by Sara Green
I have never seen such an overt shift in perspective on a single subject since transitioning from life in Leeds to life in Rabat than the perspectives on the ‘Sahara Question’. Indeed, at home, we could pose it as a ‘question’, a problematisation, seeking a mutually satisfactory solution. Morocco’s occupation of the former Spanish Sahara (1975 – present) and the claim of self-determination by the Saharawi people seemed to me, as a student becoming increasingly focused on ‘post’-coloniality and how it manifests in the world today, a near ‘classic’ example of a colonial occupation. Going from when I first discovered this relatively obscure issue in the bluesy-yet-traditional music of Mariem Hassan providing a voice for exiled Sahrawis, to deciding to fully research the impacts and traumas of the occupation and how it affected Sahrawi cultural memory, the semantics in both the poetry, songs, oral traditions and the academia alike were clear. These semantics, of injustice, trauma, violence and exploitation, seemed to reflect not just a sense of historical truth, but of a continued struggle of all occupied peoples, from the Gaza Strip to Kashmir. Indeed, anyone that I tentatively showed my research to when it was published in Volume 6 of the Leeds Human Rights Journal met the issue with surprise, sympathy and solidarity.
This sense of security was challenged on my arrival in Rabat, and not in a way that I had expected or prepared myself for. The contentiousness of this issue was not expressed in an angry or indignant defensiveness over Morocco’s ‘sovereignty’ in the Sahara, but instead by a profound silence. This manifested in the smallest of ways; I had a professor who loved to tell us about the diverse and beautiful types of Moroccan dress, from the bejewelled and elaborate Takchitas to the simple Jellabahs for throwing over your pyjamas and wandering through the medina. But missing from this was the equally colourful and floating Sahrawi Melhfa dress, a style that is just as visible in Rabat as the others. Similarly, we have a lot of discussions surrounding the issue of ethnic diversity and inclusion in Morocco at university. Whilst the Amazigh are the typical example given to problematize this issue, you will never hear the word ‘Sahrawi’ in this context. It is in this silence that a profound contradiction exists in the argument for the ‘Moroccan Sahara’. If Morocco’s claim over the territory is predicated on a deep historical, cultural link, why are the Sahrawi so profoundly absent from mainstream Moroccan cultural narratives?
The answer gleans something else about coloniality; that this ‘silence’ is perhaps deeply socialised, even becoming subconscious. The examples of Sahrawi exclusion from cultural narratives are striking in just how earnest they are – how excited my professor was to make us aware of how diverse and beautiful Moroccan traditions are, and how serious these discussions about diversity are about eliciting a positive change in Moroccan perspectives. The exclusion of the Sahrawi is therefore deeply ingrained. I remember another person bringing up the idea of the ‘Western Sahara’ in deeply sarcastic air-quotes, as if the Sahrawi claim on the territory was so deeply illegitimate, and laughable, that the joke needed no explaining.
This illustrates the way in which the ‘Marche Verte’ (Green March) is framed, ostensibly a National holiday celebrating King Hassan II’s call upon all Moroccans to march over the Spanish Sahara’s border to ‘liberate’ the territory in 1975. Though I find the characterisation of this event as an innovative, peaceful ‘anti-colonial’ triumph deeply faulty, the way in which it is rationalised is reminiscent of how the British ourselves rationalised our colonial exploits:
‘From a desert where there was no infrastructure, where the meager populations were abandoned, where health care and education were non-existent, Moroccan efforts have enabled the development of territories now [sic] have roads, airports, ports, cities, health services, schools, water desalination plants, electric networks. New resources have been made of value including fishery resources, renewable energy and tourism.’
(Abderrahmane Naji, Wall Street International Magazine, 2015)
This narrative of occupation as ‘enabl[ing] development’, and of resource exploitation as ‘mak[ing] of value’ echoes so heavily the narratives of the British presence in India, in North America, in all peripheral communities to whom we supposedly brought ‘enlightenment’. It is from this position that makes my criticism of the ‘Moroccan Sahara’ so deeply uncomfortable, considering how present this narrative still is in our patronising treatment of the ‘Third World’ Other. In spite of this, I will tentatively argue that this continued exclusion of the Sahrawi from Moroccan cultural canon not only undermines the argument of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara, but strengthens the international call for the implementation of MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) wherein the Sahrawi perspective on this ‘Question’ can finally be heard.
Image sourced: http://www.essaouira.nu/calendar_green_march.htm