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35. Humour in Mauritania during 500-600CE

AUG. 26, 2021


Ryan tackles the tricky subject of humour in Mauritania between 500 and 600ce with the help of special guest humour expert Paul Kerensa. How many jokes can you squeeze out of a thousand kilometres of sand? Find out this episode.

Humour in Mauritania during 500-600 CE

This week, Ryan faced the challenge of a lifetime – investigating the topic of humour in a country that is:

• listed in the top 10 least-visited countries in the world
• according to the UK Foreign Office, one of only 17 countries in the world deemed ‘entirely unsafe’ for tourists due to the risk of terrorism
• is also heavily criticized for its poor human rights record. Including:
o Child labour
o Child marriage
o Fat farms (over-feeding girls to help them appear more attractive)
o Female genital mutilation
o Mistreatment of prisoners
o Political corruption
o Human trafficking
o Slavery – which Mauritania abolished in 1981 and criminalized as recently as 2007

But, as the Mauritanian proverb says, “It is only the water that is spilled; the bowl is not broken!” so Ryan enlisted the assistance of an award-winning comedian to explore the topic.

So this week Ryan and Pete were lucky enough to be joined by the talented and incredibliy lovely Paul Kerensa.

Paul has toured solo stand-up shows, performed at the Comedy Store, Jongleurs, Montreal Comedy Festival, published 10 books, presented podcasts, including the excellent, ‘History of the British Broadcasting Century’ and written for TV hits including Top Gear, Miranda and the longest running British television sit-com Not Going Out featuring Pete lookalike Lee Mack.

Also, Ryan tried to tell some jokes, including:

1. A Mauritanian walks into the desert and says, “long time no sea”.

2. What do you call a very serious joke about the Sahara? Dry humour.

3. The only celebrity to have a concert in Mauritania is Nicki Mirage. Just kidding, it’s Barbara Drysand.

4. A camel train is walking through the sahara when they stumble across three watering holes. The tribe chief looks at them all and says, “well, well, well”

He also provided a selection of jokes provided by actual Mauritanians, leading to a discussion on the need for some sort of shared context in order for humour to work, or a section better known as ‘you had to be there’.


The buyer to the shopkeeper: How are you? What's up?
Shopkeeper: I’m fine, alhamdoulilah (thank god)
Buyer: Do you have fanta and coca cola soda?
Shopkeeper: They are available
Buyer: Do you have rose (milk) and rani (mango juice)?
Shopkeeper: Yes, I do.
Buyer: So, melonmilk and evian (water) are available or not?
Shopkeeper: Yes, all of that is available - so what do you want!?
Buyer: Give me 50 ouguiya worth of powdered milk.

It helps to understand that the kid here is asking about expensive drinks over and over, only to finally order the smallest amount of the cheapest item available, thereby tweaking the nose of the poor shopkeeper.

So, this might have been tricky to understand, but on the other hand ‘a man goes into a shop’ is a joke formula that will be familiar to everybody. So maybe our humour is not so far apart after all.

What a great day to be Mauritania. I wonder what be do today?
Should I ending poverty?
Solving hunger problem?
Stability-ing politics?
Make fight the terrorism and war?
Give allvryone equality?
No. Will blow GDP on that instead.

This joke triggered a discussion about the role of humour in difficult situations, reflecting on the black humour targeted at the state in the difficult days of Soviet Russia and the question of whether there are any subjects that are truly taboo, or if humour can provide a valuable outlet for dealing with hard situations.

But none of this covered our timeline. And for good reason. Poor Ryan, faced with the years 500CE to 600CE discovered that Mauritania has very little recorded history in this period.

In fact, he was unable to find the name Mauritania on any maps until 1929. It was around this time that Ryan understood why Mauritania is also sometimes known as The Great Void.

Nevertheless, it’s there now. So where is ‘there’?

Mauritania is in the Northwest corner of Africa with 350 mi (592 km) of coastline facing the Atlantic. It’s bordered by Senegal to the south separated by the shared Senegal river. Episode #32 covered Senegal, which made Ryan’s life even more difficult.

It also borders Mali to the South-east, Algeria to the North-East and Western Sahara to the North-West. Western Sahara itself is disputed land, the UN calls "a non-self-governing territory" and is 80% occupied and administered by Morocco, 20% controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Mauritania is twice as large as France (1 mil sq km / 400k sq miles) and features mostly sand. It is, in fact, the most Saharan country you can find. 90% is dry desert and 70% of that is sand and oases.

The main city Nouakchott means ‘Place of Winds’ named for the trade winds east off the sea and winds west from the Sahara. Mauritania is also in the heart of ‘the Harmattan’. This is and annual season of wind between November and March that blows from the Sahara over West Africa.

This is no light breeze. The wind picks up huge dust storms as it rages over the Sahara, blocking the sun for several days and sand blasting everything and everyone.

