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from the May 2021 issue


In this excerpt from Cheikh Nouh’s novel Adabai, we're introduced to the history and myths of the eponymous Mauritanian village. 

Musa says that Ibrika founded the village of Adabai twenty years after “the year of Ja’bara’s death,” which was an important year in Adabai’s history. Ja’bara was a female slave from the nearby village.

“Ja’bara had confided to some of the women while drawing water from the well that she was carrying the child of master Hammada, a son of the Al-Mukhtar family, whereas she was the slave of Hammada’s cousin Sa’edbouh. Sa’edbouh would send Ja’bara nightly with a glass of cow’s milk to the master who loved it so, and soon enough he fell in love with her.

“Hammada’s passion as a man of his stature for a woman of Ja’bara’s rank was considered taboo, forbidden, atrocious. Ja’bara’s own master Sa’edbouh couldn’t be considered the father of the life within her—even if he had had his way with her as was permitted by an interpretation of Islamic law—because he was known to be sterile, having been married to his uncle’s daughter for ten years with no offspring to show for it.

“With this confession of hers, Ja’bara caused tension between Hammada and his cousin. Even if it was a frightening consideration, there was no redemption from this scandal except for getting rid of Ja’bara herself.  What was the life of a female slave compared to the sullying of the Great Tent’s reputation? Both Ja’bara and the life of her fetus died for the reputation of the Great Tent. She was put to death over the accusation of practicing ‘sal.’

“She was a dangerous sallala, an expert bloodsucker, she would have killed everyone if she wasn’t put down—that’s how Ja’bara became a martyr, and what was said when the sons of the Great Tent made their way back from burying her. ‘Sal’ is the practice of sucking out blood by calling upon evil spirits, something which is attributed to the Adabai residents by those intent on scaring others from mixing with them and pushing people to ostracize them, whereas righteousness and sovereignty are attributed to the masters. The master in this society isn’t a rank tied to worship or knowledge, or a position of spiritual purity a person reaches through God’s salvation, whatever his color or origin. It is, rather, an inherited social rank, one of forced authority over people, an eternal occupation.  

“As for the labeling of the righteous ones, it can be explained through the past: long ago in ancient times if a girl belonging to the Great Tent fell pregnant then her mother or her aunt would accompany her, approximately a month before the birth, on a journey to an unknown place. One of their relatives would ensure they had food and drink, and stay the night with them in that place or nearby until the girl gave birth. When they returned under the dark of night, they placed the child in a cloth at the cemetery, called colloquially ‘Al-Saliheen.’ They would then command one of the slaves to go to the cemetery and bring the child back. Then the news would spread and the child would enjoy a particular sacredness for being ‘Ibn Al-Saliheen,’ or son of the righteous. One of the slave families, or another family at the bottom of the chain, would raise the child, and it would grow in proximity to the environment of his real family, enjoying the opportunity to learn from those who officially denied his existence. Then once he reached a marriageable age, he would marry one of the daughters of his uncles because he was considered ‘Ibn Al-Saliheen,’ a label which grew to carry a sense of sacredness and magic, someone who had come to the world in a different way, God himself had placed him in ‘Al-Saliheen.’”


With the passing of time, a class formed of the “Ibn Al-Saliheen” that enjoyed a large halo of reverence as Musa saw it. The enslaved Haratin were isolated in desolate clusters. They kept living despite all the torments and bitterness, finding grace in music. Their nayffara is a flutelike instrument heavy with history, deeply immersed in sorrow: all the pain behind words and what is beyond language entrusted to it.


Beneath his trellis erected on the west side of the village school, in front of his clay house on the evening of a scorching day in May 2013, I sat on the dindera for the first time with Musa as he smoked, when the growl of the school principal’s car engine sounded. Not knowing his name, the village people just called him Principal. Musa was observing Yarba—his only son, a teenager named after Musa’s father—open up the pen to let the sheep in, iPod earbuds in his ears.

“He must be listening to that hip-hop song, the popular one by Ouled l'bled . . . it’s got a message. It’s music that speaks to our pain that no one else takes notice of. Is there any other song that speaks to us more than ‘Miserable Ones’?”

Maybe Musa felt this connection because a Jamaican migrant, DJ Kool Herc, founded hip-hop in the impoverished Bronx in cramped New York City, the center of global capitalism. This art form soaked in pain made its way to this boiling desert, which had accumulated eras of creed-like crushing pain wrapped in heavy silence.

Yarba’s generation, the crushed ones, loved this art and melted into its details. They chanted the rhymes and moved to the beats carved from the flesh of their pains. Hip-hop expressed the voices of the marginalized and the broken, of the young people lost between the heaviness of reality, the burdens of the past, and the haze of the future. It was one of the artistic forms of rebellion against the bourgeois suit, the elegant tie, and the official protocols. It celebrated the street-life and the marginal, which was left to be forgotten and thrown to nothingness.

Musa’s ears kept fleeing from the rhythms of traditional Mauritanian music, it being one of the manifestations of the prevailing social order and a way of preserving it by praising the sheikhs of tribes and military organizations. It was only practiced in well-known families forming a separate caste called Iggawen. Their role can be summarized as preserving the lineage of tribal chiefs and singing their supposed glories. This is what made the people at the bottom feel as if the artists of such music weren’t addressing them. In fact, there were songs and slogans that such artists intoned which consecrated the inferiority of the marginalized classes and slapped them with ugly, racist, inhuman stereotypes. Such songs cultivated sayings that glorified the unrelenting social order, even though the Iggawen class itself was considered at the bottom of the pyramid socially, even if their economic standing was better than this.

As such Musa and Yarba his son, and those like them, didn’t find any art form other than hip-hop which was free from social restrictions and available to all, one where you didn’t have to be a descendant of an Iggawen family in order to take part. Maybe that would explain why all hip-hop artists came from tin-house neighborhoods, destitute Gazraat and Kebbatt, waiting for governmental interventions that would never arrive.

The tributaries of hip-hop spread among the youth from the dregs of society like the salt of the sea: rap, the musical embodiment; then graffiti, the drawn embodiment; and finally breakdancing.

Techno music was also popular during the 1990s among teenagers. It didn’t have a specific message, though, and maybe that’s why it didn’t engrave itself deeply into the psyche of those who had been crushed by society. Even so, “Techno,” or “Dance Machine” as they called it, was a trend that those on the lowest rung of society exceled at.

Musa didn’t know what caused these memories to refresh themselves as of late with such piercing urgency and cause him to speak so freely about his life and his past. Since he started feeling comfortable with me—as he put it—every evening that I visited him he started sharing with me the most important events in his life and what they left within. Is it merely a matter of him unloading himself of a past charged with surprising and dramatic events? Or is it a talent for storytelling that only I have been able to unlock? When I promised him that I would write down his story while he sipped green tea with mint on the dindera, his appetite was whetted for sharing stories; stories from when he first entered this school thirty years ago, to his on-off relationship with the sea, to the beginning of his mysterious illness that, according to doctors, is not life-threatening.

His memory jumps to the day when his father patted him on the shoulder and said, “Now it’s halaal for you to slaughter like other men.” He was overcome with a wave of joy at this grand announcement back then, and he still wonders until today why he felt that way when he was told he could spill the blood of another soul and destroy it; even if it was just a hen carrying a string of eggs within her.


From Adabai. © Cheikh Nouh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.

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