“I refused to be intimidated by the chapters of the past or the indecipherable pages of the future. (…) It was time to detach myself from the old ways: I was no longer from here. I was from nowhere, and I was going faraway”.
“I am nothing. I am the emptiness that wanders the streets in search of peace, rest, existence, life. (…) Have you ever walked among strangers, been present without anyone ever looking at you?”
Let’s start with a few words about the Mauritanian author of The Desert and The Drum. Mbarek Ould Beyrouk was born in 1957 and was a founder of the first Mauritanian independent newspaper, Mauritanie Demain in 1988. He wrote four books and The Desert and The Drum is his first book translated into English, as well as the first Mauritanian novel ever translated into English. The Desert and The Drum was awarded the 2016 Amadou – Kourouma Prize, a Swiss literary prize awarded annually by the Geneva International Book and Press Fair [the prize was named after the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma]. The English translation was published by Dedalus.
The Desert and The Drum tells a story of a young Bedouin woman from the Oulad Mahmoud tribe, Rayhana who lives in the Sahara Desert with her tribe. Upon the arrival of the international mining company that sets up its camp nearby, she meets a young man called Yahya, an engineer from an allied tribe who takes advantage of Rayhana’s innocence. When Rayhana falls pregnant with this man, her mother wanting to hide a feeling of shame, under the excuse of illness, takes her daughter away so that she can give birth far away from the glances of her tribal community to ensure that no one will find out about the pregnancy. The so-called good name and the honor of the family is at stake. Rayhana’s mother decides to leave the baby in care of an older woman, Massouda. Once they are back in their camp, the mother rushes Rayhana into an arranged marriage. When her new husband, Memed learns about the baby, he sets out on a journey to find it and adopt it as his own. Nevertheless, he finds out that Rayhana’s mother had already moved the child further away from the older woman who was initially entrusted with care of the child, and no one knows where the child was taken to. Rayhana decides to steal the tribal sacred drum, a symbol of the religious beliefs, as a form of retribution for the disappearance of her child. She flees across the desert to the city where she looks for her “little soul”. During her journey she meets a variety of unconventional characters which creates a fascinating portrait of the contemporary Mauritanian society.
VARIOUS THEMES EXPLORED IN THE BOOK
Throughout the book, we learn about the family ties and tribal dynamics, the meaning of honour, gender roles within the Bedouin community, a rapid expansion of modernity, juxtaposed with the traditional lives of the nomadic tribes. The issue of slavery is a recurring theme. We also learn about the state of the orphanages in the larger cities, the religious belief system and its impact on social norms within the tribal community, the importance of hospitality within the Bedouin community and oral poetry as one of the most important cultural expressions of their heritage. The importance of education is also explored throughout the book.
THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN TRADITION AND MODERNITY
The Desert and The Drum is a multifaceted novel, written in a beautiful, lyrical and subtle prose with vivid descriptions of the city and desert life and an array of multi-dimensional characters with profoundly rich inner life. One of the themes explored in the book tackles the encounter between tradition and modernity, portraying the nuances and merits of traditional norms as well as of modern norms and negative traits and pitfalls of what’s been and what’s now. This book is not about the clash between the new and the old, but rather it shows the co-existence of both, full of ambiguity, of fluid layers, and complexity, where the adherence to simplistic explanations should be elided.
Tribal life is shown as something that can provide the individual with a sense of belonging, but it is also a source of brutal and outdated social norms which are often violently enforced. The city, on the other hand, is inhabited with mostly indifferent people who often lack compassion towards the less privileged members of the society.
This short novel provides an interesting insight into the Bedouin culture within Mauretania as well as into the life of the contemporary inhabitants of larger cities in this Western African country. The Desert and the Drum constitutes a wonderful introduction to the Mauritanian literature.
When it comes to the encounter between the modernity and tradition, the arrival of the strangers – an international mining company who sets the camp near the tribe and tries to find “metal, or gold, or oil perhaps” – disturbs the habits and emotions of the nomadic tribe. They feel that new arrivals would “cause disruption of a lasting nature“.
“We’d quickly realised that they were avoiding us too. (…) We lived in two separate universes. That seemed to suit everyone. (…) The voices and the motors of the strangers filled up all the space. Our evenings were taken from us too, because that was when they came back to their camp; their car engines continued to roar into the night (…). Their powerful lights sometimes illuminated the tops of our tents. From the moment they arrived, the strangers stole something essential from us, without us feeling we had the right to protest. A malaise invaded our spirits. Anger began to brew inside the tents”.
The feeling of being powerless, inferior in some sense is profoundly noticeable and their right to object is denied. The feeling of shame is also strongly felt by the members of tribe because they do not understand the new situation well enough in order to accept it or reject it.
“We closed our eyes to them because, deep down, we were ashamed we had allowed their presence to be imposed on us, ashamed of our failure, to understand it, to confidently accept or reject it”.
