#Mauritania’s Bonfire of the Vanities


It took considerable self-control to suppress my gag reflex at the sight of Abdel Aziz rushing from the palace to greet the protest march against Biram Ould Abeid’s sacrilegious act, dressed in full al-dara’a and head scarf traditional dress. I know he said that they should forget democracy, that Mauritania is Islamic, and promising swift and sure action.  There was also something about secularism, but I confess, I was too dazzled by the crispness of his powder-blue cotton Marabout costume to pay attention. I assume that was the idea in any case. A pretty stage show to mollify the mob. Not only was Aziz in the palace on a weekend, conveniently dressed in his “man of the sands” fashion mockery, he was also able to reel off the names of several distant locations where protests had also “spontaneously” erupted. The president’s new media advisor certainly seems to be earning his keep.

The first time I read about anything being purposefully burned in Mauritania, beneath that scorching desert sun, it was from 2009, and the prescription medicines that the government destroyed because they were either out of date, or illegally imported pseudo-meds, in both cases highly dangerous. They had a bonfire, same as the little springtime ceremonies in Nouadhibou, where police torch impressive quantities of illicit drugs captured from the well-established trafficking routes. The drugs trade bonfires are likely timed to coincide with a visit by representatives of a source of international funding for the prevention of trafficking.

And the last time I read about anything being burned in Mauritania, it was not books of Islamic jurisprudence, it was approval being granted for Chinese residents to build funeral pyres to cremate their dead. There are a lot of Chinese store owners, business people and workers in Mauritania, and China is an essential trading and investment partner. So we need not be concerned or surprised by the double standard of allowing burial rituals that are not in the Islamic tradition, while simultaneously telling people to forget democracy, Mauritania is a nation of Islam, and they are all soldiers in the fight to defend their faith.

The book burning was televised, yet the area was surprisingly free of police or security, and the entire scene played out without them appearing. This is highly unusual, as the police are the constant shadows of the media in Mauritania, and indeed have frequently harassed, abused, physically assaulted and arrested journalists and photographers, especially when they are covering protests or issues that Aziz would prefer were kept out of the spotlight. Clearly this was not such a time. In my archive I have a growing collection of videos from protests created by citizen journalists and a few independent local media outlets, showing the police cracking out the tear gas and batons as soon as the first discarded tyre begins to smoulder. In many cases the police don’t even wait for anyone to start a fire; they just attack.

The level of public outrage is doubly impressive when you consider that about 50% of the population is illiterate. That doesn’t explain why 99% of commentators fail to mention any specific content in the books while raging about their destruction, or why all the focus is on Maliki’s text – as I write, someone just created a “We are all Maliki” Facebook page. Only those who have read them will know that the books do indeed contain reference to slavery. But there is another reason to keep discussion of this hot topic on the back burner, and keep those pots of boiling invective and racist insults frothing and bubbling at the front. The last thing any pious rent-a-pitchforker wants is to have to admit that slavery exists, that it is an ongoing issue, that it is written in the Quran, or that Maliki or anyone else wrote about it. No one is going to bother mentioning that slavery is also mentioned in elaborate detail in the Bible, and also in the Torah – I believe there’s a reference to maidservants, which intimates child slavery, right after the commandments. They do not know how to eliminate it, so they choose to avoid it.

Why do we not see such generous media coverage when people go out onto the street to protest the many injustices in this country? Why does Aziz not rush to meet protesters outside the palace promising swift action for inequality and corruption instead of sending his thugs to greet them with tear gas and beatings?

What does it mean to burn something? It’s an outward expression of anger, a violent act. Fire can be a tool of oppression, of protest, of control. But it also contains an aspect of hopefulness. There are many alternative methods of destruction, but only fire has that deep significance and special symbolism earned as man’s constant companion since the dawn of humanity, of being both destroyer and life-giver, of being the prelude to new beginnings. Of the many things that have burned in Mauritania, I hope this event signifies an end to isolationist principles and egoism, and the birth of a new period of reflection and reconciliation.


Note: I do not condone the destruction of books and especially not those which have special religious significance because it is hateful and intended to insult believers, which is a form of victimisation or religious persecution. For these reasons, I condemn it totally. As symbolism, it represents too many things I despise. As an act, it is puerile and vulgar.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a novel by Tom Wolfe about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980’s New York

7 thoughts on “#Mauritania’s Bonfire of the Vanities

  1. Some comments from Hamath SY @seydisy on this post:

    • @seydisy After establishing that the title is not a reference to anyone deserving to be burned at the stake, but instead a reference to the book about corruption and racism, I also have to add that I feel Biram acted without giving enough consideration to the implications of his actions. By shifting the emphasis away from attacking slavery and towards attacking Islamic jurisprudence, he has created huge upheaval. I feel his actions will have harmed the position and credibility of the IRA specifically and anti-slavery activist groups in general, most especially in Muslim communities. From a broader perspective, I also feel that Biram did not display an appreciation of the work of other protest and opposition movements in Mauritania, and either failed to understand how his actions might impact on their struggles, or acted as though they are not relevant. This lack of social/situational awareness is likely to impede progress on any of the issues faced by people in Mauritania. Surely it is possible to see that corruption and favoritism are the foundation of many issues, slavery being one of them, and to form a united front with agreed priorities. To act otherwise, as though slavery and racism are the only issues to be resolved, is naive and, as we are seeing now, divisive.

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