The drop in humidity is so substantial tree branches die, people get spontaneous nosebleeds, skin dries and blisters, and it can cause damage to the respiratory system. So

And to add to your troubles as a Mauritanian, water is sparse, isolated to the river senegal in the south and spring oases in the desert.

It will surprise nobody to learn that this less-than-inviting location is the fifth least densely populated country on the planet - with just 4 million people.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s also known as the “land of a million poets”. Mauritanian culture is concise. The culture is to condense what they want to say into as few expressive words as possible – a habit that truly lends itself to poetry.

If you can’t do that.. if you burble and blunder, perhaps repeat yourself, or even say the same thing over and over again, you will be called a ‘Zraag’ (literally meaning ‘blue’, but more inclined to something like ‘simple-minded’)

Returning to humour, Paul, Pete and Ryan discussed conciseness as an essential aspect of humour, particularly jokes, and the efforts comedians go to to strip out any unnecessary communication in order to condense the essence of the joke, and the laugh, into as few words as possible.

So, with Ryan’s challenge seemingly overcome, it was time for tea. Specifically a mint tea, a hospitality tradition of the region, which Ryan made for Pete. Slowly. So very slowly. In fact the ritual of tea drinking in this area can last for hours, leaving poor Pete parched for pretty much the entire show.

But, if you’ve got an afternoon to spare, you can make yourself a nice cuppa, Mauritania style, as follows:
 Use Chinese green tea
 brew over coals and then pour into another pot
 pour back and forth between pots, and then into glasses
 Then pour again from glass to glass, from a great height above the pot or glass to aerate the tea and create a frothy foam on top
 Take your time.
 After the first glass, add mint and copious amounts of sugar. More than you think. Then add more. Muslims do not drink alcohol and some believe the sugar creates a high and sometimes it is called desert whisky.
 Proper etiquette says you should slurp your tea loudly and every drop should be enjoyed, which is easy when you’ve been waiting so long.
 The savour the taste as it evolves in your mouth:
• The first taste is soft, like life
• The second is sweet, like love
• The third is bitter, like death
o OR…
• Bitter like life
• Strong like love
• Gentle like death
• It’s also quite minty, like, er, a tic tac.

(proper simple recipe for the really committed)

o In a teapot, combine two teaspoons of tea-leaf with a half liter of boiling water. Allow it to steep for at least 15 minutes.
o Without stirring, filter the mixture into a stainless steel pot, so that the tea leaves and coarse powder are removed.
o Add sugar (about one teaspoon per 100 milliliters).
o Bring to boil over a medium heat (this helps the sugar dissolve).
o Fresh mint leaves can be added to the teapot, or directly to the cup.

Refreshed by the tea (just kidding, the tea took longer to make than the podcast took to record), Ryan attempted a jinking manoever, taking the opportunity of the location and time period to talk about..


The modern name Mauritania comes from the name of the ancient Roman province of Mauretania. This is, to be honest, a different place entirely. It’s a thousand miles away. But the rules did not specify which Mauritania we had to talk about, so suck it up.

The first arrivals in Mauritania were, as ever, Early Man. Bones and rock art tell us the people who lived there saw giraffes and other savannah animals, suggesting a time when the land was greener and there was plenty of water.

Then, 12,000 years ago much of north Africa had become inhospitable desert, known as the Tamazgha.
This land covers modern day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Egypt, the Western Sahara, the Canary Islands, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Which is a lot.

This was a period of numerous indigenous tribes living there doing their best to survive. Each would have had their own culture, dialect, and customs, but collectively were known as the Berbers. This name came from the Romans who encountered them saw their culture and customs as “uncivilized” or “barbaric” and is derived frm the Greek word “barbaros” (meaning barbarian).

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t take to this name themselves, referring to themselves with many names, the most common of which is ‘Amazeer’, which means ‘the free people’.

For thousands of years, most of these folk survived the harsh conditions of the Tamazgah by driving their flocks of livestock between pockets of Oases. Some headed north over the Atlas Mountains to the northern coastline.

This was to prove a very good move. The Atlas mountains run parallel with the Mediterranean coastline and form a natural barrier from the harsh Sahara keeping the area green and lush. This is called the Mahgreb and covers modern Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

More grass. Less sand. More water. Win.

The Berbers lived there, with some maintaining their desert-wandering lives below the mountains for thousands of years.

Then they had the opportunity to ask the age-old question, “What have the Romans done for us?”

In 300BCE a series of wars took place between the Roman Republic and Ancient Carthage (modern Tunisia). Rome was expanding and wanted to control Sicily. The resulting war, consisting mostly of naval battles and name-calling lasted 23 years and ended in the defeat of Carthage.

Undeterred, Carthage took a standing count of 20 years, and rejoined the fight.

This time, figuring that the ship thing had not worked out as hoped, they tried the obvious next step – elephants. They drove Elephants up through Spain and crossed the Alps toward Rome. But even the sight of Nellie and friends trumpeting across the plain was not enough to win victory for Carthage.

It was 2 – nil to Rome.

