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Although both were settled by people related to each other and both have the root “Moor” in their names, there are many differences between the two neighboring countries in Africa where I have lived. This is part one of a semi-regular series in which I will choose a topic at random and natter on about it for hours.  Today’s topic: Sharks

Mauritania is an isolated, conservative country. I have never seen a Mauritanian woman in public who wasn’t wearing a muluffa–never once, in 6 years. Mauritanians don’t really go to the beach, and when they do, it’s a treat to see them fully clothed, dipping just one toe in the water, reminiscent of photos of Victorian-era Americans strolling on the beach in button-up boots. Once, at a beach close to town, Donn spotted a Frenchman in a Speedo chatting with two Mauritanian men whose long, pale blue robes swept to the sand. Another time, we were on vacation in Senegal. Some Senegalese sported swimsuits; those who couldn‘t afford them simply stripped down to their underwear and plunged into the waves. We spotted two Mauritanian women in mulaffas on the beach, who had rolled up their mulaffas to their shoulders and obviously felt very bold and near-nude, showing off their upper arms like that!

Swimming is not something that has arrived in this desert land, and I’ve heard of kids growing up along the Atlantic coast or on the banks of the Senegal River who never learn, and who have fallen in and drowned. This seems incredible to me but I have it on good evidence.

In the 6 years we lived in Mauritania, we went to the beach nearly weekly. We would drive about 15 km out of town, north of the fishing village, and far enough out for privacy. There are no laws in Mauritania that would prohibit a Western woman wearing a swimsuit at the beach, but I don’t know many women who enjoy the feeling of being on display. Sometimes, fishermen would come across our little bathing party, and they were usually fascinated. Once, two young men sat down on a dune with huge smiles on their faces and stared at us. You could see them thinking that this was even better than television! We sent Donn to send them away.

But I’m getting off my topic, which is sharks.

Mauritania was until recently home to the world’s richest fishing grounds, although they’re being over-fished at a startling rate. Nonetheless, it’s not unusual to walk along the beach and see squid, dolphin, sting-rays, blowfish, cuttlefish, and more–washed up on shore, or flung out as useless from some local fisherman’s net.

We didn’t see too many sharks on all those beach visits, and for that I was thankful. I don’t like sharks in the water with me, because their teeth are sharper than mine, for one, and their eyesight is better. I feel at a disadvantage in spite of my superior intelligence and ability to type very quickly and play Pathwords on Facebook. But one memorable day, we did see, and photograph, a shark. It was very small and quite dead. And, my sister-in-law reassured me that this kind eat crabs, not people, which wasn’t as comforting as she apparently felt it to be–according to Donn’s research, most sharks chomp an arm or leg to see what you are, then spit you out. You then either bleed to death or your blood incites them to a frenzy and they eat you anyway. Yeah.

Here in Rabat, those weekly beach visits haven’t happened. First of all, we don’t have a car yet. Second of all, this winter was cold and rainy, enough to discourage even my fanatical husband (he grew up in California and Hawaii, which explains a lot, actually). We have only been to the beach as a family one time in the past 8 months, although he’s made several surfing trips with friends. It was a beautiful beach, complete with out-of-control horses and prickly dark purple sea urchins, their dried shells fun to crunch underneath a sandaled foot but live ones not so fun for Donn, who managed to get a few prickles embedded in his feet.

I saw my first Moroccan shark the other day at Marjane, carefully arranged on ice. Marjane is another difference between these two countries. Mauritania has nothing even close to Marjane, which is this enormous “hypermarche”–a store that sells groceries, toys, clothes, appliances, and dishes. Like France’s Carrefour, Marjane is always located with a little mini-mall, and, at least in Rabat, always has a Pizza Hut near it. Mmmm, Pizza Hut. I hadn’t eaten at one since high school until we moved to Morocco, and I’ve eaten at one here 3 times in the past 8 months. Obviously my resistance to fast food, or whiny children, is weakening. Also, in my own defense, we don’t have Vincente’s or Flying Pie here, and non-American pizza seems to come only with a cardstock-thin crust.

Mauritania has no chain stores at all unless you count Orca, which I believe also has a location in Dakar. A place with no copyright laws, it boasts a “McDonalds”–a basic hole-in-the-wall storefront in one of Nouakchott’s slums, which I’m betting is the world’s only McDonald’s that serves chebojen (fish and rice) but no hamburgers. It also has a “Pizza Hot” and several other knock-offs, my personal favorite being the Michelin man.

Rabat, especially, is like a different world than Nouakchott. (Although, to be honest, it’s Nouakchott that’s the different world. That’s where the name of my blog comes from) Here, streets are paved, there are green spaces, and it is possible to acquire power and water at your house on the same day they were requested (that is not urban myth. It happened to us). In Nouakchott, I hear that more and more streets are being paved, but it wasn’t unusual for the phone company to perform a pre-emptive strike and cut off power before our bill was even due.

I miss our beach visits, but I prefer my sharks on ice.

Also, whatever these appetizing things are.


And these.


Bon appetit!

So, to sum up: In Mauritania, we saw sharks on the beach. Here, we see sharks on ice. Viva la difference!

April 2009

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