#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desert sun, it was from 2009, and the prescription medicines that the government destroyed because they were either out of date, or illegally imported pseudo-meds, in both cases highly dangerous.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

UPDATED More Injustice and Intrigue in #Mauritania


24 Jan 2012: The shooting scandal is getting more bizarre, with the victim having been flown to Morocco for treatment, reports now say that doctors there have not found any bullet, but that she is paralysed from the waist down. I still do not find this story credible because it seems to be entirely based on hearsay and gossip. What I do see happening that makes me concerned is that the activists we might expect to see promoting tomorrow’s human chain protest are instead caught in this web of intrigue, by allowing it to distract them.
23 Jan 2012: The son of Mauritania’s president Mohammed al Aziz, Badr al Aziz, has been accused of shooting a young woman on Sunday, 22 January 2012 during an argument over her affections. A wave of outrage follows revelations that he was eventually arrested after taking a leisurely late breakfast at a popular Nouakchott café, but almost immediately released . Without wishing ill towards the victim, there are complaints of the injustice of her being given preferential treatment from the presidential administration. While other patients struggle to pay for costly treatment, she is apparently being airlifted out of the country.

This news broke at the same time as the co-ordinated opposition group COD, currently on a country-wide tour, announced their intention to release evidence exposing the level of corruption in Mauritania attributable to Aziz and his administration.

21 Jan 2012: The jailed ISERI students have been released. The fate of the college remains at stake. The anti-slavery activists are still in jail.

16 Jan 2012: The four students arrested last week after police stormed the ISERI Islamic College remain in jail in Nouakchott.

Detained ISERI students

Detained ISERI students

These unarmed, peaceful students were locked up while General Aziz was rubbing shoulders with Moncef Marzouki and Sheikh Khalifa in Tunisia trying to pass himself off as a supporter of the Arab Spring. This despite the fact that he still supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria, enjoys close ties to  the regime in Iran, was one of the last Arab leaders to visit Ben Ali before his departure (if not the last), and would probably still be supporting Gaddafi in Libya if he was alive. Despite Aziz being the chairman of the African Union special committee on Libya, Mauritania was the last member to recognize the National Transitional Council, and received delegations from both the NTC and Gadaffi’s regime during the uprising.

Elsewhere in the country, two four anti-slavery human rights activists were arrested. Two of them are pictured here: stripped and shackled and thrown in jail. These are the four detainees, a university professor, a lawyer, a journalist and a photographer:

The four detained anti-slavery activists