Ask a Sahrawi about poetry, and it’s most likely that neither the title of a book nor a poem will come to his or her mind; however, it’s just as likely that he or she will be able to cite the names of the most well-known poets and even recite several poems by memory, and this is because traditional Sahrawi poetry in Hassaniya—language of the Sahrawis—continues to be oral, despite the effort in recent years to write it down and archive it, as a measure to prevent it from disappearing along with its authors. During the Spanish colonial era, Sahrawi poetry and culture in general was hardly given any importance.
Far from any external influence, this poetry continued its journey by way of its traditional vehicle, i.e., from one mouth to another and nesting in the prodigious memory of bards, singers, and poetry-lovers. Even today Sahrawi poetry maintains its classic form; it hasn’t varied over the years; the rhyme and meter haven’t undergone any changes to speak of; and the content is still practically the same—religious, didactic, and educational poetry, romantic poetry, poetry of the land—but we also must add patriotic or revolutionary poetry which is incorporated into these themes at the advent of the struggle for Sahrawi independence. I think the most positive thing Spain has handed down to us in nearly a century of colonialism has been the language that for most Sahrawis counts as their first, even before Arabic.
When Spain abandoned the territory and Morocco entered to occupy it, the Castilian language, along with many other social and cultural factors, became a form of identity—a way for Sahrawis to distinguish themselves from the Francophone tendency. That importance which the Castilian language acquired made the Sahrawis decide to keep it and teach it in their schools, as their official language. This may also have been the incentive that led many Sahrawis (the youth especially) to write their first poems in Castilian, which constitutes an action against the occupation of the Sahara and a way of informing the world of the atrocities of the war waged by Morocco, along with the suffering, pain, and disgrace of an abandoned, innocent people left in the hands of Fate, and of course it also shined light on the Sahrawis’ hopes for a better future and their constant faith in victory.
It was, and in a certain way still is, a rebellious and vindictive poetry, which perhaps can be framed as what has come to be called socially committed poetry. However, it has not eschewed its mixture of manifestations, styles, and poetic movements, with the clearly vanguardista tendency, in form as much as content. It makes a clean break with the poetry in Hassaniya with regards to form, naturally without forgetting the fusion of the tradition of a nomadic Bedouin culture in all its facets and wealth with the modernity of contemporary poetry worldwide and especially Hispanic American poetry.
Sahrawi poetry in Castilian sings first and foremost the patria, the longing for the homeland, and the lost home that has been taken away or perhaps never known. This is justified by the circumstances of the exodus, war, exile, and the recent years of peace without peace, which began with the 1991 ceasefire that, to this day, has served no purpose. Sahrawi poetry also explores themes as universal as love, social relationships, and Nature.
Sahrawis tend to say that the best way to get to know the geography of the territory is through poetry—I mean, in Hassaniya. There practically doesn’t exist the most remote holographic feature that hasn’t been named in a poem. Themes like cohabitation, tolerance, themes with unfortunate currency, like war, emmigration, the exploitation of human beings, misery, and famine form part of the Sahrawi poetic. Without being “a beautiful fruit, or perfect product,” as the poet says, Sahrawi poetry in Castilian is still breaking its trail, is still young, and needs to be read, to consolidate, and show its worth. Not much has been published about this poetry or literature in general. Many poets and narrators write in this language, but few expect their work to be published someday. Let’s hope their wrong.
[Translated from Spanish by Joseph Mulligan. This text by Ebnu is the introduction to the anthology of contemporary Sahrawi poetry, Bubisher (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 2003), with poems by Limam Boisha, Luali Lehsan, Mohamed Salem Abdelfatah, Saleh Abdalahi, Ali Salem Iselmu, and Chejdan Mahmud.]