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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Desert and the Drum

Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

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To purchase The Desert and the Drum

Title: The Desert and the Drum
Author: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Desert and the Drum - US
The Desert and the Drum - UK
The Desert and the Drum - Canada
Le tambour des larmes - Canada
Le tambour des larmes - France
  • French title: Le tambour des larmes
  • Translated by by Rachael McGill

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clashes of tradition and modernity, nicely handled

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Temps . 29/4/2016 Eléonore Sulser

  From the Reviews:
  • "Le Tambour des larmes a, par son écriture, par son rythme, la force lyrique d’un conte. La langue de Beyrouk puissamment poétique a des vertus incantatoires, oniriques aussi. Lisant, on se sent parfois la proie d’un cauchemar dans les sables. D’autant que la tragédie déploie sa mécanique, tissant, chapitre après chapitre, le destin inexorable de l’héroïne. Pourtant, Le Tambour des larmes est aussi un livre ambigu et subtil sur le rapport des sociétés anciennes à la modernité, sur la liberté de l’individu face au clan, sur son désarroi lorsqu’il se perd dans les flots, déshumanisés du monde, loin de ses repères." - Eléonore Sulser, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Desert and the Drum is narrated by a young woman named Rayhana, a member of a Berber tribe, the Oulad Mahmoud. The novel is set in contemporary Mauritania, but the girl has grown up far from almost every aspect of modernity -- she has received practically no schooling, for example, and she has never handled money or visited even the small nearby city of Atar. Her tribe's lifestyle is still entirely traditional, and though Rayhana's father abandoned the family she lived in relative comfort: her mother has considerable wealth, her uncle is the tribal chief, they have slaves to attend to them.
       Rayhana opens her story on the run, fleeing everything she has known. She travels across desert dunes, in the dark of night, knowing she has to make good her escape quickly and carefully, so she won't be caught. She has not, however, left emptyhanded: far from it -- she carries with her the tribe's sacred drum:

