In this cafe, my tongue trips over the menu’s cursive French. The walls are ironically covered with paintings of naked women hiding their curves behind godly clouds and thin sheets. Naked white women, so typical of the French. I feel myself blushing, like I should be embarrassed of a body so similar to my own.
Underneath the Mauritanian sky, underneath the heavy veils and burdening shame, we are a dirty, African France tricked into a false sense of liberation. Words are twisted into aristocratic Arabic and we bleach ourselves, teaching children to resent their melanin. Young girls sleep in white cream masks to wake up the next day shades lighter, and this is beautiful. White is beautiful.
My people smoke cigarettes before they can even read, if they ever read. Women don’t question a tradition determined to cloak them in robes, despite the desert heat. They don’t fight for their rights, because they don’t think they need them, especially when their husband’s money is spent on jewelry and the most expensive fabrics. They decorate themselves like rooms, no more than a place to be entered and left.
Mauritania is a cafe country; there is one on every corner. Peering through a window beside my table, I’ve begun my second cup of chai. I am dining alone, but the view offers me more than any conversation could. Across the street, I see black boys selling burnt bread beside their mother, mocha leathered skin and protruding bones and shoulders bearing every burden. Her boys approach Mercedes during traffic and peer into tinted windows, offering powdered cinnamon in red plastic bags. I know their script by heart; they are selling for no more than 100 ouguiya. My father has told them no while stuck in trafficked streets. They’ve asked him to pray for their brother who is ill, but he waved them away from our car, like they were no more than animals getting too close. I said nothing. From my place in the backseat, I said nothing.
The sun has no shame today. I watch the boys, their shirts soaking up the proof of hard work. They weave in and out of stopped cars and choke on the dust and pollution. Their bare feet crush cans and water bottles buried in sandy streets. From my table, I can’t imagine what it takes to sweat so much your entire shirt changes color. I am fair-skinned and privileged, hiding in a painted mansion with built in AC and a TV in every room with meals brought to me on silver platters and decorated plates. They live on cement foundation blocks. Folded clothes serve as their mattresses. They are dining on leftover lamb their sisters hide in their mulafa to bring home when no one in our kitchen is looking. My grandmother has told me to pray for them, “the blessings will come, inshallah.” My grandmother doesn’t realize, blessings only exist for those who can afford them.
I once loved a black boy in my bedroom. My hand could wrap around his bicep. I watched my thumb touch my forefinger. After that, I held my own weight, scared I’d feel his brittle bones snap underneath me. On mornings, when the sun was still heavy with our country’s fatigue, I passed him in the kitchen on my way to school. He waved me sabaa al-khair with twinkling, skeletal fingers and worked over my father’s breakfast. In secret, I’d teach him arithmetic. Now, he can count all the disadvantages of being black in Mauritania. When we knew my father couldn’t see us we tangled our skin tones and made love to our differences. He’d kiss me once before I left for America with lips like sandpaper, pulling away from me; his smile displayed his swollen gums.
“My little white girl.” He told me I tasted like opportunity.
From across the street, I wonder if those boys can know I am sorry. I wonder if they know I am praying for their brother, that I still dream of their mother, and often think of what streets they’re running through, whose windows they’re peering into today. Beside me, the waitress clears her throat. Menu in hand, I think of what they’d want.
“Anything.” I tell her.
About the author: Sahara Sidi is a young writer who spends hours soul-searching on Richmond sidewalks and volunteering with the Democratic Party of Virginia. Her work has been recognized by Columbia College Chicago, Hollins' University, Scholastic Art & Writing, Jet Fuel Magazine, and various regional competitions.