Music and Pop Culture / Racism and Xenophobia / Religion, Spirituality, and the Supernatural / West Africa

“It started from Nouakchott”: Gender, Youth, and Islamist Discourses in Mauritania


Mauritanian rapper, Hamzo Bryn, released a music video, “It started from Nouakchott” via his facebook page in September of 2013 to enthusiasm from some young Mauritanians. Produced by the new media company, Maurimax, the high quality video follows Hamzo as he wanders the capital at night, showing the young singer walking downtown, on the beach, and hanging out with friends. Soon, however, the video faced aggressive criticism because of the choice to include a young Mauritanian woman as the singer’s love interest. The two meet at a café, ride alone in a car, play video games, and walk hand in hand on the beach. Even more shocking, the young woman, Leila Moulay, appears unveiled in most of the shots.

The conversations that were sparked by the music video about correct Islamic practice, cultural norms, race, generational differences, and national identity were already happening in Mauritania but reached a new level of importance after the appearance of this video. Rumors circulated that the singer and his muse were arrested for indecent exposure, though both Hamzo Bryn and Leila Moulay spoke out against the kind of false information spread about them. Perhaps unintentionally, both of them became symbols of an urban youth wanting to connect to larger global cultural trends, to define themselves differently than their parents’ generation, and to push the limits on acceptability in Mauritania. Their public presence unsurprisingly only grew as they were called into a police station for “questioning” and they gave interviews to local media outlets, arguing (in the case of Leila Moulay) that, in Mauritania, anyone who tries to liberate him/herself from accepted norms is then “demonized” and that (in the case of Hamzo Bryn), the criticism was actually much more about racism and people fearing a united Mauritania. Leila Moulay has now successfully marketed herself as a mediocre singer, dancing and cheering for the national soccer team in a promotional video à la Shakira and the World Cup, “Les Mourabitounes” and just releasing her first single entitled, “Ma nensa” (I won’t forget). She was also recently arrested in the northern city of Nouadhibou for public intoxication, illegal in this Islamic Republic. Hamzo Bryn has only amped up his collaborations with other local artists, rapping a response to the stir created by his video called “L-khbar shin-hi?” (Or what’s the big deal?)  in Hassaniya, French, and (poor) English.

On the one hand, Hamzo Bryn is right. What is the big deal? The video is clearly following a kind of standard music video model with all the signifiers of global pop culture – American flag t-shirt, nice car, social life in a café, a dinner date – with a song whose appeal lies much more in the catchy background music than in the light lyrics. On the other, the timing of the video sits on the cusp of later events (this letter by a young man of low social status claiming that Islam had been used historically to justify social discrimination, also the recent desecration of some copies of the Qur’an under still-unclear circumstances, an attack on the most prominent Salafi/Wahhabi/Reformist Mohamed al-Hassan ould Dedew by one of his disciples, and the burning of legal texts by anti-slavery activist and current presidential candidate Biram ould ‘Abeid) that have mobilized many Mauritanians to protest acts seen as disrespectful of Islam as a set of traditions and texts with a sacred history. Recent protests against the letter and desecrations have called into question the legitimacy of the current president, Mohammed Ould ‘Abd al-Aziz, who is seen as weak in all interpretations of these events.

And, finally, the veil, an important symbol for some women of their piety, emerged as an unexpected point of contestation. In a country often divided politically and culturally along racial and linguistic lines, the veil is always, and I mean always, worn by the bidaniaat and hrtaniaat (Arabophone “white” and “black” women) and selectively worn by the non-Arabophone Halpulaar, Soninké, and Wolof women. While the latter groups have often appeared unveiled in music videos without anyone noticing, the video marked the first time a bidania chose to reveal her bare shoulders and neck on television. This difference in reaction speaks to the ways religious practice are seen to follow racial and cultural lines, explaining why Hamzo Bryn argued that some comments were racist in nature. Hamzo Bryn and Leila Moulay, both bidan (Arabophone, “White” Mauritanians) argue that Black Mauritanians have not faced the same criticism.  Implicit in this is the idea that some Mauritanians (i.e. “Arab”) are more pious than others (i.e. “Black), reflecting a much broader historical argument for the legitimacy of enslaving Black non-Muslims. To follow this logic, it is expected that Black Mauritanians, understood by some to be lax in following Islamic doctrine, might show women unveiled. The outrage stemmed from seeing a bidan woman unveiled, as this is not normally a part of cultural and religious practice among the Arabophone population in Mauritania. Inevitably, such comments also touch on the very sensitive subject of slavery in Mauritania.

As one Mauritanian blogger wrote forebodingly, this video signaled a moment when Mauritanian youth could decide what kind of future nation they want but, also, a time when the coming tensions would not be between Islam and the West but between Muslims themselves debating this future and this nation.

Erin Pettigrew is finishing her PhD in History at Stanford University. She works on the history of Islam in West Africa, issues of race and slavery in the colonial and post-colonial periods, and various discourses of reform in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

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