Western Sahara Poetry

The Poetics of Diplomacy: Poetry, Creative Short Prose and Diplomatic Discussions in Western Sahara and the Saharawi Diaspora

Image by Bartek Sabela

Western Sahara is, according to the UN, the only remaining colony in Africa. Spain colonised the country in 1884 then, in 1975, sold Western Sahara to Mauritania and Morocco through the illegal Madrid Accords. In exchange, Spain would get a future share in annual profits from the lucrative phosphate mine and continued rights to fish in Western Sahara’s waters. In October 1975 Morocco and Mauritania invaded, bombing the fleeing Indigenous population (the Saharawis) with napalm on at least four occasions. Saharawis that were unable to flee in 1975 and remained in the cities of Western Sahara today face terrible human rights abuses under an illegal Moroccan occupation. Saharawis that fled eastwards are based in refugee camps in the Algerian desert. These refugee camps also constitute the Saharawi state-in-exile: the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

The SADR controls the eastern rural regions of Western Sahara, and some Saharawi nomads continued to roam there until November 2020, when war resumed between Morocco and the Saharawi people’s liberation movement, the Polisario. Nomads now fear Moroccan drone attacks in the eastern parts of Western Sahara. Up until 2020, there had been a 29-year ceasefire between Polisario and Morocco (Mauritania pulled out of the war in 1979, and recognised the Saharawi Republic) brokered on the UN’s promise of a self-determination referendum on independence for Saharawis. Morocco initially agreed to this referendum, but then continuously blocked it and took advantage of the three-decade stalemate to move a Moroccan settler population into Western Sahara, which is a war crime. In the eighties, Morocco – with US and Saudi support – built the longest active military wall in the world, fortified with millions of landmines on both sides, to stop Polisario winning back any more territory.

Western Sahara’s anti-colonial struggle is, unfortunately, not well-known globally. Several poets explicitly wish to change this through their art. For example, a key, voiced aim of the Saharawi ‘Friendship Generation’ of poets, who compose and write principally in Spanish, is to raise awareness of the cause and sufferings of the Saharawi people internationally. The Friendship Generation have enjoyed several critical and literary successes since their formation in 2005, including the publication of dozens, if not hundreds, of poetry and short story collections between them. Despite this, Saharawi literature and oral traditions are still largely absent from Hispanic Studies courses in the UK and other Anglophone countries. The same is true for Saharawis composing and writing in Arabic with regards to Arabic Studies courses.

This project is a modest effort to contribute to filling some of these gaps in Modern Languages curricula. The researcher (Joanna Allan) aims to work with Saharawis to create more platforms for Saharawi poets in the UK, and to encourage greater engagement with their work here. Over the course of the project, Allan will be uploading some recordings and translations of Saharawi poems and poets’ life histories to this website. These recordings are part of a wider British Library Sound Archive Special Collection, to be launched Autumn 2023. Allan will also be sharing lesson plans, lecture slides, bibliographies and other teaching resources on Saharawi poetry (if you have your own resources and would be happy to share them, please get in touch: joanna.allan@northumbria.ac.uk), which lecturers and teachers are welcome to use if they wish. The blog will feature upcoming poetry readings, events and other updates on the project.

Official UN map of Western Sahara