The difference between the life in the city and in the desert is poignantly felt by our main protagonist, Rayhana, when she has to obtain her ID document, which she refers to as “a passport to civilisation”.
“Why was a document required to know who someone was? Why not just use tribe, clan, family? Where I came from everyone was part of a tribe, and all the tribes spoke to and understood each other”.
In the city “no one listens to the voices of others. Everyone [is] deaf because they [do] not want to hear about anyone else”. There is loneliness, people are anonymous and do not want to see those who struggle. Life in the desert seems to be more in accordance with the nature and ancient traditions where “the men take the camels out to graze all day, the old people gossip in their tents, the boys study the sacred texts and fetch water from the wells, the women look after the homes and the domestic animals, the blacksmiths work at their fires, the slaves and the freed slaves help with the odd jobs around the camp”, where young women concentrate on “fattening” in order to be “beautiful and get good husbands.”
The idea of hospitality is strongly ingrained in the traditional norms where it is believed that “all guests should receive a courteous welcome”. We see this in the encounter between the strangers and tribe as well as when Rayhana meets a family on her way to the city and they allow her to stay in their home as long as she needs to without any questions asked.
There is one important difference indicated in the book between charity and hospitality. Charity is not appreciated, but hospitality and being a guest is always considered as “a gesture from the heart, that couldn’t be bought or sold“. Rayhana could never accept a coin from the stranger but if someone invited into their home and offered her a place to stay and rest, and treated her to a meal, she would always accept it because she was then a guest.
Tribe is perceived as “one body, one entity” and not many separate individuals which stands in the direct opposition to the life in the city where everyone wants to be ‘an individual’ and not a part of some collective entity.
THE POSITION OF WOMEN AND MEN IN THE MAURITANIAN SOCIETY, INCLUDING THE BEDOUIN TRIBAL COMMUNITY
Another major theme tackled by the author concerns the position of women and men in the intricate and constantly evolving Mauritanian society. We witness the oppression of women as well as some willingness of some of the women to participate in this oppressive system even at the cost of separation from their children or grandchildren. Men are also portrayed as nuanced and inhabiting multiple spheres of empathy: there are some who abuse the vulnerable woman, take advantage of them, but also there are men who do not fit into the certain model of masculinity which is perpetuated either by the tradition or modern progressive values. Among men there are those who are sensitive, caring, ready to reject traditions for the sake of love. We see the world of many nuances: both deeply traditional community and modern society can produce attitudes and behaviours in both men and women which can be abusive as well as sensitivity and empathy with people being reflective, thoughtful and considerate. Neither the ancient norms nor the newest ideas should be automatically accepted or rejected – they should be scrutinized first. The product of both communities, traditional and modern, are often people with the least power regardless of where they live, they are the victims of both systems.
THE INSTITUTION OF THE ARRANGED MARRIAGE
The institution of the arranged marriage where the union is decided without a woman’s consent is widely practiced in the tribal community. Within this tribal community women between 25 and 30 years old are considered too old to get married. In addition, the father is still the one who has to give the consent to his daughter’s marriage. Men control this part of women’s life, regardless of who is a father or if he is absent from her life or not. The marriage is arranged mainly by the elderly men with some decision-making delegated to the older women within the tribe. A young woman has to submit passively, no one pays attention to women’s feelings, emotions, suffering. The bride is supposed to represent the innocence and ignorance. She is a puppet with no will of her own. The arranged marriage often seems to be the beginning of new chapter with “new lies, endless new false nods and smiles”; a woman is ‘an object with no soul or volition’. This kind of union might be also terribly damaging to a young man. When it comes to parenthood, a role of a woman as a mother is strong within the framework of tradition they live in – and at times it seems far more understanding and liberal than the one of the male teachers who acquired their knowledge in a more Westernised system.
THE THEME OF SLAVERY
Slavery is also a recurring theme throughout the book. Mauretania was the last country in the world that officially banned slavery in 1981. But it was only in 2007 when Mauritania passed the law criminalizing the slavery. In the novel, Atar, the city where Mbarka lives after fleeing the camp and where Rayhana goes to is depicted as “full of slaves who have run away from the oases and the camps”.
Rayhana is very reflective, but she also falls into a trap of thinking according to the frames she was taught when it comes to slavery and her friend, Mbarka. She loves Mbarka dearly but her understanding of Mbarka’s plight is flawed and conditioned by her upbringing. Even though she felt disturbed and inferior in some way when the strangers arrived at her camp and mistreated her, she is unable to extend the same feeling of empathy to Mbarka. In conversation with Mbarka she admits that her mother does not beat or physically abuse Mbarka and that Mbarka’s position within her family is better than that of other slaves. Mbarka tries to explain to Rayhana that it’s not just about hitting and beating; she does not want to be a slave; she wants to be free. Freedom for Mbarka means hope and the possibility of better future, even if she might end up being hungry or living in the abject poverty but initially this is not clear to Rayhana.