     The tribal drum, the rezzam, was never allowed to touch the earth, or be held by an impure hand. It was not allowed to leave the heart of the camp. The drum was the tribe; its presence, its confidence, its voice.
       She stole it: "to strangle the vanity you represent"; robbed of her heart and soul, she has exacted vengeance in the most awful way she could conceive of. And she knows also that what she has done means that she is a hunted woman: the tribe would kill for that drum, and will go to great lengths to recover it.
       The chapters shift back and forth between her continuing flight, and the earlier events, when she still lived as part of the tribe, that led to her breaking with it. Everything was set in motion by the arrival of a group that brought: "Monsters of steel and iron" and set up just a mile from the tribal camp: "They were going to sniff the earth, or something like that". It is a mining exploration group, and they work in a busy frenzy, with unfamiliar machines -- not directly disturbing the tribal group and yet an invasion of something very foreign and unsettling:
We closed our eyes to them, because, deep down, we were ashamed of our failure to understand it, to confidently accept or reject it.
       The strangers are a busy, loud presence -- but they disappear as suddenly as they had arrived, leaving only a waste-land: "Desolation had settled where once there had been life". The tribe can not help but feel the place these foreigners left behind is tainted -- "The chief announced the place was out of bounds for people or animals for at least a generation" -- but for the most part it seems this activity was only a temporary thorn in the side of tribal life, too close for comfort but still kept sufficiently apart to avoid a greater negative impact.
       The only direct link between the foreigners' camp and the tribe came in the form of Yahya, a young man originally from an allied tribe who now works for the mining company and comes to visit the Oulad Mahmoud and socializes with the local youngsters. He is "'the other', the visitor from afar who knew so much" -- and he has his eye on Rayhana, who is easily seduced by him. But when the foreigners leave he disappears, without any notice, along with them -- a crushing disappointment for Rayhana.
       When Rayhana turns out to be pregnant, her mother whisks her off to an isolated camp near the shore where Rayhana secretly gives birth, the baby then entrusted to the one servant who has been allowed in on this secret while Rayhana and her mother return to the tribe. There, Rayhana is disastrously married off to the boy who long has courted her, Memed. Her mother is willing (and able) to "to create a new reality" in her: "relentless determination to make me appear respectable", but Rayhana -- "betrayed, shattered, torn" -- can think of nothing but being reunited with her child.
       Memed is disappointed by Rayhana's unwillingness to go along with traditional expectations -- but is himself boxed in by tradition: he can't admit publicly that things have gone wrong, because of the shame it would bring on him. Admirably, he wants to do right by Rayhana, but when he fails in his efforts Rayhana breaks with her tribe and sets off on her own, with the drum -- her revenge for what she has lost:
The whole tribe stole my son. I was their vanity, their arrogance, their false truths. They all need to face up to it.
       Rayhana's quest leads her first to Atar -- the author's hometown, and, while overwhelming to Rayhana, in fact just a small city of (currently) some 25,000 people -- and then to the country's capital, Nouakchott: "the real city: a modern city, one swarming with life, like a whole faceless country, full of everything you can imagine". The shift is an enormous one: most of Rayhana's descriptions, of tribal life -- even with the arrival of the foreigners and their machines -- could as easily be from a hundred years ago, while then in Nouakchott there is not only modern bustle and activity but also technologically advanced things, like cellphones (she actually gets one, after a while).
       From the beginning, Rayhana hoped first to find Mbarka, a family slave who had run away years earlier and whom Rayhana still missed. All along the way, people are helpful -- hospitality is fundamental to the culture, regardless whether they live in backward conditions or the most modern ones -- but mainly they can only be supportive; her quest remains largely her own. As someone points out even in small Atar, for example: "There are thousands of Mbarkas in this town".
       Rayhana long manages to evade her tribe, who are looking for her and the drum, and to find a series of people who are helpful in her quests; she is also eventually happily reunited with Mbarka -- a woman who also broke with the tribe and tradition, though Rayhana can not help but feel uncomfortable with the lifestyle Mbarka has now adopted and the freedoms she now indulges in (which Mbarka also keeps her separate from).
       There's a basic suspense to The Desert and the Drum, in its quest (and, to a lesser extent, chase) tale which certainly makes for gripping reading. The desperate Rayhana also makes for a strong narrative voice. Pushed to extreme action, she knows she has, as it were, hit her tribe where it hurts; for the most part, the tradition and expectations of the tribe are presented more like a shadow hanging over her and her life, both when she is there and when she is separate, but they certainly make a strong impression.
       Many of the secondary characters are impressively drawn and presented -- notably Rayhana's determined but narrow-minded mother, who tries to shape reality to the circumstances, forcing a narrative-for-appearances that remains within the narrow bounds of tradition -- actions that, of course, ultimately are too much for Rayhana, leading her to break violently free.
       Mbarka -- an actual slave -- and Rayhana both buckle under the oppression foisted on them by tradition; their breaks are radical ones, attempts to separate themselves from the tribe. They both have to continue looking over their shoulders -- the tribe (and, to some extent, the traditions they were raised in) will not let go that easily -- but try and more or less successfully manage to find footholds in modern, urban society -- ironically, in the case of Rayhana, helped in large part by the very traditional social support that she finds at almost every turn.
       The Desert and the Drum is a nicely turned novel of the clashes of tradition and modernity -- not so much versus each other but the clashes within each. The constricted tribal ways are challenged by modernity but the faults that prove so damaging here are inherent to it: Rayhana is battered and broken by the demands of traditions (and her mother's efforts to push round pegs into the square holes of them), the 'other world' of modernity is something of a release valve, yet also doesn't offer true escape.
       Beyond how it treats these themes, much of the appeal of The Desert and the Drum is in the presentation of local color, Beyrouk presenting contemporary Mauritania, on its smallest and most isolated scale as well as on the bustling modern-metropolitan one, very nicely through Rayhana and her experiences. So much she experiences is almost beyond words -- such as the machinery the foreigners bring for their mining expedition and what they are doing to the land -- but that goes just as much for her emotional experiences -- of love, sex, loss, isolation, fear -- across her various stations, and her wide-eyed fumbling efforts to express all this that is new and unknown to her (and, often, her tribe) make for an impressive narrative.
       A nice small success.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 November 2018

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The Desert and the Drum: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Mauritanian author and journalist Mbarek Ould Beyrouk was born in 1957.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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