Where the Sahara
Meets the Sea
Text by Nicolas Niarchos
Photographs by Lex Niarchos
Nicolas Niarchos is a writer living in Harlem. His work has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and The Nation.
We’re delighted to have him (twice) in No. 3. Here, he reflects on some of his recent travels.
Lex Niarchos is an artist living in London.
WHERE THE SAHARA MEETS THE SEA
On the bus to the plane, the man with hairy arms and a gravelly Yorkshire accent regaled a fellow passenger with tales of champagne on Air France. “Suits me,” he said, loud enough that everyone around them could hear what he was saying. “In fact, champagne always suits me.” He chuckled in a way that reminded me of someone opening a bag of pork scratchings. He wore a red checked shirt and had beads of sweat on his forehead.
Distance from homeland is almost always orthogonal to the display of national characteristics. The man’s interlocutor was French or German or maybe even Dutch so it was difficult to tell whether he was amused or just being polite. The Dutch, I remember reading once, never shut their curtains, because they’d never do at home what they don’t do on the street. In any case, he smiled politely and made a polite joke which was drowned out in the other conversations around us. The man with the hairy arms laughed, a deep belly laugh that recalled oaky pubs and beery fields.
“You excited?” he said.
“Any job where it is possible to make practice in my French is exciting.”
“The iron ore is very pure. Fifty dollars a tonne.” It was impossible to tell whether the young man was impressed. “It comes in every day from the desert to the sea.”
When our passports were checked at the gate, we were asked whether we worked for Kinross, the Canadian corporation that runs a large gold mine called Tasiast in central Mauritania — we, being myself and my brother. No, we said, we’re traveling to Nouadhibou, in the north.
It wouldn’t have been surprising at this point in our journey if he’d looked at our passports and then informed us that there was some arcane reason we couldn’t board. We’d already been arrested in Morocco and deported here, to Las Palmas, the capital of the Canary Islands, for trying to conduct journalistic interviews in Western Sahara. But the gate attendant creased his pinched face into a smile and didn’t ask any further questions. Overhead at the airport, a clutch of Spanish Eurofighter Typhoon swing-role jets whirled in the hot gray sky.
Mauritania Airlines had assigned us seats but nobody was sitting where their tickets indicated they should. The young Dutchman or German or Frenchman read his Kindle, and we were crammed behind a handful of pretty Spanish girls looking at French phrasebooks and flirting across us with a smirking Mauritanian sitting in the row behind. A baker held a large box wrapped in paper and tied in string. “You cannot find fresh produce in Nouadhibou,” he grumbled. “It’s no good.”
Soon we were skating around the left ear of Africa and the desert from which we had been ejected. All around, the sky stretched into the curvature of the globe; below, the sea crashed down on bright orange sand and rock and the fang of the Dakhla peninsula sliced out into the ocean. It was from Dakhla that we had wanted to drive south into Mauritania, crossing at Guerguerat because fighters from the Polisario Front, a Saharan rebel movement, had recently traveled thousands of kilometers from their desert hideouts to shut the border in response to Morocco trying to pave the road. It was now reopened, and I had heard that it was the main transit point for southbound truckfuls of hashish destined for the West African market and northward juggernauts from Guinea-Bissau heading to Europe stuffed with cocaine.
Beige cloud covered the area south of Dakhla. The plane banked left and then drew a long right arc, lowering, until we were headed just about northwest and up the spine of another peninsula. We nosed
through the mist and below us appeared a long, rusted dock and a sea squirming with hundreds of long fishing boats headed to port. Around the shore were the carcasses of hulking oxidizing things that had once been boats, abandoned to the wind and the sea. The cluster of wrecks constitutes what’s often called “the largest ship graveyard in the world” by people who measure such things.
Further out, trawlers cut through the Atlantic, laden with fish. Looming in the distance, all in a line, were bulk carriers, taking ore to the other side of the earth — Rizhao, Tangshan, Caofeidian — in short, China: the vast industrial beast hording, building, hording, and building some more. It is said there is enough surplus iron ore in Chinese ports to build thirteen thousand Eiffel towers. But still they come here, the boats, fed by three trains a day loaded with black red chunks of rock and mineral that have been hacked out of a looming mountain at Zouérat, three hundred miles away, and then crushed in giant yellow pulverizers and sent by train to Nouadhibou. The French founded the mine back in the 1950s. Its capacity is estimated at two hundred million tons.
