Chemchoune El Arab

I’ve been a bit remiss in getting updates written. This means that memorable events such as the tcheub-u-jen eating contest and my subsequent failed attempt at bulimia will be left to no better record than my abysmal memory. Oh well, so it goes… ☺

Chemchoune El Arab, l’un des grandes, one of the greats. Chemchoune is the Arabic form of Samson, and the man is fixture in the mythos of Mauritania. I’d heard tales of his feats of strength from past volunteers, but had given up hope of actually seeing him perform. Much to my pleasure did I notice a poster featuring a big man with a handlebar mustache performing feats of strength and fortitude. In one corner he was buried under a pile of rocks, another showed him pulling a car with his teeth and a third with him swarmed with children. My pulse quickened, as this looked like the Chemchoune of lore, but the poster was in Arabic, so I couldn’t be sure.

A short time later though, I saw the same poster, but this time in French. It was Chemchoune and he was going to be performing at one of the local basketball courts on Saturday! So, 16h Saturday saw myself and a group of interested volunteers at the Stade Sebkah.

Showing up on time was our first mistake. Somehow in my two years I’ve managed to avoid learning properly that nothing ever happens on time here. We arrived to find a bunch of kids playing basketball and a Mattel bus. Not terribly promising. We were wondering if we had the right place when someone noticed a stocky fellow with a voluminous beard and a plaid shirt standing near the bus. “Is that him?” “I’m not sure. It looks kinda like the picture.” “Maybe…”

Upon closer inspection, it did in fact seem to be Chem. There was a big pile of concrete in the middle of the court that didn’t look especially conducive to basketball playing, but which could possibly be useful in a feat of strength. We had a bit of time before we were to find out though. After half an hour or so a truck pulled up with some poles with banners on them. It was followed shortly by another Mattel bus. There were four poles and they went up at about the rate of one every twenty minutes, so round about 18h we were finally ready to go.

The event was sponsored by Mattel and for whatever reason they seemed to be aiming at the 8-14 year-old demographic. It was us five white folks, a few fellows in boubous doing logistics and about 500 kids. They’d roped off the court and the borders were patrolled by police armed with lengths of electrical cord that they’d brandish at the children every so often.

An announcer came out and started working the crowd a bit. I have no idea what was said since it was in Hassaniya and on a nearly defunct sound system. The kids seemed to get into it though. They started calling kids in from the audience and lined them up and gave them rice sacks. This whole event is taking place on a basketball court made of Mauritanian concrete. In the States you mix cement with sand and gravel to make concrete. We’ve got the sand in spades, but the gravel is a bit scarce. In it’s place we use seashells. This is fine and good except the cement is cheap and wears away leaving jagged bits of seashell sticking out.

This is not the surface that one would ideally choose for a sack race, particularly when there’s sand all around, but we volunteers seemed to be the only ones to see this. In any case, after a couple false starts the kids were off. There was a line of chairs at the far end of the court which they were supposed to go sit in. That didn’t happen so much. Rather than sitting in the chairs the kids hurled themselves at them and there ended up a huge pile of kids and chairs from which one was extracted and declared the winner.

They gave the kid a prize and started chanting, “Chemchoune, Chemchoune, Mattel, Mattel, Chemchoune, Chemchoune…” At our beckoning, Chem appeared, decked out in full strong man’s regalia. For those unacquainted, a strong man’s regalia is bright blue ski bibs, white leather ski boots with hot pink detailing, a weight-lifter’s belt painted teal and worn backwards, and a baby blue bedspread with big gold stars painted on it and worn as a cape. His belt had a little Mauritanian flag next to a little Syrian flag giving respect both to his country of birth and his adopted home. Corporate whore that he has become, Chem was also wearing a Mattel t-shirt. It detracted a bit from the overall splendor, but it was still quite a sight.

Chemchoune El Arab at the Stade Sebkha

The evening was to be divided into three sets of competitions of Chem versus various fixtures of Mauritanian life. We began with Chem versus concrete. First, he lay down on his back with a rug on his stomach and had men crush concrete with a sledgehammer while he lay there. Next, he did the same thing except standing with the concrete laid across his back. Then they brought out a bed of nails and laid it on the court.

Chemchoune versus concrete

We oohed and ahhed in appreciative wonder as Chem stripped off his shirt and bounced his pecs for us. We felt a little disquieted when he thrust his hips toward us, but accepted it as part of his ardor for performing. When it came to actually lying down on the nails, mighty Chem’s resolved seemed to flag. He started to lie down and yanked back in pain. Again he tried and it was simply too hard. He went off and got the rug used to protect his stomach earlier. He laid it on the nails and then lay down on top of it. The announcer came out and challenged Chem as being weak. Chem looked to us to cut him a break, but we were having none of it. To the sound of 500 screaming kids he finally gave up and lay down barebacked.

They took the rug and lay it across Chem’s chest and proceeded to break more concrete on him. He grunted a bit, but generally took the pain with a solace befitting his strong man status. After they were done with it he got up and jogged around the court so we could see the deep impressions the nails left in his back.

That was the end of round one. There was an intermission with an absurd amount of talking about Mattel. Since the only work I understood was “Mattel” and the occasional number, I can’t really report on how they managed to talk so much to a bunch of ten year-olds about phone service. There was also a game, the point of which was either to pop or not to pop a balloon. I never really understood that either.

Next round was Chemchoune versus rebar. They brought out ten foot long pieces of rebar and Chem’s assistant braced one end while Chem drove himself against the other end till it bent in half. To step things up a notch Chem put a little piece of wood against his throat, braced the rebar there and again bent it in half. “Bending rebar is an impressive feat. Where does one move from there?” I was thinking to myself.

Chemchoune bending rebar

Chem takes out a thickly folded cloth, covers his eye with it and proceeds to bend rebar with his eye socket. I only saw flashes of this as I was off convulsing at the graphic image of that rebar punching through his eye socket and into his skull. Bend it he did though and the crowd was appropriately awed.

Chemchoune bending rebar with his eye

We had another intermission then which I didn’t pay much attention to. I was distracted by a random kid who came up and started tell me how he was going to grow up to be rich. His eventual goal was to be a patrone (big shot) and drink Fanta every day. We discussed at length whether I should give him the milk I was drinking. He had several excellent points, but I was just not convinced. In the end, he accidentally knocked it out of my hand and I gave the remainder to his friend.

Chem’s final adversary? A car. We moved from the court over to the sand and a waiting car. We started out with the car running over Chem’s toes. It wasn’t terribly impressive and the crowed wasn’t wowed. Next though he lay down on the ground and the car drove over his arm with both tires. That was a bit more impressive and it left me wondering where they’d go from here. The previous fights were in escalating groups of three. I wondered what exactly they were going to run over next, his stomach? his head?

This one deviated from the others. Chem came up behind the car and grabbed the back bumper. The driver started backing the car over Chem. With a mighty heave, Chem lifted the back of the car until the tires were off the ground. The driver then floors it sending sand flying everywhere and volumes of smoke billowing from the exhaust. The crowd went wild cheering Chem’s name.

Chemchoune defeating a car

That was the extent of Chem’s feats. A very impressive set all told. I’ve asked people about him and it seems most everyone has heard of Chemchoune. Many express incredulity that he can do some of the things he has been rumored to do, but the overall tone is one of respect. I, myself, certainly enjoyed the performance.

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