“The sin is that I wasn’t a stone
And the troubles of the world make me sleepless
And I shield myself with poetry
And it keeps me company when I’m far from home
And poetry is my satchel that I will always carry with me
It holds the taste and fragrance of the earth”
Mbarka Mint al-Barra- Mauritanian poet
Known as the land of one million poets, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is also one of Africa’s newest oil producers. Mauritania bridges the Arab Maghreb and western sub-Saharan Africa; an expanse of desert that represents the cultural divide between its Arab-Berber population in the north and its black African population to the south. Many of the people in both regions are nomads.
In the Middle Ages, Mauritania was the cradle of the Almoravid movement, which spread Islam throughout the region and temporarily controlled the Islamic part of Spain. European traders began to show interest in Mauritania in the 15th century. France gained control of the coastal region in 1817, and in 1904 a formal protectorate was extended over the territory. Mauritania gained its independence in 1960.
In 1976, Mauritania and Morocco divided the Spanish Sahara, now Western Sahara, after Spain pulled out of the region. Guerrillas of the Polisario Front fought the forces of both countries, hoping to establish an independent state in the territory. Mauritanians made peace with the Polisario in 1979, but relations with Morocco worsened as a result.
Economically, Mauritania depends heavily on agriculture vulnerable to drought and its rich coastal fishing grounds are threatened by over-exploitation. Offshore oil exploitation began in 2006 yet despite its rich natural resources, Mauritania remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
A coup in 2005 ended former President Taya’s two decades of authoritarian rule. A presidential election two years later, in March 2007, marked the start of a short-lived move towards democracy. However, another coup followed later that year. In July 2009, Mauritania held an election that was seen as a potential step forward as President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who gained his original presidential power through a coup, voluntarily stood for reelection. Even before results were announced Mr. Aziz was hailed winner and the vote was denounced by the main opposition candidates, who called it “an electoral coup d’état”. Mr Aziz and his administration have been accused of corruption and poor governance.
Mauritania is currently facing a new international threat from Al-Qaeda militants operating in the Maghreb region. This presents a serious challenge to the security of the country and to the North African region.
Despite the poor governance and the economic conditions of the country, Mauritanian society is extremely diverse in culture and language. One of the largest cultural groups within the country are the Bidan people, who are referred to as ‘the white people of the desert.’ The Bidan are originally from the Ben Hassan tribe, one that traces its origins back to Yemen, who originally came to Mauritania during the Islamic expansion of the 11th century. This tribe introduced Hassaniya, the main dialect spoken by the Bidan. The dialect itself is one of the many derived from the Arabic language, but the pronunciations of its words and expressions set Hassaniya apart from others.
Even though Hassaniya has been spoken by the Bidan people for hundreds of years, it continues exists only as an oral dialect. This makes it easier to pass on from one generation to the next. Furthermore, the Hassaniya dialect is also known among the Bidan for its rich poetry, which is usually a mix of classic Arabic and Hassaniya. Poems in Hassaniya cover different aspects of Bidan culture and topics that relate to daily life. Through poetry, the Bidan are able to express their emotions and feelings that are not expressed in regular conversations. As poetry developed into a mainstream form of expression, Mauritania became known as the land of a million poets.
Along with poetry, proverbs are also an essential part of daily life. They are widely used by elders to teach the youth about subjects such as good manners, responsibility, diplomacy, and so forth. Since knowledge is highly valued in the Bidan culture, proverbs are used frequently as a form of wisdom.
Another aspect that makes Hassaniya dialect unique in Mauritania is its style of music, El-Houl.The term ‘El-Houl’ refers to the use of Hassaniya poetry combined with a variety of African rhymes and different musical instruments. Similar to poetry, El-Houl music is used to express emotions and feelings toward someone. It also discusses politics, along with other social issues, and various aspects of life that affect people on a daily basis. Mauritanian singers, such as the legendary Dimi Mint Abba, Sadum, and Khalifa, are well-known figures and symbols of the composition of El-Houl music. Dimi Mint Abba became an ambassador of El-Houl, singing throughout Africa and Europe. Although she passed away in 2011, her music is still very popular. She sang about love, social issues and politics, as well as the apartheid that took place in South Africa. Her composition and voice continue to inspire well known and renowned El-Houl artists.
Currently, Mauritania continues to be affected by poor governance and mismanagement of natural resources. Nevertheless, this has not affected the growth of the Bidan’s heritage, Hassaniya poetry, their proverbs or El-Houl music, which are very much alive. This has not only given the Bidan people something to be proud of, but has also enabled them to record knowledge of their origins. It is because of such pride that the Bidan culture continues to exist in Mauritania. Despite the failing aspects of the country, the importance of this rich Hassaniya culture on the people of Bidan will ensure its growth and continuation.
Agaila Abba is a freelance writer specializing in African, North African and Middle Eastern affairs.
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