Nouakchott, City of Sand

Monday, October 17, 2011 | Nouakchott, Mauritania (map)

Traditionally, Mauritanian men and women both cover up from head to toe outside the home. After a minute in the country's blinding midday sun, it's easy to see why.
The night before I left Nouakchott—the desolate capital of the even more desolate northwest African country of Mauritania—a sales email managed to slip through my spam blocker. It began, "Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere in the desert, you MUST have heard of Viagra..."

Funny you should say so. As a matter of fact, I do feel as if I'm living under a rock in the desert.

* * *

Thanks to a long-anticipated transfer at work, my new portfolio includes a series of projects in North Africa. This means the end—for now at least—of my Central African travels, and a chance to further explore this other familiar corner of the continent.

My first destination in the region, however, was one I had never visited and knew little about. I had read about Mauritania's spartan "desert blues" music on a blog I enjoy, Sahel Sounds, and I could vaguely recall waking one morning during my time in Morocco to the news that a military coup had taken place in the neighboring country to the south, but beyond that I knew little. (Well, now that I think about it some more, I can recall that they only outlawed slavery in 2007. It's said that the practice still persists.)

During my week in the capital of this neglected former French colony, I found Nouakchott (نواكشوط, pronounced "new-ock-shot") to be a visually underwhelming place. Apart from a few mosques, modest office towers, and government ministries, nothing in the city seemed built with aesthetics in mind. It seems that most Mauritanians are just trying to make ends meet, and don't have time for frills. Nouakchott's dusty streets, concrete block apartments, and tin-roofed shops are a nod to the hardscrabble lives being lived there.

On our drive around town, my organization's local representative, an ornery old Québecois gentleman, had pointed out sights of interest: his preferred butcher shop, the tent market, the bank with the ATM, the road toward the airport, a few embassy compounds. We visited two beaches outside the city—long, pristine stretches of undisturbed sand and waves. A few French expats spend their days managing a seaside fish-and-chips joint on the beach, but other than that there are no structures in sight.

"Nouakchott, c'est une ville qui n'est pas destinée à survivre," my Québecois colleague opined late on a Saturday afternoon, as we sat in lopsided lawn chairs on the beach, watching the waves. We had just visited the dunes—they start at the city's edge and stretch north toward Morocco, south toward Senegal, and east for thousands of miles, all the way to Sudan. Sometimes those dunes, ever shifting with the wind, overtake the outskirts of town. Other times, sea water wells up from the low-lying ground without warning in a random neighborhood, rendering it unlivable. The people of Nouakchott have found a way to live on the fringe between the sea and the sand, but their city's future is by no means certain.

* * *

I spent much of my week in Nouackhott working, but we dined out most evenings. No more than a handful of restaurants in this conservative Muslim country serve alcohol. Those that do are discreet about it; alcohol is illegal to import, and must be smuggled past pliable customs officers. The Québecois, lacking for entertainment, patronized one of those establishments each night, and each night he chuckled to the waiter as he ordered his "thé canadien" with a wink.

The Mauritanians I had the chance to meet were exceptionally friendly, which bodes well for future visits, even if the place seems less than hospitable in other ways. Beyond Nouakchott, Mauritania's interior is said to hold sparkling oases and small desert towns rich in history. Summoning my optimism and reminding myself that every place holds something worth exploring, I can convince myself that I'm looking forward to another visit in the months to come.

Next up: a return to Morocco that's more apprehensive than triumphal.

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