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Mauritanian poet and fiction writer Ahmad Ben Abd al-Qader is a pioneer in his field. Clearly aware of the need to address social issues, he recognizes that prose is better suited than poetry to communicate his social message. Though he began his literary activity as a poet, he soon began to use prose to address the country’s feelings of insecurity during the early years of its independence. Many intellectuals observed that the government and political structure had not filled the gap of the weakening tribal ties that long formed the backbone of the Mauritanian society.


Abd al-Qader was born in 1941, in Arkiz in the Tararza Desert in southwest Mauritania. He received his early education in the Qur’anic schools ( kuttab ). In 1961 he enrolled and spent four years in the Institute of Arab-Islamic Studies in Abu Tilmit. He grew up in a family that appreciated poetry, and he began composing verse at an early age. He admits having been influenced by two Mauritanian poets in his youth, Ghilan dhi al-Rummah and Muhammad An-Anah ben al-Ma’li. He worked in the field of journalism and teaching before joining Mauritania’s National Center for Scientific Research in Nouakchott in 1975. His research at the Center focused on the study of manuscripts and oral traditions.

Abd al-Qader was active in the ranks of the opposition since its inception in 1968. He was imprisoned several times, an experience described in some of his poems, including “A Night with the Police.” His opposition to Mauritania’s existing political power structure is obvious as he writes:

     The truth is that I struggle
      Against those who build houses of torture.
      The truth is that I struggle against those who lead our nation toward destruction
                               ( AL-SHI’R AL-MURITANI AL-HADITH )

In later years, Abd al-Qader served as the president of the High Court in 1986 and then appointed cultural advisor to the presidency. He is semi-retired, concentrating on his writing. Abd al-Qader’s poetry and prose writings reveal his knowledge of his country’s history, the Arab World, and Islamic traditions. He is well versed in Arabic literature and borrows abundantly from its vast repertoire. His lengthy poem, “al-Bahth an Hajar Luqman” (Searching for luqman’s stone) is a case in point. The poem abounds in references to geographical locations across the world and to characters from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights , especially Sinbad the traveler par excellence. Sinbad’s travels taught him that the most important thing for a human being is the knowledge of one’s self:

I came back
     With the first lesson I learned,
     And the last one I understood,
     I learned that I am myself
     A person should not despair in God’s mercy
     Except he
     Who does not know himself.

                                       ( AL-ADAB , P. 50)


Abd al-Qader is credited with changing the literary scene of Mauritania. He shifted from poetry to prose in the early 1980s as he became aware of the inadequacy of poetry to respond to Mauritania’s social changes and suggest solutions. The respect of the readers for his poetry allowed this turning point in his career, giving his prose writing—a genre that had received little attention—respectability. Furthermore, traditional classical poetry was losing its appeal among the young readers. While free verse had made major strides in the Arab world, it was slow to rally supporters in Mauritania and met with opposition from traditional poets.

Abd al-Qader’s two novels were published outside Mauritania: al-Asma al-Mutaghayyira (The changing names) was published in 1981 in Beirut, and al-Qabr al-Majhul aw al-Usul (The unknown tomb or the origins), was published in 1984 in Tunisia. Abd al-Qader continues to write poetry, but he is moving away from the traditional qasida and writing free verse. His poem “al-Safin” (The ship) raised a storm of controversy in the Mauritanian press, as well as in literary and academic circles. The poem started the debate around the issue of free verse and the new literary genres gradually appearing on Mauritania’s literary scene.


Name: Ahmad ben Abd al-Qader

Birth: 1941, Arkiz, Mauritania

Nationality: Mauritanian

Education: Institute of Arab-Islamic Studies, Abu Tilmit, Mauritania, 1961–1965


  • 1968: Joined ranks of the anti-government opposition

  • 1975: Began working at National Center for Scientific Research, Nouakchott

  • 1984: Publishes “al-Safin”

  • 1986: President of the Mauritanian high court


Will we like life after resurrection?
Will we have roots again?
Will our thickets be green?
Will our gatherings flourish?
Will our days and our hopes
Come together
When everything turns green
And the birds sing for it, and
The scents of the valley and the genuine light.
Goodbye our grazing grounds,
Goodbye our beaches,
Will the ship and the sea return,
Or will they become still?
          (ABD AL-QADER, AHMED BEN. “AL-SAFIN.” 1984)

Abd al-Qader published a collection of poetry, Asda al-Rimal (The echoes of sand), before embarking on fiction writing. His political position is expressed explicitly in his poetry, where he describes his experience in prison and denounces the abuses of the political regime he considered to be a nightmare.

