The Desert and the Drum

📍 Mauritania 🇲🇷

Mauritania is a sovereign country in Northwest Africa. It is the 11th-largest country in Africa, and 90% of its territory is situated in the Sahara. It achieved independence in 1960 from French colonialism but has since experienced recurrent coups and periods of military dictatorship. Despite an abundance of natural resources, Mauritania remains poor. It was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, in 1981, and criminalised it only in 2007. (Source Wikipedia)

This book is the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It was originally published in French in 2015 and translated by Rachael McGill in 2018. The book won the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize in 2016 (the prize was established in 2004 in honour of the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, and it is awarded annually to works of fiction and nonfiction concerning Black Africa).

The story traces the journey of a young Bedouin girl, Rayhana, who has run away from her tribe and is on a mission to find the thing that has been snatched from her with force and deceit. While running away she has taken the sacred, symbolic and pious drum, rezzam, that belongs to her tribe and represents their pride and honour. She embarks on this perilous journey through the unforgiving Sahara and reaches a small town, Atar, and finally to the capital, Nouakchott. During this sojourn, she encounters various people who help her in their own ways, in achieving her mission, and also protect her from her tribe who are in search of her to retrieve their prized drum. Standout characters include that of the slave girl, Mbarka, who has now become a sex worker; and the very colourful and jovial queer guy, Hama.

The book is a raw, unapologetic and uncomfortable narrative of Rayhana’s turmoil. The chapters oscillate between the past and the present as does Rayhana’s thoughts from her secure yet stifling existence in her tribe, to the unknown and unwelcoming mores of the city life. She is torn about the fact that, she still cradles the belongingness she feels towards her tribe whilst despising the carefree and untethered cultural values of the city. She still remains a prisoner of her unpropitious upbringing, though freedom is now within her reach.

The author, Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, originally from Atar, is a journalist, who has written four books and has founded the country’s first ever independent newspaper. He gives an honest portrayal of the Bedouin life and their customs, and has kept the story rooted in Mauritanian ethos. The issues of patriarchy, misogyny, gender based violence, caste based oppression aren’t exclusive to Mauritania. Let’s get off our high horse, shed our condescension and pomposity, and examine the issues closely. They are as much prevalent behind the façades of glitzy high rises and modern lifestyles as they are in the humbling desert.


Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen

📍Greenland 🇬🇱

First published in Greenlandic in 2014 as Homo Sapienne, the book was then translated by the author into Danish, a version that went on to receive Nordic acclaim, being nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. In 2018, the UK translation, Crimson (released as Last Night in Nuuk in the US in 2019) was published, converted from Danish by Anna Halager. Events unfold at a startling pace in this book, told through the lives and stories of its five protagonists. Fia, has no love for her longtime boyfriend, and is now repulsed by his touch and presence. She breaks up with him, only to fall head over heels for Sara. Inuk, Fia’s brother, is a closeted gay guy and is in a secret relationship with a prominent personality from Nuuk. Arnaq, Inuk’s best friend and who is temporarily hosting Fia at her apartment, has unresolved childhood traumas which has lead her to alcoholism and a self destructive “party” lifestyle. She is smitten with Ivik. Ivik, who’s story is the most heartwarming and queer affirming, is struggling with the label of being a lesbian and sexual intimacy with girlfriend Sara; later realises his gender dysphoria. Sara, who actually makes Ivik realise the above, is grappling with loss of the relationship, the birth of her niece, and her simmering attraction for Fia.

The book is an exploration of various nuances of gender and sexuality. The author, a queer woman and native Greenlander herself, asserts that queerness cannot be explained by a stringent and linear definition. Queer individuals define it for themselves. Through it’s myriad characters, Niviaq, makes space for an unbridled queer narrative that’s messy, flawed, imperfect, inconsistent and even inconsequential at times. Their internal dialogues and personal struggles, conveyed effortlessly by the author, is reminiscent of every queer person’s journey, irrespective of their country of origin. The book also gives us a glimpse into Greenland (a former Danish colony which became self governing in 2009 after a referendum), it’s culture and life in its capital city, Nuuk. I feel, the original in Greenlandic, was way ahead of its time, since queer discourses and identities have become and are becoming mainstream only since the last couple of years. Bravo, Niviaq!


Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands

This wonderment of a book, written by Palestinian author, Sonia Nimr; and remarkably translated by Marcia Lynx Qualey; is winner of the prestigious Etisalat Award and also the recipient of the Translation award at the Palestine Book Awards 2021. It’s a historical fantasy and literary folklore that follows the journey of the protagonist Qamar. Qamar, who is born in a village in Palestine, decides to travel the world after the death of her parents, to honour their dreams. This decision takes her on a roller coaster ride, crossing deserts and seas, to Jerusalem and Gaza, Egypt, Morocco, Tangier, Andalusia , Genoa, Abyssinia, India, Ceylon, Maldives and Eden in Yemen. From being sold off as a slave to disguising herself as a man to become one of pirates in a pirate ship, to ultimately finding the love of her life and marrying him, Qamar, has an adventure like no other. Through this, she assumes the role of a healer, utilising her knowledge of herbal medicine to heal and cure diseases. Her empathetic persona wins her friends and confidantes; while her gift of storytelling gets her out of the strangest situations. During this wondrous journey, as Qamar, battles grief, hopelessness and heartache, she remains determined and never lets her gender act as a barrier to learning, to travel and to pursue. This feminist fable is not just an exploration of the cultures and stories of the Arab world, but also an effective combination of legend and history.


Co-wives, Co-widows

I am beyond delighted to have come across this gem of a book, thanks to Brittlepaper, an Instagram account dedicated to African literature. The book, originally written in French, by Adrienne Yabouza and translated by Rachael McGill, is set in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic (CAR). It’s a story of two women, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, wives of Lidou. Both women live amicably in adjacent houses and are fond of each other. When Lidou suddenly dies, the women are left bereft and are forcibly expelled from their homes with their children by Lidou’s cousin and his sister, who plan on taking away all of his inheritance. The co-widows then take it upon themselves to seek justice for the retribution inflicted on them just because they are widows. However, the justice system of CAR fails them and both women are forced to return to their respective parents’ homes. But grit and determination never leave Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, who choose to be hopeful and don’t shy away from owning their share of joy and happiness.

Yabouza tells a very compelling and uplifting story. This is an exemplary narration of women supporting women and gaining confidence and strength from each other. Set in the backdrop of political turmoil and presidential elections in CAR, the author paints a very poignant picture of the plight of women in the country, especially widows. She highlights the deep rooted patriarchy and chauvinism in her unwavering writing. And at the same time, it’s a joy to discover and imbibe oneself in the culture and tradition of the people of CAR. I found the descriptions on food and clothes so beautiful, that I couldn’t stop romanticising Bangui.

Books can transcend borders even during a pandemic. Allow this one to take you to CAR!