THE WESTERN SAHARA
[A people] who never enjoy fresh water
And whom the grass of the fields inadequately supplies,
A country you may say ill disposed to bear any fruit,
Where the birds consume iron in their bellies,
A land suffering extreme want of everything...
Luis Vaz de Camões, Os Lusíadas 6, 1572 (6)
I took the turning to Bou Izakarn, only to be stopped by two Gendarmes Royales who were stationed in a hut beside the junction. Border skirmishes with Algeria in the 1960s and, more recently, the guerrilla war with Polisario, had for long rendered this place out of bounds to foreigners. When I asked them about Polisario and the situation in the Western Sahara, the one gendarme replied, utterly transparently: 'A war? What war? You have been misinformed, my boy. There is no war!' On seeing my expression, he started laughing.
'Hey!' He nudged the other's elbow: 'The young man does not believe me. You tell him, come on! He'll believe you you've got blue eyes!' He laughed again. The other gendarme, who did indeed have blue eyes, leaned over my shoulder in a conspiratorial fashion, and whispered: 'You love your Queen Magritte Tattché?' At this, both of them doubled up, convulsed with laughter. A while later, the first gendarme said: 'Hey, look. Quick, over there.' He seemed to be pointing at a boulder about a hundred yards away. 'What? What? What is it? I don't see anything,' complained the second gendarme, squinting and holding his hand over his brow.
'Akh, don't you see? Look, sh-shush, over there... Now!'
The other gendarme appeared to be totally bemused, as the arm of his partner swung slowly around to point directly at his nose.
'Ha ha ha ha ha!' In between his fits of giggles, the first gendarme said to me: 'Ah, I really got him one there, eh? Ha ha ha!' He slapped me hard in the small of my back. I felt, in the company of these two gendarmes, exactly the same as though I had walked into a pub only to be cornered by its two resident drunkards that no one will talk to any more. It is a strange thing, but throughout the Sahara, the gendarmes, soldiers and policemen manning the numerous roadblocks were, with only few exceptions, the craziest and funniest people that I met. Perhaps it was their job, I mused, as I cycled away. All day long, all they ever seemed to do was sit in their concrete boxes compiling useless lists of randomly chosen number plates. In Ramadan, of course, this was not exactly the most stimulating occupation in the world, and so when not considering the weather or the last plague of locusts, these two gendarmes seemed to spend most of their time placing small wagers on the colour of the next truck that was to pass them by. I gathered that they had only stopped me because I was the most interesting thing to have happened to them all week.
The road veered northwest and up again into the Djebel Bani. I struggled for two hours against a strong head wind to cover twelve kilometres, only to enter a valley that was being sprayed from Land Rovers and planes with vile smelling insecticide that got into my eyes and nose. Frustrated and pissed off, I gave up the idea of cycling to Bou Izakarn, and instead freewheeled back down the mountain to the roadblock, where the laughing gendarmes announced that they had been expecting me, and had even laid out an impromptu lunch of oily black olives and bread. Tea was served, and for once I was happy that my stubbornness had not got the better of me.
I got a lift in mid-afternoon on a pick up truck for 35 dirhams (it's usual to pay for hitching in Morocco). I joined seven other passengers, cramped in the back alongside suitcases and a couple of goats. The scenery was beautiful. It flashed by in a cascade of colours as we more or less flew along a succession of Ksour and villages in mountains of purple and pink rock strata, naturally sculpted rock gardens, the shrivelled branches of wizened argan, and the emetic, viciously barbed aloe cacti. We sped on past Icht and Aït Herbil, then the promontory of Aguerd surrounded by its date palms, and then Tagoujgalte and Tarhjijt, a large and picturesque oasis with a Ksar and an old white minaret. Then came Aït Jerrar, and then the Kasbah and fertile palmery of Timoulay Izder, opposite the labyrinthine ruins of its twin, Timoulay Ifla. Finally came Bou Izakarn, a light and spacious garrison town situated at the western foot of the Anti Atlas. To the north it is flanked by forested hills, and to the south, by a large concave valley, through which runs the road to Guelmime and the Western Sahara.
I was dropped on the outskirts of town, beside its fortified exterior walls. From there, I made my way past an old Foreign Legion fortress, then through palm shaded gardens, to find myself in an unexpectedly green land, dotted with absinthe and cypress, poppy and yellow primrose, rosemary and red dashed eucalyptus plantations. Here, in the evening, the soil glowed in a warm shade of red, which embraced the land with a welcoming and secure aspect. The sand and rock, I was pleased to notice, had almost all disappeared. Coming from the east, this green spur of the Anti Atlas was an utter surprise, an aberration in the otherwise endless stretch of desert. In many ways, I regretted having chickened out of this last stretch of cycling, for the road between Foum el-Hisan and Bou Izakarn effectively crossed back over the divide from desert to pasture. Much as it had been good to cycle slowly into the desert, and to see it, ever so gradually, take a hold on the mountains, it would have been pleasing to have done the same thing in reverse.
* * *
Forty-one kilometres south of Bou Izakarn, along Route P41, is the ancient walled city of Guelmime, in its time perhaps the greatest of all Maghrebi caravan termini. Situated on a slightly undulating plain at the southwestern extremity of the Anti Atlas, this historic city has, like Sijilmassa, Zagora, Tata and Akka, for centuries played host to the twin worlds of the sedentary nomads and of the desert people themselves.