In his novel al-Qabr al-Majhul aw al-Usul Abd al-Qader evokes Mauritania’s nineteenth-century past to describe the tribal system that dominated society and its gradual disintegration. The author offers readers the image of a newly evolving society with different values and relationships between its various ethnic and social groups. He had described this change in his poem “al-Safin,” comparing the sudden change in the social structure to the dizzying effect of seasickness:

The fortune teller told us
     How strange!
     Your ship has raised the anchor,
     It is sailing,
     Can’t you feel it?

The poet adds, describing his feelings:

I feel dizzy
     And scared
     As if I am seasick.

Al-Qabr al-Majhul aw al-Usul offers Abd al-Qader’s vision for his country. Referencing the past and evoking the historic disputes between the country’s three factions—the belligerent and strong Arab tribe of Awlad Aswailem; the weak tribe of Awlad Ahmidan; and the Zawiyas (Islamic mystical lodges) of Awlad Abd al-Rahman whose sole weapon is that they are holders of the cultural heritage and endowed with special blessings—Abd al-Qader demonstrates the futility of the traditional way of life and the need for change and coexistence. The message throughout the novel is a call for coexistence and knowledge.

Through the events of the novel the author suggests that force and manipulation do not pay, and he advocates enlightened education that could lead to sharing an Arab-Islamic culture, rather than claiming a purity of descent that cannot be proven and would only lead to futile debates. Abd al-Qader meant to teach by example through his novel, using bloody examples from the country’s past history to show the uselessness of ethnic divisions and fighting. Modern Mauritania needs unity, education, and reconciliation. The need for such a message in the novel came as a result of efforts made in post-independence Mauritania to reaffirm and highlight the country’s Arab identity.

In addition to its literary value as one of the first modern Mauritanian novels, the book reveals its author’s position on various aspects of his society. He alludes to the exploitation and manipulation of religion and the conduct of some members of the zawiyas that contradicts their religious message. Moreover, his choice of classical Arabic and not the spoken Hasaniyya reflects his belief in the Arabic character of Mauritania. He is clearly opposed to class discrimination based on tribal affiliation and ethnicity, an impediment to building a modern, cohesive Mauritanian society.

Abd al-Qader has expressed his affiliation with the Arab world. He has supported Arab causes—particularly the Palestinian cause—and backed leaders who devoted their energy in defense of those causes, including Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He also supported other liberation movements, hailing the success of the Vietnamese in their fight against the United States.


No discussion of Mauritanian literature is complete without Abd al-Qadar. He is given a prominent place in the special section on Mauritanian literature published in al-Adab . There is a critical study of his novel al-Qabr al-Majhul , and his long poem “al-Bahth an Hajar Luqman” (In search of luqman’s stone) is published in its entirety.

Abd al-Qader has participated in various literary activities in the Arab world, an involvement that he seems to cherish as reflected in his poem, “Amir al-Khalidin” presented at the Mutanabbi Festival in Baghdad in 1978. He began the poem with these verses,

I traveled at dawn, heading to the East
     I leave full of passion with roses and smoldering embers
     How nostalgic I am,
     Lilies of love
     Light my life


Abd al-Qader provided inspiration to other poets of his generation in the 1970s, including Muhammad ben al-Qadi (d. 1983) and Muhammad al-Amin Weld Muhammad Fadel (d. 1983). They abandoned traditional themes in their poems and turned their attention to national and international causes and social problems. Abd al-Qader and his contemporaries pioneered the tradition of giving poems a title.

On the technical level Abd al-Qader is credited with introducing dialogue in his poems and using a narrative style. His poem “al-Safin” published in 1984 in both Arabic and French, started the debate between the supporters of the traditional form of poetry and the modernists, contributing to an evolution in modern poetry. In his article “The Appearance of the Mauritanian Novel, a Shift from the Literary Genre of Poetry to the Literary Genre of Fiction,” Muhammad al-Amin Weld Mulay Ibrahim credits Abd al-Qader with rallying the modernist Mauritanian poets of his generation. A younger generation of poets developed a greater clarity of vision in the poetry of the 1990s as a result of this development. It even influenced some oral Hassani poetry to use a narrative style.


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over 7 years ago

This is a pivotal essay on the father of Mauritanian modern literature, the poet and novelist Ahmedou ould Abdel Kader.