“He was the story itself, the very story he had recounted a million times”:

By July Blalack

Earlier this year the award-winning Hollywood film The Mauritanian brought Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story of torture and survival at Guantánamo Bay to a global audience. Most of the film, based on Ould Slahi’s memoir Guantánamo Diary, centers around Ould Slahi’s fourteen years of incarceration. Yet there is one scene where the audience gets a glimpse of another story. When Ould Slahi, played by Tahir Rahim, lies alone in his cell for the first time — disoriented, silent, and expressionless — his mind dives into a memory. For a moment, the audience sees a man in billowing blue leading a line of camels and singing to them sweetly. A young Mohamedou trails behind him, the golden expanse of the desert unfurling around them in every direction. 

The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga, Ould Slahi’s second book and first novel, takes this loose thread and weaves it into scraps of Mauritanian lore, poetry, and imagery until an epic adventure emerges. The action begins when the protagonist Ahmed realizes that Zarga, his prize camel, has gone missing. He decides to saddle up the trusty Laamesh and head off into the desert in search of Zarga. 

The story is peppered with Ahmed’s brushes with death, including a gory encounter with a scorpion and a narrow escape from cannibals. Although this thrilling action moves the plot forward, the aspect that leaves the strongest impression is the profound love and respect Ahmed feels for his herd. He knows each of his camels as individuals with their own history, personality, and even grudges. Ahmed knows that Laamesh, for example, wept and refused to eat after his mother’s death. Thus the novel is a caper with a serious bent, an ecocritical story from a context where life was never anthropocentric enough to need “posthumanism.”

Although Ahmed and Zarga is written in English, its ebullient, exaggerated, hyperbolic style is reminiscent of Arabic-Mauritanian orature. Similarly, its presentation and content do not fit the ethnographic turn often used to market translated Arabic literature, and there are no footnotes or italicized words. Many cultural and historical references are included without explanation, thus serving as a wink to the informed reader without excluding the first-time visitor. At one point, Ahmed is described as so exhausted, “as if [he] had been carrying salt bags all night between Chinguetti and Sudan,” and the reader is never handheld through the history of the trans-Saharan trade routes (p. 90). Another passage mentions those “who had made the Hajj had witnessed dark signs and heard chilling stories, and had returned to the freeg full of tales of the approaching end of time” (p. 10). Whether this is simply a strange caveat or a nod to the apocalyptic and messianic rumors which accompanied major social upheavals in the Islamic West is, again, dependent on the reader. 

In this case, the coming social upheaval is the waves of drought that will eventually push more and more nomadic Mauritanians out of their livelihood and force them to settle on the fringes of the cities.[1] Although Ahmed’s story takes place during French colonization and before the Great Sahelian Droughts of the 1960s-80s, he feels with great certainty that his way of life is vanishing. This knowledge always lingers in the background of Ahmed and Zarga, giving urgency to the story’s role in recording what is fading away.

Ahmed and Zarga’s other major theme is the power of storytelling. In one of Ahmed’s many musings, he recalls how a blood feud between two Saharan tribes was only put to rest after “many invocations of old stories of bravery, forgiveness, and generosity that no one but the oldest in the camp remembered” (p. 119). The book begins with two long paragraphs swearing to the complete and utter truth of the tale, with each curse the narrator invites upon himself if he is lying more outrageously devastating than the next (“May I have my days shortened, die of the big C on a Thursday forenoon, pray towards the northwest, be buried with my face towards the west….”). The narrator then presents a chain of transmission which claims he was told the story of Ahmed and Zarga by his sister, who was told it by Aunt Aicha who is, after all, a descendant of Scheherazade. The book’s ending then slyly circles back to the beginning, as the narrator describes how Ahmed’s triumphant return results in tellings and retellings of his adventure that add liberally to the facts: “Pepper and salt never hurt any story, as the Bedouins say, especially when the essential truth of the tale remains untouched” (p. 166). 

Even as Ahmed sees his true story becoming a tall tale, he accepts this as the nature of stories and perhaps even the nature of truth. For it is only through this epic’s glimmers of the marvelous that the true essence of nomadic life and lore can remain even as the lifestyle itself recedes. 

[1] Christian Vium explains “Whereas more than 80 percent of the [Mauritanian] population was estimated to live a nomadic pastoral livelihood in the late 1960s, well under 15 percent do so today” (2016). Sara Randall estimated the percentage of Mauritanians still living nomadically to be as low as 5% (2015).

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July Blalack is a researcher and translator specializing in North African literature. She holds a PhD from SOAS, University of London, and her research article “Hidāyat man ḥārā fī amr al-Naṣāra: The Western Sahara’s Missing Witness at the International Court of Justice?” won the 2020 Mark Tessler Graduate Student Paper Prize. You can read more of her reviews on ArabLit or her feature on Mauritanian literature from Words Without Borders.

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