Guelmime is one of Morocco's oldest towns, founded in the eighth century following the first Arab forays into the Bled es-Sudan, the Land of the Blacks. In the following centuries, the town was to become by far the most important caravanserai of the Western Sahara, and was as such much frequented by Moorish traders, who came in from the depths of the desert to deal in gold, salt and slaves, as well as to acquire fresh camel stock for their perilous voyages across the interior. In later years, when European interest in the region and its links with the Sudan flourished, it became the natural base for their trading operations, and being only 40km from the Atlantic, was to provide the French and Spanish with an easily defended position from which to launch their pacifying missions at the turn of the century.
Unfortunately, the harsh post-industrial realities of the twentieth century have led to the decline of what must once have been a most magical place, although the city at the end of this millennium still has a comforting element of dilapidated (and perhaps, at the right times, chaotic) charm. The heart of the town is a curious blend of tightly packed terraces and pink arcades, through which file narrow dusty streets populated by tall, indigo robed men and swarthy women dressed in flowing robes of burgundy or pale blue. In the evening, the circular town square plays host to a lively audience entertained by aged story tellers, beggars and griot musicians, and it is then, if at all, that the atmosphere is reminiscent of Guelmime's more glorious past.
Despite its unassuming veneer of modernity, Guelmime is still, in the minds of many visitors, tourists and Moroccans alike, synonymous with only two things: Tuareg nomads, and camels.
The Tuareg (singular Targui) are known in most touristic literature as the 'Blue Men', because of the indigo that is used to dye their robes and litham face mufflers, a dye that rubs off onto their skins (rather like the woad-dyed ancient Britons). The indigo fad, like that of mint tea, was started by an Englishman, an enterprising Agadir-based merchant named Thomas Windham, who introduced indigo-dyed calico in the sixteenth century. Tawarik, the name given to the Tuareg by the Arabs, variously means the 'Godless Ones', the 'Abandoners of Allah', or the 'Lost Souls', on account of their lax interpretation of the Word of Islam. Caillié reported that:
The Moors entertain a profound contempt for the Tooariks, and when, they would express their utmost hatred of them, they compare them to the christians, whom they suppose to be the same kind of vagabonds and depredators.
The Tuareg themselves though, like the Berbers, prefer to be called Imazighen - the Noble Ones - as do many other desert people. To shatter a myth, though, the 'Blue Men' that one sees nowadays in Guelmime are not Tuareg at all, but related tribes of the Western Sahara, collectively known as Saharawis. Regarded historically as the 'People of the Littoral' (Ahel es-Sahel), their traditional homeland is in the extreme western stretch of the desert flanking the Atlantic coastline. The Tuareg themselves inhabit the central desert regions of Mali, Niger and Algeria, and only rarely stray into the more western lands of Morocco, Mauritania, or the Western Sahara. The Saharawis do, however, have one thing in common with the Tuareg, and indeed with the Berbers, in that their origins remain utterly obscure. From the earliest surviving Saharan cave art, it seems that the desert's prehistoric population was more or less evenly divided between Sudanic Negroes and Mediterranean Semites. As the desert expanded inexorably over the ages, however, the whites began moving to the north and the blacks into the richer lands of the tropical south, both groups, by and large, abandoning the desert. Several tribes, however, remained, preferring to roam the vast open ranges in search of pasture, than become settled. Black or white, Tuareg, Moor or Saharawi, today's remaining true nomads are the direct descendants of these pioneering desert peoples.
Like the Berbers, who have kept much of their pre-Islamic spiritual and cultural heritage alive, the Saharawis, too, retain many of their ancient pagan traditions, the most eclectic of which is the dance of the guedra. Continually repressed by Islamic reformers, the guedra is a hypnotic dance accompanied by the pounding rhythms of the eponymous clay and skin tam-tam. It is a swaying dance, like that of the seven veils, where a kneeling woman in lustrous blue robes and black veils dances to chants and claps and the insistent drumming of the guedra itself. Designed to excite men before intercourse (the squatting mimics the primitive posture for giving birth), it can be extremely erotic: fertile, rhythmic, pounding, pulsating, swirling, spinning, faster and faster as veils are flung off, flung away, spinning, pounding, chanting, clapping, clapping, spinning bare face, breasts naked, pounding, drumming faster still, until she collapses in an exhausted heap in a great cacophony as the music gasps for breath and, presumably, her husband prepares to carry her off to bed.
Similar drum-based dances are used throughout Arab and Negro countries to exorcise demons dwelling especially in married women. They are invariably secret affairs, where the possessed similarly dance themselves into utter exhaustion. It is possible that the guedra is a more primitive version of the classic belly dance, both of which were carried to North Africa along with the camel caravans (in Moroccan music, especially, West African influence is very apparent).
