Traces of Gta’

Ali Laman, researcher, Bahia Awah poet-translator, and the poet Sidi Brahim uld Eydud, in the region of Tiris, G. Sheirug

Streaks of dispute crosscut contemporary Sahrawi poetics, often to contend Morocco’s presence in the territory of Western Sahara or to expose the conflict’s aftermath of diaspora and displacement. This aesthetic feature is so pronounced and seemingly so essential to Sahrawi literature that one is inclined to think that it owes its entire existence to the Moroccan invasion itself and that, if King Hassan II had woken up on the other side of the bed that morning in 1976 and decided the day was not propitious for an invasion, preferring, let’s say, to stick his tongue out at Giscard d’Estaing or simply to scratch his sides and go back to sleep, then this polemical attitude in Sahrawi poetry might never have come into being. The historical arc of this literature, however, shows us that fifty years prior to the formation of the Generación de amistad saharaui and its condemnation of the Moroccan occupation, Sidi Brahim uld Salama uld Eydud (1902–1993) and Yedehlu uld Badah uld Esid (1902–1982) had put in question the role of Spain (Western Sahara’s former occupier) and its influence on Sahrawi culture, by innovating the poetic genre of gta’. In the following, I show how the spirit of Salama and Yedehlu’s enterprise persists in the contemporary poetics of Mohamed Salem Abdelfatah Ebnu and Limam Boisha.

The Third Wave of Sahrawi literature [1] arose between the 1940s and 1970s through oral poems composed in Hassaniya Arabic by Badi uld Mohamed Salem, Ljadra mint Mabruk, Bachir uld Ali Abderrahaman, Moulud uld Husein, Zaim uld Alal, Elhasin uld Brahim, Bonana uld Buseif, Mustafa uld Elbar, Alal uld Daf, Ahmed Mahmud uld Omar, Sidi Brahim uld Salama uld Eydud, and Yedehlu uld Badah uld Esid. While critical consensus affirms that Badi was the foremost revolutionary poet of his generation,[2] the poems of Salama and Yedehlu reveal unmistakable poetic innovation and striking continuity between the Third Wave oral tradition in Hassaniya and Sahrawi poetry written in Castilian today. Had the Moroccan army not burned Salama’s Echederia home to the ground in the Spring of 1976, incinerating “hundreds of manuscripts, thousands of poems, dozens of beautiful women’s names he’d sung, the names of the legendary hills of Tiris, campsites, valleys, frig, [3] and the stories of Sahrawi weddings,” we would know much more about the history of Sahrawi literature than we do today, but what those soldiers didn’t know, we must remember, as they lit the bard’s home ablaze, or what they chose to ignore as they received the order, is that “poetry survives the passing of time and that, by trying to kill it, they were actually bringing it to life.” [4]

From the mid-1930s into the early 1970s, Salama and Yedehlu composed, among other things, what in Hassaniya is called لكطاع (gta’), an essentially dialectical poetry that embodies a feud as a means of addressing controversial topics. Among these poetic disputes, of particular interest is their debate on the invention of sedentary life as a replacement for the nomadic tradition, which played out in a poetic discourse that shaped the trajectory of Sahrawi avant-garde poetics with the same radicalism as it electrified the territory’s revolutionary politics and ultimately paved the way for the Harakat Tahrir led by Basiri [5] and the eventual formation of the Polisario Front. Through the poetic form of gta’, Salama and Yedehlu pitted the traditional ideal of nomadic life on el-badia against the heavily propagandized Spanish contrivance of the Saharan urban center. Writes Bahia Awah:

Salama broke into the genre called gta’ by challenging Yedehlu to a long duel of colorful topics at different stages of his life; but in this literary face-off they were not the exponents or archetypes of style, as in the hard-fought battles of quevedogongoran disputes. Far from the satirical sonnets with which Góngora and Quevedo mutually harassed one another, Salama and Yedehlu remarkably showcased this minor genre to place gta’ in a context of great social interest between the two great pillars of high literature: epic and lyric. [6]

As early as 1947, Yedehlu had abandoned nomadic life and settled in El Aaiún, foreshadowing the sedentarization campaigns that Spain would later promote in an attempt to monitor and curb political dissidence. Salama rejected urban life along with the notion that change in social organization was inevitable and, as the shadow of modernity was starting to cast across the immensity of the desert, the only refrain he could muster rang sadly utopian: “any past time would be better.” Despite their opposing views on the city-badia antagonism, Salama and Yedehlu were both fiercely nationalist, deeply committed to the future of Western Sahara nation-building and, ultimately, the Polisario cause. In the following verses, [7] Salama praises the vigorousness of Saharan life on el-badia and chides Yedehlu for his incurable urbanity:

Go tell Yedehlu, this home that cleanses
the soul teems with water, from Tishia
to El Mahyub, El Guetma to the Deyan
oasis, water in Bashabshub too & the
Ergab Ishirgan hills. It rained from there
just past Leglat, north of Derraman.
& where I stand, people overflow
with joy. I relish the full moon & our
migrations. Tell him the Sahara’s still
full of riders & men of letters & that,
between exhortations, I suggest he come
take a walk through these regions.