When it is windy, the hematite on the ore train is whipped into a long plume that stretches into the desert and glows purple at sunrise. The train is one of the longest in the world, sometimes two or three kilometers, hauling 220 hoppers filled with ore. At the back of the train is a passenger car, emblazoned “SNIM,” the French acronym for the national mining concern. Most passengers don’t pay for a ticket, choosing instead to travel atop this metal snake. Hitching a ride across the desert, they bring with them goats, sheep, packages of dates, meat, and grain, their clothes stained with the thick darkness of the ore. Once, at a place called Agounit, I saw a goat that had broken its leg after having fallen from one of the cars. Lying in the midday sun, its breath was heaving and halting. Nearby, its owner waited, watching, not yet wanting to cut its throat.
From the plane I watched a halo of ore float across the desert as it was unloaded, some refined, but most shipped raw. The plane dipped, the flaps lowered, the wheels slowed against air, then tarmac, until finally we squeaked to a halt on a desert runway. Later, waiting for our bags, my brother learned that his had been left in Las Palmas. “To-day is the small plane,” a large, loud man in a white shirt and sunglasses told him. We were waiting outside the little room where we purchased our visas. “To-morrow will come the big plane with all your luggages.”
Nouadhibou’s name means “Place of the Jackal,” after the jackals who used to come and drink from a well near here. I wrote in my diary: Nouadhibou is a pleasant city of 118,000…. It is generally made up of low, white houses, and the occasional multistory modern development. One of these was the Hotel Sahel, where we were staying, a large peach building on the airport road with tiled floors which, our naked feet discovered, were covered in sand and grit. Cockroaches skittered around at night but, somehow, they were the least threatening cockroaches I’d ever encountered; each time I turned on the light, they would stop, stunned by the sudden change in luminescence. It was pretty easy to trap them with a glass and a piece of paper, and then, in the morning, to flush them down the loo.
After checking in, we headed out to change our dollars into ougiya (a dollar is about three hundred and fifty ougiya) and look for SIM cards. Mauritania, our guide Oumar told us more or less immediately as we rolled through town, is an explosive mix of black populations and Arab-Berbers, known as Moors. The mix of southern black tribes are known as Afro-Mauritanians. Their loyalties often lie with Senegal, south of the border. The other, more numerous, black population is the Haratin, a caste that emerged from the legacy of slavery. Often, Haratin are still attached by economic necessity and ancestral ties to the Moorish families that enslaved them.
Some Haratin are still slaves. Though officially banned in 1981, slavery continued unpunished until 2007, when it was criminalized. The Global Slavery Index says that ten to twenty percent of the country continues to be enslaved, although many Mauritanians I spoke to questioned this figure. Then again, in 2013, a prominent politician remarked, “Slavery is alive and well in Mauritania.”
After we had bought Mauritanian phones, and worked out the long strings of numbers that would plug a couple of thousand ougiya into our devices, Oumar took us to the coast to look at waves as they thrashed the peninsula, next to men in long blue robes that the locals call drâa, and the French called boubous when they colonized the country. People still use and understand both words. The linguistic doubling was a reminder of Nouadhibou’s past: the town was known as Port Étienne until Mauritania became independent in 1960, after Eugene Étienne, a deputy for Oran, and one of France’s most avid proponents of colonialism in the nineteenth century.
In eighteen-nineties Paris, Étienne, the son of one of the people who settled Algeria, used a small pro-colony pressure group formed from colonialist clubs and associations of civil servants to exploit chronic indecision in the French government. In time, Étienne used his “parti colonial,” as they were known, in order to carve out with his fellow colonialists a slate of possessions for France in Africa and Asia that was rivalled only by the British Empire. That evening, as we watched the men in their drâa taking selfies by the shore, letting their cloaks billow in the wind, France could not have seemed further away.
