17 Oct, 2019
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Western Sahara

Saharawi Culture


The Saharawis are ethnically mixed descendants of Berbers, Arabs, and Black Africans. They speak an Arabic dialect called Hassaniya and have practiced Sunni Islam since the late 7th century. The Saharawis come from 22 different tribes, although tribal affiliation has much less importance today than in previous centuries. Before the arrival of Spanish colonists, the Saharawis lived nomadic lives, travelling from central Mauritania to southern Morocco and into eastern Algeria. The majority, though, lived and herded camel and goats throughout the territory that today is known as the Western Sahara.

The Saharawis have always been fiercely independent. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the nomads banded together to defend their homeland against exploratory expeditions by the Spanish and Portuguese. At the Conference of Berlin in 1884, Spain obtained a protectorate in the Saharawis’ homeland that would eventually become known as the Spanish Sahara. Spanish colonization did not come easily, however, as the Saharawis’ intimate knowledge of the desert allowed them to stage a lengthy resistance struggle. It was not until the 1930s that Spain, with the help of the French, was able to “pacify” the Saharawis and begin to formalize its control. In the 1950s, the Spanish discovered the Western Sahara’s great phosphate wealth, and began to invest in infrastructure and administration in a colony that they had largely left vacant. To encourage Saharawis to work in the phosphate mines, the Spanish set up schools and cheap housing in some of the main Western Saharan cities close to the mines at Bou Craa. With these new opportunities, many Saharawis began to give up their nomadic lifestyles and settle in the cities. It was in these years that the first ideas of a Saharawi nation began to emerge. When Morocco’s invasion in 1975 forced Spain’s hasty withdrawal, the Saharawis continued their resistance; this time against the neighboring North African state. Thanks to their 35-year struggle for independence from Morocco, the Saharawis have a very highly developed sense of national identity that is based on the linking of a modern state with older Saharawi traditions. While most Saharawis today live a more sedentary lifestyle, there are still many that herd camel across the desert. Centuries-old nomadic games are still taught to the children. Traditional, unique clothing is still worn by Saharawis of all ages: a blue, robe-like dara’a and a black turban for the men, and colorful, full-body melfas for the women.

Perhaps the most important tradition in Saharawi culture is the process of making and drinking tea. Several times a day, Saharawi families, coworkers, and friends gather around a stove and tea pot to sip three rounds of sweetened green tea: the first bitter like life, the second smooth like death, and the third sweet like love. The whole process can take more than an hour, and Saharawis pride themselves on their abilities to make a great tea. In years past, tea was important for Saharawi nomads for hydration, passing the time in solitude, and sharing stories and news with passers-by or family members. Tea rituals by the Saharawis serve much the same purpose today, especially for those who live in the refugee camps.

Today, the Saharawis are split into a number of populations: those living under Moroccan occupation in the Western Sahara, those living in the refugee camps in Algeria, and those living abroad in countries like Mauritania, Spain, Italy, Norway, Cuba, and the United States. Saharawis have once again become nomads, only this time, their paths take them across the globe rather than across the desert; and their quest is for freedom, rather than water for their herds.

Recent History

“We are a small nation, but when you are fighting with your heart, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose, except your chains. ”
-Malainin Lakhal, Secretary General of Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union

The war over the Western Sahara has passed through many stages, but the conflict between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front – the independence movement of the Saharawi people – has kept the Maghreb region in a state of tension for over three decades. At stake is not only the stability of the region, but also the legitimacy of the UN, and the lives of over 150,000 Saharawi refugees living in neighboring Algeria. In the 1960s, when decolonization was picking up steam around the globe, the UN began to put pressure on Spain to allow for the self-determination of the Saharawis of the Western Sahara, who had lived under Spanish control since 1884. In 1967, the Saharawis organized a non-violent resistance to the Spanish colonial presence.When nonviolent protests failed, a group of Saharawi university students studying in Morocco formed a guerilla movement in 1973 to oppose Spanish rule through armed struggle.

PolisarioIn 1975, (while Spain began to pull its people out in the early 1970s, it did not fully remove its administrators and relinquish its control of the territory until February 1976 – 4 months after the Green March) the Moroccan King, Hassan II, sent the Royal Moroccan Army (FAR) and over 350,000 Moroccan civilians into the Western Sahara (an event which became known as the Green March) to occupy and annex the territory. At this time, tens of thousands of Saharawis fled the Moroccan forces and settled in neighboring Algeria. On February 27th, 1976, the day after Spain unofficially abandoned its former colony, the Polisario Front proclaimed the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as the legitimate government of the Western Sahara, which functions largely in exile to this day. The Polisario Front’s new Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (ALPS) quickly turned their focus to the Moroccans and Mauritanians in their drive for independence.

In 1979, the Mauritanians renounced their claims to the territory, while the armed conflict with Morocco continued until a UN-backed ceasefire was signed in 1991. Nineteen years later, the stalemate endures, with Morocco controlling the cities and coastal areas on the western side of a 1,500-mile-long military wall it constructed in the 1980s, and the Polisario Front administering the eastern side.

With the ceasefire – which was also sponsored by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – signed, the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) deployed to begin preparations for a free and democratic referendum for the Saharawi people. Throughout the decade, MINURSO struggled to create a list of voters that was acceptable to both the Moroccans and the Saharawis. A key sticking point has been Morocco’s insistence that its settlers who had arrived in the territory from 1975 onwards be allowed to vote, while the Polisario Front seeks to have the vote confined only to those Saharawis refugees forced to flee in 1975, and those still living in the Western Sahara. MINURSO remains in the Western Sahara to monitor the ceasefire and has continued to support an eventual referendum, though little concrete progress has been made on the issue. Two internationally-supported peace plans advanced in the last decade have failed to bring the two sides together, and current efforts have been directed at fostering greater cooperation and communication between Morocco and the Polisario Front.

Eighteen years after the signing of the ceasefire, the goal of self-determination for the Saharawis and the Western Sahara thus remains distant. The current status quo – called a situation of “neither war nor peace” by the Saharawis – is unsustainable.