Prenavigation, Day 29: Arrival in Nouakchott (1/26/2009)
Boundaries. Nouakchott is a land of boundaries.
The Sahara and Atlantic hem in Mauritania's capital city. Mosques rise above the streets, whose names bear their French colonial past. Neither rise above the dust. Urbanites squint in the haze, nomads slip past. Both unnoticed. Taxis clamor over the calls for prayer, the donkeys, the merchants. None the loudest, none unheard. All heeded, all the same under the sun.
I stand between the tide and the shadow of the dunes, no longer sure where water begins and earth ends, no longer sure there is any difference.
My guide to the labyrinth is young, his face already wizened from sand and sun. He goes by Afaaq. He tells me it means the place where earth and sky meet. Himself a boundary. A Moor. Mauri. In antiquity, the land of the Moors. Greek for black. Now we cringe at this appellation, but we have forgotten the simplicity of it, the immediate perception. Places, people have colors. Named for colors. Subject tethered to object, object to subject. We have imposed our disjunctions on the past, have severed the tethers.
His camel is laden with my supplies: jugs of fresh water, dried figs, jerky. In order of amount and importance, though not of weight. He rolls a cigarette. His English is as tight as his roll, even if his accent is heavier than the heat. We pitch our tents near the flooded sebkha north of the capital, where we wait for Groverson. Bret Groverson, British expatriate and self-styled international trader and explorer. He has procured my tanks.
Heat, sun. Cold, moon. Boundaries.
* * *
Before the fire, Afaaq asks me if I am a scribe. My silence is ignorance. He repeats, "Scribe. Katib." I remind him of the Ribbon Reef Labyrinth. He sighs, not impatiently. Maybe out of memory. "My ancestors were holy men. A sect of holy men. They were scribes, kuttab, a revered Islamic duty, fit only for the purest observers and preservers of Allah's word as recited by Mohammed. But they were condemned as heretics. They believed that Allah's truest name was written in the earth, in the sky, in the waters, in the sands, in the trees, in the stars. Allah's name uncorrupted by man's corruption, unspoken and unspeakable by man's broken tongues. They didn't speak themselves, though. Code, credo. For the clerics, that was only a minor objection, however. The sect wrote, but in no ordinary sense. It was shape, it was motion they were interested in. Motion. Pronouncing motion. The labyrinth, not a built environment, they believed, but Allah's name embedded, emerging from the earth. If one followed the right path in the labyrinth--"
Groverson arrives, late, interrupts Afaaq in Hassaniya Arabic. Afaaq rolls cigarettes for each of us.
The camels grunt, the fire hisses and snaps. Afaaq stares into the fire, as if deciphering. Groverson and I greet, review the morning's plans. But this, too, is of the silence that surrounds us. Our exhaustion reverent, grateful. We retire, the stars forming spiraling corridors above.