The most beautiful building in Nouakchott was outside my bedroom window. The Central Mosque, one of two major mosques in the city, was not made out of the nearly ubiquitous concrete, but a warm red brick. From three octagonal sections which made up the main praying area, two thin tall spinnerets rose to small bulging parts, topped by crescent moons. Every morning as the sun burst through my open window, the tower was silhouetted against the horizon. If the architecture was not enough to stir me, the sound of the prayer caller at 5 a.m. was more than enough. “Allah Akbah” pierced the air. It was not the words or the time of the call that was the problem though, it was the sound system. Modern day Muslims seem unable to cope with the loud voice alone, probably since the call to prayer must extend out to the city limits and not to the local village as in days of yore. But the microphones did not work well at all – first I could hear the fumbling as he switched the microphone on. Then he decided to clear his throat, the phlegm sounds resounding across the city. He would knock his hand against the stand, the echoing bangs causing feedback in the speakers. And then, and only then would he get round to the call to prayer. I would lie on my bed, staring up at the blank white walls and ceiling and go through this day after day after day after day.
The apartments were enough for us – it was only for a couple of weeks and we were saving the project and ourselves a lot of money by just having this place. Set along a dual carriageway a few blocks from the heart of the city, there were a number of shops on the bottom floor; not food or hardware stores but an Internet Café, a laundry and a couple of offices. In the centre a few steps led up to the caretakers office. He was a kindly man, spoke not a word of English but just a few Ouguiyas would make him understand anything you wanted. Two staircases led up on either side, past some cracks in the wall that were down to either earthquakes or dodgy foundations. A series of apartments led off a central corridor, guarded by heacvy wooden doors. I took a back apartment, Judith had a front one. In mine, there was a bathroom as soon as you entered, then a kitchen on the opposite side. Beyond this a large lounge area and a small terrace which I hardly used as it was usually too hot there with all the reflecting concrete. Another corridor led to my left to a larger bathroom which was the one I mainly used, a small enclosed bedroom which I ignored as it was far too hot, and then finally the bedroom I used, right at the back of the house. Considering we would not even get a hotel room for this kind of price, this was a good deal. Despite it being generally clean there were a few faults. The plaster was flaking everywhere and there were several cracks. The plumbing in the bathrooms led from one thing to another – the water came into the shower head, the toilet and basin, and the sewers led away, but only a few places were they actually tied down to anything else in the room. The toilet was a big surprise to me the first time I sat on it. The bowl was balanced on the sewer pipe and not fixed to the floor, so it perched at a ten degree angle in the air, the front being a good three inches off the ground. When I sat, the whole unit sploshed to the ground and I got an impromptu irrigation.
I worked out that I had to switch the boiler on and off to make hot water arrive, the big red switch underneath illuminated when turned on and hissing and steaming would come from the big metal tank perched on the wall. But did any of that action get to the showerhead. No, the usual cool dribble of water came down across my head and petered out somewhere on my chest.
Then there were the cockroaches. Now many other places I have seen cockroaches but I have never seen so much reproduction in one place – they seemed to go through about four generations in two weeks. Jude and I had little metal primus stoves over which we would boil our water for coffee in the morning. We tended to eat just a few biscuits with the mixture of Nido, Nescafe and water, that was our breakfasts. While waiting those few minutes for the water to boil, I would take some of our bottled water from the fridge and mix up a small glass full of powdered milk. A swarm of baby cockroaches would be disturbed by the activity and come crawling out of the gaps in the tiling. I would have to squish a few with the flat end of a butter knife, or splash some boiling water over the surfaces to keep their numbers down. The adults would emerge from beneath the bin and a I would have to deftly stamp on them with my sandal. Although mine was the better apartment, Jude has the kitchen stuff, so while supping the coffee, I would go through to her balcony and watch the city wake up. Although it was a dual carriageway, the sand had distributed itself over the inside lane. A few scrubby thorn trees and lampposts were all that adorned the central reservation, unless someone had dumped their rubbish in the street and a bunch of itinerant goats were picking away at it.