It is the trade in camels that most closely ties the Saharawis to the Berbers. Sunday is the day of Guelmime's camel souk, when camel breeders from the Anti Atlas come to do business with the few surviving caravaneers and saddle smiths. The event now attracts busloads of tourists from Agadir, along with fake 'Blue People' (also known as hustlers) for the benefit of the cameras. People only see what they want to see, especially tourists: in Guelmime, I heard several tales of visitors being conned into buying three legged camels (who were kept seated throughout the proceedings), and on one occasion, even a dead one! Indeed, as far north as the Rif Mountains, I saw a supposed Tuareg merchant peddling amber, desert rock salt and spices under the orange walls of Chefchaouen's Portuguese Kasbah. Only then, I discovered that the Targui was actually from Fès and commuted monthly from there by bus!
Considerably less prone to scams is the annual 'Moussem of the Camel Traders', held for one week each June, when herders from all over the Atlas converge on the town to conduct rather more serious business. Then, a good trekking animal can be had for £300 (white pedigree bulls cost almost £1000), and rather more average specimens can be secured for the price of a bicycle (I was sorely tempted, until I heard the three legged stories). However, the ending of the slave trade and the advent of Berliet trucks and Land Rovers, among other factors, has prompted a dramatic decline in the nomad population, something further exacerbated in this corner of the Sahara by the war with Polisario, which has dampened the once substantial moussem migrations that at their peak attracted over forty thousand camels and bidders from as far away as Mali and Senegal. My journey through the Western Sahara was to be, above all, a depressing litany of dirges to famine, war, and to the death of the nomad way of life.
* * *
The desert begins again almost immediately on leaving Guelmime: a bleak hammada that in the past allegedly served as backdrop to scenes in Lawrence of Arabia (but almost every touristic rendezvous in North Africa claims this accolade). In early May, every inch of the desert floor is carpeted with a bizarre expanse of tiny brick red shrubs interspersed with green bushes, something like a horrible skin rash. Nonetheless, this provides a much needed source of firewood for the few remaining pastoralists. The River Noun, crossed after five kilometres, is commonly taken to be the northern geographical boundary of the Western Sahara, which stretches south from here for almost two thousand kilometres, all the way to the River Senegal where I hoped I would ultimately end up.
The Western Sahara is a bleak place, perhaps even more so than the Moroccan Sahara. Over much of the desert's one hundred thousand square kilometres, there seems to be little else than rocks and stones, stretching interminably over mountains and plains. It is punctuated only by equally dry escarpments, for there are few rivers, and none that flow throughout the year. In 1960, there were estimated to be only 130 water sources in the whole territory, and less than 4,000 palm trees, figures that are bound to have worsened in the intervening years. Evidence of a healthier past remains in the form of great sebkha (or sebkhet) salt lakes, and the eroded valleys of long dead rivers. The little rain that does fall is quickly absorbed inland, or else evaporates within minutes. Even on the coast, rainfall rarely exceeds two inches a year, and during my visit (mostly following the coastline), the temperature rose frequently to over 115ºF (46ºC).
In many ways, the River Noun shares much of its history with Guelmime, although its use as a trading post dates back much further, some say to Phoenician times. In recent centuries, the river seems to have acquired something of an infamous reputation as a slaving port, a place where shipwrecked Christian sailors captured off the treacherous coastline were taken if they were fortunate to be bought their freedom by pitying European traders and consuls. That is, if the poor bewildered captives managed to survive the usual custom of being force marched naked and barefoot across the burning sands. The tribes of the Oulad Delim clan, in particular, were renowned pillagers, feared by other tribes for their razzias, and by travellers for their habit of stealing even the clothes off their backs. They justified their camel rustling razzias by claiming that their own camels had a distinctive harelip, whereas in fact, all camels bear this curious feature. In 1887, a French explorer named Camille Douls tried to pass himself off as a Muslim among the Oulad Delim, but his pretence was quickly unmasked, and the poor Douls was stripped, beaten and then buried up to his neck in sand to be left at the mercy of the vultures. Upon which, he frantically recited all the verses of the Qur'an that he could recall, and, fortunately, was released from his premature grave, only to be strangled en route to Timbuctoo, aged 25.
Shortly after the river, the road began a climb into arid, low hills, spattered with small round bushes and sallow grasses: the last weathered foothills of the Anti Atlas before the hopeless plains of the Western Sahara itself. A little further on, I passed the last cultivated lands I was to see for over a thousand miles: yellow beige fields of ripening spring barley and wheat. Sometimes, on the banks of dry wadis, I spotted the brown skin tents of pastoral nomads, their camels and goats grazing nearby. Then came more locusts, winged, and in the later, more dangerous, stages of their metamorphosis. The air was muggy and hot, the atmosphere clouded. These last hills are where the hot gusts of the desert chug collide with the cool Atlantic breezes.
Before long, the valley narrowed to enclose the road and a dry riverbed. A green Citroën 2CV was parked over to one side, its Italian occupants chattering with much gusto with a Moroccan youth. I arrived as they were discussing the tents pitched on the far side of an empty, stone strewn field. The Moroccan said that they were Tuareg, although it was only later that I realised that most Moroccans tend to call all nomads Tuareg, regardless of whichever tribe they in fact belong to. Nevertheless, the Italians were suitably impressed, and wanted to take photographs. Not possible, the Moroccan said: the nomads feared Evil Eye.