“I couldn’t understand Mbarka. What happiness could she find in the city? (…) She knew no other family. Why did she need to run away?“
Mbarka agrees that compared to other slaves in the camp she had privileges, but she just wants to be free, “to belong to herself”. After fleeing the camp Mbarka lives in the city in the abject poverty for months. With time people start accepting her, the fact she is a Bedouin does not mater, but she is always “excluded from the pleasures [she] saw other people enjoying every day”. She is alone, has no real friends; there is an emptiness around her. In order to support herself, Mbarka becomes a woman of “ill-repute”. As someone who has never had anything, she plays at life in order to forget herself and the world around her. She is aware that she is lost, but she is also free. In her own words she “tastes forbidden things because once [she] was forbidden from living at all”. She is very protective of Rayhana and prevents her from entering her world. Rayhana becomes a passive observer of Mbarka’s new life.
As the story unfolds, Rayhana questions herself how far she is conditioned by the oppressive values that were instilled in her at the young age. Despite what the tribe put her through, Rayhana still has the tribe in her heart. She is often contradicting herself when it comes to her feelings about the tribe. She is not able “to belong to herself” like Mbarka is.
THE MEANING OF THE DRUM
The drum in the story is “a tired symbol of the tribal idolatry” and “ mouthpiece of all idiocies” that led to Rayhana’s baby being taken away from her. Stealing the drum was seen by Rayhana as a retribution for losing her child. She does not only blame her mother; she puts the blame on the entire tribe and their belief system.
“The whole tribe stole my son. It was their vanity, their arrogance, their false truths”.
MAURITANIA – THE LAND OF A MILLION POETS
Mauretania is often referred to as the Land of A Million Poets. The tradition of oral poetry is important within the Bedouin tribes. In The Desert and The Drum the gatherings and get-togethers of young people are often filled with music, reciting poetry, singing the ancient tunes and Saharan poems.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION
The Desert and The Drum emphasises the role of education in relation to how the individuals perceive the surrounding world and their understanding of how their own decisions impact the other members of the society. The tribal community expresses a lack of interest in the outside world as they say “what do we care what happens in those places? It’s another universe. The quarrels and wars of distant places have nothing to do with us.” This attitude does show the disconnection and the gap between the city and the rural community.
The novel insinuates that the teachers sent to the Sahara Desert are there as a punishment in some way. No teachers want to do this job in the Sahara desert with the tribal community and for that reason the likes of the teacher, Salem are sent there, not necessarily because they are the best teachers, but rather because they are the worst ones with questionable views. Therefore, the disconnection between the city and the rural society is more profoundly felt.
DESCRIPTION OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS
Rayhana is a fearless, reflective, resilient young woman, with a kind heart and curiosity for the world.
“I was fascinated by the traces left by these ancient hands, long – gone, but their signs still there for me, greetings from the depth of time”.
She is on a quest to find her own place in world, rejecting some aspects of the tradition she grew up in but at the same time appreciating certain values of her tribal community, especially a sense of belonging that her tribe has provided her with. She was abandoned by her father when she was just six years old and was brought up by her mother. Rayhana, however, is not a flawless character, she is full of contradictions and ambiguous observations.
Rayhana understands that the tribe oppressed her, but she is still influenced by her upbringing and looks at the outside world or different ways of living with suspicion.
“I began to feel more and more disdain for the town and everyone in it. People seemed to have forgotten what they’d been only yesterday, what their fathers and fathers’ fathers had been. They were content to no longer be nomadic, to no longer feel the sun on their heads. (…) They were proud of all that; they thought it meant they could look down on those of us who had stayed as we were, we hadn’t succumbed to the temptations of the new”.
Rayhana is rather torn between two different worlds. Sometimes she is unable to see other people’s plights within her own tribe, especially the predicament of slaves in her camp. She shows a lack of understanding for her best friend, Mbarka, a young woman who was one of the slaves in her camp and who had fled the camp some time before Rayhana’s leaving the desert life. She finds it difficult to understand why Mbarka wanted to flee if compared to other slaves she was treated well. Rayhana is a complex, nuanced character, with rich inner life and many observations. As the story progresses, she finds herself alone in the world and forced to find her own path in the world.
Rayhana’s mother is resilient, but an extremely ambiguous character within the frames of strict tradition she was born into. As a younger woman she always sought the approval of her older brother, she never made her own decisions. She was taught to follow the lead of the older man, her brother. But then she is also the one who warned Rayhana to be on guard when it comes to Yahya, the stranger who betrayed Rayhana’s trust. When it comes to parenting of children and younger adults, mothers in the camp seem to have more control than fathers or other men in the family. Aware of the strict norms within her community, Rayhana’s mother wants to protect their family name from shame because of her daughter’s unplanned pregnancy. She is the one who arranged for her grandson to be taken away. She is a victim of the system she was born into and in some way a participant in this oppressive system. “Family honour meant more to her than her daughter’s happiness”.
