Locked between giants

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December 9th 2008
Published: December 9th 2008
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A blistery wind front roars through the town, and the sky is blotted out with clouds of orange and grey. One could call it a dust storm, but any storm in the Sahara is worthy of that title. The wind merely lifts all the particulate that's always present into frenzy. Maybe you just don't see it until the storm.

The landmass of Western Sahara is a region sparsely populated but largely contested. This is nothing new, and is evident even by the language spoken here. The dialect is known as Hassaniya Arabic, and only has about 3 million speakers. Its origin stretches back into the Middle Ages when Bedouins led by a Beni Hassan migrated and conquered the Berber tribes. Today's more pressing issues are rooted in Africa's colonial history.

A brief history: The mass known as Western Sahara is a colony, but as Spain withdrawals, it divides the land between Morocco and Mauritania. An independence movement is borne, and in the ensuing resistant, Mauritania withdrawals, recognizing the new state of Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic. Morocco however will not be so easily satisfied, claiming the land abandoned by Mauritania, and the battle rage, internationally, as Algeria begins funding the opposition. Morocco builds a succession of "berms," or walls of sand and barbed wire, heavily mined and patrolled, essentially segregating the disputed territory into Morocco controlled and economically viable west, and Polisario independent desert east.

I enter into the grey border of Western Sahara via the town of Tan Tan. Although the border is not clearly defined, the change is instantly recognized. The towns are buildings are drab and new, everything is covered in pink or rose wash paint, the avenues are wide and paved, and there is a massive military presence that cannot be understated. The green uniformed men are ubiquitous, lounging in cafes or buying produce (or, as I saw one, riding a pink bicycle). Throughout the towns are billboards of a large head portrait of the king in military dress in what other circumstances could be an advertisement for Rayban sunglasses. On appearance, a question of a conflict seems to be a nonissue. Although the towns are crawling with Moroccan soldiers and white UN peacekeepers in white SUVs, they all exude a look of boredom.


Finding a ride out of town is always a bit hectic and stressful. I chase the road out of town and into an undiscovered commercial center of Tan Tan. Colorful storefronts that seem to repeat like a cartoon backdrop - everything that is for sale, be it the dangling multipatterned headscarves that the women will wrap themselves up in, cheap misprinted electronics shipped and assembled from China, or the general store where a man sits behind a counter waiting with a plethora of goods stacked upon dark and dusty shelves. At ends of my walking, dodging passing vehicles and weaving through the perplexed stares, I eventually reach the bus station, which today is a gravel lot with buses parked about in Arabic writing that reveals nothing of their destination, and the operators and agents wandering about and shouting destinations as they clutch folded bills between their fingers. I find a grand taxi that will deliver me to Smara, about 250 kilometers for 80 dirham. It takes some time to decide the price, as is more common fewer and fewer French speakers abound. After six places are purchased and we are crammed into the clunky Mercedes, we leave the pink military complex of Tan Tan behind and enter into the proper desert.

The landscape is vast and empty. As far as the desert haze permits, in all directions, a flat featureless landscape of grey sand and scrub brush reaches out and over the horizon. On first impression, the sight imbues one with awe for its size. But after hours of the same, the immensity of it begins to wear on one psychologically. Even after a tiring journey at high speeds, one only needs place the distance on a map to see what great desert, what a great swath of unpopulated unknowable wasteland. It is difficult to explain how one can feel both free by the desert, and a sinking suffocation of enormity bearing down on you. As if you've been dropped into the deepest ocean trench or are drifting out into space, watching the Earth recede into anonymity.

The Mercedes struggles at the outset, but once we reach a cruising speed, we drift along frictionless. I watch the road through the windshield, framed by a tasseled border, a cartoon Scrooge McDuck air Fresherner dancing about from the rearview mirror. The dashboard is covered in black faux fur. Every so often, a radio tower will emerge out of the misty distance, followed by some blocky government structure. And so often on closer inspection, we slow to a stop and are pulled over to the side for a military checkpoint. The officials are particularly excited at the prospect of a foreign national. At three points I am made to step out of the vehicle and respond to an interrogation as the officer scribbles down the information from my Passport and my answers about my profession and destination. Far from the official prowess however, they are most amiable and jolly. At the second checkpoint, the officer in charge leads me into his station and I sit and answer his questions, posed in the most atrocious English, but which he is most delighted to practice. He stops after each question then writes down a word "Ci-ty, yes? This is "ville" en francais?" he nods, smiling excitedly.