It was soon dark and we were soon hungry. Next to the Sahel is a restaurant called the Galloufa, a Spanish place: walls of stone cemented together at odd angles; tables covered in faded gold cloth; oils of Mauritanian families sitting about fires; national flags. The owner, Yuca, a middle-aged Spanish lady, wanders about the tables, plying regulars with stories; if you ask nicely enough, she’ll serve you gin and tonics in fishbowl glasses, and Black Label whiskey in highballs. Nobody seems to care here that this is an Islamic Republic, I later write.
We entered and Yuca hadn’t yet arrived. A group of Russians were sitting at a table, slicing up a hunk of dried fish. A pair of waiters flirted as we took our seats under a large Greek flag. After a while, one slunk over. He took our order and disappeared. “This is very bad service,” our guide, Oumar, who had a forehead bruised by prayer, muttered. Later he observed, “This is the kind of place where they serve alcohol to foreigners.”
We ordered sole that came stuffed with cheese, or something that tasted like cheese, and with a ridge of bones down the center. We ate quickly and intensely. I later wrote in my diary: The Galloufa is a kind of last-chance saloon for expats here. People who are crusted over from year after year of labor sit at its tables, staring at glasses ferried to them by Raoul, the owner’s son, who is seventeen and has a giant lovebite on his neck.
Raoul collects money from all over the world. He has a book of hundreds of bills in plastic wallets that he shows to people who ask. He says the currency he most desires is the “three thousand trillion note” from Zimbabwe’s period of hyperinflation, and any note from North Korea. We asked him from whom he acquired the lovebite: “The Mauritanian girls!” he replied, then looked at the floor. “Well, actually, it was my mother’s birthday a couple of days ago, and I drank too much vodka, and, well, I have no idea how I got it!”
Oumar excused himself after a bit, and we heard a burst of Greek from the other side of the room: “It’s not working!” Two men sat there, one in a pink polo shirt, the other in a gray button-down. They both had gray hair and were chain-smoking Silk Cut Silvers and staring at computers that they had set up with a mobile hotspot. “It’s not working. Piece of shit.” They looked over at us. I asked if they were Greek.
“My name is Dimitris Kandilas, this is Giorgos,” the one in the pink polo said. I told him we were Greek. He smiled and they came over to our table. “I’m from Athens and he’s from Thessaloniki,” Dimitris said. “You know, we put the Greek flag here. We told them to put it here. This is our table. But it’s good you’re here.”
At one point we asked what they did.
“Frozen fish!” Dimitris boomed, and laughed. He gave me a blue-and- white business card titled SPART FISH. The fishing grounds off Mauritania’s Atlantic coast are some of the richest in the world. “We buy fish from the fishermen and sell it to the Greek market.”
“Do you go back to Greece?” I asked.
“He goes three times a year,” Dimitris replied, pointing at Giorgos, who was quieter, though when prompted he would launch into long discourses about Greek politics and the corruption of politicians back home. Giorgos usually went home for three months in the spring, and maybe another month in August, then fifteen days at Christmas.
“This is not life: this is just wake up, work, here for drinking a whiskey, smoking a cigarette,” Dimitris continued. “But I am here now. I have a Senegalese wife.” His ex-wife lived in Greece, he explained. As did his kids. They never visited him. “I have worked here since 1999. Why should I change now? I am sixty-seven. So what? But I don’t want to die here. My body must be buried in Greece.”
The day before we left Nouadhibou, we drove for about half an hour, between the abandoned gun emplacements and the line of mines that divides Nouadhibou from Western Sahara, to the end of Cap Blanc, or Cabo Blanco as the Spanish colonists, who shared it with the French, called it. The old Spanish port of La Güera lies on the exterior of the peninsula, and is largely a ghost town these days. It’s technically in Western Sahara, but is staffed by Mauritanian soldiers, a remnant of the four years that Moktar Ould Daddah, the country’s first president after the French left, launched a disastrous war to occupy the region.
