Tradition and Modernity in Mauritania: The Sands of Change

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Part one of a four-part series. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals below.

It all happens beneath the oppression of the boiling Saharan sun. Beggars ask for change outside the handful of fashionable cafes in the upscale Tevragh Zeina neighborhood. Sand and trash pile up along the mostly unpaved streets, covering the desiccated remains of cats and dogs. Meanwhile, the south of the city is a chaotic mess of cars, donkeys, and camels all coming or going from the myriad of markets where fruits and vegetables from Mali are traded alongside hanging goat carcasses and headless chickens, their blood staining the yellow sand.

Nouakchott doesn’t look like the capital of a country. This dusty settlement baking in the heat at best could double for a mostly forgotten frontier town in some forlorn corner of the earth. (Think Tatooine without the alcohol and space guns.) Yet, the apparent disorder of everyday life is a reflection of a city in flux.

The story of Nouakchott is one of competing values: of westernization versus Islamification, of traditional nomadic culture versus urban modernization, and of a conscientious youth fighting against an aging paternalistic society.

Built in 1958, essentially, to house the country’s educated elite, Nouakchott has also become a magnet for nomads escaping the expanding Sahara and economic poverty.  Far from adopting the cultured refinement of Mauritania’s aging Francophiles, these migrants have maintained their traditions and customs, much to the chagrin of modernizers.

In Nouakchott, the number of mosques increased from 46 in 1989 to 617 by 2002.

More recently, Islam has returned as a major cultural force. Mauritania has always been a country of religious study, but the independence movements of the 1960s and 1970s tempered some of the nation’s spiritual zeal only for it to reinsert itself into society in the last couple of decades.

Today, all these aspects of Nouakchott are being challenged by the city’s youth. Mostly coming from an entrenched government elite, they have become the vanguard of change here in Mauritania.  But unlike their fathers, who tended to look towards France (or the Soviet Union) and are interested in preserving their grip on power, this new generation is just as likely to seek inspiration from Senegal or Jamaica, and it has no qualms about upending the status quo in its pursuit of transforming Mauritania into a multicultural and egalitarian state. 

“The people here are not open,” said Amadou, a sound mixer at a local film studio after showing me a rap video that he had helped put together the other day. The lyrics are filled with social commentary in three different languages set against a heavy beat. “Many people won’t like this because of what we are saying.”

Then Amadou showed me another video of a wedding that the studio was in the process of editing. “This is something very strange for people here. She is Palestinian. He is Mauritanian.”

The man in question was Haratin, which forms the bottom of the social caste system in Mauritania. On the other end of the spectrum is the Arabic Beni Hassan, or warrior caste, who have ruled Mauritania ever since displacing the previous conquering Zawaya tribes. The Zawaya would later become the religious scholars, something akin to India’s Brahmin. Both have traditionally used the Haratin as slaves.  

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1981 that slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania. However, the law had little to do with the end of servitude in this country. “Slavery is dying out along with the nomadic culture as it moves into the cities,” said Mohammed, another local filmmaker. “Of course, many ended up in domestic servitude.  They are given a wage, but it hardly suffices. It’s slavery under a different name.” Even now, best estimates suggest 40,000 people remain in bondage.

Urban living has made slavery less economically viable in Mauritania.

Mohammed went on to tell me that Haratins can be successful in Mauritania and even hold positions of importance, but they have to excel above and beyond their Beni Hassan and Zawaya peers. But for a Haratin to marry a light-skinned woman was still mostly unthinkable in Mauritanian society.

The couple in the video had also met at work, something that is extremely rare in Mauritania where most marriages are arranged. In the city, courtship usually consists of a series of chaperoned dates. “You can talk to her, but it is always with her parents or someone,” said Amadou. “You never get to really know her until after you have married.”

But times are changing, and while today’s youth aren’t explicitly looking to overthrow the regime (most seem apathetic towards politics in general), they are keenly aware of the world around them.  As Amadou explained, “It’s about changing the culture, the mindset.” Acts of rebellion are small but significant, from smoking a joint to posting videos on YouTube, it’s a soft power war of attrition. “They [the government] don’t understand. Communication is the future.”

Traditional subsistence living remains prevalent even in central Nouakchott.

Amadou and his friends are currently putting together a series of paintings and drawings by local artists, some of which feature such taboo subjects as nude women. “When foreigners think of Mauritania they think of slavery and terrorism.  We want to change that.”

But change does not come without its risks. “When we have about thirty paintings, we will open a gallery and invite everyone,” said Amadou, excitedly. “They will throw us in jail. But I don’t care. The mindset has to change.”

Maybe things are already changing.  When the sun sets in Nouakchott, there is a collective gasp as the air cools, the dust settles, and life, at least for a little while, becomes bearable again.  People begin to gather in front of television sets along the street cafes.  They are Beni Hassan, Zawaya, and Haratin. No one is talking politics, just football.  The last call to prayer, Isha, bellows from the nearby mosque.  The televisions are courteously muted, and there is an awkward silence, but the café patrons’ eyes remain glued to the TV. Then it’s back to the game.  And so it goes until the sun rises again.

Part two: The Sands of the Oasis

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