A skinny young man with a faint limp, Hassan Boukhriss offered to put me up for the night with his family, if I wished, and so I arranged to meet him a few miles further down the road at the turn off to El-Abiar (he got a lift from the Italians). It was getting dark when I met him again, sitting by the trunk of a tree sucking on straw. Until nightfall, we stayed there and talked, about politics, nomads and most of all, about sex. He could not comprehend why European families had so few children. Was it because Europeans disliked sex? Or was there a law, like in China, that prevented people from having more? He was even more shocked when I told him that in Europe one can find people who are celibate by choice. In Morocco, a man without a wife and children is not a man, he said, and throughout Africa I found that people laughed when I told them that I actually enjoyed being on my own. Loneliness, said Hassan, was the stuff of his worst nightmares. And the desert? Oh, he hated the desert. Hassan was also astounded that I wasn't particularly interested in sex during my travels. Moroccan women, he assured me, were the most blissful lovers in the world. 'My sister is very beautiful,' he said, 'and very discreet...' he added. 'Do you want her?' He said all this with a slight sneer at which I became uneasy. I shrugged my shoulders.
'You want sex, yes?' I shrugged again. 'Not really.' I suspect that any other 19 year old virgin would have reacted the same. Then, to my astonishment, he asked whether I was gay. 'Look.' He said, taking my hand, which I quickly snatched away: 'Just lean against this tree. You don't have to do a thing.' I stared wide eyed at him, shocked and scared, and wondering frantically if I had understood him correctly.
'Don't you like it?' he asked, on seeing my expression. 'But Jens, you must have love with me!' he declared, trying to stroke my stubbled face. He then added, in case I really hadn't understood: 'You know, I love to fuck you!' I blustered my excuses and edged back towards the bicycle, feeling like he'd just pulled a knife on me. Two hundred dirhams he then offered to pay, two hundred dirhams in crumpled bank notes which he waved in my face. Two hundred dirhams, and all I had to do was lean against a tree! I stared aghast, then pushed him away, which on reflection probably convinced him that I was only being coy.
'Okay, okay,' he said, this time without the sneer. 'I know what you are afraid of, but don't worry.' Upon which, I swear, from his trouser pocket he produced a limp, used condom.
* * *
I slept badly, in between clumps of reed grass a few miles further on, and awoke soaked to the skin under a dark, overcast sky. Behind me, only a few hundred yards away, was a large village, the existence of which I had been completely oblivious to last night. Women carrying baskets of linen on their heads stared at me as though I were an alien, and I suppose with good reason! Shivering with cold, it took me three hours to reach the last craggy breach of these last craggy hills, and all the time it rained endlessly. I cycled past the Koubbas of Sidi Sabj and Notfia, then a couple of anonymous transmitter masts, and then down for the last time into a snaking valley, arched to my right with a magnificent rainbow, under which flew shards of orange sunlight that painted the rocks around me with a rich golden red. There was purple heather beside little bubbling streams, and birds singing to the hiss of rubber on wet asphalt. As the skies cleared and the steam began to rise, I left behind the last of the vegetation to enter a sandy plateau, past a sleepy roadblock and past the crumbling wartorn ruins of a roadhouse. Beside it, an old well had deliberately been filled with sand and rubble: an age-old military tactic designed to limit the mobility of an enemy, and a sign that until recently this area had been a war zone.
It felt good to be leaving the mountains. There was a bit more space, and a bit more freedom. I cycled over a wide concrete bridge. Underneath it was a dry pebbly river - the Drâa. Only freak rains will fill it this far, twenty kilometres from the ocean. In the winter to come, though, this in fact happened, for the first time in over a decade.
Past another checkpoint, the town of Tan Tan snaked into view. From afar, it is not really much to look at, unless the sheer element of surprise at its very existence is seen as remarkable. Like Er-Rachidia, its relatively flat skyline of orange walls and brown buildings is broken only by a few white minarets. The town, though, is surrounded on all sides by rocky escarpments, its only defence against the ravages of open desert. Tan Tan also marks the southernmost limit of arboreal vegetation, palms or otherwise, outside of the Western Sahara's few oases.
The town has a moderate population of about fifty thousand, mostly erstwhile nomads forced into settled life by the war and the successive droughts of the last two decades. Tumble-down mustard and blue Spanish terraces, with cracked and splintered wooden balconies, line depressingly lifeless streets. A strong colonial influence lingers. There are small ornamental squares, hot wide avenues, a few tiled shop fronts, and sad dry fountains. The town has no fresh water supply. The taps, if at all, run hot and salty, and so drinking water has to be brought in by truck from a well twelve miles away, to be judiciously hoarded in red earthenware urns. After a great deal of pleading, I managed to buy some water from the owner of a large empty café, who'd just received his week's supply. Because of Ramadan, almost everything was shut in stark contrast to Guelmime although the market inexplicably remained open. There, a few traders sat morosely behind their wares, shaded from the midday sun by a few flapping sheets of mucky tarpaulin. There wasn't much on offer though: small artichokes, broad beans, smooth skinned cucumbers, pyramids of oranges, and a few overripe tomatoes that were swarming with flies.
