A journey through the Mauritanian wilderness
Night was upon us- that uncompromising, pitch-black type that enshrouds you in the desert. I sat in the back of the car, half wondering if I was still awake. We were lost; the wheels of the old Landcruiser were trapped in the sand and we had lost the faint track we had been following for the past six hours. The headlights of the car and the driver’s torch, expertly held hands-free between his neck and chin, pierced the darkness as he attempted to jack the car up and free us from our sandy trap. Somewhere not too far away an animal bleated hysterically; its voice echoed off the shrouded mountainsides, interrupting the deafening silence and jolting me out of my confused reverie. I laughed at the absurd thought that entered my mind, of some sort of deranged goat heading our way; and yet, in the pit of my stomach, I felt a genuine sense of worry and vulnerability. This had been the first day of Ramadan, and having fasted all day, we now found ourselves with little remaining water and no food other than a large packet of M&Ms. My urge to finish them off was controlled only by my worry of inducing more thirst. We had expected to reach our destination by now.
We were looking for the village of Tuwamarat, the home of Sidi Muhammad Bin Salik Ould Fahfu al-Amsami, better known as Murabit al-Hajj. Those who know him do so as a person of beautiful character, a true ascetic and one who has embodied Sacred Knowledge. As a young man, he set out on foot to complete the pilgrimage to Makkah, stopping at intervals to teach along the way. Upon his return to Mauritania three years later, he retreated from society, establishing a spiritual enclosure in the mountains, far from settled life and worldly distractions. There, he would spend the best part of his life teaching students who came, increasingly, from all over the world. Well over a hundred years old, this was a man I wanted to visit.
Ever since our arrival in Mauritania the mere mention of his name had opened doors; suspicious faces became friendly, strangers became aides. At the airport, my husband and I, upon presenting our British passports, were taken aside for questioning by officials. With tensions running high in neighbouring Mali, there were suspicions that foreign fighters may attempt to enter the country through the Mauritanian border. We explained who we had come to visit and any misgivings seemed quickly to melt away. One of the men, introducing himself as an immigration minister, even insisted on driving us personally to our hotel. En route he helped secure a driver and a car for our journey, wishing, he said, that he could join us.
By the time we reached our hotel in Nouakchott, it was late. We managed only a few hours of sleep when, after praying fajr, it was time to set out upon our journey. We decided to travel as lightly as possible and so left most of our belongings at the hotel. Our driver Jibreel, probably in his fifties, was a somewhat reserved figure but with a quiet determination about him. He had never heard of Murabit al-Hajj, but seemed impressed that we had come so far in order to meet him. Communication was not going to be easy; Jibreel spoke Hassaniya, which meant that the only language we (almost) had in common was broken Arabic. It was going to be a quiet journey. As a resident of the capital, Jibreel had never before ventured into the region towards which we were now headed, meaning that we were relying on vague directions given to us by acquaintances that had previously travelled to the region. The initial part of the journey was simple: head down the long desert road (there is only one) towards Kiffa; eventually the road splits into two, one direction leading to Tidjikja in the north, the other to Kiffa in the south. Between these towns lies a mountainous desert region, with few roads and almost no infrastructure. Our destination lay on a mountain within this region. Our source of navigation once we reached this point would be via any local bedouins we happened to encounter en route. With a flight booked for Rabat on Monday morning, we were pressed for time, giving us 72 hours to visit Murabit al-Hajj and return back to Nouakchott.
Cutting through endless dunes of yellow sand, it was almost eight hours before we reached the expected fork in the desert road. Shades of pastel green grass brought respite from the dry, arid land we had so far travelled through. Further ahead stood low peaks of red and black earth, the outer edges of the mountainous region into which we were heading. Wispy desert plants and trees dotted the landscape around us as large drops of rain hit the windscreen. As we approached the peaks we passed through several bustling villages with roads pooled with water, a rarity in this desert climate. By now the sun was passed its highest point and we stopped in a tiny village, consisting of a cluster of brick buildings, to pray. The light travel prayer mat that I had lain down in front of a small shop, folded over in the wind, exposing the bare earth. As I moved to place my forehead on the ground in prostration, a woman appeared hurriedly and slid a straw mat under my head, ensuring its protection from the hard ground beneath. I thanked her, once I’d finished, in my broken Arabic unsure whether she had understood me. In a country with little tourism, news of our passing through this remote village was eventually to reach Ahmed, our aid at the airport, back in Nouakchott. He later told us that his brother-in-law had spotted us praying.
