Living in “disputed territories”

In some strange ways, the south of Morocco, or Western Sahara as it appears on maps, reminds me of trips to visit my family in Scotland. The motorway quickly ends, people are much more relaxed than the other half of the country, and there’s a lot of fishing going on. Weather-wise… not so much.

The King of Morocco is due to visit the capital of the region, El-Aioun, and his expected arrival is evidenced by the rapid repainting of speed bumps and pavement kerbs in fresh red-and-white stripes, and the abundance of fluttering Moroccan flags lining major roads throughout the city. One local resident tells me that one week before any royal visit, the entire local police force will be temporarily re-posted and replaced by colleagues from other parts of the country, just in case any willing to accept bribes in exchange for some turning of a blind eye lurk amongst their ranks.

The first time I arrived in Western Sahara, in 2015, I really knew nothing about it. It’s one of those places that you only hear about as a kind of ‘political hotspot’ – an all-too-common lazy over-simplification of a region as ‘dangerous’, ‘unstable’ or ‘oppressed’, often with little or no knowledge of the reality on the ground. I was surprised to find in El Aioun a spacious, modern city in the middle of the desert, certainly less materially prosperous than the north of Morocco (or at least by European standards), but where mosques around the city are packed with worshippers every time an adhan for one of the five daily prayers is made, and the markets and public squares come alive with family outings as the coolness of night descends.

It’s a strange mixture of Morocco and Mauritania here, with many of the former’s customs and delicacies, but the latter’s Hassaniyya dialect of Arabic and traditional daraa’ clothing. If you cross the border from Morocco south into Mauritania, you notice a phenomenon prevalent on either side of so many borders in the world. People wearing the same clothes, speaking the same dialect and holding the same values. The irony of the dispute over Western Sahara is that the borders separating nation states in this part of the world were not drawn by Morocco, Algeria or Mauritania, but by France, Spain and the UK. So it is that Western Sahara was once known as Spanish Sahara, and that Spanish words still occasionally creep into the local dialect, in contrast to the French influence on Moroccan and Mauritanian tongues. Even more ironic is the Mauritanian who will tell you Morocco was always part of Mauritania, the Moroccan who will tell you that Mauritania was always part of Morocco, and the historical truth that the two together, as well as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya were once collectively known as The Arab ‘West’ or ‘Maghreb’ or… ‘Morocco’.

I was recently asked my opinion of Morocco’s ‘occupation’ of Western Sahara, considering my stance and campaigning against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The more I think about it, the stranger the question seems. Moroccans and Sahrawis look the same, sound the same, eat the same food, marry each other, and share the same religion. Israel is a colonial project that has displaced the inhabitants of a country, and settled foreign nationals in their homes and cities. Morocco offer a benefit package of 2100 dirhams per month, per person, as well as a house for married couples, to displaced Sahrawis in Tindouf, across the border in Algeria, as an incentive for returning home, whereas Israel has consistently denied even the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine from refugee camps and countries in neighbouring countries and around the world. Morocco took control of Western Sahara through a peaceful ‘Green March’ in 1975, with hundreds of thousands of people holding a Moroccan flag in one hand and a copy of the Qur’an in the other. The State of Israel came into being in 1948 through a brutal campaign of massacre, fleeing and forced displacement.

Unfortunately, ‘disputed territories’ such as Western Sahara often become buzzwords for foreign observers, with a kind of manufactured concern or condemnation the respectable position for one to take. Although the obvious sites of Fes, Marrakech and Essaouira in the interior of Morocco provide a tourist haven, trips to Western Sahara are relatively rare. When I suggested to someone who had recently visited Morocco to try visiting the south of the country, they replied that they had heard Agadir was beautiful – the very city where the interior (and the motorway) end, and the Sahara begins.

With events currently happening in the world, you won’t hear about a place like El Aioun. A Muslim community where people go to the mosque to pray, people have jobs and can find a place to live with their family, and healthy and locally-produced food is affordable and plentiful. In other words, it’s not much of a news story.

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