Reading Other Worlds and Strange Ways

15 January 2014

Today is Mohammed’s birthday.

Not one of my many friends called Mohammed, THE Mohammed, the prophet who received the Quran, he who is responsible for 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 the religion some would say has created all the problems in the world today.

Mohammed received the Quran (meaning recitation) in stages over many years. When he received the suras (chapters) 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: it is God who guides.

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 would come later. Pierre was hovering over the dish when I greeted him and had 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 tucking 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 resect of his “way” that would be OK?” I pushed.

“No” said Pierre. He mumbled something dismissive I missed but his tone suggested he was not for moving, his way was right.

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 way.

Betsy towed 500km across the Sahara to find a messenger had arrived in Nouakchott

My attempts to find a tow in the freight lorries park where the trusks await for their  escort across Mauritania to Senegal came to nothing – too loaded up or foreign trucks that could not take the chance – so that night Betsy and I were pushed across the final frontier for this border I decided to hang with her rather than return to Nouadibou with Cheick who would look for a local truck going to Nouakchott.

I eat chicken and chips and salad that was about an hour and a half late, slept in my tent in the back of Betsy 10 meters on from the gate which consisted of a chain across the road to be awoken at dawn by the mornings border traffic lining up to go to Morocco.

I got up and decided to record myself so went to a rise in the sand to set up my tripod and camera. I was dressed in my prize Algerian camel wool djellaba which and doubles up as perfect cold desert night gear and alternative sleeping bag which was stolen in Rabat.

With the hood up, and Rachel’s sheep skin slippers on for the morning chill, the spot I chose was a rise in the sandy rock overlooking the beginning of the border, though I was behind all the action so no one could really see. Technically not done to photograph at borders.

I did my stuff, wandered about taking photos of grafitti and rubbish and went over to the only cafe had some bad coffee – good coffee ends after Morocco – sat inside and did some writing on my computer waiting for Cheick to come back with a solution for Nouakchott. At about 10 he came in.

“There you are. I thought you had been stolen! I tapped your tent, banged on the truck but nothing. I walked all the way to the gendarerie, no one has seen you.”

I was the only white boy in town sleeping in a union jack tent on top of a broken down truck painted as a hippy wagon emerging at dawn like something out of star wars flashing a camera meters from a border post. I think I’ve perfected the art of blending in.

Cheick had good news. A truck was leaving Nouadibou at 3pm and would tow me to Nouakchott for €300. With Betsy’s old petrol engine it would have cost me that in fuel.

“Let’s go”

€50 later a mercedes car was pulling Betsy and I to the Nouadibou-Nouakchott turn off, and Cheick and I went back into Nouadibou to have lunch, email off to family and meet up with Mohammed and Aly and their old green 40 ton Mercedes Truck carrying waste metal to Noauckchott.

Twenty meters after take off this very big bird ran out of diesel from the main tank. This was going to be a long ‘un. Memories of early day’s travels, trucking from Zimbabwe to Kenya, cooking steak on the gearbox slowly over the course of the day’s travel. I’m back to trucking with the boys! Slow, methodical, every mile an achievement, the journey the thing, not the destination.

It took us 2 hours to get the 60kms to Betsy who looked so small being tied up behind the Mercedes. Then we rolled.

We rumbled along through dusk and into a Saharan starlit night, Aly making tea and cooking dinner as we drove, me in Betsy staring at a back end of a truck and lining my steering up with a precise line on this green screen until about 11pm, when we stopped to eat good desert food of pasta and meat and to sleep, Mohammed on a mat on the ground sheltering from the wind behind a wheel, Aly in the cabin of the Mercedes and me in my tent in the back of Betsy.

I forgot to tell you. Without her canvas on – taken off to reduce “military aspect” – at a standstill Betsy sings, but only seemingly at night. In a wind her poles and holes hum and whistle. In her working life she did India, testified by her badges of honour. In her song I hear elephants, sitars and perhaps a past that she is singing to re-join. We’re nearing the tropics old girl – well a couple of thousand kilometers away but closer than you’ve been for decades.

I think she might be enjoying the heat – and she’s got it easy now, stubborn bitch!

Dawn and up.