Smara eventually appears like a mirage, as the shimmering reflection of the land breaks into buildings. The ever present pink dominates, as well as the wide streets, lain out in a perfect grid amongst the cardinal points. The soldiers seem to, without exaggeration, make up at least a good twenty percent of the active town population. For such a small place in the middle of a vast nothingness, the town is particularly modern and cosmopolitan. I sit in a French Cafe and watch two young unveiled girls pass with exposed shoulders.

I travel through the souk. The open air souks of the South of Morocco are different from the North in that there is no Medina here - and the activity is a surging crowd that pushes through the darkness amidst the stalls and stands. In a refreshing change from the tourist Morocco, I am all but completely ignored as I enter the stores and have to activity search out the attention of the proprietor (who never seems to want to push me to buy). I watch one man, the modern Arab salesmen, his goods spread out on a blanket on the ground. The cheap electronics, a belt, products rescued from infomercials, like a "Waist Trimmer, As Seen On TV." - are all arranged in a neat and manufactured order. Small pieces of charcoal flame at the corners to light his show. As I pass, the bearded man explains and demonstrates to the crowd, picking up a large flashlight. As he presses a button, the side lights up in a flashing array of colored LEDS. With another switch, the other side floods with white light. He turns it off and sets it back down amongst the other wares. A young boy, stands behind the sheet and watches his father. The crowd shuffles by.

All being said, it would easy to assume by the quietude that prevails in the city - the overall boredom expressed in the faces of the soldiers who lounge about at the cafes - that there is no active resistant. But one only needs to, as a friend says, "Read the writing on the walls." In the southern residential section of town, which very well appears to be a war zone with flaking paint and crumbling concrete, I find spray paint and inked scrawls of "RASD" and "VIVA POLISARIO". Accompanying these is overwhelming large blocked out and painted over sections of text, which is naturally quite strange to see in a developing country unless that offending graffiti is of a particular nature. A few months ago, protests here in Smara resulted in a number of summary beatings and arrests, and many houses in the district were raided by police. And only days ago in Agadir, a student sit in at a transit station led to the deaths of two students when one of the buses drove into the mass.


I travel to the West, towards Laayoune, the largest city and economic center of Western Sahara. After passing through the multitude of police checkpoints (the last, a chat with a soldier with an automatic assault rifle lying haphazardly on the car floor) we crest over a hill into a vista of buildings and radio towers poking at the fragmented sky. The old man next to me wrapped in a brown jellaba pokes at me and points - "El Ayoune."

As I stroll through town, I stop and have a chat with two soldiers resting outside a building. They seem bored and eager to talk, especially to look at the guitar. One of them then asks "Passport?" - but it seems more to fulfill his curiosity than some governmental obligation. But as I make leave of the Moroccan arm of authority, I quickly run into the opposing faction.

I meet a group of youths outside a cafe as I stop to ask for directions, and they quickly surround me as to ascertain my nationality, and naturally have a look at my guitar. Though they are curious to hear me play, they are more excited to play themselves. One of the youths is quite proficient, although he seems to have smashed his own guitar in a drunken rage (all I gather from a series of hand gestures). However, many of them seem to speak Spanish. I'm surprised, and ask why. Abdul, the most eloquent Spanish speaker and most assertive of the group quickly explains "Because this was a territory of Spain, under Franco..." As our conversation continues he makes a few comments in regards to the police and the military and the occupation. I ask, "Is this not something we are supposed to be discussing," as he is glancing around constantly.

"No, we have an embargo on speaking with foreigners, especially about politics."

