The Last Slaves in Mauritania

Prêcher dans le désert: Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie [Preaching in the Desert: Political Islam and Social Change in Mauritania]

by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem
Paris: Karthala, 327 pp., €28.00
Luca Catalano Gonzaga/Witness Image
Noura, an elderly haratin woman in front of her house in the village of Tejala, Mauritania, 2013

You can both see the desert and feel its presence in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, which goes months at a time without rain. Although it is a city of one million people, rivulets of sand collect along the main paved thoroughfares of the city center, in front of a handful of government buildings and small hotels. The backstreets and peripheral neighborhoods are a mix of dirt and sand. Chickens, donkeys, and goats wander the streets as if their owners had recently packed up and moved in from the countryside, which, in fact, they often have. Barely five thousand people lived in Nouakchott when Mauritania was granted its independence from France in 1960, some 70 percent of whom were nomadic pastoralists, and more than 90 percent lived in rural areas. A fierce drought during the 1970s drove most of the desert nomads toward the cities. Now more than a quarter of the country’s nearly four million inhabitants live in Nouakchott and 60 percent of the country’s population is urban.

The place has a recent, improvised feel: there is no older, distinctive architecture; the streets are long stretches of mostly single-story cement and concrete buildings, like the strip malls at the edge of many American cities in the Southwest. Many people in Nouakchott still have strong ties to their original villages and return during the rainy season. The city’s residents—whether rich or poor—generally wear traditional Mauritanian dress. The men sometimes wear Western-style clothing but often prefer flowing blue and white robes, called boubous, over baggy pants, with their heads wrapped in cloth, an outfit that manages to be both elegant and well suited to the desert climate. The women almost always dress in long, light, loose-fitting fabrics, known as mulafa, which wrap around their bodies and cover their heads, in deference to Islamic custom. Unlike the dull gray and black garments common in the Gulf States, the Mauritanian mulafa are often brightly colored and allow women to move freely on the streets.

The one thing most people know about Mauritania—if they know anything at all—is that it was the last country on earth to abolish slavery, in 1981. Slavery was not actually made a crime until 2007, suggesting that it was still widely practiced, and it persists on a clandestine basis although it is believed to involve a very small percentage of the population. Less well known is that in the same year that Mauritania declared its intention to abolish slavery (encoded in law the following year), it also announced that it would become a sharia nation, making Koranic precepts the law of the land.

These parallel developments—the push against the slave system on the one hand and the rapid Islamification of Mauritanian public and political life…

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