When you live in a place for 6 years, you come to think of it as home, even as you still refer to your country of origin as “home.” This is a conundrum familiar to travelers and expatriates alike. The result, naturally enough, is that you never feel completely at home in any single place again. There’s always something you miss.
We lived in Mauritania long enough for a bit of the desert to enter our souls. But we have been gone for as long as we’d lived there, and Morocco was very different. What would it be like to return after 6 years?
In a word, it was disorienting. As we drove from the airport into the dust-filled midnight, Donn said, “It hasn’t changed at all.” But it had. In the morning, we saw the water. Everyone had been telling us that the city had grown and grown and grown, but it took us several days to see all the ways that it had.
This is an example, an enormous fountain (?) being put in at the carrefour nearest our old house. Presumably they’ll unwrap the dolphins at some point. Can’t wait to see how long this monstrosity is used. How long before it’s left to publicly crumble, like the palm trees they used to plant for visiting dignitaries and then didn’t water once the dignitaries had left?
That first afternoon, Donn and I wandered out to begin to look for old friends. Since leaving in 2007, we’d lost track of almost everybody, and we were anxious to find again these people who live so annoyingly without facebook, email, and skype. (Aside: I am not describing everyone here, just some. But a high proportion of Mauritanians live without internet in their homes.) We decided to walk. Donn stopped to take a picture of the edge of one of the puddles, where trash floated suspended in murkiness. Some kids driving by mocked us at first, and then turned it into mocking themselves for coming from a country with trash everywhere. It was a little sad, especially as they spoke English, which means they are upper-class and educated.
We stopped by the home of the guy who was probably Donn’s closest friend when we lived there. Mohammed is someone we have kept in touch with. He occasionally will call Donn on his vonage phone. But we didn’t have a phone in Mauritania. We went to his parents’ house, which we found after only one wrong turn. A group of boys playing outside approached up, avid curiosity mingled with suspicion on their faces. “Who are you looking for?” asked one. We gave the name. “He is my grandfather,” said the boy with great dignity in spite of torn knees and dust-covered jeans. I realized he must be my friend H’s son, the one who was born during Ramadan, the one they rubbed henna all over when he was 3 days old so that he was a curious orange colour when I first saw him. Since Mohammed and his father have the same name, we knew we were in the right place.
Mohammed wasn’t there but one of his older sisters was, and she called him and handed us the phone. He no longer lives there but has his own place now, even though he’s still not married. We arranged a time to meet the following day, and walked on. I needed conditioner so we went to one of the bigger stores where we used to shop. We walked in. “How are you? How are the kids?” one of the young men shouted, running over to shake Donn’s hand and hug him. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered us.
We asked him where a cyber-cafe was and he told us of a new place. Nouakchott’s main drag is wider now and there are sidewalks, at least at this end, and street lights that worked, and even a new traffic light. It was a bit disorientating. We found the cafe, and there were actual tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk, something we’d never seen before. It felt a little bit like Morocco, except for all the dust in the air, fogging the orange light cast by the streetlights, stirring in little eddies as the men in their long white robes walked past. We ordered coffee and pulled out our iPad (Donn) and smart phone (me) to check mail. We sat there, in full view of the city, obviously foreign and by extension obviously rich, oblivious. When we’d finished, we went over to visit Oasis Books, our old project. (When we lived there, Donn was the administrator and I was a teacher there. It was the first English bookstore and library in the country and also taught English classes). There, the people that run it now told us about how smart phones and iPads are the most desirable things to steal in the country, and told us of a woman who’d been killed for her smart phone by a taxi driver.
That made me feel vulnerable. I don’t know if I can describe how visible I always felt in Mauritania, where I look different from almost everyone else and I stand out. On the one hand, I value this experience. I, a white middle-class American woman, know very well how it is to be the minority. On the other hand, I am at essence a shy person and all the attention is wearing. Hearing that I had sat, my face and hair shining like the sun in its splendor, using a much-desired smart phone in a very public place made me feel a little strange.
As a result, our friends told us, the government had kicked out all non-native taxi drivers. This meant that taxis were scarce and the drivers felt they could charge you more than 100 times the going rate, which friends told us technically hadn’t changed. So instead of 80 cents, we were quoted $12 to go short distances. When we protested, the driver would simply drive off. It was frustrating.
