A Mauritanian Diary

Hardly anybody outside of Africa will have noticed it, unless you are a reporter or a foreign affairs buff. But Mauritania had another coup last week, bloodless as all the other five previous ones, but still a more significant one – because it reversed all the gains made since the first-ever democratic election in 2007, which was monitored by the European Union.

As it happens, I was one of the EU monitors back then. It was March 2007, and we were scheduled to stay in the country for four weeks, on account of the two weeks gap between the first round and the run-off of the presidential election. Without going into the political intricacies of Mauritania and its historical evolution to this day, I thought it an appropriate moment to finally upload my diary of these days. It was exhilarating for me to go to this country that few ever talk about, testimony to which I could find on the Internet. Or rather, I could not. As a matter of fact, there is very little information to be found in English on the web on Mauritania, and you have to delve into French or Arabic sources to find more.

It is a country with a lot of history and a lot of desert. Some of the oldest Islamic literature was published and archived in Chinguetti, a small town in the middle of the desert, which used to be one of the most central places of medieval Islamic learning. Mauritanians claim that their dialect of Arabic is as pure and as close as you can get to the original Arabic of Qur’an. However, most Mauritanians do communicate these days with a mix of Arabic and French, on account of its colonial history and the close relations between the two nations, for good or for worse.

In fact, most people will have heard of Mauritania only as a stopover of the Rally Paris-Dakar, nowadays only the “Dakar” (the rally does not necessarily begin in Paris anymore). Every year, hundreds of rally drivers and their support teams descend on Northern Africa in huge cargo planes, build up their camps and drive a couple of hundred miles in reckless speed across the desert and past bewildered nomads, before decamping and moving on to the next pit stop. Except this year. The killing of several French tourists and some credible claims by Islamic extremists pushed the organizers of the “Dakar” to cancel the rally, for the first time ever.

But let’s move on to the few notes of my stay there; for a full diary I feel is a bit too ambitious, given how events have unfolded.