Back to the rolling, back to the line on the screen, back to the rumble of Betsy all day, rescuing another truck stuck in the sands at one point, so Mercedes pulling Betsy pulling stuck truck. All ropes snapped! Sand plates did it in the end. And on till finally rolling into Nouakchott at 6pm and Auberge Awkar and my old friend Oulibou who OWES ME LOTS OF MONEY and has promised to sort me out with a solution to get to Bamako. Hurrah for Oulibou not being able to settle his debt all year!

As Mohammed pulled Betsy into place outside the side entrance to Auberge Awkar where Ibrahim, the ever-sleeping guardian could keep a watchful eye, a European man leaning on the wall smoking cast an amused and wistful eye on my arrival.

After finding out from him that Oulibou was not around and would be back soon so Mohammed would have to hold 5 (an African 5 of course) for the balance payment for the tow, the smoking stranger ushered me into the auberge to have a seat. He clearly wanted to chat.

Turned out he saw in my arrival a madman of his own image. He was a Saharan/African/West African traveller in the 60s and 70s in this part of the world. He was also a mechanic. 

I told him my problem, showed him round Betsy. “Bite the bullet. Change the engine, put in an old diesel one here in Nouakchott.”

A weight lifted. 

Through the  haze of the past few days, from the piston blowing, the rush to get out of Morocco by Christmas eve to avoid the fine, the difficulties at the border getting in, then planning for getting towed across Mauritania in 7 days and onto Bamako  to pick up her parts and get her fixed, i hadn’t thought of a new engine. Fixing her old up anyway was a gamble in itself, these petrol engines are not known out here, the wrong carburetor setting or wrong oil probably blew her piston, without Joe to monitor I was pissing in the wind. I’d almost given up the idea of her being used for the return, just get her to Bamako and fix her there while I go on to the camps and do returns with my landcruisers. But I could be towing her all the way there for another mechanic to make another mistake and she’s out again.

If I change to diesel she is more robust, cheaper to run – perhaps 3 times more efficient on cheaper fuel – better suited to the climate, easier to maintain out here, she has sale on value. I’ve got to spend on her anyway, if I do this now I’m salvaging Betsy for the future AND she’s ready to go again from here and onto the return.

The man’s name was Hervé. He was in his late 60s, French, in his words “a peasant” from the Massif Centrale, flying out of Nouakchott that night. Hervé had had the urge to leave the cold in France 10 days ago, as I was leaving Marrakech for Agadir. He drove an old banger he had stashed in a garage down and sold it to pay his journey and was going back home.

Our paths crossed as I was considering my next move to Bamako. An old weary traveller giving me my answer for the next push forwards.

Later that evening Hervé and I discussed. Our generations and nationalities clashed horns. We argued, saw things differently, he nostalgic for the generation past, me for just a few years ago, he seeing the problems coming from within and on the ground, in “Arabisation” and Islam, me blaming outside pressures, and suggesting a perversion, mythology and foreignness to any “islamism” the region supposedly has but that I have never heard defended.

I was up late that night and bumped into Hervé as he was leaving the auberge for the airport at 3am.

“Bon voyage” I said to his back as he walked to his taxi and I climbed into Betsy.

He did a theatrical wave without turning back, slid into the taxi and disappeared into the silent morning. Another messenger.

This trip has been burdened with bad luck and big problems, but blessed with messengers with clues to the way forward when I’ve needed them. Mohammed in Ceuta, Abdullai in Agadir, Cheick in Nouadibou and now Hervé.

And here I am, New Year’s day, Nouakchott, catching up on the end of the year. Last night a friend from the camp’s cousin called me. I ended up at possibly the only Tuareg gig in town, a large auditorium with not enough refugees to really make it fire. My first guitar, first Tuareg, first refugees of this journey, seeing out that difficult year and hoping to see Timbuktu very soon with Radwan and his family and my friends.

Today Betsy has been towed off again, this time to the mechanic’s to have her new engine put in. German Mercedes 11 13 diesel is marrying an old British war elephant. She’s learning the key to success in Africa: adapting to the environment.

So an African hybrid of ancient European models will emerge, a sign of the times behind in Europe and for her future in Africa. Fitted for new purpose, forwards efficiency and durability for her new climate. This is no time for tears for tradition or protocol or nostalgia. All that matters now are the 3000kms she needs to do to get us to Timbuktu.

Happy New Year from us both.

Goodbye to the old, bring on the new.

Come on 2014 – take us all back to Timbuktu in peace.