Tan Tan only really comes to life during its two annual moussems, combined religious and commercial gatherings whose continued existence is partially indebted to the increased interest shown in them by tourists. The first, held in May, commemorates Sidi Mohamed Loghdof, one of the most revered of desert saints. It is an event that, in common with the Guelmime camel moussem, used to attract thousands of pilgrims, not only from southern Morocco but from Algeria, the then Spanish Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal. Born in the year 1875, Mohamed Loghdof won the respect of the people by organising razzias against both the French and the Spanish. Later, during the First World War, he cynically accepted payments from the latter in return for his 'allegiance', funds which later he converted into arms for use against his former benefactors! As a result of his campaigning, in the early 1970s his moussem became the platform for several Saharawi anti-colonial demonstrations (the Western Sahara remained a Spanish colony until 1976), demonstrations that perversely were put down by Moroccan troops.
Mohamed Loghdof was a son of Sidi Mohamed Ma el-Aïnin - 'He of the Beautiful Watery Eyes' - a man who has assumed an almost mythical status among the Saharawis, and to whom Tan Tan's second moussem, held in June, is dedicated. As both marabout and leader of the Reguibat tribe, he soon became known to the French as 'our bitter enemy'. As Sultan Hassan I's representative in the South during the latter years of the nineteenth century, Ma el-Aïnin is famed for having led Saharan resistance to both French and Spanish attempts at colonisation in the run up to the Great War. He is said to have learned the Qur'an by heart by the age of seven, though perhaps equally remarkable was his virility (his 26 wives bore him 68 children, and he is said to have sired many more bastards). This gave rise to a new tribe, the Ahel Sheikh Ma el-Aïnin. Another of Ma el-Aïnin's sons, Ahmed el-Hiba, achieved the virtually impossible in 1911 by storming the colonial jewel of Marrakesh. It is a city of great importance to the Saharawis, for it was founded by the Almoravids who came from the Western Sahara and Mauritania. Although el-Hiba was forced out of the city within a month, by his act of defiance he achieved immortality, and became known as the 'Blue Sultan'. For the next two decades like his Riffian contemporary Abd el-Krim el-Hiba continued his father's work as dissident leader, fighting with considerable success in the Sahara and Anti Atlas until 1934, when he was finally beaten and the South succumbed to European control.
Despite these animated diversions, the town of Tan Tan is depressing. It is a place where the army makes its presence felt keenly, a place that seems never fully to have achieved its independence. Red and green Moroccan flags flutter from lampposts and scaffolding, and portraits of the king adorn not only the interior but exterior walls of every official building. The effects of the unspoken war with Polisario are felt everywhere. For the last decade and a half, the Western Sahara has seen armed conflict between the Moroccan Forces Armées Royales, and Polisario, the Saharawi guerrillas fighting for the region's independence. The origins of the war, like so many modern conflicts, reside in the legacy of European greed. The Spanish first colonised the region in 1884, albeit in name rather than in practice, for until the defeat of el-Hiba, Spain held only two bases in the territory. Then, in the 1960s, after the granting of Moroccan and Mauritanian independence, both countries began campaigning for control over the mineral rich desert region that lay between them and which remained under Spanish sovereignty. Mauritania based its claim on its eleventh-century Almoravid heritage, and Morocco on the notion of the Greater Moroccan Cause effectively dating back to the great empire of the Merinids (if the Greater Moroccan Cause were to be taken literally, it would mean half of Spain succumbing to Moroccan control).
In 1973, the situation became more complicated with the formation of the Frente Popular para la Liberacíon de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro: the Polisario Front. On the death of Franco in 1975, the situation exploded. In a political masterstroke, King Hassan II conceived the idea of the 'Green March'. In October that year, he announced that 350,000 unarmed volunteers would march, Qur'an in hand, across the border into the Spanish (ie. Western) Sahara. On 5 November, the marchers left Tan Tan for the south, and three days later crossed the border, at which the hapless Spanish border guards could do nothing but gape. Although international pressure forced the early recall of the marchers, the act was a great success. Spain withdrew in February 1976, awarding the northern section of the Western Sahara to Morocco, and the smaller southern part to Mauritania. Polisario, however, found itself squeezed out, and so proclaimed the creation of the Saharawan Arab Democratic Republic in absentia, and resolved to continue the struggle for independence. It had some success: after three years of war, its economy crippled, Mauritania was forced to pull out of its portion. But the outcome was not at all to Polisario's liking, for Morocco promptly invaded and annexed the territory, most of which it has controlled ever since.
The war between Morocco and Polisario drags on, with its propaganda, guerrilla attacks, punitive raids, a scattering of major battles, brief sieges, and the like. The question is one of sovereignty, of whether the Western Sahara belongs to Morocco or the Saharawis. The cynics argue that Morocco has no valid claim, and is only interested in the territory for its potentially valuable mineral deposits. On the other hand, Morocco's defenders claim that the Western Sahara was not a terra nullius before the Spanish conquest, but that ties of allegiance to Morocco had existed long before (ie. that the Saharawis are in fact Moroccans). Whatever the rights and wrongs, the war has been at a stalemate ever since the construction of a defensive wall by Morocco, and it seems that only a referendum will decide the issue once and for all (a referendum that has been promised since 1976, but which has been perpetually postponed by the actions of both sides). What is certain is that the conflict has destroyed, perhaps for ever, the time-honoured nomadic way of life of its inhabitants. Age-old traditions have been repressed or forgotten, boundaries that previously never existed have been fought over, past loyalties have been breached, confidences shattered, hatreds renewed, and thousands of refugees still find themselves languishing in squalid encampments on the border with Algeria.
