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Day 27: Chinguetti

Chinguetti, Mauritania 
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Writing was a work of art for Islamic scholars. The calligraphy in Chinguetti's libraries is up to 1000 years old.
Michael Palin - SaharaThough the old mosque has been beautifully restored, the warren of streets around it is like a ghost town. Discarded sardine tins, batteries, padlocks, Pepsi cans and electric cables lie half-buried in the sand. Birds dart through the ruined houses, and occasionally a veiled figure will call out from a doorway, indicating that their house is not abandoned and pointing out the word 'boutique' scrawled beside it on the wall and the small collection of local artefacts dimly visible inside. In other streets the stone walls are all that remains. Behind solid carved doorways, once prosperous houses lie open to the sky and the sand.

The desert is taking over Chinguetti.

There are surprises. I'm trudging up a side street when I hear the sound of voices chanting. It comes from the other side of a low wall, in which a green door stands ajar. I peer round it and find myself in a white-walled courtyard. A dozen children, all clutching wooden boards covered with Arabic writing, are sat in a row facing the wall, reciting texts in high sing-song voices. Standing above them, occasionally stooping to correct some misreading is a tall, elderly man, veiled in black and white, with hollow cheeks and a straggly grey beard, as long and pointed as his face. He is the imam of the mosque whose minaret, shaped like a Gothic church tower, we passed earlier. This is his house and also the medersa, the Koranic school, where the children learn the holy texts, and where some of the better students will be able, one day, to recite the entire Koran from memory. They don't seem to be learning anything else.

He shakes hands with Cassa but not with any of us, I notice, but when he answers our questions his fierce countenance cracks easily into a twinkling smile, revealing two prominent, immaculately white teeth.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 27
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Chinguetti
  • Book page no: 93

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