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Monday, July 11, 2011

A wedding in the Land of White Moors

The groom (and blogger's brother) with his bride who is
dressed, hand-hennaed and bejeweled according to
centuries-old traditions 
NOUAKCHOTT
Apart from the gift of life, I shall always be grateful to my parents for having brought me up in a multicultural family. And you can't get any more wildly multicultural than my family: my mother was born in Paris into a Romanian family and at age 2  was taken to the old country when WWII broke out. My grandmother left her daughter behind with her parents to go back to France (and  my Hungarian grandfather.) Little could my grandmother suspect that the war would separate her from her daughter for 6 years and then the Communist-imposed Iron Curtain for another 12 years. Only at age 21 did my by-now Romanian-speaking mother go back to France where she met my father, an Arab from the large but little known country of Mauritania (if you don't know where it is located on the map, you'll find it in the northwestern corner of Africa, just south of Morocco - interestingly enough my father himself had a half sister, whose father was French, and she too was lost to her mother from her childhood until her mid-20's. You can call my family many things but boring isn't one of them!) I then grew up between France and Mauritania with summer breaks spent in Romania, in particular the northern region of Transylvania. Such varied cultures and languages helped me become more open to other societies and people, different ways of doing things as well as learn other languages more easily.

When my Mauritania-based brother asked me if I wanted to attend his wedding in  the country known to locals in their Arabic dialect as Trab el Bidan or Land of White Moors, I enthusiastically accepted. So it was that last Thursday, after a 15-year absence, a 6-hour Air France flight from Paris disgorged me  into the diminutive airport of Nouakchott, the largest city in the Sahara desert and Mauritania's capital. It was the day of the wedding and I had barely changed into the traditional men's garb (see picture below) when I repaired to the bride's family 's home in the northern sector of the sprawling city that is relentlessly expanding from the Atlantic Ocean into the desert in all three directions (the view from the sky with the bluish hues of the ocean and the dusty white of the desert makes quite a contrast.)

We were greeted by the bride's parents and shown into a large rectangular room decorated in the typical low mattresses and colorful woven-wool carpets where male relatives of the bride's and groom's were assembled. It was quite entertaining to play the recognition game, an uncle here, a cousin there, and a nephew, a handsome young man in his mid 20's and recently married himself. When I last saw him he was barely two years old and it was in dramatic circumstances: his mother, my older half-sister, had just committed suicide in one of the family's highest profile dramas. The women sat in a separate  room but this segregation didn't last long as one of  my aunts was too excited to stand the protocol and waved at me to join her outside where other aunts and female cousins, close and distant ones, joined me, hugging and kissing me with with full theatrics. After this breach with protocol I went back to the men, some of the elders shaking their hands while muttering in their beards something about how Moorish traditions are lost to people living in the West.

I later heard that there was another etiquette violation, this time courtesy of my father who brought his own cleric. According to tradition since the Day 1 ceremony (known in Arabic as 'aqd or contract signing) takes place at the bride's place, it is her family's cleric who should officiate. Maybe my father felt that our tribe, the Laghlal, who for centuries had vied with my future sister-in-law's tribe of Idewaali for the control of our joint town, Chinguetti, Islam's seventh Holy City, should assert itself in a show of tribal power politics.  Anyway, things went smoothly, the cleric called on the representatives of both groom and bride to get closer to him, the conditions were read out ("the husband shall not raise his hand on his wife nor take another one, otherwise the marriage will become null and void immediately"), the audience were asked if they had any reason to object to the matrimony (I felt like raising my hand saying that as my younger brother, wasn't it bad form that he would get married before I did, but then thought otherwise) and the most noble son of the even noblest family of a  greatest tribe got married to a lady who was no less grand in her titles than he was. Of course, as befits tradition, neither bride nor groom were present. A short prayer that involved our whispering verses from the Koran hands raised skywards followed and we then proceeded  to partake of the meat, dates and drinks served on a cloth set right on the carpet, while steaming hot cups of tea were circulated around. As soon as the food was dispatched, everybody got up, slipped into their shoes and left the place leaving it to the female relatives  who were going to celebrate throughout the evening.

According to Moorish tradition, the bride has to remain
unseen  for three days. The smiling girl is the blogger's
(and groom's) sister, a management consultant based
in Brittany, western France
The next evening saw the wedding reception (known in Arabic as marwah) being organized in the palatial home of a cousin, in another neighborhood (which didn't exist last time I was here), closer to the ocean but as a safe distant since Moors (as Arab Mauritanians are known) have from time immemorial turned their backs on the salty body of water, even if fishing now represents one of the country's main exports. Day 2 was slightly different from the previous religious-cum-legal day with guests definitely on the younger side and men and women mixing and, to my utter surprise, dancing freely. But it is true that Mauritanians are unique among Arabs in that women are equal to men, they run their own businesses, work and travel freely, get married and divorce at a dizzying rate (a young cousin of mine who was there had already gone through a fourth marriage and counting), something unheard of in neighboring Algeria and Morocco where divorcees and widows are damaged goods with no hope of any further social life. And I'm not speaking of retrograde Saudi Arabia where they can't even show their faces or drive their own cars.