The tribes of the Western Sahara used to have the proverb: deny me the freedom of movement, and you deny me the right to breathe.
* * *
I left Tan Tan in the afternoon, with the temperature soaring and the morning's clouds having been dissipated by the sun. The road rose up the sides of the western escarpment, beyond which the water truck I was following turned off beside a military airfield onto the old road to Smara and Layoune, capital of the Western Sahara. From almost the beginning of the war, the road to Smara has been forbidden to all but military traffic, effectively making travel to the town impossible. Founded by Sheikh Ma el-Aïnin, Smara is of the utmost symbolic importance to Polisario, and in consequence the region around it saw the very first Polisario offensive against Spanish Tropas Nómadas, in 1973. Tan Tan itself, although heavily defended, came under attack in 1979, while Haouza, only seventy miles away, came under attack four months ago. As a result, the current situation was somewhat delicate, and I counted myself lucky to be able to travel to Layoune at all. Two years earlier, even the coastal road along which I was to travel had been out of bounds.
The short descent from the escarpment brought the road down onto a placid hammada, where it shot away towards the coast. The landscape here was as desolate as any I'd seen. Sometimes, on the southern horizon, I thought I could make out a few tents, but then the heat haze or a mirage would cover them up, so that I was left alone, pondering whether there really were still nomads in this forgotten part of the world. When I looked back north and east at where I'd come all that I could see was a vast stretch of yellow sand, beyond which the last hills of the Anti Atlas dribbled into the desert. Nearer the coast, between large boulders and rocks, grew a smattering of grey bushes and tiny fleshy succulents juicy red and green fingers that, I'd been warned in Tan Tan, would kill me if I tried to eat them. In terms of cynicism, Sahara has it all.
An army roadblock accompanied my first sighting of the Atlantic. My God, all that water! I felt as though I was seven years old again, seeing the Irish Sea at Blackpool for the very first time in the long hot summer of 1976. Although it was beautiful (and soothing) to my eyes, there was to be one severe drawback to desert travel on the coast, and that, of course, was that it greatly increased my desire to drink. I mean, with an entire ocean of cold blue water constantly in sight, and with a difficult enough ration to keep to, it was not exactly surprising. The contrast between these twin desert worlds was at once bizarre and ironic: two oceans lying side by side, each one as barren and inhospitable as the other.
Tan Tan Plage, just beyond the roadblock, is the last settlement of note until Tarfaya, 235km southwest along a tarmac road that runs for the most part on top of brutally scarred hundred-foot cliffs. A road sign laconically announced the road distance to Dakar (capital of Senegal) at 2,224 kilometres. The sign was laconic because, as I was later to discover to my great frustration, there was no such road, or even a track. The war had closed it twelve years earlier.
The next day, I awoke feeling damp and stuffy, as though it had been raining again, but it was only the mist rolling in from the sea. Yet it is only rain itself, if and when it falls, that enables the full cycle of desert life to be completed. After the recent rains (some said the best since the 1950s), it was easy to appreciate the paramount importance of water in supporting life. All around me, the desert had exploded into bloom: ephemeral flowers of all kinds in bright colours, visited by hoverflies and wasps; more succulents and aloe; bizarre furry cacti; vermilion grasses; purple sea lavender; and dark green euphorbia, a spurge named after the physician of the ancient Mauretanian king, Juba II. Shortly after getting underway, I saw to my astonishment a pool of rainwater lying in a depression to the left of the road. I dismounted and walked off towards it, and, as I approached, I could hear the otherworldly chorus of hundreds of tiny Mauritanian toads, only recently changed from tadpoles, that hopped about beside the pool. There were hundreds more still in the water. I squatted at the poolside and gazed for ages at this marvellous spectacle, and at the little toads that leapt all over my hands and my feet. Their spawn can survive years of drought, buried in the dry mud of temporary pools, to await the next rains. By this miracle of nature, the croaking of frogs and toads is considered by many Muslims to be a form of praise to the Almighty.
To see the desert in the short time when it pretended to be something else, to see the pool and the toads and the flowering plants, was humbling. To see the desert when life is born, reproduces, and dies in the matter of a couple of short weeks, was something I considered to be a great privilege. But this pool had already begun to dry up, and had turned to cracked mud on its edges. Within a week, it would once again become grey and brittle, covered in dust and sand, and the desert would once again be left to the mercy of the sky.
Throughout the day, cycling was a laborious affair due to a constant head wind that reduced my speed to under ten kilometres an hour. In addition to its physical curses, the wind was also psychologically disheartening, especially seeing as I had gone to sleep hoping for a good day's cycling. It became all too easy to suspect a conspiracy of the elements, especially when motorised vehicles shot past me. And always the sea to remind me of my thirst. Within three hours, I had drunk half of my day's ration, and the worst of the heat was still to come.