As we continued on our way, a dirt road led us slowly into higher ground, winding its way up around a mountain. The earth around us, although damp from the rain, was barren and dark, with little sign of vegetation. As we ascended higher, we were in need of further direction. After driving along without spotting another car for quite some time, we came across a man praying on the side of the road, next to an old pickup truck with a small goat in the back. He told us that his village was on our route and that he would lead the way. I had expected him to continue along the dirt road, but to my surprise the man suddenly turned off onto the right, leading us into a rocky terrain that I was unsure our car could even drive on. From here onwards our journey was completely off-road. The driver led us through faint tracks on the ground, barely discernible to my eye. This was not an enjoyable experience. The jagged rocks jerked the car around causing my head to bounce off the window and roof repeatedly. After what felt like a considerable period of time, the land, mercifully, began to flatten out and the rocks subsided, making way for patches of red sand and trees. We had come at a good time; the recent rain had cooled the temperature somewhat and a gentle breeze further prevented any discomfort. The animal carcasses that lay withering in the sun, however, reminded us of the unforgiving climate that usually presided here. The pickup truck led us along an invisible path between boulders and over mounds that our cars only just managed to surmount. The land increasingly showed signs of life; hints of green in the earth alleviated its aridity; a wild cow gnawed at whatever vegetation the slender trees had managed to sprout. The small signs of moisture reminded me of my own thirst.
The sense of anticipation was building up inside of me and I eagerly expected to reach the village at any moment. I was wrong. Little did we know at this time, we had entered the mountainous region from the wrong side, and our journey was to be far longer and more difficult than we had anticipated. Six hours later, we were still following the pick-up driver, stopping every so often so that he could check on his goat. Along the way we had passed at least half a dozen bedouin encampments, and each time I had mistaken them for Tuwamarat. At the sight of our car, children would come running to wave at us. The simple encampments consisted of a cluster of huts with straw roofs and tent-like structures with wooden frames. Tree branches placed vertically into the ground acted as fences around each home. At intervals the land would present ridges, like steps, taking us into higher ground, before flattening out again for several miles, giving our vehicles some respite. On three separate occasions our cars were required to drive through water; each time, Jibreel and the pick-up driver surveyed the lakes, assessing the best place from which to enter, while I sat in the back of the car praying we didn’t capsize. By the time the sun was low in the sky, we had reached the village of our guide. After receiving directions to follow, we said our goodbyes and continued on our way. Not long after, it was time to open our fasts; we prayed Maghrib on a cliff side shielded by trees and bushes. The purple sky around us darkened, and it became impossible to follow the tracks that would lead us on our way. Having veered off course, the car drove into a thick heap of sand, trapping the wheels. I sat in the dark feeling helpless.
With his arms sandy up to the elbows, clothes dirty and torn, a few hours later, Jibreel had managed to free the car and we were finally able to drive on with our headlights lighting the path. We had little chance of finding the track in the dark and sombre thoughts of falling into a ditch kept entering my mind. The worrier inside of me wanted to park the car and wait until fajr. However, after some time spent crawling along in the dark, we came upon a bedouin camp. By now it was almost midnight so no lights could be seen. At the sound of our engine, people came out of their homes to see what was happening. Jibreel explained our situation to them and with no further delay we were invited to enter one of the homes. As I got out of the car some women came and embraced me warmly. They led us towards a carpet laid out beneath the night sky and brought us a lassi-type milk drink and a tray of dates to eat. The home in which we sat consisted of two wooden structures with straw roofs and nearby, a pen-like area containing a few goats and donkeys. Here, some men took aside a goat to sacrifice and then passed the fresh meat to the women to cook over a fire. Like Jibreel, everyone here too held flashlights between their chin and neck to illuminate their paths. By now more neighbours had arrived and the atmosphere was almost celebratory; our unexpected arrival seemed to have instigated an impromptu late-night party. Once the meal was prepared, our host brought it to us in a large tray, and proceeded to remove the meat from the bone with his hands, making it easier for us to eat. As I placed a piece of stewed goat in my mouth, I was aware of the incredible generosity of our hosts in presenting us with such a meal. That being said, the raw, briny taste and extremely chewy texture of the meat was not easy to stomach. I ate as much as I could (my hunger had long since subsided) before politely excusing myself. My husband was not far behind me and Jibreel was left with the bulk of the meat to eat by himself. Our hosts and their neighbours also indulged in a late-night meal alongside us, after which everyone slowly returned to their homes and we lay down on the carpet to sleep.