(You will notice from the top picture and the one right above, that, unlike what is customary in the West and other Arab countries, Mauritanian brides wear black while grooms are dressed in white. This is an old Beduin tradition that has survived the ages.)



A thoughtful blogger watches
the proceedings

Once all the guests had assembled, my brother accompanied by male friends and relatives set out in a car convoy to pick up the bride at her family home. Amid a pandemonium of car horns being blown insistingly they arrived at the party where everybody was craning their necks to get a  glimpse of the bride. They didn't see much as, according to tradition, the bride is to remain covered from head to toe, face unseen, for three days until the elaborate hair braiding is undone and jewelry that is part of it removed. The newlyweds had to sit under a dais for the whole evening without drinking or eating anything nor go the bathroom, while the rest of us drank and ate and danced. The music was provided by a Moroccan Sahara band who played a catchy mix of traditional and modern tunes. I could hardly believe my eyes seeing my aunts dancing the night away, with even more energy than younger girls. Highly entertaining was the parade of marriageable girls whose mother shamelessly pushed them  my way, most of them close or distant cousins or from the same tribe: as in 1950's America, in this traditional society a girl's highest ambition is still to land a good husband, such weddings are golden opportunities for mothers to catch somebody in their spider-like web. Must say that some of the girls were stunningly beautiful.


Dancing the night away, Mauritanian-style
We thus spent the rest of the evening under a starlit sky, dancing, laughing, gossiping, flirting, eating, drinking, bursting into sudden exclamations of recognition ("oh, my God, it's you!") until jetlag got the better of me and it was time to go to sleep. I discreetly slipped out, avoiding the hundreds of hands to shake, hugs to give and foreheads to kiss if I had taken formal leave of everybody. As I pulled away in my rental car, I couldn't help but be amazed at how centuries old traditions are still being kept alive by the cell phone-toting, Chanel #5-smelling, Mercedes-driving and Rolex-carrying descendants of nomadic Arabs who a millennium ago came from distant Arabia, some of them via Spain and Sicily. In an an era of all-out globalization, this is no small feat.


(To watch the above video of the party, made from a cell phone - sorry for the quality- you may have to play with different readers such as VLC or DivX to get the sound since, for some reason, Windows Player mutes the audio track)


(For those curious to read more about Mauritania, there are unfortunately no titles I know of in English. 

In French I highly recommend Le tambour des sables (Drum of Sands), the splendid memoirs of a French colonial administrator, Gabriel Feral. General Gouraud, another colonial administrator, wrote a unique document from my family's region, Adrar: Mauritanie, Adrar: Souvenirs d'un Africain published in 1945. Famed transcontinental pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Terre des Hommes (Land of Men) is probably the most famous novel written on Mauritania (not all the action takes place there, though.) Another famous Mauritania lover, Théodore Monod who crossed the Sahara many times over a half century, the last time in his old age, wrote Méharées. Odette du Puigaudeau's  account of her travels through the Land of White Moors in the 1930's (Pieds nus à travers la Mauritanie)  is a great, authentic read. 


Traditional Moorish architecture.
(From the blogger's own copy)


The beautiful coffee table book Mauritanie: Aux confins du Maghreb is a must-read: not only does it boast splendid photography but the research and writing are first rate. 



More recent titles include Nouakchott: Au carrefour de la Mauritanie et du monde, by an academic (2009) and Bienvenue à Nouakchott (2011) by French spy/thriller writer Gérard de Villiers who has sold 150 million copies of his books, mainly in the French-speaking world.) Finally, from researcher Aline Tauzin, published in 1995, is a collection of Moorish tales in a bilingual edition (French/Mauritanian Arabic) under the title Contes arabes de Mauritanie (Arab Tales from Mauritania) which holds special appeal to me as many were told to me, as a child, by my grandmother and the aunt who lived with her. 

There are several books in Spanish due to the links between Spain and the western part of the Moorish lands, a Spanish colony under the name "Rio de Oro" and now occupied by Morocco. Fernando Pinto Cebrian, probably the Spaniard who best knows the Western Sahara, wrote Adivinanzas Saharauis and Proverbios Saharauis. There is also a compendium of lovely Moorish tales from the Sahara edited by Ramon Mayrata and published under Relatos del Sahara Español, the Spanish-language counterpart to the Aline Tauzin book.

If you are, like me,  a  movie buff, I am afraid Mauritania is unlikely to beat Hollywood as a source of great cinematic creativity, at least not in the short run. This being said, there are a couple of respected directors - literally: I only know two, Med Hondo and Abderrahmane Sissako, the latter being of mixed Moorish-African heritage. The best movie yet made in Mauritania is Sissako's delightful autobiographical comedy-drama Waiting for Happiness (2002, in French and Mauritanian Arabic). Here's a good French-language review .  

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