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John Osterman
An arid landscape with flat sand dotted with green bushes and small trees in the foreground. In the distance and on the horizon are brown and rust-colored rock plateaus and formations, some extending thousand of feet high. The sky is a pale blue.

Sand in the Couscous

Desert (no island) books


In November and December of 2001, my boredom and frustration in Tintane was about as high as it ever got, and I was spending too much time alone avoiding people. I knew it at the time, and my journal is full of little snippets of advice to myself, micro resolutions that I rarely adhered to. Like this:

December 11, 2001
  • You will never learn a language if you don’t seek out people to speak with.
  • Staying in your room so much can do nothing but harm.
  • Stop avoiding people.
  • Stop listening to the radio so much, especially in English. If noise is necessary, find French.
  • Find some French books to read.
  • Always question your first reaction.

Reading was indeed a pleasure, and it was sort of a guilty one. It was solitary when I was supposed to be out talking to people and doing crosscultural things. I felt guilty about immersing myself in English after investing so much time and effort to learn another language. Sometimes I did try reading books in French instead but I couldn’t do so without looking up dozens of words per page. And that damn passé simple, right? Never worked out.

Despite that guilt, I read a lot of books in Mauritania. I had a lot of downtime, and books provided a needed escape from everyday difficulties. Besides, there weren’t many other sources of easy entertainment. I would tune my shortwave radio to the BBC World Service for maybe an hour a day but otherwise entertainment was either listening to one of the handful of cassette tapes I brought with me or reading. And reading won out, probably for hours a day. Strangely, though, I don’t remember many of them. The Grapes of Wrath, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Cold Mountain. Three come to mind? There were scores more, and I wish I could remember them all.

Hundreds of mostly paperbacks floated around among volunteers and lined bookshelves throughout the country. In Nouakchott, the capital, we had, until the very end of my service, a house where all volunteers would stay when they were in town. Most regional capitals had one too, and in some other towns volunteers would pool money for a shared space. They were called maisons de passage; we weren’t supposed to live in them (we were supposed to be with host families in our posts), but we’d find ways to extend our stays. Each maison had a stash of books. You’d leave the ones you came with and take some before you left. Some maisons in far-off places had venerated, less picked-over collections.

So English it was, and whatever guilt I felt was no match for the allure of a good escape. Plus there’s this: reading books was better for me there than it was before or has been since. I had enough time to become immersed in the stories and finish them without struggling to recall what was going on or having to reread chapters. But more than that, books just seemed more vivid somehow.

Descriptions of villages and animals roaming around—yes, I know it.

Heartache, loneliness—yes, I feel it.

Beauty, harshness, death—yes, I see it.

My mind was primed by need or by exposure to otherworldliness to follow their lead. Stripped of most other distractions, I was vulnerable to their stories. Now, yes, I still read, but it hasn’t been the same since. Maybe that’s good—a sign of a healthier mental state—but it’s also from having too little time and too many easy, stupid distractions.

So . . .

December 7, 2022

  • Read more books.