Book review: Mbarek Ould Beyroukʹs "The Desert and the Drum"

One of a kind

Mbarek Ould Beyroukʹs "The Desert and the Drum" centres on a young womanʹs coming-to-political-consciousness in contemporary Mauritania. Winner of an English PEN Award, this translation, from the French by Rachael McGill, is being touted as the first-ever Mauritanian novel to be published in English. Marcia Lynx Qualey read the book

Mauritanian novels in any language can be hard to find outside the country. Few have received the international literary prizes that often lead to wider readerships. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction has never longlisted a Mauritanian author, while the Sheikh Zayed Book Award longlisted its first Mauritanian novel in 2017. No Mauritanian author has yet won either the Grand Prix Litteraire dʹAfrique Noire or the Prix des Cinq Continents.

Beyrouk – who is sometimes referred to by surname only – is a prominent newspaperman in Mauritania who published his first novel in 2006. It wasnʹt until his third, "The Desert and the Drum" (2015), that he won the Geneva-based Kourouma Prize and, with it, a bigger platform.

This sharply observed novel unfolds in two time-streams. The first follows the present-day Rayhana, while the second follows the Rayhana of a few years earlier, when she was still a naive teen. The novel jumps between times – both to build suspense and also to layer Mauritaniaʹs past and present, its urban and rural landscapes.

The novel opens during Rayhanaʹs escape from her village. She runs through the desert on foot, carrying a stolen drum as though it were her baby. She manages to reach a small city nearby, still clutching the drum, although not before a man attempts to rape her.

The other timeline begins years earlier, when Rayhana is still an ingenuous, open-hearted teen. Giant lorries appear, full of foreign engineers who set up their equipment near her village. After that, "It was as if several rungs were broken off the ladder of our routines."

Cover of Mbarek Ould Beyroukʹs "The Desert and the Drum", translated from the French by Rachael McGill (published by Dedalus Ltd)
A dual approach: this sharply observed novel unfolds in two time-streams, switching back and forth to build suspense and also to layer Mauritaniaʹs past and present, its urban and rural landscapes. It offers no simple answers, nor simple narrative trajectories. Urbanity is not necessarily liberation, and the village is not necessarily a tighter-knit community

The arrival of the Ncaras

When the Ncaras, or Europeans, set up camp near Rayhanaʹs village, they donʹt impose themselves on the villagers. And yet their noise and presence alters the rhythm of village life. It echoes other narratives about European arrival, such as Chinua Achebeʹs 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart", and yet is happening today, as though history is moving in a loop.

The only one among the strangers who we get to know is Yahya, a Mauritanian who works with the Ncaras and who starts coming to hang out with the village youth. The villageʹs city-raised teacher rails against these co-ed gatherings, but the villagers arenʹt concerned. The mothers "taunted him, ʹWhen you have your own daughter, you can bury her alive if thatʹs what you want!ʹ"

Yet the teacher is right about one thing: Yahya is there to seduce Rayhana. At first, he offers only poems and flirtations. Then, suddenly, he shows up in her tent at night. He doesnʹt ask permission, but she gives in to his presence and her own desire. This goes on for weeks, with Rayhana expecting a proposal. But when the foreign engineers disappear in the night, Yahya disappears with them.

Rayhanaʹs mother manages to spirit her daughter away for nearly a year. When they return, without the baby, she has her daughter married off to one of the villageʹs most eligible men. Indeed, he is a decent man who offers to help Rayhana find her child. Yet even he is looking at Rayhana not for who she is, but for what he wants from her. So Rayhana runs off to find the baby herself, stealing the tribeʹs most significant symbol – its drum – as she goes.

Freedom (and kindness) at the margins

Nearly all the men Rayhana meets want something from her. Some, like Yahya, take advantage of her naivete. Others try to shoehorn her into their own expectations and desires. The only one who treats her with generosity and total respect is a gay man, Hawa. It is the characters like Hawa, who exist at the margins, who really see Rayhana – even if ultimately they canʹt save her.

The book offers no simple answers, nor simple narrative trajectories. Urbanity is not necessarily liberation, and the village is not necessarily a tighter-knit community. Rayhana, who was upper-class back in her village, feels overwhelmed and disrespected in the small city of Atar: "Atar and its people didnʹt like me. They stared, amused, as if Iʹd dropped from the sky, or arrived from some bizarre foreign land." Rayhanaʹs friend Mbaraka, on the other hand, was a slave in their village. She experiences Atar very differently. The people, she says, are "different from what I knew before, but I like the way they accept you. Where you come from doesnʹt matter."

Mbaraka is one of the most compelling among a range of interesting minor characters. When enslaved, she "belonged" to Rayhanaʹs mother. But then: "There was no thunder clap, the sky didnʹt fall in; I just decided I was going to belong to myself."

The strangeness of urban life

Rayhana feels an even greater sense of unease when she reaches Mauritaniaʹs capital, Nouakchott. "This mass of humanity, the faces and the shouting, stayed with you even after youʹd been away from them a few hours, eaten a meal, met friends. You still heard the murmur of the crowd in your ears, and even without realising it, you began to behave as the crowd did." But she also envies how city people "belong to themselves."

All places here have their flaws: Rayhana rages against the poorly run orphanages of the city, saying that such a thing would never happen in a village. Hawaʹs nephew Abdou shrugs his shoulders, "as if to say, ʹWhere you come from, they stole your child.ʹ"

Interestingly, Hawa also doesnʹt like the capital. While he brings Rayhana to Nouakchott to live with his sister, he wonʹt stay. He says that, as a gay man, he is too "visible" in Nouakchott, unlike in the smaller city of Atar.

The one disappointing aspect to this rich and enjoyable translation are the footnotes, both from the author and the translator, which interrupt the narrative flow with often unnecessary explanations and anthropological insertions.

Otherwise, the narrative bristles with interesting characters and essential questions. Also, through Rayhanaʹs gaze, we can see the strangeness of our own contemporary urban lives afresh.

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© Qantara.de 2018

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