“Hamidinou’s Smile”—a Mauritanian story by Ahmed Isselmou

3 September, 2023,
An unfortunate Mauritanian man perseveres, maintaiing his resilience and sense of humor amidst continuous adversities.


Ahmed Isselmou

Translated by Sawad Hussain


Carefully, he read the handwritten notice in the bank window: PLEASE COUNT YOUR MONEY BEFORE YOU LEAVE. Yes, it was all there: seven thousand. Exactly what the teller had said his balance was.

He looked at his phone: 10:10 a.m. No worries, I’ve still got more than enough time he told himself. She’ll probably be an hour late anyways. His head swam with questions, while he made sure to put his weathered wallet in his shirt pocket. He fastened his jacket zipper. It wasn’t cold, just a safety measure he had learned living on the streets of Nouakchott.

He squeezed himself in with five other passengers in a car that barely stopped by the intersection east of Marché Capitale downtown. His trouser pocket vibrated. The passenger crammed next to him on his right felt it too. With great difficulty, his hand found a way to his phone. He didn’t get to it in time, but it had been her. When he tried to call back, it was the usual, “Sorry … you have run out of credit.” It won’t be that way for long, he reassured himself.

Upon reaching his destination in the far-flung suburb Toujounine, in the most eastern tip of Nouakchott, he was the only one left in the rickety car. Impatience was clear on the driver’s face.

“Turn left here please!” he barely managed to get out.

“You’ve come all this way for one hundred,” the driver exploded. “And now you’re asking me to turn? Five times the diesel price has gone up this year, but I get paid the same?”

He tried to come across as compassionate, “But if you do turn left and wait ten minutes for me, I’ll ride back with you to the Madrid intersection, and pay you four hundred. What do you say?”

The driver didn’t respond but stopped nonetheless in front of the laundry shop that the passenger pointed out.

“Your clothes aren’t ready. Now don’t you complain because you haven’t paid a single ouguiya since …” was the laundryman’s greeting, preoccupied as he was with gathering a pile of dirty clothes.

“I’ll give you what you want, but I need my clothes now. I’ve got somewhere to be and I need the right clothes.”

The brawny laundryman winked at him. “Well, if that’s the case, then you really don’t have anything suitable. Have a look at those clothes piled up on the table over there. The owners aren’t in a rush. You can pay me 1500 for the daraa, wear it to where you need to be and then return it tomorrow.”

Again, his pocket vibrated. The sound was distorted but he understood, “‘Call me back, I’m out of credit.’”

That reminded him that he too, was out of credit. He went to get some from the man sitting under the umbrella at the front of the shop, and gave him 1000 to charge his phone with 1500. On his way back to the laundry, the grouchy taxi driver had since gotten out and started yelling, “Since you’re not in a hurry, just give me my money. Stay here till Judgment Day for all I care!” 

“Please, just a minute.”

“No time.”

Ignoring the driver, he strode to the table and chose a white, beautifully embroidered daraa, then turned to ask, “Isn’t there a sirwal to go with it?”

“Trousers are over there, but you’ll pay another 500.”

“Let’s settle that later,” he said, turning over the trousers to choose a pair that suited the daraa. But the laundryman’s vice-like grip was enough to make him understand. “Okay, like you said, I’ll give you 2000 for the daraa and sirwal, and tomorrow when I return them, I’ll pay the rest.”

The laundryman’s grip on his hand slackened a bit but he didn’t say a word. He simply took the 2000 and then busied himself with collecting clothes strewn around the shop. As he was stepping out, the laundryman said something he couldn’t hear completely because the taxi’s horn was blaring in one long sound, but knew it had something to do with the police because he heard “shurta.”

His phone vibrated once more, but then stopped. He called the number back, getting an earful. He stayed quiet. Calmly he answered, “Look, azizati, the trip from Casablanca to Nouakchott takes two and a half hours. I’ve still got plenty of time.”

“But I don’t want to see anyone before you in the airport,” said the girl that he had a thing with, the one he had never seen other than in a photo.

“You won’t see anyone before me … but how can I be sure it’s you? I’ll be wearing a white daraa and a blue shirt, carrying a board with your name on it.”

My name? Do you hear yourself? My family will be waiting for me and if one of them sees my name on a board in your hand, you’ll spend the night at the police station. You’ll be able to pick me out. Let your heart guide you.”

