READ THE WORLD – Mauritania: The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

Trigger warning for rape and loss of a child.

Translated by Rachael McGill.

Everything changes for Rayhana when foreigners with strange machines arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. One of them is the enigmatic Yahya. Her association with him leads Rayhana to abandon all that she has ever known and flee alone to the city. But when her tribe discover she has stolen their sacred drum, they pursue her to exact their revenge.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot during my Read the World Project and had a lot of firsts and The Desert and the Drum is another one as it’s the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It’s a pretty short and easily readable story with a character that you can’t help but empathise with.

Rayhana is a part of a nomadic tribe that’s big on tradition and honour. As her mother is the tribe leader’s sister, she feels she has a place of importance and honour and will do anything to protect it, even if that means hurting her daughter. While the Bedouin camp is completely different to what I have experience, the whole “keeping up appearances” thing is so universal it was sad to see the way Rayhana was treated by those who supposedly cared about her just to save face.

The chapters tend to alternate between the present when Rayhana is running away, meeting new people, and going into the city for the first time, and the past where she was a part of the tribe, taken advantage of by Yahya and then shunned by her mother. From these chapters in the past, you get to understand more of why Rayhana hates he mother so much but the reasons why she wants to hurt the tribe by stealing their sacred drum are more blurred. I think it’s because she sees her mother as a product of the tribe’s rules and culture so feels everyone is to blame and should suffer but I’m not sure. Are the traditions wrong when only one person is slighted but the others are content with what’s around them?

The Desert and the Drum does end quite abruptly and gives neither the reader nor Rayhana any sort of closure. It’s a bit of a sad story really, and though Rayhana does find help from some people (mostly women) she never truly feels safe as she’s so naïve by how things work in a town or city and some of the men she meets appear to have ulterior motives.

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