Before long, the flowering vegetation gave way to drier and dustier terrain, littered with the more usual acacia and scaly tamarisks that evidently hadn't received any rain, and by late afternoon, I was passing only a handful of wayside shrubs along each kilometre, mostly already swamped by the hot and hostile sands. There are no permanent oases of any consequence in the Western Sahara, and even the few, small, watering holes that do exist, are rapidly drying up and dying. There are no new ones to replace them either. In the 1950s, Raymond Mauny, in an excellent description of this coastline, listed over thirty oases and wells between Tan Tan Plage and Dakhla (the southern limit of Moroccan rule). Thirty years on, over half have disappeared forever, whilst the continuing existence of another half dozen or so is at best uncertain. Still, sometimes I would be surprised to see a lone fisherman perched on the cliff top, usually beside a ramshackle hovel made of wooden casing and old plastic sheets. It is an irony that the coastline of one of the world's harshest lands contains some of the world's richest fishing grounds. From the Western Sahara, south along the Mauritanian coastline and down to tropical Senegal, the north and western continental Atlantic currents meet, to bring with them an astounding quantity and variety of fish. Five centuries ago, a Venetian navigator in the service of Portugal, Alvise da Cà da Mosto, spoke of immense banks of sardines, anchovy and squid. In addition, there are barracuda, tuna, blue marlin, ladyfish, white sea bream, sailfish, sole, mullet, flying fish, wahoo, shark... The list is endless.
The fishermen I saw were some of the few survivors of drought and war. They are Chnagla, erstwhile troglodytic cliff face dwellers, who excel in the art of catching crabs and shellfish, the detritus of which litters the roadside. Although visibly impoverished, the few Chnagla that I saw seemed happy enough, waving and shouting greetings as I struggled by against the wind. Drought, however, has forced many others to abandon their traditional ways of life, and to move instead to towns such as Tan Tan, Tarfaya and Layoune. The saddest displacement of all took place early in the war against Polisario, when thousands of Saharawis were forced to flee their homelands for Algeria. On the outskirts of Tindouf, a town near the Moroccan frontier, there is a bleak tent city, where an estimated 160,000 Saharawi refugees live in forgotten exile, subsisting on rationed handouts from international charities and agencies. It is said that sixty children died on each day of the exodus, on which some families walked over 700 miles to escape the bloodshed. It is a damning indictment on the world's politicians and indeed the United Nations that neither the plight of the refugees, nor the war from which they fled and that is still raging, has not met with more positive action.
* * *
Oued Chebeïka, one of the Western Sahara's few rivers, is a short seasonal waterway that feeds from low hills that I could see to my left. The causeway across it was flanked on either side by a crazy paving of cracked mud, beyond which the two soldiers manning the next roadblock eagerly awaited my arrival. Then came Ras Ajhennir (Punta del Morro) and the mouth of the stagnant Oued el-Amra, the Red River. Over the river the road then veered a few miles inland as the cliffs gave way to an area of silken sand dunes. As luck would have it, no sooner had I crossed the river than an old Bedford lorry carrying a consignment of soft drinks pulled up beside me. A man opened the cab door which read: 'Allah is all Wise. Allah knows all.' The man jumped out, said hello, and then asked if I'd like a lemonade. I was given a bottle of coke, then the man shook my hand, wished me good luck, clambered back into his cab and drove away. It was the last vehicle I was to see for over a day.
By late afternoon, I came to a small and utterly surreal settlement (unmarked on my map, of course) which consisted of an arcade of café restaurants, a garage and a petrol station. With hindsight (and a decent map) this was Sidi Akhfennir, a roadstead that had grown up around the Koubba of its eponymous saint, whose mausoleum the usual domed cube seemed to levitate above a lake of pale cinnamon sand. The proprietors of the cafés - all fifteen of them! - gazed longingly at me. Apart from the coke lorry, I had seen no other traffic all day, and therefore any potential customers for these sad little cafés.
The next day, in the afternoon, the town of Tarfaya eventually resolved itself in the distance, at the far end of beautiful white sandy beach. Situated at the tip of Cap [cape] Juby, it is known among mariners as 'the graveyard of sailors.' In 1810, a certain Alexander Scott aboard the Montezuma was wrecked here, and consequently spent the next six years of his life in Moorish captivity. That same year, an American brig called the Charles also foundered here. The ship's crew included a certain Robert Adams (alias Benjamin Rose), who was to become the first white man since the 1630s to have returned alive from the forbidden city of Timbuctoo. He made his journey on foot, as a slave, and was held for three years until bought his freedom by the British Consul at Oued Noun. Adam's subsequent account of his visit to Timbuctoo, published in 1816, was discounted at the time in both Paris and London as pure fabrication. His faux-pas had been that his description of the city had not once mentioned gold. Although we now know that his was probably the most accurate account of its time (the gold trade had by then slowed to a mere trickle), that it did not mention gold was seen as proof that he had never been to the city with the golden roofs. The first European to visit Timbuctoo was also wrecked off this coast. He was a Frenchman, a sailor called Paul Imbert, who was captured by the Moors in 1630. The unfortunate Imbert, however, was never released, and died as a slave in Morocco. René Caillié, who in 1828 was to receive the glory of all France for being the first white man to return alive from Timbuctoo, was therefore not the first, but only the third. The difference was that he had not been shipwrecked, and was therefore the first to achieve the feat of his own volition.
A low, sandy cape bordered by reefs, the beach to the north of Tarfaya was littered with the wrecks of five ships, the largest being the Spanish grain cargo Monte Altube, wrecked in 1972 and now broken into at least three sections. How appropriate, I think now, this combination of beauty and treachery.