And Yedehlu’s replied:

Go tell dah [8] that the new-fallen rain
in Lehdab, the rivers & the valleys,
near him & the zone from Negyir
to Tiris, to the Elcurban ridge,
& the lovely strolls through the frig
of the Sahara, & my showy displays
of happiness, & women of my world,
have passed through my life without
my recollection, but I relished
them with the closest of cousins
& true friends. Tell him that when
I went to see him, he wasn’t there
to meet me, but preferred to take
the exam. Tell him to sit tight & be
more patient, this too is the place
where God’s gates swing wide open.

While Salama and Yedehlu were revolutionizing their art form and aligning their early 1970s politics with the policies of El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed and Brahim Gali who, with others, formed the Polisario Front, poets of the next generation were born and, a decade later, fled the embattled territory and found refuge in Cuba, [9] where they completed primary, secondary, and post-secondary studies, before returning to the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, the new cultural hub of their displaced people. Mohamed Salem Abdelfatah Ebnu and Limam Boisha, among scores of others, share this history of the Cubarawi experience and, in their poetry, exhibit the enduring spirit of gta’.

In the thirty years that lapsed from the time Salama and Yedehlu were circulating their poems to the period in which Ebnu and Boisha were starting to publish theirs, the Spanish government had already turned its back on the Sahrawi cause and the UN’s inability to enforce a referendum had proved embarrassingly consistent. When the exiled government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was not completely ignored by Europe, it was met with feigned incomprehension, a strategy poet Luali Lehsan saw though, insisting that “[t]he language that the guts / of the South use to scream / is an enigma to the ears / of the North.” [10] But that show of mock-bewilderment is not new in the rusty cogs of old hegemonies, as another peripheral writer had also perceived, incising Europa for her neglect of developing nations nearly a century earlier: “Europe must at least admit that it knows us, doesn’t understand us, and doesn’t respect us. Why the deafness and silence?” [11]

Ebnu and Boisha contend with that deafness and silence by evoking the spirit of gta’ and, in this way, reinforce the continuity of Sahrawi history and literature. Akin to Salama and Yedehlu, these Fourth Wave poets don’t want to foment an aesthetic rivalry; they know that style is death. Their work breaks with the sectarian schools of the fin-de-siècle European Avant-garde tradition, whose influence few poets writing in Castilian today have successfully managed to avoid. Ebnu and Boisha are sufficed by their autochthonous voice to recover their confiscated past and raise awareness of social ignominies, especially the blocked referendum on self-determination and the Moroccan government’s unpunished war crimes.

Ebnu’s Voz de fuego (2003) and Nómada en el exilio (2008) are prime examples of how the spirit of Third Wave gta’ in Hassaniya has become a contending force of contemporary Sahrawi poetry written in Castilian. If in “Tribalism or Stones” the poet wants to disinherit certain outdated traditional cultural models (he claims to have more faith in the stones he uses to wipe his ass than in the tenets of the old social regime) which would suggest a generational divide, the poem “If tomorrow” confirms his pledge of solidarity and a new commitment to what may be called social convalescence, as we see in the final stanza:

If tomorrow
the aches that cripple
my legs suddenly disappeared
I’d give the hills my footsteps
with love
& dole out my heart & hands
among those who are human solely
because they can still feel

Aside from the cogent sense of solidarity denoted in those lines, there is an implicit accusation of carelessness aimed at the indifferent, because for Ebnu a being incapable of feeling pain isn’t human but monstrous; only monsters remain impassive in the face of human tragedy. As compared with Salama and Yedehlu, where the thesis of one poet is countered by the antithesis of the other, Ebnu addresses us, his readers, as human brothers and sisters, who find ourselves obliged to verify whether or not we “can still feel pain.” He elicits the active participation of his reader as a political being and, in so doing, collectivizes the literary experience by making the poetic inseparable from the social. In this way, we’re led by the dialectical spirit of gta’ into the sentience of the Sahrawi experience to encounter the aftermath of the Moroccan occupation, not because the poet wants to elicit our pity, but because he’s convinced that pathos will awaken in us the hunger he feels for justice.

