Reading Other Worlds and Strange Ways

15 January 2014

Today is Mohammed’s birthday.

Not one of my many friends called Mohammed, or either of the three Mohammeds that have saved my sanity and this whole journey, THE Mohammed, the prophet, the one who received the Quran, who spawned the fastest growing religion in the world, the religion that is ubiquitous in the Sahara and West Africa and that has given this part of the world its ways, and of course, some would say, the religion at root of many of the problems in the world today.

Mohammed received the Qur’an (meaning recitation) in suras (chapters) over many years. When he received the suras Mohammed would go into a trance and recite and his words were taken down by scribes. “Read” is the first word of the first sura Mohammed received. Throughout the Quran the reader or listener is instructed to be reasonable and to use reason to interpret the world.

To the outsider there is a thrust to the Quran that is surprising given the world today. Muslims are urged not to try to convert others to their ways. People will follow if they are so guided, but trying to persuade others to the path of Islam is presented as fruitless.

I am staying with my friend Oulibou in his small hotel in Nouakchott, Mauritania. I am his only client today, so he brought round some food – camel meat cooked with onions – and invited Pierre, a Frenchman who is a teacher here, to join us. Pierre was staying here when I arrived, but he has found himself a flat now near the school he works in, but as he knows no one in town Oulibou brought us two waifs together for the “fete”.

Oulibou called me down from my room to eat. In the salon was a single plate with some camel meat on a small table which I assumed was our starter dish before rice later. Pierre was hovering over the dish with a set of cutlery in his hands. His body language was conveying ownership of the dish, so I wondered if this was the dish I had been called down to eat.

Then Pierre started picking into the meat. This was clearly Pierre’s dish as according to west African ways you do not start until everyone is sat around the plate. I sat aside and waited.

Mocktar, who works in the hotel, entered and sat down next to Pierre to eat. He broke some bread, offered some to me with “bishmillah” inviting me to join. Mocktar was about to take some meat himself when Pierre said:

“If you want to eat go and get yourself a plate”. Mocktar looked at him puzzled. “It’s like that with us” said Pierre looking at me for approval “everyone has his own plate, so get yourself a plate and you can eat”. I shifted uncomfortably. Mocktar has an unfortunate manner and can be annoying but he hadn’t deserved this.

In most of Africa, but especially Muslim Africa, everyone eats off the same plate at the same time, with their hands freshly washed, not because they can’t afford the crockery, or knives and forks haven’t yet reached the continent, but because it is their way – it is a communal world. If you a foreigner, in respect for your foreign ways, you are offered a spoon, never expected to eat with your hand if you don’t know how, it’s a difficult art and messy to the unexperienced.. Pierre, in all his time here, could not have missed all this.

“But it’s not like that here” I ventured to Pierre.
“But it is for us, so if Mocktar wants to share the food I am eating he can share, but I eat in my way.”

He turned to Mocktar: “When I have Mauritanian friends to my flat I give them each their individual plate, so they can see how we do things in France.”

I could hold back no longer “but you are not in France and you are not in your flat here”.

“No, but we have our ways and they have to respect my choice.”

“So if in France a Mauritanian came round to your house and at the dinner table collected all the individual plates and scraped all the food onto one big plate and began eating with his hand and expected you and everyone there to do the same, in respect of his “way” that would be OK?” I pushed.

He mumbled something dismissive I missed but his tone suggested he was not for moving.

Mocktar went off and fetched a plate. He came back and put it next to Pierre’s who put about a quarter of the meat on Mocktar’s plate. I hovered, very uncomfortable – Pierre had clearly thought the whole plate was for him. I wanted to leave but I was hungry. “Bishmillah Guy” said Mocktar again.

So I sat next to Mocktar and he and I shared his plate. With two of us tucking into a quarter of the food, we finished quickly. Each time we finished, Pierre would pass over a few more morsels of meat for us to share. After a few mouthfulls Mocktar got up and left, I could tell he was not amused. I finished up the plate, but no more came from Pierre so I took myself aside to sip a rare glass of wine Oulibou had brought in for us for the occasion. Wine, in a Muslim country, on Mohammed’s birthday! Other ways are welcome here.

Pierre eat on alone, while I sipped my wine, until he had finished his plate. He and Oulibou chatted, but I couldn’t partake. Eventually I climbed the stairs to a tent on the roof where the hotel guys make their tea.

Later on I was preparing my coffee, my one “way” from home I carry with me wherever I go, reflecting over the Pierre incident, and how it described the tensions in the world. The incident churned into a metaphor which took my mind over to Mali, to the French military presence there, the UN, the IMF. My mood darkened further as I wandered on to the war on terror, to the chaos in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to the clash of worlds, religions, ideologies and ways of life; to the mis-understandings and lack of acceptance of others’ ways and all the trouble that ensues.

My coffee gurgled its readiness on the single gas stove. I poured some sugar into my empty glass. “Guy, careful with the sugar” said Mocktar for the third time today – God he can be annoying! I had had enough.

“Mocktar, that is the third time you have said that to me today. Once more and I’ll whack you. When you guys have your tea how much sugar do you use? Look at how much I have taken” and I held my glass up for him to inspect.

“No no, you get me wrong…”

“No I don’t, that’s the third time today!” I insisted.

“My friend” interjected Oulibou, stirring from his slumber aside, surprised at my outburst, “you have misunderstood. He cares not how much you take for himself, but worries for your health.”

“Yes” said Mocktar. “When someone pours sugar, that is what we say, there are sicknesses that come from sugar. Like you say, we Mauritanians like too much sugar, so we must warn ourselves to change our stupid ways.”

I got off my perch and apologised for mis-reading Mocktar’s annoying other way.