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In November 2019, at the age of 83 and after living the last half of his life in the Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf, in the southwestern part of the Algerian desert, the Sahrawi poet Mohamed Mustafa Mohamed Salem – known as “Badi” – passed away.
He was born in 1936 in Ausserd and learned singing and poetry from the women around him. Like 170,000 other refugees, he fled his homeland after Morocco occupied two-thirds of it with the withdrawal of colonial Spain.
Between 1963 and 1965, the former Spanish Sahara was declared by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization a “non-self-governing territory to be decolonized”. Eight years later, the Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro), the Sahrawi independence movement, was formed.
In 1975, Spain, Mauritania and Morocco signed the Madrid Accords, in which control was irregularly transferred from Spain to the two states, but this transfer was not recognized by any nation in the world. All this took place, without consulting the Sahrawis or the United Nations, which were further challenged by King Hassan with the staging of the “Green March” of 350,000 Moroccans in Western Sahara.
Thus, war began between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan forces. Between 1980 and 1987, the Morocco Wall, the largest defensive structure in the world, was gradually set up: it is a 2,700 km long sand embankment with over seven million mines.
The war was fought for 16 years, and ended with an UN-mediated ceasefire. A referendum was to be organized by the UN, but since then Morocco, with the support of its allies, has obstructed the process in different ways. Meanwhile Morocco has been controlling the territory, exploiting natural resources and violating the human rights of the Saharawi people living there. The international community has done little to prevent this situation. The ceasefire has been broken on in November 2020 and war has been resumed.
For almost 50 years, Saharawi refugees have been living in camps set up in Tindouf, an arid region of southwestern Algeria, depending on humanitarian aid for survival. Beyond the tents, the desert opens up to the immensity, to the dream of being able to return home, but its endless emptiness disconcerts abruptly and becomes a reminder that the situation may never change, that the freedom so longed for, maybe just a desert mirage.
Saharawi culture is an oral culture, like the great ancient Greek epic literature. In the past, in fact, when most of this people moved among the pastures with animals, transplanting themselves from one place to another, poetry was the main tool to spread news among the dispersed groups or to pass on the names of places and practices useful to the shepherds. Unlike neighboring Mauritania, poetry had nothing to do with social class or gender. In short, the songs and verses preserved and transmitted the folklore, secrets and wisdom of the Sahrawi people in a widespread way.
During the war, there was a radical transformation not only from a structural and metric point of view, but thematically: poetry became politically and socially committed. In singing, the voice of Mariem Hassan is visceral and passionate and made her a legendary singer of the resistance movement. Her songs were both a weapon and a source of education and inspiration in opposing the occupation.
Although most of contemporary Saharawi literature is composed in refugee camps, the lyrics still manage to communicate the multifaceted images and perceptions. Their verses are vibrant war songs, tender memories of the steppes of childhood, inflamed political prayers or heartbreaking cries for the distant motherland.
“Poets explain humanity and what it is to be human. The true poetry should be close to truth, honest to what you feel and true to yourself” said Badi.
Words therefore take on the dual sacred duty of remembering lost places and knowledge and, at the same time, living the present and while questioning and transforming it; by opposing the erasure of Saharawi identity, art translates and softens the pain of the older ones and the feeling of disorientation of the younger ones. It is difficult to feel tied to a land that has never been known and to understand the “appocundria” (an almost untranslatable Neapolitan word meaning “mix of loneliness, nostalgia and dissatisfaction”) of the older ones.
In this way, the fracture between the two generations is healed, the generation of children, who speak “Rabuni-Hassaniyya”, the dialect of the refugee camps, and who feel that the practices and customs of their parents are foreign to them; and the generation of fathers and mothers, who try to remember the landscapes never seen since the occupation and exile.
Thus, culture, in a situation of hardness and adversity like this one, is the main instrument of personal expression, collective identity and community development, also and above all in its principles of non-violent resistance: it blends popular wisdom and innovative ideas, roots and wings.