His phone chimed in his ear letting him know that his credit was nearly out. He hurried to finish the call. “What counts is that I’ll be there before you come out. Take care of yourself.” But she didn’t hear his last words.

For the tenth time, the taxi stopped, but this time at the Madrid intersection. He handed the driver 500 and alighted, waiting for his 100 change, but the driver said haughtily, “Been waiting for you for more than ten minutes, this hundred is for me.” He slammed the door in response and the taxi rattled away as fast as it could.

When he crossed the road, he remembered that he had been carrying a daraa and sirwal, that he had paid 2000 ouguida for. He turned back, but the car had melted into the traffic; in its place, a large truck shuttling more coal sacks then it could hold.

Shouting at the top of his lungs, he tried to stop the taxi, but the looks from pedestrians and passengers in cars, and the horns of those in a rush, confounded him. He rushed to a parked taxi and panted, “Follow that car, I left something — costs more than 50,000.”

“And how much will you pay me?” the driver said coldly.

“Whatever you want, just catch it!”

“Well, I can’t guarantee that, but sure, get in. Do you know where it’s headed?”

“Marché Capitale.”

Marché Capitale scene, city of Nouakchott Mauritania - photo Attila Jandi
Marché Capitale scene, city of Nouakchott Mauritania (photo Attila Jandi).

“Souq! Souq! Souq!” the driver yelled.

“What are you doing? I told you the driver went that —”

“Are you paying for six passengers?”

“Fine, but let’s go now.”

The traffic was suffocating. Thirty minutes passed before they even reached halfway. The driver turned right, asking, “Do you know his name, or the license plate number?”

“Of course not. If I did, I would have called my friend at the police station and not be paying you 600 ouguiya.”

After ten minutes the car stopped at the intersection on the east side of Marche Capitale. He searched drivers’ faces stuck in traffic, maybe he’d find the one he was looking for, but his current driver prodded him, “Pay me my 600, and take the rest of your day finding a needle in the haystack.”

He paid him 1000, and took his change, while scrutinizing the faces along the road. His eyes fell on a car parked in front of an open-air shed where women were dyeing clothes. One of them gave a paper to a man in a hurry who slammed his taxi door. He tried to stop him by yelling but the driver spotted him in his broken side mirror and took off like a shot on a dirt path between the buildings. He tried to get the license plate, but it didn’t have one.

He asked the storeowner if she knew the man, and before she could respond, he added, “This daraa and sirwal are mine.” He told her the whole story, but from her face it seemed that this woman twisting her miswak flossing stick didn’t understand what he was saying. She did say that the prices for dyeing differed based on the type of clothes and the intensity of color.

In vain, he tried to make her see. Making his way to a heap of clothes, he picked out the neatly folded daraa and sirwal. “These are mine.”

“But they belong to the driver who just left,” she protested.

“Do you know his name or his phone number?”

“No, I don’t.”

Gritting his teeth, he took his phone out from his pocket to call Ibrahim, his police friend. But the screen was dark — the battery, dead.

Deep inside the pit he had fallen into, he decided to return to Toujounine. The watch on the wrist of the passenger wedged between two others said it was five past two. It occurred to him to stop at the Madrid intersection in the middle of town, nearby to some relatives of his that his friend Ibrahim often visited. At least he could charge his phone there.

Parched beyond reason, he bought a cold juice from the nearby grocer and paid 200 for it. Another 100 went to the phone credit seller.

When he entered his relatives’ house, their fifty-something mother smiled at him saying, “Our troubles are over! Here’s Ahmed. Thank you, grandfather, for coming through for us and answering our prayers!”

Taken aback by what she was saying, he said, “What’s wrong?” before even greeting her.

“It’s Fatima. The pain in her stomach is unbearable. I think it’s her appendix. We’ve got to take her to the hospital.”

“But I don’t have a car.”

“I know, but you must find us one. Just look at her.”

He looked at the young woman doubled over in pain, and remembered what affection there had been between them, before she married her cousin who migrated last year to Spain, only to send a notice of divorce in the post and 10,000 ouguiya after the birth of their child.

“Okay, okay. Just put my phone on the charger till I catch a taxi.”

