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mauritanian novel fiction writers

Moussa Ould Ebnou, a Mauritanian writer and scholar, is bilingual, speaking and writing in both Arabic and French.


Ebnou was born in Boutilimit, Mauritania, in 1956. He pursued his higher education in France, receiving a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in Paris and a diploma in journalism from the High Institute of Journalism in Paris. He teaches at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania and is the cultural advisor to the president of the republic.

Ebnou published two novels in French, titled L’Amour impossible (1990; The impossible love) and Barzakh (1994; Isthmus). He published an Arabic version of Barzakh, Madinat al-Riyah (The windy city) in 1996.


Ebnou is an example of the educated and sophisticated Mauritanian, who is up-to-date on the latest theories of the novel and whose fiction works tackle complex issues of time. In his science-fiction novel L’Amour impossible , the action does not progress in a linear manner but instead moves in a cyclical fashion. The past, the present, and the future are not considered according to their traditionally known occurrence. The events take place in the future while some subheadings such as “During that Time” and “Once upon a Time” refer to the past. Ebnou’s characters lack liveliness as the symbolism of their roles overpowers their human comportment, making it difficult for the reader to establish a connection with them and sympathize with their ordeal. They are too distant in their experience to provoke the reader’s compassion. Critics consider the overpowering presence of the writer in his novel a shortcoming, as it gives the impression that the various characters in his novels speak with the same voice. In his article “Le roman impossible?” the critic Jacques Bariou said, “Dans le roman, il y a une seule voix: celle de l’auteur” (“In the novel, there is only one voice, that of the author,” 1993–1994, p. 50).

In a philosophical approach to the subject of love that is shaped by the traditions of a conservative society where the relations between men and women are heavily restricted, Ebnou offers a solution in L’Amour impossible . A man has to live in a woman’s body in order to preserve the purity of his love, and the reverse is true for a woman. This is what Adam, the protagonist of the novel, decides to do, despite a great deal of apprehension and doubt on his part. The woman whose body he acquires is called Eve. The symbolism of the names is clear here. When the transformed Adam finally finds his beloved Maniki, he/she explains the reason for the transformation he underwent in these words, “I wanted to lose myself, to die for love, in order to survive eternally in the beloved” (p. 129). It must be mentioned however, that although the Mauritanian woman is present as an active member of her society, her body, as explained by Aline Tauzin in Figures du féminin dans la société maure , is considered “inaccessible and perfect” (2001, p. 13).

Ebnou’s Madinat al-Riyah/Barzakh falls in the science-fiction genre, with an effort to place the action within the field of Muslim traditions. It is a quest for a better life on the part of the protagonist Vara, who is dissatisfied with his present life. Al-Khudayr visits him in a dream and offers him the opportunity to travel into the future in search of a better society. Vara enthusiastically agrees to the experience, but later discovers that the future does not hold a better life than the present and the society he is moved to is worse than the one he left.

Some of the characters of Madinat al-Riyah seem trapped in an unidentifiable location, and dream of salvation at the hands of a Mahdi who would come to reward good and punish evil. The announcement of an approaching day of deliverance is made near the end of the novel by a bearded man who announces the coming of the Mahdi, saying, “Mais le jour est proche où l’Imam de ce temps, le Mahdi, viendra pour exterminer les mauvais et réhabiliter les justes” (“The day will come when the Imam of this century, the Mahdi, will come to exterminate the evil doers and reinstate the good ones,” p. 161).


Name: Moussa Ould Ebnou

Birth: 1956, Boutilimit, Mauritania

Nationality: Mauritanian

Education: Ph.D. (philosophy), the Sorbonne, Paris; diploma in journalism from the High Institute of Journalism, Paris


1990: Publishes L’Amour impossible (The impossible love)

1994: Publishes Barzakh (Isthmus)

1996: Publishes Madinat al-Riyah (The windy city)


People resorted to in vitro fertilization to choose the sex of their children. This led to an imbalance between males and females, as most husbands preferred males. Women objected seeing in this attitude a threat to their gender. They demanded a fair division of fetuses prepared to be implanted. Soon the women’s liberation movement became a movement for the defence of feminine fertilization.


Soon after the mobilization for the defence of feminine fertilization, the old balance was reversed and the male subjects were threatened.


A long time passed before it was decided to put an end to this fatal war. Both men and women reorganized relationships enacting new rules for procreation. The balance of the sexes was reestablished, the rights of men and women were announced, the family system was canceled and relations between the sexes were banned. New regulations were established determining the life of people in two separate societies, with rights and duties set for each group.


Those who are kept in a state of slavery decide to revolt against their masters, in a movement motivated by the Qur’anic recommendation regarding the liberation of slaves. The novel clearly reflects the author’s dissatisfaction with various aspects of his own society where abuses of power, corruption, and exploitation abound, and hints at Mauritania’s recently banned slave system. To convey the ugliest aspect of the slave system, Ebnou chooses the burial of a slave to highlight its negative character. The event reveals that even in death the distances between master and slave must be maintained. “Les esclaves sont enterrés dans les cimetières qui leur sont reservés, loin des cimetières des hommes libres. Les esprits des esclaves ne doivent pas troubler les esprits des maîtres” (“Slaves are buried in their own cemeteries, far from the cemeteries of the free men. The spirit of the slaves should not trouble the spirit of the masters,” p. 19).

The novel has a strong African content and in many ways reflects the realities of the Mauritanian society where Arabs and Africans from neighboring Senegal coexist.


It is a little problematic to speak about world perspective when discussing Mauritanian writers, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their works. Intellectuals in Mauritania are isolated from the Arab world because of distances and difficulties in the circulation of publications. Some Mauritanian writers, especially the Francophone ones, are better known in France where authors sometimes publish their work; Ebnou published his novel Barzakh there. Furthermore, the journal Lire published a special issue on Mauritanian culture long before the Arab world paid attention to the most removed Maghrebi (North African) country. The Lebanese al-Adab was the first Arab journal to devote a special section to Mauritanian literature in its spring 1997 issue. This effort helped shed some light on a little-known literature. In his introduction to that special section, the editor of al-Adab , Suhail Idris, recognized the specific efforts exerted by Ebnou in bringing the project to fruition. Idris was well aware of the isolation of Mauritanian writers and the need to introduce them to the Arab reader when he wrote, “We do not pretend that this special folder gives a comprehensive or sufficient description of modern Mauritanian literature,& but it opens the door for Mauritanian writers to contribute to the vaster movement of Arabic literature” ( al-Adab 1997, p. 35). Slowly but surely, Mauritanian writers and researchers are becoming involved in the Arab cultural scene through their participation in literary conferences and because of the growing number of Mauritanians enrolled in Arab universities.


In a country where poetry, and especially rhymed poetry, is prized over other literary genres, fiction writing was slow to find a place of importance in Mauritania’s literary circles. Ebnou was among the first in his country to be recognized as an important fiction author. His Arabic novel, Madinat al-Riyah was the fourth published Mauritanian novel. In many ways, he is a pioneer in the field of fiction writing, preceded only by Mauritania’s other major writer, AHMAD BEN ABD AL-QADER .

As one of the first Francophone fiction writers, Ebnou is bound to be a role model for his country’s aspiring young writers.

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