The Desert and the Drum: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

Translated from French by Rachel McGill

“There was no moon, no stars. The light has been drained away, the sky left mute. I could distinguish neither colours nor shapes. Dunes and trees had been engulfed by the universe, sucked into its sidereal blackness. … I welcomed the obscurity; a gift from nature. It would make it harder for them to find me.”

Rayhana, a Bedouin girl, has run away from her tribe, taking with her the tribe’s sacred drum. How did she get to this point?

Rayhana grows up in a Bedouin tribe in Mauritania. She shares a tent with her mother, who is the sister of the chief. Reyhana’s life changes when a mining operation sets up near where the tribe’s campsite. “Monsters of iron and steel appeared one day from nowhere”, terrifying the Bedouin with loud roars. The chief goes over to talk to the new neighbours. The two groups reach an agreement: each will go about their business and have very little to do with the other.

But this agreement is breached by Yahya, a young man from the mines, who joins the young boys and girls from the tribe when they sit together every evening on the dunes. Yahya starts flirting with Rayhana and before long, he is creeping into her tent and into her bed. Then one day the operation shuts down and Yahya is gone, without even bothering to say good-bye.

Rayhana is devastated. Her mother has no idea why, and takes her to the sea, hoping the sea air and the fresh fish will be revive her. While they are there, Rayhana discovers she is pregnant. The mother is furious, but there is no option: they stay until the baby is born.

The mother gives the child away to a woman from the fisherfolk who helped them and swears her to secrecy. They return and Rayhana is married off to Memed, who was in love with her. But Rayhana cannot stop thinking about her child, and finally Memed agrees to go to the fisherwoman and get the child back. But he finds out that Reyhana’s mother has taken the child away to an unknown place.

Rayhana is so incensed that she does the one thing that will destroy the tribe. One night, she runs away to look for her baby and takes with her the tribe’s sacred drum, the rezzam, which was never allowed to leave the camp. “The drum was the tribe; its presence, its confidence, its voice. … I, Rayhana, had committed an unpardonable sin. I’d choked the tribe’s voice, brought shame upon it, castrated the source of its power, razed its tents, insulted its ancestors and my own.”

The book is about her escape to the metropolis and the people she meets on the way, some of whom help her and others who try to prey on her. Meanwhile, she has to hide from her tribesmen who are on her trail and will kill her for taking the drum. The book, narrated by Rayhana, moves between the journey and Rayhana’s past.

Rayhana’s revenge is directed not only at her tribe, whose customs and rules meant she couldn’t keep her illegitimate child, but also towards her mother, who she felt betrayed her. The mother sets great store by the tribe’s honour, and so her daughter’s action would wound her deeply.

I was intrigued by the mother and would have liked to have known more about her. She is so focused on her brother that her husband leaves her. “[S]he was unmoved by bad winds, harsh winters or droughts. She had crossed the Sahara of doubt long ago, never to return. She watched, expressionless, as life passed her by.” But when Rayhana comes close to dying while giving birth, the reserve slips and the mother prays for her daughter to survive. 

The writing is beautifully descriptive (as you can see from the opening passage). The intrusion of so-called progress into the life of the Bedouin not only destroys Rayhana but the landscape. The sounds of everyday life are drowned out by the machines. “It was as several rungs had broken off the ladder of our routines. The days began to be dictated by elements outside our control. In the morning we were woken by alien noises. The cries of our muezzin, the calls of our herdsmen, the grunts of our camels, the bleating of our sheep, had all become weak and inaudible.” And when the miners leave, they leave waste and a devastated landscape in their wake.

This is the first novel from Mauritania to be translated into English. It is a fascinating glimpse into a culture—and a country—that I didn’t know much about.

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