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Sunday, October 4, 2020

Woman Of The Dunes- The Fabulous Tales Of The Saharan Oasis Of al-Bashar

The oasis of al-Bashar is 100km from Nouakchott over trackless dunes, hard-packed stony Martian landscapes, winding pistes and hot, monumental rock face cliffs.  The oasis itself is unremarkable – a small watering hole surrounded by palm trees, the tents of Moors who had been forced to come in from the desert because of the drought, a few more substantial dwellings of farmers who had until recently grown vegetable crops, kept small troupes of sheep and goats, and harvested dates.  In the past decade the desert had encroached more and more on the village.  What had been arable, well watered, irrigated land on its eastern outskirts was now just drifting sand and dunes.  Even those who had lived in al-Bashar for generations, moved to Nouakchott and joined the thousands of other desert people living in huge refugee tent cities there.

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Mauritania was becoming a country with no reason to exist.  Most of the territory north of the Senegal River was uninhabitable desert, there were only a relatively few nomads there – the profitable camel caravans once carrying salt from Mauritanian mines to the Algerian coast had stopped plying their traditional routes; the inter-oasis trade had been taken over by trucks; and goat-herding had become impossible as the last thorny shrubs dried up and died.  

The land on the Mauritanian side of the river was fertile, easily irrigated, and profitable, and was owned by Moorish absentee landlords.  Many of the black, sub-Saharan people who lived there were slaves of the Moors despite the official end of slavery in the late 70s.  Because the Moors had no interest in making the delta profitable by investing in modern irrigation, fertilizers, seeds, and agricultural techniques, it languished.  Most of the black population crossed the river and settled in Senegal, and the desultory interest of the Moors only added to their increasing poverty and dislocation.

Image result for images traditional camel salt caravan sahara

The World Bank and other international institutions in a vain, idealistic effort to retain ‘Mauritanian integrity’ tried to forestall the advances of the Sahara, but no matter how many sand barriers they constructed, the violent sandstorms which were common in that part of the Sahara blew sand over, under, and through them.  As much as these same international bankers tried to preserve a black African culture along the River by investing in agricultural improvements, land titling, and lending schemes, the Moors simply waited for the dams to be completed, and the arid riverside land flooded; then simply took over all land holdings from the Africans. 

Robert Marshall, a consultant for a large American development agency was told by the Mauritanian Minister of the Interior that the end of his country was near.  He pointed out his window to the vast tent cities extending well into the desert, closed it quickly against the blowing sand that covered all city streets, made travel difficult if not dangerous, and infiltrated every crack, crevasse, and loose door hinges of every building.  Mauritania now produced nothing, and only survived on international food aid and financial largess. The once important  port to the north, Nouadhibou, was now a relic, closed because of the war over the Spanish Sahara, other port options for European traders, and the failing mineral mines that offered some prosperity.  “We cannot survive”, the Minister said.

Marshall and his team of public health specialists was sent to Mauritania to assess and analyze the country’s health facilities and to assist the government to negotiate and conclude a loan to rebuild, restock, refurbish, and renovate those in most desperate need.  The mandate of Marshall’s mission was to study conditions away from the capital, and to see if investment in health facilities in those still-populated areas was at all feasible.

The team travelled in a caravan of three Mercedes four-wheel drive jeeps – one for the three members of the team, one for water, gas, spare parts and emergency supplies, and the third in case one of the first two broke down – a common occurrence in the desert no matter how new or well-maintained the vehicles.  In the worst storms sand fouled the engine, the air intake, and the exhaust system, and buried the vehicles up to the fenders.

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The team was housed in the residence of the Prefect, a Lyon-trained manager who had run afoul of the previous government and had been exiled to al-Bashar. He lived with his wife in the only brick-and-mortar building within 100 miles, but the modern superstructure was no defense against the sand, the heat, and the flies.  In both Arab and French tradition, he had a rooftop feast prepared for his guests – roast lamb, couscous, garden vegetables, and stone-ground, brick-oven baked bread.  The night was cool and clear, there was a full moon and for the first night in over a week, the prefect explained, he could see beyond the encroaching dunes out over the desert to the el-Adrar mountains in the distance.

The prefect told his guests the history of al-Bashar, how it was once the jewel of the western Sahara, a stop on the most important trade routes, thick with date palms, rich vegetable gardens and fruit trees, and a population of Moors who had long since left their nomadic life to live in this prosperous, comfortable place.