We were on high ground with a clear view of the sky. With nothing to interfere with their light, more stars than I had ever before seen decorated the black sky above us. I lay on the carpet watching shooting stars dart across my vision intermittently, reflecting on our change in fortune. A short time ago I had felt so helpless and vulnerable, and now, among complete strangers, I was safe and at ease. Despite the tiredness I felt, I lay awake, willingly, for hours. I could understand why Murabit al-Hajj had chosen this as his place of spiritual retreat. Nothing felt real, and yet looking at the stars- the constant, ancient guides, I was reminded of something bigger. The ups and downs of our journey, the harsh environment, the kindness of strangers, the unexpected difficulties, the sudden turn of events- everything we encountered had taken place against a backdrop of something constant and unchanging. God is always Present.
A bedouin camp
I was woken by a strange clicking sound. The sky by now was lighter and few stars were visible. On my right stood three donkeys, close to my sleeping husband’s head. They had eaten the leftover dates in the tray- the clicking sound was made by their attempt at chewing the stones. It was fajr time. A woman brought me a jug of water and a bowl to make my ablutions. It was time to resume our journey. Despite only a few hours of sleep, I felt completely revitalised and eager to continue onwards. Once again neighbours had arrived, this time to send us on our way. Our female host presented me with a parting gift; made with long strips of woven leather, she demonstrated with her hands that it was a key ring. I thanked her, feeling a sense of regret that I had nothing of any value with which to show my gratitude for the kindness and generosity they had shown us. I gave her the only thing I had- my partially eaten jumbo packet of M&M’s.
We drove on for another four hours. Along the route, every few miles or so we encountered bedouins walking through the land, sometimes with a camel, other times completely alone. When Jibreel would ask for directions, our impromptu guides would point in the general direction and we would head that way until we encountered someone else to edge us back onto the correct path in case we had veered off. On one such occasion, as we drove through a particularly rough and stony terrain and found ourselves lost once more, we spotted a man walking alone, rifle in hand. Offering him a lift, he sat in the passenger seat, placing the gun over his shoulder and pointed towards the back of the car. Despite the man’s kindly face and general good-humoured nature, the bumpy ride meant that I breathed a sigh of relief once we had reached his stop. After what felt like hours spent driving through this large stony mass, the land once again became green, sloping up and down gently as we drove. We reached a ridge in the land, the edge of a grassy valley that was home to an encampment, far larger than those we had thus far seen. Here we received further direction, and continued on our way weaving through hills of grass and sand. We were edging closer to the village. I felt nervous. I only knew of men that had previously visited the camp, and so had little reference for what could be expected as a woman. With little time to prepare for our journey, I was not sure how I was expected to dress. I had intended to bring along a niqab, but hours spent searching for one in a souq in Ribat, on the eve of our trip, had proved unsuccessful. In plain black dress with a blue scarf, I wondered if I was dressed appropriately.
