torsdag 28. juli 2011

The no longer strangers


Campaign meeting or party - or both? Chinguetti, November 2006.

It has been almost one week since the horrors of terror hit Norway. We have mourned, we have kept together (as I am writing almost 1,2 million are holding hands online at VG. We have also been reminded of the dark thoughts that run quite freely in the corners of internet, the thoughts that most of us normally choose to close their eyes to when they appear before our eyes.

Enough said. This is not going to be a blog about immigration or right-wing paranoia.

This is a blog about travelling. And about how meeting other people can make clear what should be obvious: That "the others" are no more static than us, defined by a lot more than traditions, honour and a sacred book.

It was November 2006, in the country which full name is Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country that was religious in more than name; alcohol was for example impossible to get in the whole country except for a few luxury hotels.

I was in Chinguetti, an old caravan town an religious center, according to the inhabitants themselves (and Michael Palin) the seventh holiest town of Islam. Everything seemed strange. Instead of streets there was sand, camels, centuries old Islamic libraries. And both men and women went in robes, the women also covered their hair.

In other words, a deeply traditional town deep in the desert. But not in every sense. Not the people.

Admittedly, my host A wanted to get a wife number two, and hopefully four in some years. Admittedly, his wife N was 14 when they married. And admittedly he paid for her in camels. But on their kitchen wall there was a poster of Britney Spears.

Dream woman 1 and 2. the wife and Britney Spears.

Another girl, K, had her hair covered but was flirting openly: - My teacher in school is no good. I want you to teach me English. I want the tuition the be at home, and I want to study only at night, she said, her friends laughing. Her idol? Christina Aguilera.

I visited Chinguetti in a golden age, just before the first election after the coup d'etat of 2005. Gigantic tents stood in the desert, and there it was obvious that the campaign was a social happening, not just about politics. Electric guitars played in the night, people were dancing; only one thing was really different from a European festival: They were drinking tea.

Campaign in Mauritanian.

The young students I joined later in evening, were drinking tea too. And they wore long, blue robes. But their dream women were Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, and their favourite music was hiphop. Soon, one of them started rapping while banging the beat against the tea tray, and several students were dancing break on the floor.

They were robe-clad muslims, ok, but first of all they were youths.

There are rabid extremists in Mauritania too, just as we now have seen that "our own" extremists can be dangerous.

But are they connected to reality? The society they claim to fight for, has changed years ago - for the better. Both when it comes to hiphop loving Mauritanians and Norway's constitutional religious freedom.

To most of us, this is pretty obvious. Others seemingly don't get it. Maybe they should travel to Mauritania (but not now, see the British travel advisory for more informasjon).

For more information about Chinguetti and how it saw as many as 30.000 camels gathering there at the same time during the days of the great desert caravans, read this excellent article by Smithsonian magazine. There, you can also read about the sad fact desertification is threatening this medieval Unesco world heritage site.

The oldest manuskripts in Biblioteque Moulaye M'Hamed Ould Ahmed Cherif are 900 years old, and made of gaselle leather.

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