Birds of Nabaa: The mystical roamings of a Mauritanian Sufi
It is a fictional travelogue and musings of an unnamed Mauritanian narrator. He recounts his time in Madrid, several Gulf States, and Guinea and eventually finds his way back to Nabaa, his childhood village.
His peregrinations lead him to seek the inner peace that the bedouins of the desert have seemingly attained. Thus, myriad cities and kaleidoscopic characters are interwoven throughout the novel, creating a lyrical wonder offering a rare glimpse into Mauritanian culture, life, and history.
"This unique story raises the question of travel, searching, and its influence on the individual. The narrator proclaims, 'My life is a travelogue with countless chapters, each of which has a distinct colour, smell, and taste.'"
Though the narrator himself is an embassy accountant, his vagabond inclinations echo that of Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah himself. From journalist to a reporter to a travelling entrepreneur, and now more recently, a novelist, like his character, they are both searching for wisdom and repose.
Throughout the story, he consistently finds solace in his Sufi education, Mauritanian poetry, and music. He encounters new people and childhood friends who are also wanderers like him, all searching for a better life and spiritual salvation.
Introspective of nature, he is profoundly impacted by those who have become enmeshed in his journey. His story compels the reader to ruminate on the reasons and consequences of travel.
We are reminded that history can attest to migration as a timeless phenomenon. Yet, as the tale will assert, our roots remain an indelible and magnetic force.
The narrator makes frequent returns to Mauritania despite his living abroad for decades. In the opening chapter, he is in Madrid waiting to take a flight back to his homeland for a visit.
There, he encounters an ever-changing and dynamic Mauritania. It is a country that continues to endure the ramifications of colonialism, imperialism, and military dictatorship and whose land remains in bitter conflict with climate change.
The youth spread ideas of socialism, dissent, and Arab nationalism with zeal. All the while, the Sufi ascetics and poets are creating an electrifying scene of metaphysical marvel in the remote villages of the desert.
It is also revealed that over the decades, Nabaa has experienced a slow haemorrhage, and many people have faded into foreign lands without a trace.
He returns to Madrid and introduces us to his neighbour, Teresa. She is a Portuguese woman working in the music industry. She offers him companionship and a medium to discover Mauritanian music to satiate his yearning for home and identity.
She would cook for him while he taught her the art of making tea, but their relationship remains chaste, as do many of the relationships interspersed throughout the novel.
His memories of childhood are nebulous and fragmented. However, some characters appear with clarity and whose images haunt him, including his Quran teacher and master, Abdel Hadi al Majdhoub. Al Majdhoub was a hypnotic man.
Full of charisma, he had prolonged periods of isolation to recite the Quran and perform poetry. He was the one who taught him the verses of pre-Islamic poetry, Quran, and beauty.
He had keenly affected the narrator, who intensely desired to embody his spirituality as he traversed from country to country. He moves on from Madrid to Kuwait and onwards to Doha and Conakry.
"Uld Mohamadi Bah's characters are refined and crafted with delicate nuance. He captures the discordant feelings of those who have experienced immigration, whether by choice or impossible circumstances"
In Kuwait, he encounters Abdurrahman, a young man from his community. Abdurrahman is a man of passion and books who favours justice and socialist tendencies.
Though the two have disparate personalities, they are drawn to each other and become inextricable. Abdurrahman teaches him the ability to co-exist and consider complex perspectives.
He is introduced to the political intricacies of the East and the multitudinous motives for emigration. His teacher was Al Rajab, from whom he learned the Quran, poetry, and his proclivity towards equality and compassion.
As the novel progresses, we learn about Abdurrahman's disdain for capitalism and the eccentric sheikhs of Nabaa, who revere the cadence of poetry, Islam, and women. Meanwhile, bizarre dreams, droughts, floods, and disasters reverberate throughout Nabaa.
This unique story raises the question of travel, searching, and its influence on the individual. The narrator proclaims, “My life is a travelogue with countless chapters, each of which has a distinct colour, smell, and taste.”
In several soliloquies and monologues, characters ponder on why one would vacate their homes. For some, it is the conflict between the colonizer or the desire for change. Others are seeking absolution and divine intimacy.
But a chosen migration is one of life's rich experiences. While migration may mean severing connections and placing excessive reliance on memory, it also keeps the embers of memory aglow and creates the fervour to fortify traditions.
The narrator becomes immersed in the practices, characters, and stories of Nabaa, admitting he never once considered this until he grew close to Abddurrahman, who possessed an ability to understand humanity’s culture and secrets. Like the Sufi ascetics, who appear saliently in the novel, migration allows one to decipher a transcendent world.
Uld Mohamadi Bah's characters are refined and crafted with delicate nuance. He captures the discordant feelings of those who have experienced immigration, whether by choice or impossible circumstances.
Acquiring knowledge and insight is a vibrant gift, yet often, they are gripped with an amorphous identity. We see this in our narrator, who can not forgo his memories and bond with Nabaa.
He returns to increasingly modern Mauritania every few years, noting its changes and despair. Even abroad, he inadvertently and through divine intervention uncovers ways to strengthen his thread to his country via music and poetry. And the people left behind in the exodus dream of the ostensible luxuries of another world.
The price, however, is a distorted sense of self and unity. His novel is a homage to the multifaceted culture of Mauritania, its Sufi culture, and Islamic teachings. The harmony, the disquiet, and the community are presented with striking clarity and subtle gradations only found in human interactions.
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania has a tumultuous history. But it is home to nomadic bedouins who have forged a milieu of poetic mastery and resilience. Thus, Birds of Nabaa is a tale that animated a country known as the land of one million poets to a greater global audience.
Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe
Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin