In Western Sahara, the Sahrawi prepare harira stew to break their Ramadan fast, the women dress in malhafas and American Heather Carreiro contemplates a land where even the postcards are political.
We are waiting for the call to prayer. Steaming harira stew, hard-boiled eggs, imported Algerian dates and sticky sweet, pretzel-like pastries called chebekia are placed in front of each person in the tiny restaurant. Five of us, foreign study abroad students, have recently arrived in Laayoune after thirty hours of travel from Al Akhawayn University in Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains. Our last hot meal was over twenty-five hours ago when we broke yesterday’s Ramadan fast in Marrakech. After dumping our packs in a budget hotel, we let our stomachs guide us to the nearest restaurant serving iftar, the meal that commemorates the end of each daily fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan. Not all of us travelers are fasting, but when you travel during Ramadan in Morocco you effectively end up fasting from sunup to sundown along with the local population, especially if you’re not in tourist areas. While our stomachs grumbled and we honed in on the smell of harira stew, we neglected to pay attention to the sun. We’d traveled over 600 miles south of Marrakech by bus, and although our stomachs signaled the end of the fast, the sun was still high on the desert horizon. With plates of food in front of us, we sit for over an hour before the local mullah’s melodic cry allows us to whisper bismillah, praise God, and bring the now lukewarm harira to our lips.
Our Moroccan classmates have traveled home to be with family during Eid-al-Ftr, the festive holiday marking the end of Ramadan and the resumption of eating and drinking during daylight hours. My four travel mates and I have decided to start our school vacation in Laayoune, described by Lonely Planet guidebook as “odd enough to make a stay of a day or two worthwhile.” Laayoune is odd, not only in its edge-of-civilization atmosphere as the largest urban center in the Western Sahara desert, but also in its legal predicament. In 1884, Spanish despot Francisco Franco initiated a colonization campaign in the Western Sahara, turning the region into a military garrison. Spain withheld power until 1974 when its withdrawal created a power vacuum and a launched the longstanding conflict between Morocco and Polisario, the political and military organization that represents the region’s indigenous Sahrawi people. Armed conflict persisted until a UN-sponsored cease fire in 1991, but the region’s status has remained in legal limbo since with tens of thousands of Moroccan soldiers and settlers now calling the Sahara home and over 175,000 Sahrawis making their lives in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria and in the Polisario-controlled “liberated zone.”
We check out a local pizza place, Pizza la Madone, a few hours after sundown. The restauranteur greets us with a broad smile saying, “Bienvenue au Maroc.” “Welcome to Morocco” is a strange greeting considering the sparsity of international transport arriving in Laayoune. It’s possible the UN soldiers enforcing the ceasefire arrive in the Sahara straight from their home countries, but we are obviously not soldiers or diplomats. Our after dinner shopping makes it clear that language here is political. Moroccan-looking shopkeepers speak French and refer to the region as “Maroc.” Sahrawi shopkeepers speak Hassaniya Arabic and say “as-Sahara” not “al-Maghreb.” If Polisario had its wishes, we’d officially be welcomed to the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a political entity recognized by over seventy-five nations and zealously opposed by the Moroccan crown.
In the north, Moroccan women wear traditional djellabas, loose, one-piece garments that resemble a choirboy’s garments. Djellabas include a hood, but many women also wear a tightly-fitted hijab to cover the hair. While the embroidery on the garments can be intricate, colors are muted earth tones or darker shades. In contrast, Sahrawi women’s clothes are loud and garish. Tie-dyed patterns of hot pink, lime green, and bright orange seem popular, and in just one day I’ve seen dozens of women letting their one-piece malhafas slip to reveal dark brown hair. When we see a malhafa shop, we decide to stop in. Two boisterous Sahrawi women greet us, “Welcome to the Sahara! Where are you from?”
“We are students from Amrika,” one of our party replies, practicing his Arabic.
One of the women immediately puts her hands to her head and makes devil horns. “Amrika? Bush Shaitan!” she exclaims with an expression between a scowl and a giggle. Historically, United States policy favoring Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has been a major roadblock to Sahrawi self-determination. Without pressure from the US, France and other European powers, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to see the Western Sahara situation move away from the status quo. We Americans laugh nervously; we know the situation. We know how the US hasn’t been vocal about Morocco’s clandestine prisons, the lack of freedom of speech, the fate of the Disappeared.
