Thursday, November 5, 2009
A Corner of the Desert Called Home - but is it Morocco or Not?
Please excuse us if we ignore all of the big celebrity visits to Morocco and post this article from Le Monde Diplomatique's English Edition about a Saharan artist, Aziza Brahim, who sings poems written by her grandmother in Hassaniya Arabic about the struggle for Saharan autonomy. ( I think there is a typo in the article. Her grandmother's name is most likely Bint Mabruk and not Mint Mabruk) If you click on the link, there is video.
From Sahara exile to future freedom
A corner of the desert called home
Aziza Brahim, the Sahrawi singer, relays to the world the sorrows and the protest of her people. But her work is not just political: she sings, too, of love and life
by Colin Murphy
Three images of Aziza Brahim come to my mind: cross-legged on the floor of an adobe house in the Sahara, swathed in a traditional melfa, talking politics; legs dangling over the stage of the extraordinary Roman amphitheatre in Merida, Spain, singing to an accidental audience of daytripping tourists; and in foul temper and hoarse voice over lunch in London, a late night behind her and a nerve-inducing concert ahead.
Aziza Brahim sings La Sensación Del Tanque in Merida, Spain
Let’s start with the last image: Aziza Brahim, whose short album Mi Canto topped the World Music chart on the influential eMusic.com earlier this year, was in London at the behest of the city’s annual African Music Festival. Backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall later that day, a procession of eager young aficionados sought a few minutes with Brahim. Their enthusiasm was not simply for her music, however; some seemed barely acquainted with it. What they proclaimed was passion for her cause.
Brahim rewarded them, from the stage, with the concise proclamations of her politics that introduced each song. She carried a flag onstage with her, and spoke of a homeland enriched with the blood of the fallen. After the concert she talked business, in private, with representatives from a couple of small World Music labels.
That was this summer. So was the impromptu visit to Merida, a pit-stop on the long drive north, from an open-air concert in Seville, to her hometown of León. The day was hot, and Merida offered a timely break from the languor of the road. Brahim walked alone into the vast, empty Roman auditorium and swung herself onto the stage, perching at the centre, in its heart. She started to sing, and the auditorium filled with a song of war, of family and of the desert. She brought to the ancient Roman theatre a music whose antecedents had perhaps once been heard at the southern fringes of the Roman Empire. There were no proclamations of politics, and she returned to the road, refreshed.
In October, after a summer of successful concerts across Spain and elsewhere in Europe, Aziza Brahim took a break. She flew to Algiers and then took an internal Algerian flight to Tindouf, in the west, near the border with Morocco. She was collected there by a friend, and they drove south, in a jeep. They passed through a military checkpoint that indicated they were leaving Algeria, though they were not near the international border, and then through another checkpoint, apparently unmanned, that signalled they were entering new territory. They left the road and drove across the desert, and arrived shortly at a house of rough cement-and-adobe walls with an iron sheeting roof and light radiating from small windows, low to the ground. It was three in the morning.
The steel door to the house opened with the approach of the engine, and children streamed out, followed by their parents. Inside, a long, low table was laid with plates of dates and biscuits, and music played on an old stereo powered by a car battery. Brahim greeted everyone, and introduced her sleepy three-year-old daughter: cousin, niece and granddaughter to the people who crowded around. A party started, and finished just before dawn with the family strewn on cushions and carpets throughout the house. Aziza Brahim was home.
When Aziza Brahim speaks of her pueblo, this is what she means: her people, who live here, in the Hammada of the Sahara. Brahim was born here 34 years ago. But when she speaks of her patria, she does not mean this place. She means another corner of the desert, some hundreds of kilometres to the west: one that is less arid, and far more developed; and one that is not within Algeria, but is – currently – within Morocco.
Aziza Brahim’s people are the Sahrawis of Western Sahara; Western Sahara was once known as Spanish Sahara and is today – depending on who you listen to – either a province or a colony of Morocco. Morocco claims historical, pre-colonial sovereignty over the territory (which has rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters) and has occupied it since the Spanish withdrawal in 1975; but the Sahrawis’ claim on their land is vindicated by an International Court of Justice ruling from 1975, stating that the territory has the right to self-determination.
Following that ruling, King Hassan II of Morocco mobilised 350,000 people to march south into Western Sahara in an ostensibly peaceful conquest, known as the Green March; at the same time, but more discreetly, he sent in the army. Many of the Sahrawis fled east, across the Algerian border, where they congregated in refugee camps. Morocco fought the Sahrawi liberation army, the Polisario Front, till 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed pending a referendum on the territory’s status. United Nations peacekeepers came in to supervise the referendum; they are still there; the referendum has still not happened. Morocco has successfully stalled.