In 1975, as the colonial period ended, the Spanish began “Operation Swallow,” in which they exhumed nineteen of their dead and then evacuated. Hours later, the Polisario had seized it and raised their flag. La Güera was later captured by the Mauritanians after bitter fighting, with the help of Morocco. The La Güera operation would prove to be a barometer of sorts for what was to come. By 1978, four years into the war, the Mauritanian economy was on its knees, and the Polisario rebels were plundering the north of the country from their desert bases hundreds of miles away, even striking the capital in a particularly daring raid that saw mortar shells landing among the palms of Ould Daddah’s palace garden. In short order, a coup was organized, Ould Daddah replaced, and peace with Polisario sued for. The Moroccans rolled into the territory that Mauritania had abandoned in the north. These days, surfers sometimes visit the abandoned buildings and impress the soldiers stationed there with their peregrinations in the waves, but otherwise the buildings are left to the wind and the sea.
At the end of the peninsula, we met a custodian of sorts wearing a ragged military jacket. For a couple of ougiya, he took us scampering along beaches and then up to the rocky tip of the promontory, where he steered us around the old French lighthouse, and pointed down toward water that had been churned a milky turquoise by the battering ocean. There, among the slick peaks of submerged boulders, a sleepy figure rolled in the waves. It was a monk seal, of which there are about three hundred off the Nouadhibou peninsula. I had seen monk seals in Greece, but didn’t know their range extended out into the Atlantic. Mediterranean monk seals, Monachus monachus, have long nostrils and
dark, slick backs. The male has a butterfly-shaped mark on his belly. Generally the impression they give, even in such high seas, is one of utter relaxedness and comfort in the water, their eyes thinned to lazy slits as they paddle about the waves.
We were told we were lucky to see one of the seals. The Nouadhibou colony is the world’s second largest collection of Monachus monachus. There used to be many more, ranging from the eastern Mediterranean all the way out to here, but people started hunting and trapping them for their pelts, and now they are critically endangered. In the eighteenth century, the seals stopped giving birth on beaches, and instead sought out dank undersea caves that people couldn’t access. In 1997, about two hundred of the Cap Blanc seals perished at once in a “mass mortality event.” The deaths were generally blamed on an algal bloom that poisoned fish in the sea around Nouadhibou. The seals ate the poisoned fish, and after a while their brains were eaten away by the neurotoxins that had built up in their prey’s flesh.
Later that day, we met up with a pair of men in a parking lot near the airport. They took us to meet a mother and son from Western Sahara, who had driven eight hundred miles across the desert from their homes in the refugee camps near Tindouf, in southern Algeria, to spend the hot summer months in a house in the Nouadhibou suburbs. (As an anthropologist in New York once put it to me, “Nouadhibou is sort of like the Nantucket of Western Sahara.”) They welcomed me into their home, which had an airy reception area decorated with arches and laden with mattresses, offered us powdered milk, and set about warming a metal pot of tea on a gas burner.
The Western Saharans who live in the camps in southern Algeria are passionate about liberating their country from the Moroccans.
I asked the son, a handsome thirty-something with closely cropped hair called Gabbal Said, how he felt, being in Mauritania, considering Mauritania had invaded Western Sahara along with Morocco. He spoke fluent Spanish, spinning shot-sized glasses of hot tea between his thumb and forefinger before pouring the liquid, in order to top each cup with a froth that, in the desert, keeps sand and grit from getting in. It was strong and the tips of my canines stung from the sweetness. “We can’t blame the Mauritanian population for that,” he said as he span a second glass. “We know how things work in the third world, decisions are made by the elite, and that elite is itself not free to make those decisions: they are controlled by other more powerful forces. In this case, it’s France. France forced them to take part in the conflict.”
He poured me a third cup and continued, “We also understand the geopolitics, the geopolitics governing Mauritania at the time. Morocco had the aspiration and the intention to occupy Mauritania because they claimed that ‘Greater Morocco’ was bounded by the Senegal River and the Mediterranean, which means it encompasses Mauritania.”
The market at Nouadhibou is stocked with everything you need for a trip to the Sahara. Traders sell things from concrete rooms stacked with brightly colored packets and ramshackle wooden stalls under faded umbrellas. We were stocking up because the next day we would jump aboard the iron ore train and head into the desert. Our shopping, as I wrote in my diary, included copious camel meat; kettles; a gas stove marked simply, “Sahara”; a plastic bottle filled with sugar; dried hibiscus; and fresh mint for tea. The market is also known for the brisk trade in meteorites that nomads find out in the desert. Scientists oppose the trade, but there’s not much in the way of regulation in Nouadhibou. As a young, meteorite-smuggling American traveler once said to the
BBC, “It’s lawless: the only law there is money and you can do what- ever you want, as long as you’re prepared to pay the right person for it.”