This is the case of Mohamed Sulaiman, an internationally renowned artist, who grew up living in a tent at Smara Refugee Camp. For Mohamed, as for most other Sahrawis, the tent represents their history, it is their home, where the nomads lived, it is where they discuss and drink tea.
After the dismantling of the Gdeim Izik camp (occupied Western Sahara), on 8th November 2010, the Moroccan authorities totally banned the installation of tents, but after the prohibition of the khaimas, many Sahrawis insisted on building them on their roofs as a form of resistance against Moroccan assimilation.
It is precisely by a tent that the design of the small art space at Motif Art Studio is somehow inspired. The education and creation studio was founded by Mohamed Suliaman in 2016 and opened in April 2017, after a whole year of construction using almost entirely recycled materials found in the camp, for example car pieces. The studio manages to appear, on the one hand traditional, with its four doors typical of desert dwellings (if the wind blows in a certain direction, you can simply close the door from which the sand comes in and open another one) and on the other hand innovative, with walls made of reused materials, so that it looks like a Mondrian canvas, of which Mohamad is a big fan. The artist is a great experimenter of new artistic practices, even in exploring burning issues such as climate change and eco-sustainable development.
An example is “The Great Wave of Plastic”, a piece consisting in visually recreating Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” through different plastic products. The project, both environmental and artistic, serves as a plea on the alarming situation of plastic pollution.
Mohamed Sulaiman has a very environmentally conscious lifestyle, living a rather minimalist life, like his ancestors. Motif’s mission is to engage in projects that focus on the central theme (or “motif”) of perpetuating sustainable lifestyles for the Sahrawis in refugee camps and the theme of self-determination.
Creative resistance is a non-violent weapon, but it can strike with strength and determination: theatre, painting, music can send direct and important messages without causing deaths, only by hitting people’s conscience. Non-violent and peaceful methods are rooted in the traditional culture of the Sahrawi people and art is one of the most noble and elegant of them.
Pablo Picasso said, “Painting was not created to decorate walls. It is an instrument of war, defensive and offensive, used against the enemy”.
There are many interesting projects, for example those of organizations such as ARTifariti and Shouts against the Wall; a museum has been set up in the refugee camps to show the numerous cases of forced disappearances, killings and torture of Sahrawi activists.
These projects are not a mere passive attitude of absence of violence, but a constant active action to convert violence into its opposite.
It is important to raise awareness because the more time passes; the more culture and recent history is forgotten or buried.
Mohamed Moulud Yeslem constitutes an interesting example, his artistic production focuses on spreading the fascination of Saharawi traditions, but also on denouncing the severity of life in the desert and informing about the struggle fought by the Saharawi people.
This is exemplified by the project “For every mine a flower”, where an artificial flower was planted for each mine sown in front of the Moroccan wall. The danger of the numerous mines present in the area increases because, having been sown superficially, with the rainfall and sandstorms they move, so any place near the Wall becomes potentially deadly. The beauty of the project was also the intense international collaboration: paper, plastic and fabric flowers were sent from different countries, such as Spain, Mexico, Peru, and Argentina.
These are common and humble materials, but inside they have an inestimable power, that of transforming misery, modesty, simplicity into resistance.
To educate to nonviolence means to educate to stand up and face what is opposed to you, with proud morality. In addition, this helps to build a civil society in Western Sahara aware of their human rights.
“With a strong will you can do everything. My children can live as orphans, but they cannot live without dignity”, quoting Aminatou Haidar, one of the greatest Sahrawi activists; imprisoned, tortured, her hunger strike has turned the hearts of the world on fire, winning numerous awards for her courage and significant contribution to human rights in her country.
Such actions and personalities underline the centrality of law and dialogue with power, in an attempt to induce power itself to respect its legality.
Disobeying, provocatively and peacefully iniquitous orders, raising conscientious objections against morally intolerable behavior and, at the same time, recalling and reviving your own traditions, enlivening mythical roots, legends and customs, all this prefigures a non-violent society aware of its own history.
All this contributes to making us what we are.