Much ado about nothing (or: To be, or Not to be)

11 – 14 March 2014
Western Sahara

This is not really Morocco, you know?’ I’m surprised to hear the man sitting at my restaurant table say it at all, let alone out loud in a public place, let alone at a border crossing. It could get him in a lot of trouble if the omnipresent Moroccan police hear it. He’s a Saharawi, the traditional inhabitants of the Western edge of the Sahara desert. Genetically they’re mostly Berber with some Arab and black African thrown in; culturally, they’re mostly Arab with some Berber and black African elements. Nomadic herders with a strongly independent mindset, many Saharawi feel this part of the world ought to be an independent nation called the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. If you ask the Moroccan government, they’ll tell you these are their Southern Provinces, an integral part of Morocco. To most of the world, it’s known as the Western Sahara.
I enter it in the middle of the night. By now, the bus has been driving for six hours already. After leaving the relaxed seaside town of Sidi Ifni, the only stops have been at Guelmim and Tantan. Now we’re on the N1, Morocco’s longest National Autoroute. Despite its prestigious name, and the fact that this is the most important trans-Saharan highway west of Egypt, the road is terrible; so rough that the bus is rattling all the way, and not even wide enough for two busses or trucks to pass each other without moving onto the hard shoulder. Later on, I meet a German overlander who suffered eye damage when a truck coming the other way didn’t move over and hit his door mirror, causing it to fly in his face. Thankfully the CTM bus drivers are very safe. I try to sleep through the night as much as possible; something that’s made difficult by the frequent police checkpoints, where I have to show my passport and state my profession time and time again. Around sunrise, we enter the Western Sahara’s largest city, Laayoune. It’s more modern, clean and pleasant than pretty much any other city I’ve seen in Morocco; the government is pouring money into the development of the few cities in the “Southern Provinces”, and it shows.
After a short stop (during which the sun comes up and 2-year-old Said makes a drawing in my notebook) we continue our journey, and for the first time I get to see the landscape we’re driving through. It’s literally awesome. Western Sahara is probably the most appropriately named territory in the world; it’s simply the Western end of the desert. Beyond it, the desert abruptly stops and the ocean begins. It’s a wild coastline, with cliffs and small secluded beaches, sometimes with a shipwreck slowly being broken down by the elements. It stretches on for more than a thousand kilometers, and apart from three small cities, a few tiny settlements and the odd fisherman’s shack, it’s completely deserted. The N1 is hardly ever more than a kilometer away from the coastline, and sometimes as close as thirty meters.
Knowing that there’s 5000 kilometers of desert to my left and 6000 kilometers of ocean to my right, not to mention that this’ll go on for the next 1110 kilometers, makes me realize just how insanely big the Sahara desert is, and how remote this particular spot on the planet. At first, there’s a fair number of scrubs on the ground; the combined effects of sea fog and the odd bit of winter rain provide just enough moisture to the coastal area (the interior of the Western Sahara is among the driest spots of the entire desert). We regularly pass Saharawi with black turbans and large herds of camels – there’re hardly any goats here, so it seems the camels themselves are the product. Further South, as we get out of reach from the winter rains, the landscape dries out even more and the camel herds disappear.
From 1884 until 1975, it was pretty clear what the area was: a Spanish colony by the name of Rio de Oro. Not that this chunk of flat, bone-dry land, the size of Great Britain, has any gold, or even any permanent rivers for that matter. In fact it has so little of anything that one can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about. Still, that didn’t stop the Moroccan government and the Algeria-based Polisario movement, made up of displaced Saharawi, from fighting a 16-year long war over the territory, followed by a cease-fire starting in 1991 and lasting until the present day – and probably well into the future. The International Court of Justice came to the conclusion that the Saharawi people have a sufficiently independent history to allow them to determine for themselves whether they want to be part of Morocco or not. The referendum needed to answer that question hasn’t taken place yet, because the Moroccan government and the Polisario can’t agree on whether the masses of government-subsidized Moroccan immigrants should get a vote.
