Atar, Mauritania

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(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Atar, Mauritania, 2007.

Riding the line between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania is three-quarters sand and, thanks to creeping desertification, growing more desiccated by the day. This is the land of the Moors, Africanized descendants of the Arabs who once ruled Spain, a nomadic and arch-conservative people who lord it over their black countrymen. Slavery, though officially outlawed, is still a fact of life.

The Moors are (to generalize a bit) taciturn to the point of caricature, indifferent to outsiders, and uncommonly hostile to photographers. A man jumped out of a Mercedes to scold me for photographing a wall; even little kids wagged their fingers. “Haram!, Haram!” they yelled. It’s forbidden.

After a few days of these frustrating interactions, it was refreshing to stumble on a black neighborhood in Atar, the gateway city to the Sahara. Evening was coming on, and the desert was cooling off. The streets stirred to life as the sun began to drop. Kids swarmed everywhere, kicking a soccer ball. Adults emerged from their homes, headed for the market. People smiled at us.