In the poetry of Limam Boisha, on the other hand, the dialectical spirit of gta’ emerges in the context of a shared Sahrawi history that exists as potential discovery. Boisha’s poetry in Versos de la madera (2004) and more recently in Ritos de jaima (2012) expresses a patient anthropological sifting through the Sahrawi cultural consciousness for a history disappeared by war and political stalemate. Like Ebnu, Boisha doesn’t engage another poet directly in the likes of Salama and Yedehlu, but instead he harnesses the spirit of gta’ for a self-examination he shares with the reader, the other I of the poem, because here socio-political commitment is inseparable from poetic invention. In the first few stanzas of “Mythology,” he writes:

My father told me:
“I was born in the year
of the green-toothed

Now I wonder:
What have we done with our years,
so far away & narrow?
Were they sold on closeout
between the abyss of tradition
& the thirst of the dunes?

It is by no accident that Boisha’s “we” is inclusive, since he knows he cannot locate the past he seeks on his own. Its disclosure is only possible through a shared discovery, and that’s precisely what the poetic space he’s created affords, which is why later on in the same text he delivers the directive: “Seek in poetry / the bones of memory / like our forebears did.” The poet finds himself in a postcolonial paradox, where the past is all he has to look forward to and, yet, it has vanished. The “bones of memory” must be collectively excavated not to be put on display at a museum like a fossil, but to be laid out anatomically so that they rise again in the construction of a new cultural identity that celebrates plurality, hybridity, and miscegenation. In Boisha’s poetics, history waits for him in a future which still lies under the sand.

In addition to the dialectical modality that Salama and Yedehlu brought to Sahrawi poetry, the fusion of social concern and poetic invention stands as one of their greatest achievements, and this socially integrating element – the spirit of gta’ – has endured the censures of two occupiers for more than seventy years. The vitality of that contentious streak in Third Wave oral poetry composed in Hassaniya transcends languages, modalities, and generations in the poetry written in Castilian by the Generación de amistad saharaui. As prominent representatives of contemporary Sahrawi poetics, Ebnu and Boisha, without heeding the cries of spectacular aesthetes, are embracing the controversial thrust that has come down to them from their predecessors, in order to meet the challenges facing an exiled nation.

Joseph Mulligan

[1] In Bahia Awah’s paper, “La literatura hasanía y española del Sáhara Occidental siglo XX-XXI: Auge y máximos exponentes,” delivered at the VIII Congreso Ibérico de Estudios Africanos Bajo el Árbol de la Palabra: Resistencias y Transformaciones entre lo Local y lo Global (Madrid, 2012), he stakes out the first three “Edades de Oro,” which I translate as “Waves” rather than “Golden Ages”: First Wave, at the turn of the seventeenth to eighteen century; Second Wave, in the mid-nineteenth century; and Third Wave, in the second half of the twentieth century. In this paper, I count the Generación de amistad saharaui as the Fourth Wave of Sahrawi literature and use those terms synonymously.
[2] See “La transmisión oral, los hijos del verso.” Gimeno, J.C. and Juan Ignacio Robles, in España en África: La ciencia española en el Sáhara Occidental, 1884–1976, Rodríguez Esteban, J.A. Ed. Calamar Ediciones, 2011.
[3] The frig refers to a collection of bedouin haymahs that have been set up to camp.
[4] Awah, ibid. All translations from the Castilian are my own.
[5] Harakat Tahrir (Liberation Movement) refers to the Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Wadi el Dhahab (1966-1970), a non-violent independence organization formed and led by Muhammad Sidi Brahim Sidi Embarek Basir, better known as Basiri.
[6] “Salama uld Eydud: el lírico vanguardista,” in Tiris rutas literarias, Editorial Sepha, Madrid, 2014 (forthcoming).
[7] The poems by Salama and Yedhelu presented here are “workings” based on Awah’s translations from Hassaniya to Castilian. For more on the concept of a “working,” see Jerome Rothenberg’s Preface to Technicians of the Sacred.
[8] Awah reports that, in Hassaniya, “dah” means grandfather, old-timer, or old man. Yedehlu uses the term to call his adversary old and to proclaim that he feels youthful in his poetry and in his city.
[9] In 1980, the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Cuba started funding an expansive program to bring African children to Cuba so that they could receive an education. Thousands of Sahrawi children have passed through Cuban schools, and they continue to graduate new classes to this day.
[10] Luali Lehsan, “Los miserios del mundo,” in Bubisher: Poesía saharaui contemporánea. Ed. María José Alvarado. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Puentepalo, 2003.
[11] César Vallejo, “Cooperación,” El Norte, Trujillo, February 26, 1924.

This entry was posted in North African Poetry, Sahara Occidental, Saharaui, Sahrawi, Sahrawi Resistence Poetry, Western Sahara and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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