As it happened, some of the berbers had sided with Rome in the war, and as a reward, they were given the new-won territory along the Mahgreb. They went on to combine their new territory into a huge new country called the United Kingdom of Numidia and a neighbouring country Mauretania.
Mauretania and Numidia were thsu the first two states to be truly ruled by the Berbers, as opposed to being divided into smaller territories or ruled by empires.

Then Rome got greedy. In 112BCE the Roman Empire expanded into Africa and into Numidia. The Berbers were defeated there, and the same happened ot the Mauretanians. The kings of Mauretania became Roman Vassals for a while, until 44CE when the area was annexed to Rome entirely .

They divided the Kingdom into two provinces (separated by the Mulucha river), Mauretania Tingitana and, Mauretania Caesariensis.

Whilst visiting, the Romans established a few forts, but didn’t expand much to the west beyond these, but they had their influence and the Berbers adopted Roman culture, including Christianity. Or at least, the ones who wanted to get ahead did.

At this time exports to Rome included purple dye, timber, lions and leopards to fight in the games and soldiers to fight in the wars. These soldiers, known as Mauri, were considered excellent light cavalry

As with all empires, it could not last. By 400CE the Roman Empire started to crumble. The Germanic Vandals took advantage and conquered parts of North Africa, but they were more interested in obtaining Carthage, so they head East, leaving a few friends in the area to be defeated by the Mauri, who claimed the area and established a number of small kingdoms.

There was, as there always is, a selection of battles, uprisings and general fisticuffs for a few more generations, but things got really serious in when the Berber king Garmul launched raids into Roman territory, killing three Roman generals are killed.

This brought him to the attention of the Roman authorities. Which was not good news for the Berbers. The Emperor Tiberius II Constantine, set out to reduce Garmul's kingdom and he waged a Roman campaign from in 577.

It didn’t last long. By 579 Garmul was defeated and killed and the Romans extended their territory into Mauretania Sitifensis.

In 585, Emperor Maurice merged Mauretania Sitifensis and Mauretania Caesariensis creating a new province he named Mauretania Prima. There they had a lovely time controlling the whole coastal corridor until 698 when the Muslims rode out of Arabia and conquer pretty much everything – changing the names and erasing Mauretania completely.

Oh come on, what about the real, modern Mauritania
Ok, fine, be like that.

South of the Atlas mountains and west to the coast, deep in the Sahara, out of the reach of the Romans was Mauritania as we know it today. The Romans had sandals, but not the survival skills for the Sahara.

Instead there was a small number of nomadic tribes living there. It is believed they had a written berber language – but this had stopped being used by 200CE – possibly because of the Roman influence. So, by 500CE, these were non-literate people – and nothing really remains about their lives besides cave paintings which may or may not be from that period.

There are, however, accounts from other cultures who interacted with them. Roman author Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) wrote

the area north of the river Senegal was populated by nomadic people who travelled 3200km (2000miles) in caravans across North Africa to Cirta (modern Tunisia)

He mentions Bafours, who were among the first people to settle and farm, Perorsi Pharusii & Nigritae people.

The Greek philosopher, Strabo, added to this that the Pharusii and Nigrites used use bows and arrows and had chariots armed with scythes. Apparently they tended to keep themselves to themselves as they passed through the desert, which you might expect of a people who duct tape knives to their rims.

He also tells us they carried skins filled with water, fastened under the bellies of their horses, lived in caves dug in the ground and, by way of raingear, sometimes wore the skins of serpents and fishes.

This helped distinguish them from other tribe, who would wear the skins of lions, panthers and bears, and use shields made from the skins of elephants. These guys would also plait their hair, trim their beards, wear golden ornaments, clean their teeth, and pare their nails and he says:

“you would rarely see them touch one another as they walk, lest they should disturb the arrangement of their hair”

Sadly, that’s about all we know, because in 200CE, the initial Roman victory against the Carthaginians means a number of Berber tribes in the Mahgreb migrated south and when they came across these locals, they wiped them out.

So, during our period, 500CE, we know Berber tribes lived and operated in Mauritania, but we don’t know much about them either, because.. guess what?

That’s right – more invading peoples and eliminated culture.

In 700CE, the Arabs arrived, subjugating and assimilating the inhabitants into Islam and Islamic culture – and in the process wiped out out most of the tribes people and culture.

As a result, much of the history and culture of Mauritania as we know it today is shaped by Arab rule and French colonisation.

Sorry about that.

On the plus side… Atlantis!
Otherwise called ‘The Eye of Africa’ or ‘the Richat Structure’, from space you can see a 30-mile diameter set of concentric rings in Mauritania.

Most scientists understand it to be an uplifted dome that has eroded to expose onion-like layers of rock. But Ryan is not most scientists, so he’s more fond of the fact that in 540BC Herodotus’ called the people who lived there Atlanteans. And Plato’s eyewitness account of Atlantis said that it was surrounded by a series of concentric circles.

So what do you make of that, eh? Eh?

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