The other Sahrawi woman tries Spanish and starts talking politics with a guy in our group who speaks fluently. The rest of us focus on the clothes. Malhafas turn out to be simply bolts of cloth, even the ends are jagged and not sewn. It’s like we’re in a Fez carpet shop; dozens of malhafas are unrolled and placed on the countertops, one after another. I decide on a navy blue one and the Sahrawi women attempt to teach me how to wear it. I memorize a combination of over, under, and wrapping motions. I flap my arms; it stays in place. The women, communicating now mostly through gestures, demonstrate a lively catwalk through the shop’s narrow aisles. They want me to practice walking in the malhafa so I know how to hold it up properly. I need to keep my right hand out to the side like a waitress and my left hand on my hip to copy their model. The Sahrawi women’s ‘model’ walk has a sway and a confidence to it I’m not used to seeing in North Africa.
Laayoune doesn’t have any major tourist attractions, so the next morning the five of us set out wandering around town. After failing to find the Ensemble Artisanal mentioned in the guidebook, we end up at a colonial-era Spanish cathedral in the northwest of the city. A white-haired Spanish priest greets us and offers to give us a tour. After admiring the sanctuary, we head up a creaky spiral staircase. Upstairs is an old wooden bar area and some splintering bar stools. “It’s closed now. There aren’t any Christians,” explains the priest. The only people who use the church are Korean evangelicals stationed in Laayoune with the United Nations. The priest’s eyes get excited when he talks about the dinners and parties the church used to host. I wonder why he has stayed in the Sahara for three decades after most other Europeans left. He has been in Laayoune through it all: the allegedly peaceful Green March commencing Morocco’s occupation, the armed conflict, the ceasefire, the numerous promises of referendum.
Another transplant we meet later in the day is Mr. Chen, owner and head chef at Laayoune’s only authentic Chinese restaurant. Chen is a short, stocky man who was previously stationed in Laayoune with the UN. He explains his reasons for expatriating from China: “I loved the weather. Here it’s sunny 365 days a year. When I retired, I decided to start the restaurant.” Typically the House of Chen is closed during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, but for us, Chen offers to open early for a private dinner. He chooses the menu. I’m not fasting, but Chen’s beef and broccoli before sundown seems like a sin. When we walk back to our hotel in the dark, we pass by upscale lodging flanked in barbed wire. White and black UN vehicles are on every block. Two Eastern European-looking soldiers in light blue fatigues drink mint tea at a sidewalk cafe.
At the bus station the next morning, the ticket agent assures us we can find onward transport from Goulmime. We had wanted tickets to somewhere further north, but not a lot of buses run from the Sahara so we’ll have to be flexible. While we wait for the coach, a local youth starts talking to us in English. He’s thin and wears faded jeans and a t-shirt. He doesn’t look noticeably Sahrawi; he could pass for a typical student on the streets of Rabat or Casablanca. “Where do you study?” he asks.
“Al Akhawayn in Ifrane.”
“I wanted to study abroad in France, but I don’t have a passport.”
“Can’t you get one in Rabat?”
“No, I’m from the Sahara. I have no nationality and can’t apply for a passport, so I can’t travel. My only option is to go to university in Rabat.”
For Sahrawis who flee to Algeria, the options are wider. Many second and third-generation refugees have studied abroad in Cuba on educational grants, so many that a distinct Arab-Hispanic culture has emerged in Sahrawi culture structure in the camps. Here in Western Sahara, Sahrawi national identity is still in limbo.
Some postcards featuring maps of Morocco don’t have borderlines drawn on the country’s southeast frontier with Algeria. Instead, postcard Morocco cascades southward from its Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts into the Sahara without being stopped by the defined black lines of international boundaries. Postcard Morocco represents political Morocco, and nobody seems willing to step in and draw the lines. We get on the bus and drive northward, out of the desert and into decolonized territory. Here there are not stunning, wavy dunes of sand, only harsh, dry hamada and windblown, dried up vegetation. The slim waning crescent of the moon peaks over the horizon, and Laayoune fades into a faint silhouette against the vast Saharan sky.
Heather visited Western Sahara in 2003, however the political situation has changed little. In April 2015, the UN Security Council voted to continue its peacekeeping mission in the region, however without the responsibility or ability to monitor human rights. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested human rights monitoring, however Moroccan ambassador Omar Hillale denies the need for such monitoring. US foreign policy under the Obama administration has been more vocal about human rights in Western Sahara, and as a result, the countries stopped conducting joint military exercises in 2013. In spite of increased pressure from the global community, including the Africa Union, a referendum among inhabitants of Western Sahara has still not taken place more than 40 years after the beginning of the conflict.
About Heather Carreiro
Heather is an international educator who has lived in Morocco, Pakistan and Vietnam. She enjoys jamming on the electric bass, haggling over saris in dusty markets and cross-country jumping on horseback. She currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City with her two curious and adventurous children.
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