They play some songs that have lyrics in both Spanish and Arabic, which I hastily record - we've parked ourselves on a busy street and there is a flustery wind. An older man comes over from across the street, from one of the markets next door. He stands about for awhile and gazes closely at the guitar. "Ah, what brand of guitar is this? Nice." He lingers about for a moment, and then wanders off.

"Did you see that?" Abdul says, shaking his head at the man walking away. "He came over here to listen to what we were saying, check it out. You see how he asked about the guitar?"

It is easy to believe there could be some element of rebellion, particularly amongst the youths. So I'm not surprised. But in a place where there are rigid and brutal consequences, I can only imagine the thought that Abdul and his friends express through some of their songs, but more in the way they tell me how "this song is a dangerous one," and look around to see who is listening.

I find a hotel on the cheaper side of town on the Avenue Boukra, an economic center, but of commerce rather than production. This is the active souk, and the streets are crowded with people and traffic from the late morning until well into the darkness. As is typical in the marketplace, in Morocco you can find anything ("except money," a friend from Azrou tells me), from the clothing stores of cheaply assembled counterfeit wears, sometimes with the most egregious misprints, bootleg DVDs, cassettes, escargot.

There's far too much whispering in Laayoune. A strange turn in gregarious conversation when someone must lean close to tell you something in a low voice. Shifting eyes about the room, a sense of conspiracy. The topic of politics is not something that I need to breach, as it rises naturally and unexpectedly in our conversation:

"What do you do for work?"

"I don't work. Few of us Sahrawi's work here. All the jobs are taken by the Moroccans from the North who settled here. And anyways, they are racist against us."

"Do you study?"

"No, there's no university here. All the students must go to Agadir. And the government prefers them not to study, to remain ignorant of political issues."

"This is quite a calm city."

"Yes, because there are police everywhere."

We often walk out in the streets because my friends say they prefer to talk where they can see who is listening. I begin to share in a certain apprehension, and search in the shadows for suspicious authorities.

"Yes, it's prohibited to talk with foreigners about political things, and the police sometimes come to your house afterwards if they see you walking about with a foreigner. I just tell them some story or another. But here, I need to go this way. Better that we meet up later, it's not good to go down too many streets talking..."

Once while we stand outside a police checkpoint, I talk with a law student from Agadir, and even far out of earshot and in English, he's reluctant to speak until we get back onto the bus - as considers the possibility that perhaps our conversation will be recorded.

Is there an overdue paranoia? Perhaps, but on whose part? If the police are maintaining a close watch on innocuous conversation, trying to nip any international communication in the bud as stirrings of potential democracy or revolt, are they not instigating exactly that which they mean to prevent?

However, it would be far too easy to tell a story of the oppression of the land that is Western Sahara and extrapolate suffering to the individuals. And that would be a glaring miscalculation.


Dahkla lies 25 kilometers at the end of a sand peninsula that stretches out like a finger between desert and sea. Today is the celebration of Aid, and all through the plaza and along the white and blue tiled boardwalk, families cavort and children chase one another through the crowds, waving about balloons or dancing off with ice cream. Young boys gather in groups and smack at each other in play fights and watch the young girls gossiping under their patterned veils. Stretching outwards to the east, you can see the grey featureless desert, lifeless and unforgiving - and to the west a vast sea terminating into a flat blue horizon. The waves tear and crash against the sand, and the cliffs answer with the continent at their back. Two monolithic beings engaged in an inevitable and incomprehensible battle, the people of the Western Sahara continue loving and living, regardless of the forces that surround them.


(Isah plays an electric guitar with four strings and a capo of wood and elastic fixed at the fifth or six fret. His pick is a piece of plastic, some superflous packing material. He plays out his songs, the Amarzig songs, with a distinct tremolo and a intricate rhythm. Later, his friend Ehwa comes and joins, and they trade my guitar amongst eachother, accompany one another. - Recorded in Tata.)

(Hassayni musicans, from the festival - Khomaila and his friend who plays the keys, has perhaps 13 or 14 years playing guitar, and picks his classical guitar with an alarming frequency of notes. His friend plays the synthesizer, in accompaniment, and has only been playing for one year, which is unbelievable. - Recorded in Tan Tan)

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