write a book about our experiences there.

Yes, there are a lot of things to dislike; the dust, the desert, the trash, the habit the general populace has of viewing the streets as their toilet, and squatting down right in public wherever or whenever they feel the need. But there’s a lot more to the country; there are treasures lying just below the surface for those who take the time and interest to find them. The warmth and hospitality of the people; the pace of life where a friend takes precedence over anything; the determination of my students to succeed in spite of the odds stacked against them; the fascination of having a glimpse into a culture that has changed very little since the time of Abraham–all these things are there and available to discover.

Mauritania has been in the news this week. There was another coup, and the country’s first democratically-elected president was deposed in favor of another military junta. Coups seem to be a habit in Mauritania; in our 6 years there, we experienced several coup attempts and one other successful one. I have written of this here and here. Now, the “Purple Rap Candidate” is gone and there’s yet another stern-faced guy in camouflage taking his place, promising elections, promising transparency and proclaiming that this was necessary for the good of the country.
According to reports, the streets are calm. One article mentioned people joking in the airport, which made me smile as we made many of our own jokes during various coups and coup attempts. We’ve heard from friends, who report that their lives are continuing as normal under the wide and desolate desert skies.

When you lived for a while in a place, it will always hold a place in your heart if for no other reason than the place it holds in your own personal history. The patina of time adds a luminescence to even the intensely negative times, times that were fiercely experienced yet reluctantly lived through. Our memories of Mauritania hold plenty of those times; the murder of a close friend, the uncertainty that permeated our lives during the first few weeks of the Iraq war. The 3 weeks of sandstorms, triple-digit heat, intestinal parasites and camel hump dinners we endured one summer in a desolate desert village. The locust plague. The constant dishonesty and corruption we encountered. But there are many good memories too; beach barbecues, cool evenings in our gazebo, desert camping trips lit by a million distant stars. Times with friends when we made connections that transcended barriers of nationality, religion, worldview. Connections made over newborn babies, over feasts, over shared language trials.

There’s a lot more to Mauritania than frequent coups, sand-filled meals, suspicious strangers. There are friends there, and for their sake, I wish this country peace, safety and prosperity.