‘The Desert and the Drum’: Ethnography and the Mauritanian Novel

When there are no Mauritanian novels translated into English, which should be the first? 

By July Blalack

As author Ann Morgan noted while reading the worldin 2012, finding a Mauritanian novel in English is no easy task. Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, a self-published novel by a Mauritanian Fulbright scholar, remained the only option until last November when Dedalus Books published an English translation of Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s Le Tambour des larmes. Ould Beyrouk is from the historic city of Atar and, while Arabic is his mother tongue, French is the language of his pen. Le Tambour des larmes, translated into English as The Desert and the Drum, is his fourth novel and was awarded the 2016 Ahmadou Kourouma Prize.

The Desert and the Drum follows the adventures of Rayhana as she flees from her nomadic tribe and goes on a quest to build her own life in the city. She narrowly escapes various dangers while wandering around, lost in another world, surviving on the hospitality of strangers. Gradually the trauma that led her to forgo her kin and venture into the unknown is revealed, as the narrative alternates between the present and the past with each chapter. Although the story seems at first to follow a predictable and popular arc—that of an individual shedding suffocating tradition for personal fulfilment—Rayhana’s conflicted feelings towards her new environment do not permit such a simplistic endorsement of modernity and individualism. While she revels in the anonymity the city offers, she also expresses contempt at many of its customs, along with shock at how a place can be so unwelcoming and its people so unrooted. At one point, she even has a breakdown and accuses her benevolent hosts of leading empty and vain lives. Reyhana describes, as if in a vision:

“I saw nothing. The anonymous crowd was gone, the cars were gone, the road had dissolved, the whole city had died. It had drowned in its own vanity, in the lies of its inhabitants; the sand had reclaimed what belonged to it. The domes of the courts still reached proudly towards the sky, but they were obscured by the thick smoke that came from the belly of the earth.”

Most of the novel is written in simple and straightforward prose, stingy with flourishes and sparing in description. While reading I kept thinking of the critique that the World Literature market devalues the aesthetics of non-European literatures in favour of the ethnographic, and—with the footnotes and the addition of ‘desert’ into the translated title—it does seem to apply here. There are awkward transliterations of Arabic words sprinkled throughout the text that appear to have been lifted from the original French novel without consideration for how an English speaker would read the same letters. For example, the phrase “Masha’Allah” is rendered as Machallah (the same as in North African SMS speak, incidentally), and the word “Naṣārá” (literally “Christians,” but colloquially used to mean Europeans) as Nçaras. The latter example is particularly strange as Naṣārá is already plural; the singular in Hassaniya Arabic is “Naṣrānī.”

While I was excited to see a Mauritanian novel in translation—apparently the only published example other than Moussa Ould Ebno’s self-translations from French to Arabic—I could not help wondering why this particular book was chosen. Neither the story itself nor the writing style were particularly imaginative or well-crafted, although it was an easy and enjoyable read. Perhaps a more universal story would not have been as appealing or marketable but, even if the aim was to offer a glimpse into Bedouin life, the prolific Aichetou’s En attendant la lapidation (2013, Awaiting the Stoning) is a much more vivid and moving depiction of a nomadic encampment. Al-Sunnī ‘Abdāwa’s novel Al-ashbāḥ (1998, The Ghosts) even manages to blend scenes of everyday life in the desert with the history of anticolonial resistance in Mauritania. Many Arabic-speaking Mauritanians would probably protest: why not translate a work by the founder and master of the Mauritanian novel himself, Aḥmed ould ‘Abd al-Qādir? Francophone Mauritanians might reply that the works of Black liberation activist Tène Youssouf Gueye most deserve an international audience[1].

Then again, perhaps this is the wrong line of questioning altogether. Whether or not English PEN and Daedalus chose the same novel I would to “represent” Mauritania to an Anglophone audience, the fact remains that no single book could accomplish this task. My hope then is that the awards and recognition Mbarek Ould Beyrouk has received will lead to a wider interest in the literature of a nation that values the written word so highly, and whose writers struggle to be published and read in any language.

July Blalack is researching North African literature for the European Research Council’s MULOSIGE project. She is a PhD candidate at SOAS, and her history of Mauritanian prose was published in ‘The Oxford Handbook of Arab Novelistic Traditions’ in 2017. You can read more of her work on the MULOSIGE website and on Academia.edu

[1]Some of Gueye’s poems have been rendered in English by French author and translator Pierre Joris: http://www.pierrejoris.com/blog/a-poem-by-tene-youssouf-gueye/