Later, we headed to the Galloufa to say goodbye to the Greeks. We ordered spaghetti Bolognese. A group of Turkish fishermen had come in from the sea that day, and were setting up an amplifier in one of the rooms along with bottles of raki. On a table in the corner, the Russians were eating their smoked fish (“they are maybe a hundred years behind us,” Dmitris said) and drinking wine (“maybe two hundred euros worth a night”). The Turks, who had been fishing for two weeks, started to blast out Spanish pop music, and a few Mauritanian women in colorful veils called mulafa filed in. “Look,” Dmitris said, “they smell money. Now more women will come.” A young woman crossed the room, her face slender and smiling under the veil. “That woman just divorced her husband,” Dmitris said. Unlike in many traditional Muslim countries, Mauritanian women have wide leeway to divorce and remarry.
Soon, the Turks were very drunk. I asked Dimitris how he felt about drinking in an Islamic Republic. He told me that the police in Nouadhibou barely bother expats about drinking. It’s as if they’re a lost cause. “Fuck them,” he said. “Live your life!” I told him we were heading to Zouérat on the train the next day. Soon we would be out in the desert, iron ore whipping around us, clogging teeth and eyes with black dust. “You won’t be able to drink there. It’s hard to find a place with drinks even in Nouakchott,” Mauritania’s capital. In Nouadhibou there are several places. The Turks began to dance, clutching at the young women in the next-door room. “Soon they won’t have any money at all,” Dimitris told me. “And then they will have to go back to sea.”
The train station is about twenty minutes outside Nouadhibou. It’s a low, white building with a slight pitch to the roof and signs in Arabic and French that read Gare des Voyageurs — Station of Travelers. Inside is a gritty, tiled room, with a small window booth out of which a man serves tea and water. There’s also a carpeted nook at one end that is used for prayer. In the center, people splay themselves out across benches. In one corner is a poster explaining why its readers should stop smoking. I wondered how any of the Mauritanians around me would identify with the French cartoon of a white guy complaining that he would get fat if he stopped (to which the poster responded “is it better to die or get fat?”); I imagined the cartoonist drawing it in Lille, or Arras, or some French suburb. Maybe it would be raining out- side. Here, in the train station, flies buzzed over the sweating, sleeping silhouettes hulked in the half-light.
When we first arrived at the station, we were taken to a concrete hutch off to one side. There, at a battered desk, a gaggle of police officers informed us that it had been reported that we had been trying to arrange interviews in town. They began to question us and examine our passports. Then they called their commandant. We waited for about half an hour. The commandant arrived, asked us a few questions, and then made us wait in the hot sunshine outside. After a while, he called us back in.
“Have you taken any photographs?” he asked. I said I had, and he asked to see my camera. We scrolled through my pictures until we alighted on a picture of the custodian at Cap Blanc. Here he saw a solution: he could hassle us just enough not to be a true impediment to our trip but enough to not look weak. “Ah,” he said. “That man is a soldier. You cannot have pictures of soldiers.”
“He is the custodian of the monk seal refuge at Cap Blanc.”
“This man is a soldier.”
I deleted some of the photographs and the commandant smiled. He told us we could go, but that the train wouldn’t come for another couple of hours.
We headed back into town, to a café that served kebabs. Two men chatted in Syrian Arabic. Syrians can still visit Mauritania without a visa. I asked them where they were from. “Aleppo,” one replied. “But now it’s destroyed. We’ve been here for years.” He shrugged. “The war.”
