I’m listening to Aziza Brahim on a Sunday night as I get that dreaded ‘school tomorrow’ feeling that still plagues me so many years after the end of my school career. My homework for this weekend? To put down on paper some memories of my trip to Western Sahara a few months back.
Depicting in thoughtful prose a true sense of a country which had such a profound effect on me? Tough. But here goes nothing: desperately trying to pen something that will do the place the justice it deserves and create a postcard that conjures up a flavour of the country, the people and its political situation…
[Aziza’s helping. Her dulcet tones and rhythmic chants carry me back to the streets of Laayoune and away from the sirens of London and the pitter-patter of the rain on my window. Sandblast did me a big favour in bringing her into my life.]
Though my trip was some months ago now, recalling my memories is not difficult. I went with two friends; one, a Saharawi I met some years ago whilst studying in Spain, and one a German girl who was my housemate during that year abroad. We’d talked for some time about going to discover the place where Sidi was from and it was also important research for Andrea who was going to help Sidi set up an advocacy and campaigning charity in the UK to raise people’s consciousness about Western Sahara and the human rights violations taking place there (find out more: www.adala.org).
One of the most important things I realised when I went to Western Sahara, and probably the aspect of the country that I explained most to friends within the tales of my travels is that it wasn’t just desert. Hard to believe, I know, especially if like me (until recently) you couldn’t locate the country on a map. Western Sahara has beautiful beaches and what’s more, they’re deserted. One of the most amazing things about going to a country no one you know has really heard of is that you are definitely venturing into unspoilt territory. In a tourist sense, at least.
Whenever we made it out of Laayoune, and past all the checkpoints travelling to either the sand dunes, the beaches or the oases, as a Londoner I was struck by the chance to be totally on your own. In a country ravaged by injustices, the calmness of the ocean reflected to me the peaceful means by which the Saharawis face their situation on a daily basis. Humbling and very inspiring.
The desert itself is breathtaking. We’ve all got a soft spot somewhere for landscapes and rolling hills and the ability to see for miles. But there’s something very special about all of that made out of sand! You can see the shape of the hills in front of you slowly change with the movement of the wind. You can playfully roll down the hills, safe in the knowledge that you will tumble through soft, warm sand, letting your feet sink in as you go. Definitely a lasting memory.
The surface peace and tranquillity of these parts of the country was completely juxtaposed against the hustle and bustle of Laayoune. The capital city is not in the traditional sense a beautiful one. I’m certain it was once and could definitely be again. But it does have a certain something. There’s a pleasing mix of old and new. An interesting melange of architecture together with the charms of street markets and noisy vendors, the call to prayer and the smell of just caught fish and freshly grilled meat.
I was struck by some of the remnants of buildings the Spanish had constructed. Though they are in many ways far removed from Castillian architecture, you are aware of something very Spanish about them. At the same time, that ‘something’ seemed to me to reflect a colonial power that brought architectural influence that was in keeping with the surroundings and married together the very best of both the cultures. Though there will remain for many years a bitterness around Spain’s retreat from the Sahara and the position it left the Saharawi people in vis-à-vis the Moroccan government, I understood the colonial relationship which had gone before to be one of mutual respect between the two countries.
On the other hand, there’s definitely a sense of foreboding in the air which is hard to shake off. That might be due to the presence of the UN vehicles. But it’s more likely based on the amount of armoured trucks and military personnel and frankly quite scary looking Moroccan police dotted all over the city. And for our part, it was most likely to do with the hostile reception we got as tourists; constantly asked to explain and justify our presence.
The situation we were faced with on a daily basis as we tried to move from place to place within the country cannot be underestimated. Though I became somewhat blasé about the situation we found ourselves in every few hours (checkpoint after checkpoint after checkpoint), we were acutely aware that these obstacles are put in place by the Moroccan government for nothing more than to make things difficult. To make people give in and take the path of least resistance.
But the Saharawis we met, there lies a completely different story. As so many Westerners are when they come back from a developing or war-torn country, I was so touched by the immense hospitality and warmth of people who in relative terms can seem so deprived. From the houses which in real terms had so little, we came away with so much, either in material for Saharawi traditional dresses or in the amount of love and respect we had been shown. A cliché, I know; but so very true.
The Saharawi people are among the warmest I have met. Considering that this warmth is so evident in spite of the daily plight they face and the future that lies ahead unless serious changes can be made, that is the postcard I came back with. Ultimately, it is the people who I have taken away with me in my memories and it is they that feed my desire to do what small things I can to help: to respond to their warmth, kindness and generosity in any way I can.