At the end of next month, Daedalus Books will bring out The Desert and the Drum, by Mrbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated from the French by Rachael McGill. It seems this will be the first Mauritanian novel translated into English:
Back in 2012, when Ann Morgan was doing her “Year of Reading the World,” she wrote that, “If there were a hall of fame for hardest countries in the world to find literature from in English, Mauritania would be up there with the best of them. The short answer is that there are no commercially published translations of books penned by writers from the country in either Arabic, French, Hassaniya Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke or Wolof – the six most commonly spoken languages in the nation.”
She ended up reading a self-published novel by a Mauritanian PhD student Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba.
Mauritanian fiction generally does not get wide traction among the larger Arabic-reading communities: 2017 was the first time a Mauritanian novel was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, (Grapes of Vice by Ahmad Hafid), and a novel by a Mauritanian author has never appeared on an International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) longlist, although Mauritanian novelist Mohamed ould Mohamed Salem participated in an IPAF writing retreat. Prominent Arabophone Mauritanian writers include Mohamed Ould Amin, Moussa Ould Ibnou, Ahmed Ould Abdel-Qader, and Elhadj Ould Brahim.
The excerpt of The Desert and the Drum begins:
There was no moon, no stars. The light had been drained away, the sky left mute. I could distinguish neither colours nor shapes. Dunes and trees had been engulfed by the universe, sucked into its sidereal blackness. I scanned the shadows to left and right, chanting suras to ward off djinns.
I welcomed the obscurity, though: it was a gift from nature. It would make it harder for them to find me. The darkness would blind their eyes, the sand storms would scramble their senses and erase my trail. To escape them, all I had to do was keep walking. Not panic, or scream, or cry, just walk. The place I was aiming for was straight ahead. All the shepherds had said so.
I longed to stop, catch my breath, release my burden and stretch my arms, loosen my neck, massage out the aches in my body, push the night shadows aside to inhale the air and listen to the quiet sky. Instead I quickened my pace. I told myself I must never weaken, or fall, or forget myself, or forget what was burning inside me: the pain, the anger, the love. I repeated softly that I was myself, not someone else, that I wasn’t dreaming, that it was true: I’d cut the ties that bound me to my clan, I’d stolen the object of my tribe’s vanity, the repository of its myths, I’d set out in search of the dreams that kept me awake at night. I just had to keep moving, whatever it took, until I reached the lights in the distance, and then, finally, the tiny thing that was mine, my greatest dream, the thing they should never have taken from me.