The oasis also had a storied history of myth, legend, and mystery.  Two centuries ago, one legend went, when Mauritania was more Sahelian than Saharan and much more easily reachable from the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean, it had become a center of cultural importance.  It housed a library while not as impressive as that in Timbuktu or Alexandria, was still important for its collection of Islamic religious text and, so it was reported, manuscripts of Ibn Battuta, a 14th century historian, geographer, and world traveler.  

The oasis and the vast territories to the north and east were ruled by Sheikh Muhammed bin-al-Walid, a powerful and charismatic man who traced his lineage to Ramses III of Egypt, and through the female line to the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty.  His harem was said to be the most sumptuous of the Moorish world.  As small and remote as it might have been, the sensual pleasures of al-Bashar rivalled that of Cleopatra and the Ptolemies of Alexandria.

Image result for images old timbuktu islamic library

The prefect went on into the night with his tales of former glory.  In the distant past hundreds of camels were tethered by the oasis, the smell of grilling lamb filled the evening air, and the sound of dance music coming from the sheikh’s chambers was loud and seductive.  Scholars studied ancient manuscripts in the carrels of the library, pilgrims prayed at the Jama-al-Masjid mosque built in the 16th century and despite the harshness of the desert climate showed little signs of wear.

Marshall and his team were moved by the tales of the prefect.  His French was elegant, poetic, and as lyrical as his native Arabic must have been.  Whether or not the ancient oasis of al-Bashar ever existed or whether it was only a confabulation of the Arabian Nights, Moorish legend, and French romantic fantasy, no one cared.  The prefect’s voice rose and fell like the rich bass of a string quartet.  During his pauses, there was only the immense silence of the desert.  There was no wind, no sound of birds, no rustling of ground animals, no sifting sand.

“There was a woman”, the prefect began after a long, silent pause, “said to be the most beautiful woman of the desert” who arrived by caravan one day many years ago.  She was a common woman, a niece of the lead camel-driver who cooked for the caravan, drew water, and supervised the children who tended the camels. Only her eyes could be seen” said the prefect, “so cloaked and modestly clothed was she; but her eyes were the color of the sea and the sky when the sun was overhead.  Her eyes were like the most perfect almonds from the orchard.  When the Sheikh saw her at the well he thought that no woman of his harem had ever had eyes so beautiful, as seductive, and as clear as those of this woman of the dunes.” 

The prefect paused and looked out at the now moonlit desert beyond the oasis.  The moon was high and the tops of the dunes were silver and their shadows long, dark, and black. 

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“The Sheikh quickly took her into his harem and looked upon her naked body for the first time.  There were no candles lit in the bedchamber.  Their wedding night was like this one – cool, still, with a full moon – and as she stood before him se, like the desert (here the prefect gestured out over the Sahara) was both silver and black. Every part of her body was either illuminated or silhouetted.  He saw a woman’s body like he had never before, and this, the most beautiful, slender, and naturally elegant of them all”.

The prefect went on and told tales of their marriage, their children, and how she became beloved by the harem.  Her natural gentility and warmth defused or resolved the most spiteful jealousies.  The prefect told of the rich silks and jewels the Sheikh  brought from Egypt and Venice and how she wore them like a queen, how she picked figs from the trees with the grace and elegance of a sylph, and how she walked across the sands as if she were floating.

Perhaps because the romantic history of al-Bashar and the tales of the Saharan Nights were told so well; or because the desert was so calm and so quiet and the sky so clear; or because the moon was so bright, the scene was perfect; and, despite the shambles of the buildings, the withering date palms, and the groaning of the tired and scabrous camels, it was unforgettable. 

Deserts have always been transformative places. Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses were desert people who sought solitude, refuge, and inspiration there.  Travel writers from ibn Battuta to Doughty, Lawrence, and Burton have been moved and changed by the desert.   Pasolini captured the mystery of the desert in his Thousand and One Nights and the Gospel According to Matthew. Ondaatje saw it as a world without maps.

The rest of Marshall’s mission was unmemorable – a series of visits to health centers and hospitals, interviews with doctors and nurses, inventories of drugs and medical supplies, long hours in the Mercedes, and recordings made.  Neither he nor any of his team members could speak of anything else once they had returned home; and at the same time could never recreate the romantic eloquence of the prefect, the perfection of the desert at night, or the story of the woman of the dunes; and  not surprisingly Marshall refused all offers to return to Mauritania and the Sahara. 

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