(Birds of al-Nab’a)
by Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah
Published by Jadawel,
The “travel book” of a Mauritanian intellectual
Mauritanians have such a passion for poetry that their country is widely known as the land of a million poets. Ever since their forefathers had moved from deserts in the far-off east and settled in another desert sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Senegal River, Mauritanians have found in poetry a great solace from the harshness of their desert life as well as a channel through which to give vent to feelings of nostalgia for their ancestors’ homeland.
One Mauritanian who probed a different path was Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah. Starting his career as a journalist with Arab newspapers, then as a correspondent for TV channels, he eventually forayed into business, travelling extensively around the world. Recently, he presented himself as a novelist. His novel Tuyour al-Nab’a (Birds of al-Nab’a) is a powerful narrative written in a superb style that draws on traditional oral anecdotes and reflects the influence of some contemporary Arab writers, particularly Tayeb Salih, who continues to inspire scores of writers in both the Maghreb and the wider Middle East.
The protagonist of Tuyour al-Nab’a has many things in common with the author. Drawing on the versatile experiences of his frequent travels, Uld Mohamadi manages to carve out characters that look quite familiar to us, characters that we have met, lived with, and accompanied in travels on board planes and buses, and on camel-backs across the desert.
The novel is set in many cities – stations or stopping points. The first stop is Madrid, where the protagonist lands after travelling from al-Nab’a (Spring or Well), his desert village that holds firmly to its Bedouin traditions in the face of incessant waves of modernisation. In Madrid, the villager will not indulge in city life as did Mustafa Sa’eed, the protagonist of Season of Migration to the North, but will rather watch from a distance while consciously preserving his Bedouin chastity. He is a spendthrift with a lot of money, yet he does not run after his desires. “Politeness dictates that I must restrain myself. I am forty now and it is just unbecoming for me to give free rein to my desires. The nightlife of Madrid is hard to resist but I have managed to curb my desires and to answer the call of my vigilant mind to keep quiet.” The protagonist does not fail to exercise self-constraint even with Teresa, the Brazilian girl he loved, apparently because she served him as obediently as his village girls would have done. When the temptations threaten to take control, he rekindles the flame of Sufism in his “ever thirsty, bewildered soul” in order to regain his chastity.
The protagonist returns to his home country and to his desert village, not reluctantly as was the case with Mustafa Sa’eed, but rather because he genuinely believes that life is a series of stations, each with a turn of fate of its own, and that a wise man should accept this fact of life in the same way as his folks in the desert learnt to accept their fate. He believes that his life is “a travel book of endless chapters, each having a distinct colour, smell, and taste”.
Back in the village, he tries to recall his childhood memories but they come across as blurred and confused. However, he does remember a grandfather who came from Chinguetti and built a mosque in the heart of the Sahara that formed the nucleus around which the village of al-Nab’a evolved. He also recalls Abdel Hadi al-Majzoub, the teacher who taught him the holy Qur’an and encouraged him to memorize classical Arabic poetry, and who ignited in his soul an unquenchable passion for Sufism.
After a brief stay, the protagonist leaves the village to work at the Mauritanian embassy in Kuwait. There he meets his compatriot Abdul Rahman, an addict of reading with leftist leanings who was a zealous advocate of Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian. With Abdul Rahman the protagonist will experience new adventures and will discover the inner world of Arab expatriates in Kuwait. “Without Abdul Rahman, my life is worthless. Thanks to him, I learned how to respect others’ opinions even if I disagree with them.” Along with Abdul Rahman, he travels to Doha where he meets some Sudanese and gets to know their fifth tone music and their Sufi poetry.
Back in his village, he notes that although some manifestations of modern life have started to penetrate village life, many aspects of Bedouin culture and lifestyle are still holding firm, such as gatherings for poetry recitations, religious hymns, and romantic tales.
Once again the old passion for travel takes hold of him and he sets off, this time to Guinea in search of the sons of al-Nab’a village who migrated so long ago that they had become fantastic characters in the memory of the village community.
Employing quite a large number of characters and a mixture of actual events flavoured with elaborate touches, Uld Mohamadi weaves a gripping narrative of a Mauritanian intellectual in frequent shuttles between his home village, Europe, and the Middle East. These trips, related in the style of folk tales, leave a spiritual imprint as well as a significant impact on the fates, ideas, and emotions of the characters – in the same way that ascetic Sufis might find opportunities for deciphering the secrets of worldly and heavenly existence through travel.
Published in Banipal 60 - Alaa al-Deeb: A writer apart (Autumn/Winter 2017)
Reviewed by Hassouna Mosbahi
To read a chapter in English translation published in Banipal 60, click here
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