“I’ll also need 2000 from you to take us to the end of the month, I don’t have enough to buy her medicine.”

He didn’t answer, his head spinning with the daraa and the sirwal.

With his jacket atop his head, protecting him from the blazing sun, he tried to weave through those departing the mosque. But one of them yanked the jacket off his head.

“Aha! Even if you hide your face, I can pick you out of a crowd of a thousand men!” He turned to try to see who was speaking, but the man barely gave him the chance. “Didn’t you tell me that you’d pay at least 2000 today? Do you think the internet is free? Up every night till sunrise with that whore, and you don’t want to pay.”

“Say that again. I’ll punch your face in. She’s more honorable than you.”

“If she’s so honorable she wouldn’t be up with you every night when she doesn’t even know you.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Give me what you promised, I’ve got an electricity bill that I’ve got to pay today.”

“Take this thousand and the other thousand I’ll give you soon.”

“Hah! Not a chance. You know you actually owe me four thousand. And I’ve been so patient with you this whole time.”

“I’ve got some exceptional circumstances. Fatima needs an operation …” he mumbled, slipping away, but the man’s voice reached him, something about calling the police.

He brought a taxi to his relative’s home and paid the driver 400 to take Fatima and her mother to the hospital. Closing the car door, she called out to him, “And what about when I get there?”

“All I’ve got is this,” he said, handing her a 1000 note from his wallet. Only 100 left.

“May Allah bless you,” she said, clasping the note while his ringtone led him back inside the house. He flipped open his outdated phone without looking at the number. “Where are you?” an intimidating voice growled.

He took a moment to look at the number and saw it was the laundryman. “What do you want?”

“I want the daraa that you have on you right now, the owner is standing on my head. One whole hour, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you.” 

“My phone was off … but …”

“No buts. If the daraa isn’t back here in an hour, you can only blame yourself.”

Somebody else’s voice, tense, started to speak before the call was cut off. He tried to call back, but the all-too-familiar message rang in his ears, “Sorry. You have run out of…”

“Unbelievable. I just put money on this.”

“Mama used it before she left,” a young girl sucking her thumb said.

“Who did she call?”

“Mohammed in Ivory Coast. She said there wasn’t enough money and threw it back there.”

With his jacket on his head, he walked for ten minutes and then waited for another ten in the back of a rundown car alongside three other passengers, waiting for it to fill up before it left for Toujounine.

A police car stood in front of the laundry shop and a hand gestured to him. Before he could even lift the jacket from his head, a heavy blow came down on his cheek and another paw crashed down on his head. He was thrown in the back of the car.

A fashionable young woman dragged a classy leather case behind her, after leaving the passport-stamping window. Her father’s embrace enveloped her; her father, who had been waiting for her next to immigration, smoking a premium cigar. Right outside the arrivals exit, a four-wheel drive swallowed her up. She searched the bright faces and furrowed brows of those waiting to receive their loved ones, glancing at the photo on her phone to remember what he looked like, but the car windows were too dark for her to make out much …

At the police station, the portly investigator sucked greedily on a cigarette as he asked for his name. Dabbing at the blood on his lower lip, he smiled and said, “*Hamidinou.”


*In the folk tales of Mauritania, the unlucky Hamidinou is a popular, everyman character known for laughing in the face of adversity.

Mauritanian writer and journalist Ahmed Isselmou was born in Nema in east Mauritania. His published works include the short story collection Awaiting the Past (Beirut: Arab Scientific Publishers, 2015); the novels Perforated Life (Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2020) and Outsider Mode (Beirut: Dar Al Adab, 2021). His short story “Floating Paper” won the Stories on Air competition organized by the Kuwaiti magazine Al-Arabi and BBC Arabic in 2009. Formerly a news producer for both Al- Arabiya and Al Aan television and the deputy chief editor at Russia Today, he now works in Qatar as an assistant program editor at Al Jazeera in Qatar.

Sawad Hussain is a translator from Arabic. She is a judge for the Palestine Books Awards. She has run translation workshops under the auspices of Shadow Heroes, Africa Writes, Shubbak Festival, the Yiddish Book Center, the British Library and the National Centre for Writing. She was the 2022 translator in residence at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Her most recent translations include EDO’S SOULS by Stella Gaitano. She tweets @sawadhussain

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