Oualata, a Mauritanian city at the gates of the Sahel, not far from the Malian border, is classified as a “red zone” by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs which prohibits its nationals from going there, for security reasons: according to the quay d’Orsay, current events in Mali expose this region to ” particular risks of infiltration by terrorist elements liable to perpetrate kidnappings and attacks ” on the French.
This did not prevent the Mauritanian government from organizing, in partnership with the tour operator Point Afrique by Maurice Freund, a three-day stay for tourists and journalists (200 people), on the occasion of the fourth festival of ancient cities which was held this year from January 13 to 18 in Oualata.
Leaving on a charter from Paris, all these little people arrived in Néma from where he was driven in a 4 X 4 under good military escort to Oualata.
On site, a tent village had been erected for the occasion. This camp was also guarded by armed soldiers. For the Mauritanian government, it was an opportunity to promote tourism in its country (it paid for the air transport of 200 travelers, transport finally carried out by Air Mauritanie after a local controversy leads the authorities to abandon a cheaper solution in favor of the national company); for Point Afrique, it was an opportunity to show that the maverick of alternative tourism was not finished, despite its difficulties since the doors of South Algeria, Niger and Mali were closed to tourism. And that, by taking precautions, tourism remains possible in certain areas of the Sahel, despite the precautionary principle put forward by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its “advice to travelers”.
For locals in and around Oualata, it was once again an opportunity to indulge in some of their favorite festivities: camel racing, shooting exercises and other sporting events. Of course, during this festival, Oualata also hosted a very active cattle market, where sheep and goats were traded.
But also dromedaries. For the inhabitants of this city at the gates of the desert, and of course for the nomads of the surroundings, the dromedaries are saddle animals like pack animals. Nomads frequently travel by dromedary. And while it is not uncommon to see caravans, it is also very common to see these animals roaming free.
Beyond the communication operation carried out jointly by Mauritania and by Point Afrique on the occasion of this festival, it must be said that Oualata is a city of breathtaking beauty, fascinating.
It is a precious testimony to the Sahelian architecture of the Middle Ages. This explains why the city was classified by UNESCO in 1996, like the other ancient cities of Mauritania: Chinguetti, Ouadane and Tichitt, also threatened by the wear of time, abandonment, the advancement of the desert.
If today Oualata may not have 2,000 inhabitants and if part of its houses fall into ruins, it was once a major center for Islamic studies at the gates of the Sahel. Besides, the city still keeps in its libraries – in addition to the public library, Oualata has several private libraries belonging to families of notables – thousands of manuscripts, most often precious Koranic writings commenting on the Koran or sayings (hadith) of the prophet. On the shelves, these works covered with patinated leather and worn out over time, sometimes sit alongside official registers dating from French colonization. Although a good part of these ancient manuscripts is gathered in the public library, the tools to preserve them remain rudimentary: simple dressers with drawers. Alas, it seems, no humidity control. At least, these manuscripts were able to be listed and numbered thanks to financial assistance from Spain.
At its peak, in the 15th century, Oualata was a Saharan stage that was almost a must for caravanners and scholars.
Today, it is famous all over the world thanks to the turn of its doors and its facades painted by women. All the facades are alike and all are different. The patios of the houses, especially those of the notables no doubt, are also expertly decorated. The interior of some houses is also very carefully.
Around Oualata, it’s the beginning of the desert, the kingdom of sand, dunes sometimes ocher, sometimes pale yellow, sometimes quite white, acacias, herbs yellowed by the sun, pebbles. That of the nomads also who continue to lead a fairly traditional way of life, which does not prevent some of them from also having iphone and 4 × 4. The Sahara and the Sahel are an astonishing mixture of tradition and modernity which, my faith, do not mix so badly.