The refugee camps have become institutionalised, and are home to the Polisario government in exile. There is a basic administration in the refugee camps, some paltry free enterprise, and almost no formal employment. The Sahrawis survive thanks to humanitarian aid and remittances from the diaspora, like Brahim.
Returning home is a luxury Brahim does not afford herself often: this was the first visit in three years. She spent the week almost entirely around the family home; they danced at night to Mauritanian pop, shopped for melfas, brewed and drank endless small glasses of mint tea, and got to know each other’s young children who played together, barefoot, in the dust. One of the older children transferred a MP3 copy of one of Brahim’s songs to her mobile phone, and it was soon jumping from phone to phone around the camp, via bluetooth.
One afternoon during the week, Brahim brought us next door, to the home of her grandmother, Ljadra Mint Mabruk. Brahim’s grandfather had died earlier this year and her grandmother was in mourning. She was unable to leave the house or receive male visitors. Instead, she hung a muslin curtain across her room, and allowed us sit with Brahim on one side, while she talked to us from the other. Her silhouette was visible through the curtain, jabbing with her finger or waving her arms when she talked of her granddaughter’s music.
Ljadra Mint Mabruk is one of the most renowned Sahrawi poets. Known as “the poet of the rifle”, her war poems have become anthems of the Sahrawi struggle – anthems to which her granddaughter has given new voice, and new rhythm: many of Brahim’s songs are versions of her grandmother’s poems, performed in a fusion of traditional Sahrawi singing and western blues-rock. Brahim’s signature song, La Sensación del Tanque (the feeling of the tank), is a poem by her grandmother that describes the feeling of climbing into a captured Moroccan tank, imagining what had taken place inside it.
Composed orally in Hassaniya, the Arabic dialect spoken by the Sahrawis, Ljadra Mint Mabruk’s work has been little published and less translated (Brahim sings them in Hassaniya). One untitled poem, translated into Spanish by the Sahrawi writer Bahia MH Awah, concludes with the following lines: “We will show them that the Sahara is not Agadir/ Nor Casablanca/ It is simply the Sahara/ A people that aspires to their freedom/ And has pursued it across a century.”
Fighting through poetry
“I never thought that my poetry would be put to blues or rock”, said Ljadra Mint Mabruk (through Brahim’s translation). “They put them on the radio or on the television now, though I never thought of these things when I wrote them. Of course, the circumstances in which they were written limited their impact, but my intention when I wrote them was that they could be listened to wherever. I want what I write to reach as many people as possible.”
“She always wanted to fight through her natural medium, poetry”, said Brahim of her grandmother. That fight is one Brahim continues, relentlessly. “While my people are oppressed, and condemned to live in refugee camps, I am not going to stop”, she said. “I am going to try and bring the sorrows and protest of my people everywhere I go. I am very proud to be Sahrawi, to represent my cause.”
For now, Brahim represents that cause from a base in León, using her music to promote the cause even as the cause helps draw attention to the music. For Salek Baba Hassena, the minister for co-operation in the Polisario government, Brahim is well placed as a spokesperson.
“She represents the generations who were born, grew up and were educated here in the camps”, he said. “She represents the stages of exile and of the first years of the camps – the hardest years, the years of the war – and she has also lived through the stage since 1991, following the ceasefire, awaiting the referendum. And I hope she will live through the stage of liberty and independence.” From exile to future freedom, he said, her modernised Sahrawi music “encompasses these different stages”.
That freedom, he said, was “inevitable”. “The day of victory is certain. We are sure that this day will arrive – perhaps not soon, but it is guaranteed to come.”
I asked Brahim what she would do when that day arrived. “When my country is free, I will return and live there with my people”, she said, “and sing to them of other things: of daily life, of love and loves lost; of things I can’t sing of today, because they don’t mean anything to me, for now.”
Yet even though, for now, her music is intimately bound up with politics, Brahim is too complex a musician, and too ambitious a singer, for her music to be the slave to a cause. Politics, for her, is ultimately about her people, and her family: as on that hot afternoon in Merida, it transcends the specificity of their struggle; the lament becomes uplifting.
And if a nationalist music is characteristic of modernity, Brahim is in other ways post-modern: she has multiple identities that allow her to slip seamlessly between the starkly different worlds through which her family and her music take her. These are the different images of Aziza Brahim. Any one of them is merely a snapshot. The thing that unites them is her song.