The difference between the desert and the city of Nouakchott is striking, but on a second thought there is something about the city that marks the visitor with strangeness and resemblance of the desert, like vague echoes from just outside the city where the vast space of sand and quietness hits you on the face. I made a video installation for one of the upcoming exhibitions on Afropolis and in this work-in-progress you can see images shot in Nouakchott in one day during one walk. As such, the film attempts to show one omnipresent aspect that strikes me the most in this city: privacy. Everything seems hidden, private, behind walls. In comparison to cars, edestrians are a rare sight. While shooting, I was also interrupted by guards on every second street corner and got momentarily interrogated by a police officer. Public space in Nouakchott seems more private than anywhere I have ever been. I call this short film a prelude to the documentary that I am going to make later on. It has footage also from the desert, shot in a very improvised way on a couple of short and very windy moments, during a trek between Chinquetti and Terjit.
The Mauritanian tent has found its way to contemporary architecture in Nouakchott. If you stroll the streets of Ksar, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, you will not miss the tent shape in practically every other house. It’s a symbol of a lifestyle in which the movable home is now built in cement and bricks and glass and functions as a fixed space to welcome guests. It’s also a very visible statement telling that the owner of the house has roots in the desert.
Anyone who has been to the desert knows the soothing effect a tent can provide against the scorching sun and hot winds, and how it allows you to feel the evening breeze on your skin when the walls of the tent have been rolled up. You can now find that same effect also in the city: some restaurants and cafés such as the famous La Palmeraie has made their own modern interpretation of the tent part of the attraction in their already very inviting garden and terrace. Some designs – usually it’s the simple and practical ones – are just meant to last and in Mauritania the tent is definitely one of them.
Varess is a small oasis village close to Mhairith (أمحيرث) and hardly available for a virtual visit on Google Maps. As a prelude to the urban Nouakchott, where you see signs of nomadic lifestyle even in contemporary housing, I wanted to share a couple of photographs from this region where dates are produced and where the housing is amazingly practical and ecological. Here the buildings are designed either for a permanent occupation or more often for temporary shelter for the workers who live here during the harvest season. Everything is build from what you get from the surroundings and with very basic purpose: to provide shelter from sun, wind and sand. This is a very rocky environment, and yet there is also sand that moves and it does so constantly. You don’t necessarily want to fight it and so you build stone walls with holes in it that allow the sand pass through rather than make the sand pile up against the wall and eventually break it.
Then of course you have the traditional Mauritanian tents, another very practical invention for people on the move. Even tents have found their way to the city environment in various ways – more about that next!