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Pbk • eBook • 192pp
Translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen
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Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah's book, Birds of Nabaa, has been selected as one of Brittle Paper's 100 Notable African Books of 2023! . His work stood out as a brilliant contribution to African literature this year, and we are thrilled to celebrate his achievement. This list, which we have curated for 5 years, is a testament to the diverse and vibrant ideas that enrich African literary culture today, of which his book is a prime example.
Birds of Nabaa follows the physical and spiritual journeys of its narrator from his beginnings in the remote Mauritanian village of Nabaa, whose flocks lead the community according to their own inscrutable instincts, to life in Madrid, the Gulf states and Guinea, where his work as an embassy accountant takes him.
Inspired by the Sahara of his childhood and devoted from an early age to the vagabond life of the pre-Islamic poets, the narrator’s constant life on the move in search of the inner stillness, known only to desert dwellers, leads him to the music, song and poetry so much a part of Mauritanian life and the spiritual universe of Sufism around them.
The mix of diverse characters joining him includes Teresa, his Brazilian neighbour in Madrid whom he taught to make tea the Mauritanian way; Rajab the inspiring teacher in a blue face veil; Hussein the poet; Mariam, a postman between the living and the dead via cowrie shell readings; the exiled judge of Chinguetti who founded Nabaa; as well as his close friend the voracious reader and rebel Abdurrahman who wants to change the world, Abdel Hadi, the holy-fool sheikh with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Arab history and poetry, and Ould al-Taher, the first climate-change refugee.
However, years without any rain bring drought, wells dry out, livelihoods shatter, and dreams turn to disturbing nightmarish premonitions of disaster. As desertification takes hold, that paradise of southern Mauritania, of Nabaa, gradually declines and the waves of migration, always a feature of life in the Sahara, intensify. leading to a shattering denouement.
Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah has imbibed the authentic culture of Chinguetti in all its spiritual and literary dimensions, and it is this that enables him, in Birds of Nabaa, to combine spontaneous narration – a crucial part of the traditional Mauritanian tea session – with his craft as a novelist, giving life to his imaginary creations by invoking history and telling his tale in richly poetic prose. All this makes Abdallah Uld Mohammadi Bah’s Birds of Nabaa a valuable addition to the corpus of Mauritanian novels.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper
In the novel which takes the reader on many journeys, across the globe and to other worlds, I was particularly struck by this idea: "[T]he Bedouin spirit lives in us even when we live in Paris. Whenever we change places, we believe we are going somewhere better. But in reality, we always live in our original places. Ultimately, we are prisoners of our being Bedouin. And as you can see, it’s a life sentence."
Raphael Cohen, the translator
“During our evenings, which extended until dawn, and during my long, almost uninterrupted conversations with the poet Hussein, I often felt he was leading me towards moments of deep doubt over the worth and meaning of life. I felt he had seamlessly drawn me towards the verdant world to the south, a place of music and poetry, sowing and reaping. I became a regular at his gatherings, which brought together poets and writers from the community and went on until very late at night. The poets would compete to compose odes and verses in classical Arabic and the vernacular, and to recall poems and stories from the glory days of the Arabs.”
The narrator of Birds of Nabaa
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah is a writer, novelist and journalist from Nabaghiya in southern Mauritania. His journalistic career began in the mid-1980s with al-Sha‘b newspaper. He became the West Africa correspondent for the daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, and later for the MBC TV channel, and for Aljazeera in Africa.
As well as Birds of Nabaa (Tuyour Nabaa) his works include Timbuktu wa Akhawatuha (Timbuktu and her Sisters) and Yawmiyat Sahafi fe Ifreeqiya (Diary of a Journalist in Africa).
He is currently CEO of Sahara Media Group in north and west Africa.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Raphael Cohen is a professional translator and lexicographer based in Cairo. His translations include a number of novels by contemporary Arab authors, among them Amir Tag Elsir, George Yarak, Ahlem Mosteghanemi, Mohamed Salmawy and Mona Prince. For Banipal Books, in addition to Birds of Nabaa, he has translated The Madness of Despair by Ghalya F T Al Said and Ahmed Morsi's Poems of Alexandria and New York, which he also introduced. Forthcoming in Spring 2024 is The Secrets of Folder 42 by Abdelmajid Sebbata. Raphael was a contributing editor of Banipal magazine for many years until its closure at the end of 2022. For more information about Raphael Cohen click here.
Front cover image courtesy Azouz Begag