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by Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah
Translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen
PB: ISBN 978-1-913043-43-8
eBook: ISBN 978-1-913043-44-5
This Mauritanian novel in English translation, the first from Arabic, is an unforgettable journey into the heart of the country by the well-known Mauritanian journalist and writer Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah.
The constant life on the move of the novel's narrator is inspired by the Sahara of the author's childhood and his devotion from an early age to the vagabond life of the pre-Islamic poets.
The search for the inner stillness known only to desert dwellers leads the unnamed narrator from his work in Madrid, the Gulf states and Guinea back to Nabaa, and always to the music, song and poetry so much a part of Mauritanian life and the spiritual universe of Sufism.
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; 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.
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.
How the harsh environment affects people's personalities and how migration shapes their futures, their fates, are two themes that run quietly through the work, in concert with intriguing dreams of the narrator and others, poetry recitation sessions and a return to a changed Nabaa.
In spite of grim and alarming events that create an asymmetric conflict between the earth and human expectations, the narrator remains hopeful, saying: “In Nabaa, things were happening that were impossible to explain, but that did not make me lose hope in a better future. After the seven lean cows come the seven fat cows, after the drought the rains will fall, and after difficulty comes ease.”
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
“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
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.
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