Mauritania

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Chinguetti, Mauritania, December 2006. Saed pours tea the traditional way, several times, from pot to glass, back to pot, before you end up drinking the bottom of a glass three times in a row, each time sweeter. Saed accomplit le rituel du thé, qui passe plusieurs fois de la théière au verre, avant d’être offert en trois fois, de plus en plus sucrée.

It’s a joke !! That became our favorite expression each time we reached a famous destination, the “fabulous oasis of Chinguetti”, the “seventh holy city of Islam”, the “ancient capital of the Moors”, in reality a few rundown houses, the streets of the eastern quarters covered by the encroaching sand, some palm trees, an ocean of dunes… and a handful of guesthouses, and, oh, I forget, several libraries, each pretending to be the authentic one, a double joke according to my companion who had an argument with Mohammed Lemine, the young conservateur of the Bibliothèque Habott who showed us the room where they study at length the Coran, but ignore the most basic rules of hygiene. At least we arrived by chance in between charter flights, and were totally by ourselves.

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N’Tourfine, Adrar Plateau, Mauritania, December 2006.

One of the few spots where the endless, very rocky plateau is not flat, and has some aesthetic forms. There were also some huge sand dunes, and an oasis tuck down a canyon… and a good driver who took advantage of every feature of his powerful 4X4 Toyota, going up and down the dunes, riding over rocks, taking shortcuts from one track to another, not once did we stay stuck, nor get lost.

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Chinguetti, Mauritania, December 2006. Nous avons rencontré un Mauritanien généreux et désintéressé.

We did find one disinterested person, Mohammed, the sweet man who had protested against the battered condition of the minivan which drove us here. I paid him a visit at his parents’ stone house, had tea, he worked as a truck driver at the ore company back in Zouerate, it didn’t look from his manners and his hands, all very fine, long fingers, I took a nice portrait of him – which I just mailed him. He was visiting his folks, had left his wife and 2 year old daughter in Zouerate, he gave us blankets, for the night was freezing even inside our room. His mother tried to sell me an old turban, Mohammed gently pushed her away, he came to see us in the guesthouse, brought a key holder, a necklace made of little stones, and a little drum. Often my companion wanted to throw stuff that crammed our bags, I wanted to keep it as a souvenir of the only dignified Mauritanian we met.

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Choum, Mauritania, December 2006. Intermediate stop on the 650-km long Zouerate-Nouadhibou line. Loaded with ore westward, but also clandestine freight! Arrêt intermédiaire sur la voie de 650 kilomètres reliant les mines de fer de Zouerate au port atlantique de Nouadhibou.

They say this ore train is the longest in the world, it had an endless string of tubs, a hundred? could even be more, up to 210 according to SNIM, the national industrial and mining company, carrying an average of 22.000 tons. It is the only way to get inland from Nouadhibou on the Atlantic, and it does have one passenger car, but in what condition ! They had ripped off the cloth seats and taken anything that could be unbolted and unscrewed, bare metal was all that was left, with bits of foam rubber and shreds of fabric, the headrest remained bolted on the wall, but so stained and dusty you couldn’t tell what the original color was. And the toilets… nothing was left apart from the stinking hole, when I went to pee I almost fell outside as the footboard was missing and a cardboard was replacing the door. The whole car was like that, as if an animal pack had trampled over what used to be a first-class German wagon, and that is probably what had happened, the Deutsche Bahn unloaded on Africa its old-fashioned wagons, and nomads unused to travel by train must have boarded with their cattle. They still did, but in the tubs, along with anybody unable/willing to pay the 7.5 Euro ticket to get a “seat”. And it couldn’t possibly get colder than inside the windowless and door-less car. I was a bit skeptical when a SNIM executive told us the train was wholly computerized, even carried a black box like the airplanes.

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Zouerate, Mauritania, December 2006.

The son of a SNIM executive poses for a portrait, we told him to stay still and serious, and of course he kept fidgeting and trying not to smile. His mother had five children from her first marriage, and five from her second, and her first husband had also five in his own second marriage, that means many little Mauritanians! We soon learned these multiple marriages are very customary.

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Nouakchott, Mauritania, 28 December 2006.

The scene was beautiful, flocks of sheep and goats standing by a main road for several kilometers right in the capital, with sellers waiting, there is no want of customers, every family gets its sheep for le jour du mouton at year’s end, Tabaski, West Africa’s greatest celebration, Abraham sacrificing the lamb instead of his son.

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