Saturday, September 8, 2012

#938 Western Sahara, Morocco


An area that so fascinated me that I wrote my university thesis about it: the Western Sahara is one of the little-known dormant conflict areas of the world. Originally the Rio de Oro that belonged to Spain, domestic issues in Spain under Franco meant that they needed to rapidly divulge themselves of this territory, and in 1975, in entered Morocco. At times claimed by Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Mali and itself (independence), despite Morocco's staunch claim of ownership, officially it's status is currently unresolved and has a UN mandate renewed each year: it is a stalemate as the various parties involved cannot agree on the status of voters for a referendum. Many Sahrawis live in camps just across the walled border with Algeria but Morocco controls it, and it is one of the most interesting and unusual places I've ever visited!

When I went in 2001, I traveled by land the 1000 or so kilometers and was astounded that the entire trip there were really only two very small settlements in the entire area - Layoune and Dakhla. The rest is barren, stark desert meeting the sea. There are no rivers, there are no mountains, just dunes, cliffs, wind and a feeling of having dropped off the end of the world. We traveled by bus, and at various stages of the 8-hour journey between the two cities, there were military checkpoints -- little more than small brick huts, really. All the foreigners got off the bus (my American friend and I, a couple of Mauritanians, a Malian) and our information was recorded in a little book. So remote was the outpost that the man at the checkpoint could not read or write Latin lettering (only Arabic), despite the fact that Moroccans are typically very well educated in French, and I had to write our names for him.

I dream of going back in a 4WD and camping on the beach, and exploring the hundreds of shipwrecks that are the only landmarks on the beaches, victims of the extreme currents caused by the Atlantic stream being channeled between the Canary Islands and the North African coast. The Western Sahara doesn't have much, really: its resources are its rich fishing grounds (A Korean fish processing factory was the only building not in the two towns) which it leases to foreign vessels, and phosphorus, a primary ingredient in fertilizers. Recently, bohemian travelers are adopting Dakhla, in particular, as a destination for kite-surfing (it made the New York Times list of 45 places to visit in 2012).

Apologies for the grainy film photos -- crops of scans never look very good!

Here's a passage I wrote years ago:
After having finished a year of study in Morocco, studied the politics and history of the Western Sahara extensively, I decided it would be unfair not to visit. I heard friends say how boring and uninteresting the trip down was, but that was probably the thing I wanted to see most… the emptiness. I planned my trip by jumping right in: flying from Casa to Dakhla, as far south as civilians could go.
The first thing to notice (and you can tell this by looking at a map is how little of the Sahara is really populated. Two “cities”, really more like frontier towns, Dakhla and Layoune, and a town half way, Boujdour, to break up the monotony of flat desert. The landscape truly reflects the nomadic history and nature of the people. In the restrictions of a tourist trip and limitations of a student budget, I only had relatively few small glimpses of this region and people—an American educated young Saharwi on the plane who showed us around and welcomed us, taking us to an enormous fishing factory (among many, this one was Korean and Moroccan owned). Endless flat, straight roads of sand, desert and coast, 7 or 8 road checkpoints, where the attendants spoke no English and very little French (the same as everyone else on the bus). They could barely copy the lettering of our name, birthplace and nationality while he (always male) asked in Arabic if we were married (and did we want to be?) and why on earth we would journey to the Sahara? Two single white women when so few Moroccans ever venture so far south. I saw remnants of a Spanish culture only peeking through in the architecture and place names (Arabic is the only strong colonization that’s ever lasted here). I saw an endless flat very dry landscape along a rugged, wild Atlantic coast which wasn’t broken by a single hill or tree until leaving the “super south” (disputed area).
The women’s Saharwi clothing named -------- was appropriate for sandstorms and heat. Yet the May weather I saw was not desert-like at all—it was actually quite cool in the evenings—perhaps a sea breeze? Looking out to sea—perhaps the Canary Islands could be seen on a clear day? I saw little of the famed high sand wall, though I did meet with a French UN guy in an email café/cyber shop, and saw many UN vans (it’s still patrolled by peacekeeping forces). Someone told me there’s a Korean restaurant somewhere in the middle of nowhere—and for all I know they’re probably right! Not that I saw anything but camel-crossing signs and men swarthed in blue robes and ties.
I spoke politics with few or no man, but every Northern Moroccan had to reaffirm how much the Western Sahara was theirs and Polisario did not exist (maps depicting a divided country are illegal in Morocco). While large land-wise, the population is comparatively small—numbering a few hundred thousand at most—but industries include the newly discovered phosphorus (which Morocco will never relinquish), and fishing (an industry so large that Morocco wants to fishing sell rights to European fisherman so that they can get as much from a seemingly bottomless source). Really, there isn’t much there—but that is the beauty of it—a truly untouched, unseen, little-known Sahara land. It’s future is unknown but currently it is stable.

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