Oumar kept checking on the train schedule. It was coming in an hour. Two hours. No, half an hour more. Finally, as the shadows started to grow long, we decided to head to the station. A policeman waved us into the waiting area. The train would be there in a bit, he didn’t know how long. As it grew dark, we realized there were no lights in the station, and we put on the headlamps we had brought with us. A young man sat on the steps outside, examining a gash on his leg. We made a kind of den out of our bags and slouched against the wall. The cold of the desert night started to creep in through the door. The train didn’t come. Oumar lit up the gas stove that we had bought in the market and began slicing onions and tomatoes. At one point, my brother went outside to smoke a cigarette. He came back, asking for antiseptic lotion. “The guy outside has a big cut on his leg.”
I went out to talk to him with my brother as we helped him clean his cut. His name was Umar. He was from Gambia, near Banjul, and spoke broken English. He was in his late teens, and he had left home five months ago in order to try and get to Europe. In the intervening time, he had worked as a water-seller on the street in Senegal and on construction sites in Nouadhibou. Now he was taking the train to Zouérat in the hope of finding a job in the mine there before smuggling himself north into the Algerian desert, and then, he hoped, into Europe. He said all he wanted to do was work as a farmer on the small plot of land his family owned, growing tomatoes and onions, but that his family was running out of money. His father had been crippled since he was a young man. “He has some small money,” Umar told me. “God give him that. Some people, his friends, who are in Europe they give him money. Then they come to the compound one day and I see myself: I am a man. I am supposed to wake up and help my family.”
Since Umar had left, the going had been rough. Like many of the other migrants who try to cross the Sahara in the hopes of getting to
Europe, he had set out with little money, and had found himself stuck at various points along the way. In Nouadhibou, he earned about six dollars a day. The job didn’t even pay the rent. “I’m a young boy but I have experienced many things,” he explained. “Only bad things.” His outlook on life was utterly pessimistic.
As I talked to Umar, it became clear he couldn’t imagine being interested in anything but getting to Europe. In Zouérat, he told me, “It is not my intention to stay there even one month. Even ten days. When I get some money, I go to Algeria.” His entire being was focused northwards, his journey was the axis about which his mind spun. He had been told in Nouadhibou that a group of fuel smugglers in Zouérat might be able to take him across the desert for a fee. I asked him whether he understood how dangerous the journey would be. “I leave everything to God,” he replied. “I know that it isn’t safe, but I leave everything to God, you know. Almighty God.” In Zouérat, he would call us saying that he couldn’t find work, and that he was heading back to Nouadhibou. A few months later, he called me, asking me for money to help him buy phones, which he could trade for a profit in Gambia.
When we headed back inside, Oumar began to stew the onions and tomatoes in a pot over the burner. He threw in large, greasy hunks of camel meat. At one point, one of the policemen who questioned us the day before came over. “You can’t cook inside here! This is a train station,” he said. Oumar offered him some of the stew and a hunk of bread. He thanked us and left, reminding us not to cook there next time. The evening grew longer and longer. We kept ourselves awake by wandering around while one of us watched the bags.
By the bags, I tried to read my book, but I could not focus. The entire room burbled with sleep. On Wednesday there is a new sleeper but today islate and the roving is only to bide the time, I wrote at one point. The women have ended their prayers. The children babble phrases comprehensible only to them. The men sprawl on mats. The figures are sitting now or clustered behind torches and you pool in the dark, waiting for the train.
Finally, at about two in the morning, the station began to quake. The train had arrived. People leapt up from their bags and ran to the back of the station. First, bright circles of light appeared, followed by the winding body of carriages. People lugged boxes wrapped in string, animals, gas stoves, suitcases through the darkness. The passenger car started to fill up, and the police told us to board. We told them we wanted to climb into the iron ore bins like everyone else, and they laughed.
A group of laughing boys had leapt into one of the hoppers with Umar. A policeman ushered us into one in front of them. “This man is a soldier,” the officer said. “You should travel with him.” We helped him load a bundle of Styrofoam boxes onto the carriage. He would tell us when we were on board that he was on leave, going to visit his family in the desert. The boxes were full of fish, fresh from the ocean.
Finally, we clambered up a ladder, staining our clothes with the skein of iron ore that covered the carriage as we leapt inside. The train shuddered, an almighty rattle that passed down along the carriages until it reached ours with a loud bang and a force that knocked me from my feet. The night wind began to whip around us. We were heading into the desert.