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!
I hope to be able to return to Nouakchott soon for further research on some of its suburbs. If there is a city that started from scratch, well this is it! My impression of Nouakchott is a curious sense of intermediary space, although this is not based on knowing much about what it is like to actually live there. So far my visits to the city have been very short and my impressions were based on observations of that somewhat surprising balance between private and public life. In comparison to some other cities: there is a lot of private and not much public.
Nouakchott is easily considered a place where a city dweller would come from neighboring countries to work on a temporary basis. Transit migrants and immigrants leave their own imprint to certain neighbourhoods such as the Fifth District and produce interesting transnational connections not only to Nouadhibou – a cosmopolitan Saharan city in Northern Mauritania – but also to Dakar, Saint-Louis, Bamako and other Sahelian cities. Such districts show that Saharan cities are not simple stepping stones for a migratory flux to the north but a fundamental element in the development of regional economies. There is a lot to look into here so I think I will start my journey even before entering Mauritania by chatting more with people who are in one way or another connected to Nouakcott here in Saint-Louis.
Did you ever think of Sahara as nothing but a vast empty space filled with sand? Or as we were to understand at school: a space in which trans-Saharan trade routes crossed the space, leaving traces of camel caravans in sand and mirage-like images in your brain?
I have always been intrigued by the desert and fascinated by its impact on me. Living very close to the desert – and having spent time in the Saharan desert many times, I have often wondered: what is Saharanness? Who adheres to such identity and what does it mean? Does it override any national sentiments? What happens when you live on the border of two countries in this region? Suddenly even the idea of cosmopolitanism is put in practice in a new context in the lives of those people who inhabit border regions in these parts of Africa. Meaning: new to me, and meaning: cosmopolitanism outside the West. Back to the question of camel caravans: based on my recent readings, it is only logical to realize that most trade in this region was always Saharan, not trans-Saharan.
To this day, there is a relative absence of Saharans themselves from historical, economic and even ecological studies of the region. Thinking of the viewpoint from which research on Sahara has usually been done one may ask: how many Africanists think it necessary to study Arabic, for instance, and how many Arabists would seriously concentrate on any West African language? Should you be interested in questions like this, I recommend you read Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa.* It’s a book about “that other Sahara, not the empty waste of romantic imagination but the vast and highly differentiated space (…) in which Saharan peoples, and, increasingly, incomers from other parts of Africa, live, work, and move.”
Saharan cities are growing fast. I recently read an interesting article on the Guardian about cities that have been built from scratch and how they have developed more or less successfully. Every time I have been to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, I have sensed strange unfamiliarity with how the urban space has developed there. You may know that the city used to be a village that was decided to become the capital of the country in 1958. It was never designed to host what today is approximately one million inhabitants; when you move around the city, especially in the commercial centre, you soon realize that it is rather hostile to pedestrians. In a country of former / current / temporary nomads you have a city in which walking is made nearly impossible: the pavements are either occupied by 4×4 cars, or trees have been planted in the middle of them and as they are not tall enough, at least not yet, you can’t walk under them.
Being pedestrian and not understanding how, when and in what parts of the town the informal public transport works, is the first impression that strikes the odd visitor. And there’s more once you pass this first threshold. There is interesting literature about the different developments of Nouakchott, its housing, neighborhoods and ethnic diversity so I am not done with Nouakchott just yet, quite the contrary! Every time I’ve been to Mauritania, I always documented sandy landscapes, but I am now more and more curious about the challenges of this city and so Nouakchott, with its nearness of the desert, falls very naturally to being part of Afropolis, my next photography project on urban space.
* McDougall & Judith Scheele: Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa, Indiana University Press, 2012.