Sunday, April 14, 2013

Letter from Mauritania: The Boats

I’m in the midst of ten days in what I’ve heard even Mauritanians refer to as the “least well-known country in Africa,” a country that is best known as one of the last vestiges of old-school slavery. I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the Middle East and Nouakchott is unlike any place I’d ever been. Well, some things are the same – the fierce craving it gives me for shawarma and Coke, the way religion permeates everyday life, the fact that I can understand more of Hassaniya Arabic than I expected. But it looks just about completely different. Nouakchott has only a handful of paved roads; compared to the near-constant risk of death by Cairo traffic, your biggest transit risk here is getting your car stuck in a sand dune. It’s a capital without a real history, a post-independence construct. And like my hometown of Washington, DC, almost no one is actually from here. But more than all that, Mauritania is located at the transition between North Africa and, umm, Africa Africa, and that’s reflected in its demographics and culture.
The result is fascinating – it’s kind of like a West African version of Sudan. There are three major ethnic groups: White Moors, or bidan, who have traditionally dominated the socioeconomic hierarchy; Black Moors or Haratines, whose ancestors were enslaved by the White Moors; and black Africans, who were never enslaved and who have some cultural and linguistic similarities with West African groups like the Pulaar, Soninke and Wolof. But I am not at all qualified to talk about the racial and cultural complexities of a country I’ve been in for four days, so I’ll leave it there and refer any interested readers to a good CNN piece on the subject.

One of Nouakchott’s main attractions is the port de pêche, where the fishing boats come in every afternoon with their catches. It was a fascinating place. Men, mostly Wolof and Fula, dressed in full-body waders (?), were hauling the boats onto shore for the night, singing as they worked to keep moving in the same rhythm. Kids frolicked in the waves and waved around handfuls of fish; women gathered in small groups and hawked fish in the beach market. In conclusion: I made some poor sartorial choices and now most of my clothes smell like fish guts.

Thus far, my big (and embarrassingly obvious) takeaway is that the world is huge and almost totally unknown to me. In all my travels, I’ve never had quite that reaction before. After all, I’d given a fair bit of thought to the Middle East before studying abroad in Egypt, and the Palestinian question is constantly on the global stage, even if it’s hard to imagine the details of life under occupation without experiencing it. There are plenty of developing countries that come onto our radar because they supply handicrafts to our favorite fair-trade store or because they experience awful conflicts that we feel guilty for not understanding better or doing more to stop (if only we had shared the Kony 2012 video!) or for probably abetting due to our cell phone purchases.
But Mauritania is a country that I (and most other westerners) basically never think about – and yet there are 3 million people here, living out their lives in what really does feel like a corner of the world. It’s not that they live in unimaginable poverty or anything (though Mauritania is one of the world’s least-developed countries), just that it’s not a place I’d ever really bothered to imagine until recently, and yet here it is.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Last Year in Jerusalem

(As part of this not-traveling blog, I’ll do the occasional travel retrospective to record what I didn’t have the time to when I was abroad – and this is an obvious place to start.)

This time last (liturgical) year I was in Jerusalem for Easter, on a day off from my internship in the West Bank, and it was awesome. I’m not a particularly religious person, but Catholicism was a major part of my education and upbringing. The Bible is the source of some of my favorite images and lines of poetry, and I like the Mass, with all its rituals and incantations, as an opportunity for reflection and meditation. So it was a rare opportunity to go stumbling around all through all that religious history, to see the settings of the stories and parables from the sprawling literary work that is the Bible.
The Garden Tomb, believed by many Protestants to be the burial site of Jesus; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Much of my Easter was spent exploring around the city to see what I stumbled upon. After stopping by an English-language service (an evangelical flavor, hands raised in praise) at the Garden Tomb, we went to the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the temporary resting place of Jesus. Inside the Greek Orthodox held sway for the time, celebrating Palm Sunday – men in long black garments, circling the tomb, carrying palms and banners; chanting, incense. 

I’d been in Jerusalem a couple of times before, but the one major religious sight remaining was the Dome of the Rock. It can be tricky to visit, as it’s closed off to non-Muslims on Fridays and during prayer times, and this was our last chance, so we were thrilled to be admitted in a brief window before prayers began. And it delighted my ecumenical little heart to finally make it there on Easter. (And, of course, it was tremendously unfair that I could experience Al-Aqsa on a weekend jaunt, while many of my Palestinian colleagues and students had lived not more than an hour or so away for their entire lives and been prevented from visiting.)

Following Al-Aqsa, I started wandering and ended up following the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus took to the cross, at least according to tradition. It was pretty cool to be walking that route on Easter – though sometimes it’s hard to let the history of a place sink into you as a tourist, because with the souvenir stalls and the guidebooks it can start to seem like it was all placed there for your entertainment.

From there, I stumbled into a Franciscan church in the middle of an Easter service. Finally: these were my people. I was surprised by that reaction, as the particularities of denomination have never been important to me. But in Jerusalem—bursting with every sect of every religion, all of them jousting for control of the various sites; a place where (according to my Lonely Planet), a priest sweeping the wrong tile could be descended upon by rival priests for fear of readjusting the status quo, the agreement by which the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and the Armenian Apostolics would control in perpetuity the same areas of the church they did at the time of the Ottoman decree—it’s easy to adopt the same mentality. You can be as picky as you like when choosing from such a lavish religious buffet. In my head, all of the various Christian denominations were like so many rival college teams.

The Garden of Gethsemane; on the Mount of Olives.
I wandered into the Church of St. Anne and paid brief homage to my patron saint while listening to a Spanish choir take advantage of the church acoustics. From there, I hiked towards the Mount of Olives and was taken by surprise to find the Garden of Gethsemane, the setting of one of my favorite verses. And then up to the Mount of Olives and its crowded cemeteries – because, according to Jewish tradition, it will be the first place the Messiah will walk and those will be the first people to be raised from the dead.

More than the sights, I loved the people-watching – of observing (or, more accurately, bumping into/pushing/jostling), in a pseudo-anthropological fashion, the throngs who’d come from all over the world to this holiest of cities on the holiest of days: sturdy American Protestants; Egyptian Christians, with visors and hard geems; and the regular, everyday flow of Muslims through the narrow streets of the old city. There’s something so powerful about all those people, all believing strongly in something, disagreeing on minor to major details – from who was the last and greatest prophet to whether the Messiah has arrived yet to whether that wafer really is Jesus – making their pilgrimages from near and far, as people have been doing for centuries.