A wedding in Africa's last colony

Our parcel has arrived, and our 19-day enforced rest in Laayoune (in Western Sahara) is over. We’ve eaten camel, accidentally gatecrashed a wedding and generally pottered around this strange Saharan city. Now a tailwind is calling and we’re ready to jump back on the bikes for the next 500 kilometre stretch through the Sahara to Dakhla. This update, on our time in Laayoune, should keep you busy until we get there…

Our first sight in Laayoune – late that night when we limped into town exhausted – was of a European-looking woman sitting in the middle of the road at a busy crossroads. A Moroccan policeman directed traffic around her while a crowd of people looked on from the pavement, rapt. Their heads briefly turned to take in the sight of two filthy European cyclists emerging from the desert before they decided the spectacle in front of them was more interesting, and we were left to walk on into the city centre alone – bar a group of children whose shorter attention spans had already been exhausted by the woman.

We never found out who she was, why she was sitting in the road or why the policeman thought it better to direct traffic around her than help her to the pavement. And our time in Laayoune since then have been characterised by the same sense of unreality, or surreality, and the same unnerving feeling that we don’t have a clue what’s really going on around us here, in Africa’s last colony.

This used to be “Spanish Sahara”, and Laayoune was built by the Spanish to administer the phosphate industry. It’s now Western Sahara’s biggest city. For our first couple of days here, we assumed the 200,000-odd population was entirely made up of Moroccan immigrants, encouraged to move here by a Moroccan government wanting to make its illegal occupation of Western Sahara harder to oppose through the de facto colonisation of the territory. As I’ve mentioned, the relocation of Moroccans to Western Sahara began with the Green March when Spain abandoned this territory 34 years ago, and continues today with tax incentives.

There are certainly enough signs of wealth amongst the Moroccan people here – men in suits, women wearing Western-style clothes, bank guards carrying semi-automatics with the safety catches off… – to suggest that Morocco’s professional class is firmly entrenched here. But slowly, starting to recognise the traditional dress of the Sahrawi, we realised that many of the people we were speaking to, buying food from, sitting next to, were Sahrawis – the indigenous “desert people” of the region.

This explained something of the city’s odd atmosphere to us – a statement which itself probably needs a bit of explaining. So here’s a brief background on the situation in Western Sahara – a situation which doesn’t seem to hit the world’s headlines. (I’ll come to the wedding soon, honest.)

When Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975, a violent war between Morocco and the Sahrawi independence organisation Polisario followed, ending with a ceasefire in 1991. In the same year, the UN’s MINURSO mission arrived, deployed for one year, to monitor a referendum on the future of the territory.

MINURSO is still here. The referendum still hasn’t happened. While neither side is angelic, Morocco has, over the years, led the Sahrawis – and the international community – on a merry dance of delay tactics, including what some have called the serious undermining/controlling of MINURSO – which Morocco, with the help of its security council friends (especially France and Bush’s US), has helped to ensure remains the only UN peacekeeping force in the world without a mandate to monitor human rights.

According to those who know, human rights monitoring is desperately needed. From Human Rights Watch: “The government bans peaceful demonstrations and refuses legal recognition to human rights organizations; the security forces arbitrarily arrest demonstrators and suspected Sahrawi activists, beat them and subject them to torture, and force them to sign incriminating police statements, all with virtual impunity; and the courts convict and imprison them after unfair trials.”

Sahrawi families and communities have also been physically separated by the conflict. Some live in this Moroccan occupied part of Western Sahara, others live in the Polisario controlled zone east of the 2000-kilometre, land-mined wall Morocco built to partition the country – a Berlin wall in the desert. Others still live in refugee camps in Algeria – and some of those refugees, only a year younger than I am, have known nothing else; this is one of the world’s longer running conflicts.

So Laayoune has baffled us a bit. The most confounding thing, to us, has been the appearance – despite the UN forces, despite the military presence, despite the torture – of total normality. Life carries on. The occupiers and the occupied live side by side, walk the same streets, pass by each other thousands of times a day without anything happening – at least nothing that three weeks here as tourists has revealed. (I’m not old enough to know, but I wonder whether this has always been the way with colonies: whether, in day to day life, the minds of both colonisers and colonised perform all sorts tricks to avoid acknowledging reality. Especially the colonisers, I suspect.)

In some ways, we’ve been playing the same game. Too nervous to mention politics, we’ve carried on as usual and just wonder quietly to ourselves – without daring to ask anyone – whether the man in the shop who told us the “local” word for rice rather than the Moroccan word was making a political point, or whether the stream of cars that drives through the city most days, horns blaring, passengers cheering, Sahrawi women waving their veils out of the window is a protest or a wedding party.

This was the mindset we were in when, walking through Laayoune one night, we heard loud, live music blaring from behind a wall. Seeing an open gateway, we decided to poke our heads in to see if it was a concert. At the gateway, I noticed waiters carrying platters of food to groups of Sahrawi women sitting at tables. They were sitting under an open tent and outside, in the car park, a camel lay alongside the Toyota Landcruisers.

Realising it was a private event, I called out to Huw to stop. It was too late. Huw had reached the outer edge of the vortex of Sahrawi hospitality, been spotted, surrounded and, finally, drawn into the warm whirl of patterned veils and hennaed hands. Instants later, I was also discovered, held by the hand, offered food, given a seat, brought fruit juice, told I was welcome (”all Europeans are always welcome”), invited to dance, welcomed again and engaged in several conversations at once. It turned out to be a wedding. The bride and groom and most of the men were nowhere to be seen and the only people left – women and musicians – were enjoying themselves immensely.

It’s easy, in cities, to forget where you are physically, what landscapes surround the concrete bubble. At the wedding though, suddenly we were back in the desert. The rhythm of the music – drums and strings and singing – reminded me of the pace of a walking camel. The women danced, turning in circles on the same spot, with their arms and henna-painted hands doing most of the moving and their eyes – if they didn’t pull their veil completely over their heads when they started dancing – doing most of the communicating. Sometimes they danced in groups and sometimes alone, but they were always encouraged to keep dancing by rhythmic clapping from other women sitting or standing around them.

Huw and I narrowly escaped the dancing, and the eating (we’d just gorged ourselves in a restaurant). Instead we sat, while a stream of women came to talk to us. We were welcome, we were told (in fluent Spanish). We must stay. And, from one woman raising her hand in a fist and staring emphatically into my eyes: “We are not Moroccans. We are Sahrawis.”

It was the first time we’d heard the word Sahrawi in Western Sahara (we didn’t hear it once in Morocco). And with the look in her eye, Laayoune’s mask slipped a little for me, and I felt my first glimmer of understanding about the passions running under the surface here.

As I say, it was just a glimmer, and this blog is just our attempt – as relatively uninformed tourists – to make some sense of the situation here, which is obfuscated by propaganda on both sides. We don’t have strong preconceptions about the situation here, but we do have some: specifically, a belief in the rights of all people to self determination.

If you want a better understanding of what’s happening in Western Sahara, here are some links to people and organisations far better informed than we are:

Amnesty International
Global Voices
Human Rights Watch
Mahgreb Politics Review
One hump or two
Sand & Dust
The Moor Next Door
Western Sahara Info

Source : Listen to Africa , 03 juillet 2009 (Foto copyright Listen to Africa)

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