F "The Desert and the Drum" by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk (Mauritania) - Beyond Achebe: Reading the Continent

"The Desert and the Drum" by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk (Mauritania)



“From the moment they arrived, the strangers stole something essential from us, without us feeling we had the right to protest.” This comment by the young Bedouin narrator Rayhana encapsulates the modern-day struggle that Mauritanian author Mbarek Ould Beyrouk seeks to describe in The Desert and the Drum. In Rayana’s case, these “strangers” were a mixture of fellow countrymen and foreign investors looking for minerals. The theft in question is not one of gold or ore but of proximity and privacy. This primordial nation (which had existed for centuries without a state as a loose confederation of sometimes-allied tribes) values, above all, its separation (both psychic and physical) from the world. Beyrouk reveals, however, that the price of this separation is not born equally by all tribal members. For Rayhana, the strangers’ arrival severs that separation on every level forcing her to leave her tribe, and most importantly, to consider what it means to exist as an individual--a concept completely foreign to most Bedouin.

The drum in question is her tribe’s ancient token, guarded and carried for centuries and imbued with a mystic power wherein the tribe cannot exist without it. For Rayhana, however, the drum represents everything taken from her so she absconds with it setting off a tragic chain of events. Originally, released in French, the novel was titled “The Drum of Tears” which turns out to be a more apt description for the events that unfold for the wounded young narrator.

Beyrouk is a gifted author and writes beautifully as he observes the stark difference between modern “civilization” and Bedouin life. When Rayhana arrives in the city, she is dumbfounded by its cultures and customs and finds herself the object of much curiosity and perceived ridicule but she remains defiant. The author reveals the Bedouin woman’s interior monologue in the face of this oppression: “So what? Do you think I’m ashamed of that? Do you think I’d rather have what you have? Your grimy faces, your vacant eyes, your directionless lives, the prisons you live in, the dead things you use for transport? Do you think you’re better than me? You don’t stop to talk, you don’t even greet people you pass, you’re so desperate to survive that you never experience life!” Even the kindness of a city family offer her no respite as she observes its idle chatter and obsession with electronic screens. She is revolted at their empty existence, the void in their souls because their “hearts did not burn.” Rayhana realizes that she will never find another home in a place so devoid of passion: “I was clearly from elsewhere; from the lands that were white with sand and black with fury.”

Early in the novel, an Islamist scholar comes into the Bedouin camp to teach its children and is summarily dismissed after a few weeks for clashing with the long-established tribal traditions. Afterwards, Rayhana mocks his inability to fit in with their camp saying: “Is there anyone more ignorant than someone who can’t find their way?” Sadly, this mockery turns into an indictment of Rayhana as her quest consumes her and she comes to realize that she was permanently lost the moment she left the camp, indeed: “[she] was dead and no one even noticed.”

Key Quotes:

26 “From the moment they arrived, the strangers stole something essential from us, without us feeling we had the right to protest.” Rayhana remarks upon the arrival of the strangers who are prospecting for oil/minerals

70 “So what? Do you think I’m ashamed of that? Do you think I’d rather have what you have? Your grimy faces, your vacant eyes, your directionless lives, the prisons you live in, the dead things you use for transport? Do you think you’re better than me? You don’t stop to talk, you don’t even greet people you pass, you’re so desperate to survive that never experience life!” Rayaha’s interior monologue after people in the town/city stare and whisper “She’s a Bedouin!”

Key Takeaways:
  • Titled “The Drum of Tears” in the original French version
  • Mauritanian author Mbarek Ould Beyrouk writes beautifully about the jarring clash between primordial Bedouin culture and modernity.
  • Rayhana--main character
  • Mbarka--an escaped slave she grew up with
  • Memed--her suitor.
  • Yahya--the suitor who impregantes

10-11 The tribe’s drum, called the rezzam was a sacred instrument--can’t touch the ground or a woman’s hand or to leave the camp--it’s the embodiment of the tribe--its voice. In stealing it, she’d permanently dishonored the tribes and its ancestors “I’d silenced the drum.” She did this in response to her feeling that the tribe had stolen her very essence--that of her identity and that of her baby.

36 The tribe feels a very real disconnect from the rest of the country, its cities and its government and its religion. Instead they exist as their own separate nation and people.

45 When Rayhana is taken in by a city family. She becomes immediately disenchanted with their idle talk and chatter as she notes “their hearts did not burn.”

53 “He opened and closed his tiny fists to tell me he loved me.” Rayhana dreams of her child and dreams that the baby had turned into a tiny drum. In other words, something ancient and of infinite value. In short, her everything.

105 “I was clearly from elsewhere; from the lands that were white with sand and black with fury.”

121 “Is there anyone more ignorant than someone who can’t find their way?” commenting on the teacher that came to teach at their camp.

128 “None of it seemed relevant to me. I was dead and no one even noticed.” Rayhana at her wedding ceremony.

154 In the Bedouin camp there isn’t the same notion or innate desire to be an individual, rather it’s more important to be “all”--that is, part of the group.

CONVERSATION

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