In the 6 years since we left, Mauritania has changed so much. Yes the city has grown–it must be twice the size. But Al-Queda has also come to the area. Aid workers have been kidnapped; a friend of ours was gunned down in the streets. There was a suicide bomber outside the kids’ old school who, like a bad joke, killed only himself. All these things have taken a toll. Peace Corps left, most of the French families left along with European businesses and many of our American and European friends, and the Paris-Dakar rally has relocated to South America. Donn was talking to a man who sold souvenirs–bracelets made of wood and metal, leatherwork, picture frames and occasional tables.”We are all paying the devil’s bill,” he told Donn mournfully, “Not just us, but the tour guides in the desert and everyone at all connected to tourism.”
It’s true I felt more unsafe there, although I want to stress that nothing happened. In part, it was stories people told us, including Mauritanian friends. In part, it was probably in my head. I do know that we stood out like we did in 2001 and like we didn’t by 2007, when oil had been discovered and Europeans, Americans and Australians were flooding in. (Flooding is a relative term. Perhaps seeping would be more accurate) And being in such a noticeable and noticed minority makes one feel vulnerable, no matter the reality of the situation.
Mauritania can be an infuriating place but before you know it, the people have crept into your heart. Like the kids who started out mocking us and then turned their wit on themselves, the nation as a whole suffers from an inferiority complex that is often masked in an annoying superiority. I still remember a student I had who picked his nose with his pen. I’d look over and his pen would be half up his nose, and I’d have to look away quickly. He said to me one day, “I think Mauritanians are cleaner than Americans.” I flashed on people living in the dirt without running water, on trash-choked streets and on the unpaved roads. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “Because we are Muslim and we wash our hands 5 times a day before we pray.” Meanwhile, in America, kids are developing asthma because their environments are too sterile and there are wipes available at the grocery store for your carts and toilet seat covers for public toilets. I thought of trying to describe it, but it was too much. I just said, “Americans wash their hands a lot too,” and left it at that.
I remember trying to teach a writing class to use specific descriptions. I wrote on the board, “The mountain is beautiful” and showed them two pictures, one of a flat mesa in the Mauritanian desert in shades of ochre, and one of snow-capped Mt Hood rising above deep green forests. I asked which picture the sentence described, wanting them to tell me it could be either, and they needed more picturesque and expressive words, but instead they cast their eyes down and said, “You are right. Mauritania is not beautiful.”
See? They just crept into your heart a little bit, didn’t they? Even now, thinking of those earnest students who tried so hard and who had so few chances to succeed makes me sad and angry and proud.
And so I have to say that in the ways that count most, Mauritania has not changed. It’s grown a lot. It felt more unsafe. But that curious, fascinating blend of people pushing you away and reaching out to you at the same time is still there. People stared at me on the street, but that didn’t mean they meant me harm–just that I was unusual, like seeing your TV come to life. My friend Aicha’s guard said to her, when I went for lunch, “Can I come in and just watch her eat? I’ve seen people eating with knives and forks on TV but never in real life.” “NO you can’t come watch her eat!” said Aicha, and she laughed when she told me, but I sensed she also felt shy, insecure, that she comes from a place where people can reach adulthood without ever being exposed to silverware.
I know I keep using the word “strange,” but it was strange to be there, in a world half-remembered and yet never forgotten. Our time in Mauritania changed our family, forever shaped how we view the world and our place in it, even though we were only there six years, a portion of my life that grows smaller and smaller as the years pile on. Life has an intensity there, a preciousness perhaps born of the fact that life isn’t all that precious, as babies run out behind your SUV and people die for the lack of something as basic as water. Perhaps it’s because everything you thought you knew has been stood on its head—fat is beautiful, the utility companies will cheat you and rob you blind, the cute puppy will be a skinny rabid dog in about 6 weeks. But once you’ve lived there, you will forever more be impatient with certain values the developed world holds dear. Life is precious because it is precarious, and there’s a solidity to that fact that is blurred and blunted in more affluent countries. And in a certain sense, returning to the desert did feel like coming home.