Rensina van den Heuvel Shares her Experience of Atar in Mauritania
This article is about the North African country. Not to be confused with Mauritius. GOOGLE MAP.
Today the wind has died down to a breeze and we have blue sky and sunshine. It’s nice to go into the market with another couple of travellers who are from South Africa. Ann is Australian born and Peter is Dutch.
This morning I was telling them about my impatience with trying to drive the truck and he said in his Dutch accent, “Oh yes, Australians are very impatient”. “ Oh yes, but both my parents are Dutch”, I tell him. “Ahhh”, he said half laughing and half with some authority in his voice, “Oh, that is the worst combination, Dutch AND Australian.”
So off to the markets we go in the taxi. Good thing is that no matter which taxi or where you go, it is 200 Ougua…about 80cents Australian. Mooktar (the irrespressible Berber youth who insisted on being my ‘guide’, hounding me, all around the markets yesterday) does NOT find me. We meander around the dusty market for awhile but eventually we all separate to have our own experience. I LOVE going off on my own.
I wander through the dirt streets between donkeys pulling carts. I squat down to buy eggs, beetroot, carrots, potato and oranges from wrinkly old men in jellaba’s who sit on dusty mats and smile at me.
The market is a hive of activity and in the small flat roofed tiny stores, which are stacked to the ceilings, I find canned corn, canned vegetables, a small watermelon, (which turns out to be pure white inside) and fresh hobbs of warm bread. I walk on, loaded up, onwards through the maze, past red and black moving, slabs of meat hanging on hooks. The blood is red, oozing and dripping from the freshly killed beef and goat carcasses…the thousands of crawling, hovering flies are black.
I am looking for fabric. Authentic African wax print fabric. I don’t find any but I do stick my head into a small mud brick room where a Berber woman is sitting on a worn rug on a concrete floor, painting leather and sewing bits to baskets.
On the floor, there’s a small gas bottle with burner on top, a tiny battered silver teapot with a pointy cap and some little curved tea glasses sitting on a tray.
The woman is swathed in an orange Mulafa. She welcomes me in and leans towards me to shake my hand warmly. Her big shy smile reveals large white teeth with a gap between the two front ones. She motions me to sit so I plonk myself down onto the faded, withered, once red rug on the floor, a few metres from her. I feel honored to be able to sit there and watch her work her craft.
She has almost finished another new basket. It has been hand woven from dried reeds or grasses and is covered in off white, fine goat skin.
Her leatherwork has intricate hand painted designs in blue, red, yellow and black.
Many items hang all around the walls of her hut and on some shelves, there are many bright colored, bowl shaped drums of all different sizes. The drums have seeds inside them so you can beat them and shake them to make a beautiful tinkling sound.
There are also many small baskets which are finished and on display. Everything, whether it hangs around the walls or is on the few shelves, is thickly coated in dust. The town of Atar, which is where I am, is in the Sahara. Dust and sandstorms are a part of everyday life.
Picking a basket from the shelf I hand it to her and she hits it, hard on her hand a few times, belting the last five days of sandstorm from it.
It is about ten inches across, made from dried reeds and has hand painted goat leather stitched all around it which has been finely cut with her razor blade to create a fringe about three inches long.
I tell her with sign language that I would like to buy it and also the one she is working one. I ask her the price but she tells me in French and I derr….do not understand.
A boy of about ten walks past and she calls out to him loudly. He pokes his head in then comes inside and writes her price down on a piece of cardboard which she rips from a box. The writing on the cardboard says 2000 Ouguiya for the first basket, and 3000 for the other one.
About $15 AUD for both.
She is a happy jovial woman about my age, I think and she grins at me over her glasses as she works to complete the second basket.
When we are not trying to communicate, she is deep in concentration. She deftly cuts a two inch wide strip of goat skin from a desiccated carcass and works it, back and forth with a blade to soften the tough leather.
Using a razor blade and holding one end of the strip between her toes, she cuts the leather into very thin, fine strips. Her feet are enveloped in sky blue socks, with big holes near her toes. These very fine strips of leather, she will use as sewing thread. She looks up and smiles at me then begins to push a sharp tool, which looks like a very fine screw driver and makes a hole through the made basket which is already covered in fine painted leather. With a large sewing needle threaded with the leather, she sews the upper body of leather onto the base. She is very skilled and it is fine and precise work.
The task takes about a forty five minutes and I enjoy the fantastic experience and privilege of watching her work her craft.
We have visits from a couple of her women friends and two of her daughters who come in swathed in their bright colored traditional outfits which consist of six metres of fabric wrapped around the body and over the head. (I bought a couple of them in wild colors but never really worked out how to wear them. Truth is, I got totally tangled up.)
The women come in and drink water from a communal bowl which sits on the floor. The Berber woman allows me to take some photos of her working and her friend gives me a written address so I can send the pictures. The address has ‘Women’s Co-op’ written on it.
I am really thrilled with my experience and my two amazing baskets. They are rustic, exquisite and totally Mauritanian.
Before I leave the artisan, she grasps my hand again and smiles a loving warm smile “Sucara, sucara”…'(Thank you, thank you)”, she says. She gets up and goes to her shelves and comes back to me and puts a necklace over my head.
It has many strands of very fine dusty pink beads. I find out later that it is made from dried dough and herbs which are baked in the sun.
The little bony bits in between the beads are dried lizard vertebras.
Mmmm? Going to be fun trying to get that one though Australian customs, Rensina!
The old cream colored Mercedes taxi has a woman inside it when I wave it down. She is an older, plump woman. She chats away to the driver in Arabic.
The taxi stops after a kilometre and before she gets out, she turns to me and she puts a bracelet onto my wrist. It has black carved beads. Muslim rosary beads. I ask the driver, who speaks a little English, if she wants payment but the driver tells me, “It is Cadeau”.(a gift). I take my bright orange baked enamel bracelet off which I bought in Bulgaria and give it to her.
She puts it on her wrist, nods at me, hops out of the taxi and waves goodbye.
Back at the Bab Sahara Campground I see Allen is back, munching away on lunch. Yum…I must be getting better from that horrendous tummy bug I had yesterday. I am HUNGRY!
We have plans to leave to go out into the Sahara tomorrow though I am reluctant to leave just yet.
I am enjoying the rest, relaxation and social interaction with a few other travellers. I also want my belly to recover fully.
Lets just see what tomorrow brings!
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