(Translated from English by Google Gtranslate)
«One might imagine travelling through the Sahara by train to be a zen-like voyage. In some ways it is – but it is also an unforgiving and ceaseless assault on the body and senses… a constant elemental symphony of heat, wind, and noise.» — Alastair Gill
Mauritania is one of those countries that take up rather a lot of space on the map but somehow flies right under most people’s radar. A blocky chunk of West Africa, this Islamic Republic is larger than Egypt but has a smaller population than Nairobi: just under 4.5 million. A fifth of those reside in the capital Nouakchott, on the Atlantic coast, which was a mere fishing village until selected to be the metropolis of the newly-independent state that emerged from French-colonial rule in 1958-60.
But the most remarkable statistic about Mauritania — apart, perhaps, from it being the last country in the world to outlaw slavery, via a 1981 ruling belatedly enforced in 2007 — concerns its railway lines. Or rather railway line: it has only ever had one, a sideways-L-shaped affair connecting the country’s second city Nouadhibou, also on the Atlantic, with an iron ore mine some 704km away at Zouerate — roughly the distance from Paris to Turin.
You fall, you die
Planned from 1940 and finally constructed between 1960-63, the «Mauritania Railway» is easily the most palpable infrastructural legacy of the colonial era. Built to European specifications and bearing some of the longest (3km) and heaviest trains on the planet, clanking their way back and forth on a 20-hour journey mainly through inhospitable (and sometimes war-torn) desertine land. This railway, which routinely carries passengers in a somewhat hazardously ad-hoc manner, has proven quite popular with the most audacious exponents of ‘extreme tourism’ such as Calvin Sun.
«No tickets, no bookings, no cash, no reservations — you’re supposed to just hitchhike and hop on top when it arrives!,» enthused Sun on his popular blog The Monsoon Diaries. «The train is all yours as nobody cares that you’re here, but if you must explore, be mindful there are no barriers, brakes or safety measures of any kind. You fall, you die, and the train keeps going.»
Such accounts are inspiring but, to most, more than a little daunting. The next best thing, especially in the current period of «sheltering in place,» is perhaps to experience the trip vicariously in cinematic form via Salka In No Man’s Land (Salka en la tierra de nadie). This is an intensely poetic 67-minute sensory experience of a documentary by Ibiza-based Catalan director/editor (and film-festival director) Xavi Herrero.
the «Mauritania Railway» is easily the most palpable infrastructural legacy of the colonial era.
Every shade of red
Apart from opening title cards which give a very basic introduction to the railway, Salka In No Man’s Land eschews factual information: there is no conventionally explanatory voiceover, and the human subjects shown on camera are only fleetingly audible. The soundtrack instead combines snatches of philosophical poetry by the Tuareg ethnic confederation —nomads whose colossal homeland spans much of the northern third of Africa and includes significant parts of Mauritania — with a propulsive, energetic, atmospheric score credited to «Jamendo LCD.» Essentially a train-like chain of impressions and ruminations, the whole thing is somewhat vaguely tied together by a wispy (and arguably superfluous) quasi-narrative about a fictional woman named Salka edging towards self-realisation.
The Tuareg poetry is, unsurprisingly, heavily concerned with the Sahara («When you go to the desert, do not say ‘What immensity,’ rather ask, ‘Where do I start?»). What gradually comes together is a beguilingly leisurely kind of reportage/incantation combination, as Herrero assembles sequences from various point along the railway’s itinerary. Explosions at Zouerate release gigantic clouds of thick Martian-looking dust, encompassing every conceivable shade of red from vermilion to ochre; the ship-breakers at Nouadibhou (the world’s largest «graveyard» for oceangoing vessels) ply their trade amid striking, desolate landscapes that often resemble alien planets from the covers of 1980s science-fiction novels.
But most of the running-time is devoted to the trains, their passengers, their freight, and their surroundings, as the starkly majestic sands stretch implacably away to impossibly distant horizons. Clanking monstrously at their unhurried tempo, each train can take up to ten minutes to pass a single fixed point, plowing along like impossibly outsized mechanical earthworms. Non-human fauna is conspicuous by its absence, apart from a cast of small, sideways-scuttling crabs, perfectly adapted to their windblown environment.
Their similarly hardy two-legged neighbours, scrabbling for survival in this poverty-ravaged land — adjoining, and in recent times in conflict with, the disputed territory of Western Sahara — are often presented by Herrero in stark quasi-still-photo tableau, staring back at the camera with wary but quietly assertive gazes. Many of these people traverse hundreds of kilometres every week, but still, they are far from free. Indeed, economically and sociologically, with barely more liberty to depart from their straitened circumstances than the trains themselves can break loose from their tracks. «Let me go,» a voice insistently moans. «It does not matter where…»
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