That’s the legal dispute. In practice, the Moroccan military pushed back the Polisario in several waves, each time consolidating their newly won territory by constructing walls and minefields at the borders, displacing tens of thousands of Saharawi and making their nomadic lifestyle impossible in the progress. Morocco now controls over 75% of the area, so completely that it might as well be Morocco proper. The only signs that this is still disputed territory are the UN vehicles (there to make sure the cease-fire is respected) and the large number of police checkpoints (there to ‘ensure security’ and make sure no anti-Moroccan sounds are heard). Oh, and if you venture off-road in the wrong place, the landmine blowing you up might be a giveaway of the dispute, too… An American report estimates that whatever Morocco is gaining from the phosphate mines and the fishing rights, the costs of subsidizing the Moroccan immigrants and maintaining the military presence will always outweigh it, making the whole thing nothing but a prestige project.
Lunch is at a restaurant that’s part of a tiny settlement whose raison d’être is simply to cater to travelers on the N1. The menu consists of fish which can be had fried, fried or fried, with either bread or fries on the side. Being the adventurous mixing-it-up kinda guy that I am, I go for bread. I must say the fish is amazing; but then it ought to be, as it’s pretty much the only food that can be produced (or in this case caught) locally, and a fresh supply is literally only meters away. I meet an American photojournalist named Max. He’s on a different bus than I, but also headed to Dakhla; his plan is to continue towards Mauritania within one or two days, after which he’ll go to Dakar for an assignment. Since my basic plan is to go to Mauritania as well, he suggests we meet up at a Dakhla hotel rooftop. Several hours’ more desert driving later, my bus enters the Dakhla peninsula. It’s some 40 kilometers long and a few kilometers wide. The laguna inbetween the mainland and the peninsula is shallow and has very consistent wind but little to no waves; it’s a kitesurfer’s paradise. At low tide, the beach at the point where the peninsula is connected to the mainland stretches to the horizon – an awesome sight. Along both coasts of the peninsula are plenty of parked French campervanners (the weather’s great; almost guaranteed sunshine, with only 34mm of rain per year, and a nice cool breeze). Dakhla itself is for the most part modern, just like Laayoune. There’s an old cathedral from the Spanish days; it incorporates domed roofs inspired by the local architecture, on which domed mud roofs used to be a signature feature. I’m not sure if the Spanish knew it was a sign of poverty, indicating that one couldn’t afford wood (which was and is precious in this desert environment) to construct a roof out of…
Meanwhile, my plan to find Max and plan our journey to Mauritania together is thwarted by the hotel’s rooftop bar being closed for renovations, and I can’t find him anywhere else. So I spend the next few days scouring the peninsula, trying to find other tourists who want to go South, but it turns out most of them are perfectly happy to be at end-of-the-world-Dakhla, and have no intention of diving into West Africa’s chaos. Eventually I give up and just book a place on a shared taxi to Mauritania, and spend the rest of my time in Dakhla stocking up for the journey ahead and enjoying the weather. I visit the local Ensemble Artisanal to buy some Saharawi type earrings for my sisters, watch a football match on TV (Barcelona-ManCity, after a few men on a terrace invite me to join them), and try to send the birthday presents I bought to my sisters. Long story short, I get sent from the post office to customs and back, with the predictable result that by the time I’m back there, it’s too late to send my package that day – despite a customs officer, with typical Southern-Moroccan helpfulness, driving me back to the post office in his own car at breakneck pace (at least it has a working seatbelt)! Guess I’ll just have to send the package from Mauritania then…
Early the next morning, I get picked up by the taxi going to Mauritania. I feel slightly bummed that I haven’t been able to find out more about the local attitudes towards the Saharawi independence cause. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the Moroccan government’s habit of coming down hard on anyone publicly voicing opposition to the Moroccan control over the Western Sahara. Then, at a restaurant just meters from the Mauritanian border, I meet the brave (or foolish) man I started this story with… Still, even he doesn’t dare to get any more detailed than saying that ‘what Morocco does here is not right’ and ‘there’re a lot of problems here’. With such control over most of the Western Sahara, there’s little doubt in my mind that in practice, Morocco’s Southern Provinces will ‘be’, and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic will ‘not be’, even if most of the international community disagrees…

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