Massouda, the Imraguen village healer, is an older woman who is looking after Rayhana during her pregnancy. Massouda is a traditional woman but in comparison with Rayhana’s mother, Massouda is “a caring, thoughtful woman”. She constantly reminds Rayhana that she has her life ahead of her and that to make a mistake does not mean to die. Massouda is a striking contrast to Rayhana’s mother and it shows how people can be different despite coming from the similar backgrounds.
Mbarka is a slave in the tribal camp, befriended by Rayhana. Mbarka is “full of laughter, so intelligent and kind”, someone with whom Rhyana discuss all her joys, fears and dreams. When Mbarka finally runs away from the camp, Rayhana’s mother does not even notice her absence. Mbarka never looks at Rayhana with pity or amusement, she supports her and seems to be the only true friend that Mbarka has ever had.
Rayhana’s father left his family when his daughter was six years old. He turned his back on life in a tent “ruled by an authority other than his own”. We do not know much about but it seems that Rayhana inherited the lust for independence from her father.
Yahya is a member of the allied tribe who work for a foreign mining company. He is an engineer helping to discover a major deposit of gold. He takes advantage of Rayhana’s innocence. As Rayhana finds out later in the story , Yahya is someone who is admired by everyone. Ultimately, he is the one who violates Rayanna’s trust.
Memed is “turned inwards, his eyes full of sadness, as if he carried the weight of the world on his schoulders”. He is one of the most educated members of the tribe. He reads books, speaks French, and is very thoughtful, polite, and sensitive. However, despite all his qualities, women in the tribe find him “boring” including Rayhana who rejects his love. He does not think highly of the inhabitants of the cities and of the strangers who set the camp next to them in the desert. Memed does not feel inferior or worse when it comes to dealing with the strangers. He immediately sees through Yahya’s arrogance – something that Rayhana does not notice. Memed loves her dearly, and upon finding out the truth about Rayhana’s baby, he promises to find her child and to treat it as his own. In the story, Memed does nothing wrong but his suffering is immense. He is the inadvertent victim of a situation created by Rayhana’s mother and the values that her mother adhered to. All he ever wanted was to love and marry Rayhana. Once the marriage with Rayhana is arranged, Memed believes that the gates of happiness opened for him, that he gained love and union he longed for. Instead, he ends up feeling lost, and betrayed. Memed is almost a flawless character in the novel, but his life is tragic in many ways. Similarly to Massouda, the character of Memed shows that despite living in a tribal community and following its strict norms, there is still a place for compassion, understanding and nuance.
Hama is a male character that Rayhana meets in the city thanks to Mbarka. He guides her towards some understanding of the failings and the falsehoods of people she meets in the city. Hama is moved by Rayhana’s story and tries to help her find her child. He is also the one who calls Rayhana out when at some point she defends her tribe’s actions, the same tribe whose rules did not allow her to keep her son.
Abdou is an aspiring journalist whom Rayhana meets in the city and who holds a very anti-tribalist attitude. He also promises Rayhana to help her find her child, but he seems to have a more ambiguous and self-centred motives.
Ahmed Salem is the new teacher in the camp. He harbours hate towards the strangers in the other camp. He refers to them as Satan and manages to convince the members of the Bedouin camp to accept this view of the world. His character shows that the so-called educated teacher in the city can hold far more discriminatory views compared to the ones held by the members of the desert tribe. This attitude is noticeable when Ahmed Salem dislikes the lyrics of songs and poems that the girls in the camp are singing and the fact that they spend so much time with boys. However, the elders in the tribe laugh off the matter raised by the teacher. Also, when the mothers find out about Salem’s complaints, they object the idea of banning their daughters from singing light-hearted songs or their get-togethers with the boys. Once mothers react, the matter raised by Salem is dropped and never mentioned again.
The characters of Abdou, Yahya and Ahmed Salem, the well-educated members of the society, show that the Westernised education system does not automatically teach people the basics of dignity, mutual understanding, compassion and love. On the other hand, the characters of Memed and Massouda portray the nuance of growing up in the tribal community. Their attitudes and moral compass show that this kind of upbringing does not always condition the individual to follow the outdated, often cruel social norms.
Written with profound sensitivity, The Desert and The Drum is a real gem of the African literature. I do encourage everyone to get a copy of this book as it provides such an interesting and nuanced insight into the uniqueness of the Mauritanian society. Within just 150 pages, the author managed to include a variety of complex and nuanced characters and to explore many universal themes. The Desert and The Drum is a timeless novel. I only hope that we will have the access to more books by the contemporary Mauritanian writers.