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Sahara

Day 27: Chinguetti

Chinguetti, Mauritania 
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Yes! The turds have it! England 1, Mauritania 0.
Michael Palin - Sahara'This land,' he says, head inclined towards mine but eyes fixed somewhere in the distance, 'was called Chinguetti before it was called Mauritania.'

I ask him if there might be a price at which he'd part with a book like this, but he shakes his head. These are his life, and part of the life of his fathers and forefathers. He cannot let them down by selling them.

In the main square of Old Chinguetti is a more organised collection of the city's treasures. The Bibliothèque Al Halott can be found off the courtyard of a fine old house, behind ancient acacia wood doors. Beneath weathered black beams are bulky modern filing cabinets containing 1400 manuscripts. A father-and-son team looks after them, and so valuable are the works that they only allow visitors in one or two at a time. Their pride and joy - 'le plus ancien ouvrage' - is a Koran, brought here from Mecca in 1000 AD. They have a book on astronomy dating from the fourteenth century, clearly showing the planets of our solar system circling the sun, proving that Arab scholars knew something that the authorities in Europe refused to acknowledge for a further 200 years.

Six o'clock. The best time of day. People are out in the streets again, shops are open, children, rolling old tyres, race after each other. The big heat is off, the setting sun turns the desert a rosy purple and the sounds of the city soften to a murmur.

Walking in the new town, I find myself first watching, then participating in a game of dhaemon, as taught me by Mohammed Salim of the Polisario. An erect, bare-headed man, who clearly fancies himself as the local Grand Master, is taking on all comers and thrashing them. He barely raises his eyes from the sand as I'm sat down opposite him and given my quota of crottes de chameau, camel droppings. Then something goes wrong with his strategy. Soon I have at least a dozen friends and advisers ready to manage my every move, shouting, debating and arguing with increasing hysteria as they scent a rare victory in the air.

Sure enough the sticks are uprooted with increasing regularity and the all- conquering camel turds are sweeping across the sand, until, with sharp cries of delight, the foreigner steals a victory.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 27
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Chinguetti
  • Book page no: 95

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