Asking a bedouin for directions
Another hour passed when, finally on the plain up ahead of us we spotted an encampment. After almost twenty hours of driving, we had finally reached the endpoint of our journey. With no way of communicating with them, nobody at the village knew we were coming. As we drove up, a man, dressed in a blue Mauritanian kaftan, approached the car and my husband and Jibreel got out to meet him. A few minutes later a woman came to greet me and led me towards a simple brick building with a single room, lined with a rug on the floor and some pillows. One by one, women came to greet me; all were dressed colourfully wearing the traditional mulafa, (a long scarf that wraps around the entire body and covers the hair) and my worries over my own dress were completely dispelled. I was embraced warmly and seated on the cushions on the floor. There were at least three generations of women present, including children. One of the younger women was conversant in French, but there were no English speakers among them. Since my conversational Arabic was extremely basic, I managed only to communicate a few simple things, but beyond that there was little we could say to one another. I regretted not being able to have full conversations with these women, who were as curious to find out more about me as I was of them. Sitting in their presence, initially I felt awkward being the centre of attention, exacerbated by my lack of Arabic; but seeing the genuine sense of affection and the generous spirit among them, was impressive in itself. A woman, perhaps in her fifties, sat on my right holding my arm. Her kindly face and warm eyes put me very much at ease. Her manner towards me was not that of a stranger or merely an acquaintance recently made, but of an old friend that had come to visit. Some of the women reclined back onto cushions, prayer beads in hand; others sat conversing with one another. Despite their relaxed and laid-back demeanour, there was a certain energy about them- an effortless, vivacious spirit, and one would have been hard pressed not to feel the same way.
One of the younger women asked if she could put henna on my hands; since I had exhausted my entire Arabic vocabulary, I willingly agreed. Her method was not one I had seen before; she stuck long, thin pieces of tape onto my hands, while an older woman sat nearby mixing the henna powder into a thick, mud-like consistency. She then proceeded to paste the henna in the gaps left by the tape. I was told to rest while it dried, and lying back onto the cushions I fell asleep. I was woken a little later; the now dried henna washed off easily leaving a dark red earthy colour on my hands. The girl peeled back the tape that covered the unstained skin underneath, revealing a sort of inverted henna pattern. As it was time to pray, a jug and bowl were brought to me so that I could make my ablutions. Having been used to an endless supply of water gushing from a tap, in the privacy of a bathroom, I felt a little nervous making my ablutions with limited water with others watching on. Trying my best not to waste a drop, small murmurs of ‘mashallah’ around the room indicated that I had done better than I had expected to.
Although the women sat separately from the men, the door of the room was left wide open so that one could easily see outside. The men were sat under a wooden structure with a shaded roof. Underneath, directly in front of me, sat Murabit al-Hajj, prayer beads in hand, facing our way. Estimated to be somewhere between 110 and 120 years of age, he speaks little, spending his time reading Qur’an or in remembrance of God. Although we had had no communication with anyone at the camp, amazingly we were told that earlier that morning, before our arrival, Murabit al-Hajj had been telling the women to prepare for guests who were en route and had travelled from afar. When my husband had entered his tent, he later told me that he had been lying down and upon his entry, sat up and recited a long prayer for us. He then repeated the word ‘ba’eed’ – several times, implying that we were the guests that had come from far away. Sitting in his company, my husband said that there was a certain energy about him; although now frail with age, his presence, even in silence, was palpable.
It had taken us a lot longer than expected to reach the village, and so, pressed for time, we could not stay for long. After praying Asr, it was time to leave. The journey had been slow; although the distance between Nouakchott and the village is approximately 600km, the difficult terrain renders this figure irrelevant. The closer one gets, the longer the journey takes. Despite the problems we faced, a mere twenty years ago, the same journey would have been made on camel; the hours it took us would have taken days. As we prepared to leave, one of the women, Murabit al-Hajj’s granddaughter, presented me with a mulafa, and after the women dressed me up, I left the camp looking like a Mauritanian.
When we made our plan to visit Murabit al-Hajj, I did not realise how much of an impact the journey itself would have on me. I wanted to visit him and the people with whom he had created his spiritual sanctuary, away from the world and its distractions. The path in reaching them, passing through the wilderness, removed from the familiar, and pursued with the sense of uncertainty that such a journey entails, was a keen reminder that our dependence and reliance is completely upon God. We were in another world, surrounded by the beauty of nature and encountering people who place God at the absolute centre of their lives. There were no comforts and little ease of life here, and no unnecessary clatter to cause one to forget. I left with a clearer mind, a sense of clarity and focus that I had not felt in a long time. And who knows, perhaps therein lies the secret of Murabit al-Hajj.