The main reason for Cap Juby being so treacherous is that even at its highest - twelve metres - in any sea conditions other than glassy smooth, it is invisible to sailors. And because here is the only part of the West African seaboard to run longitudinally from east to west, it is all too easy for ships sailing southwards simply to plough into the shore with their captains thinking that they are still safely out at sea. The Portuguese called it Cabo de Sabion - the Cape of Sand - which describes it and its dangers perfectly.
Cap Juby was first settled in 1879 by the British, who needed a trading base from which to compete with the Spanish Canary Islands, seventy miles offshore. Donald Mackenzie's North West Africa Company, which won the contract from the British government, dutifully named the place Port Victoria. Mackenzie himself was a bit of a character, and the author of a fantastical plan to dig a canal from Cap Juby all the way to Timbuctoo. It was an outlandish pipe dream encouraged by the recent completion of the Suez canal, and indeed by the support of its constructor, Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps. Mackenzie's book detailing the scheme - The Flooding of the Sahara (1877) - was undoubtedly a factor in encouraging the equally batty notion of a trans-Saharan railroad, reconnaissance for which led to the abortive and disastrous 'Flatters Expedition' of 1880-81, in which most of its 93 members were annihilated by Tuareg. Mackenzie himself, though, seemed to be blessed by luck. In 1895, he managed to sell the useless and already crumbling Port Victoria to the Moroccan sultan, for the then astronomical sum of £50,000.
Next, in 1916, came the Spanish though, it must be said, rather grudgingly after a German UC20 boat was discovered off-loading Turkish Qur'ans and Krupp munitions for Ahmed el-Hiba's forces. The Spanish, though, like the British, had little use for the place, and its importance extended only to providing a staging post for the pioneering trans-Atlantic Aéropostale service. Thus it was that in 1958, Spain abandoned Cap Juby and the surrounding region (so-called Spanish Morocco) to Morocco, leaving only a church, a barracks and a handful of moulding villas behind.
Tarfaya nowadays, I found to be not much of an improvement. It was nothing more than an ill-stocked outpost, plagued by mosquitoes and infested with woodlice. Its official population is 7,000, though I found that hard to believe. Sand drifts lined the main street, a cul-de-sac, which boasted only few shops. Midday during Ramadan, and there was no bread to be had for love or money. Apparently one can buy tuna and swordfish here, but I couldn't even find a can of sardines. I also didn't like the dirty looks that the children were giving me, and so I left as soon as I found a shop prepared to sell me some peanuts.
Perhaps I am a little unkind to Tarfaya, because there was one thing that was memorable about the place, and that was that as soon as I left the town for Layoune on the other side of the El-Gaada plateau the northeasterly trade wind made its first appearance, something that made cycling both rapid and a pleasure in itself. Apart from pleasing odd cyclists, though, the trade wind is a curse. It ensures that Saharan evaporation rates are the highest in the world, and has undoubtedly helped a great many ships blunder their way into untimely graves. Another, more immediate, reminder of the cruelty of the wind was the appearance of Erg Lakhbayta, a narrow but tall belt of bright yellow sand dunes that flanked the coast to my right. Erg Lakhbayta was also the cause of the first proper splash of yellow ink on my map, something with which the Mauritanian border at the very bottom of the sheet was entirely inundated. It was something which served only to further stiffen my resolve to go there!
The road itself was perfectly engineered, which I found surprising. The reason for the extra attention became obvious as I reached Tah, 35km from Tarfaya on the western rim of the Tah Depression (fifty metres below sea level). At latitude 27º40', Tah is the site of the erstwhile frontier crossing between the Spanish Sahara and Spanish Morocco (the latter including Tarfaya was retroceded in 1958 to Morocco). Two key dates in Western Saharan history are commemorated here, in a magnificent monumental gateway consisting of two identical slabs of highly polished black marble. The one commemorates a visit by Sultan Hassan I in 1875. The second honours King Hassan II and the 'Green March' of 1975. It is here that the Spanish border guards gaped helplessly at invasion of civilians. The word tah, rather appropriately, means 'a pouring over', a word used in the past to describe the onslaught of a razzia.
I spent my first night in this disputed region on a hillside beside the Sebkha Oum Deboua, and some sort of transmitter station. The only sound was that of the wind blowing against my shirt, and the occasional and very peculiar croaks of a couple of white crowned black wheatears. They seemed to be quite fascinated by me, and spent the good part of an hour flitting around overhead. Sunset over the sebkha was beautiful in its simplicity.
* * *
The masts, pipes, and exhaust flues of an oil refinery were the first indication that I was approaching Layoune, capital of the Western Sahara. The city is built on the south bank of the Saguia el-Hamra (the Red River Valley) the Western Sahara's longest and most important river. This, however, means very little, for the river is only seasonal, and often does not flow for many years. In 1941, for instance, fresh water reached the ocean for the first time in three decades. Like the valley of the Drâa, the Saguia el-Hamra was a cradle of ancient civilisation. Prehistoric rock carvings and stone hand tools are to be found throughout the valley. Saguia el-Hamra is also the birth and resting place for dozens of saints, including Sidi Loghdof and Sidi Ahmad al-Rgibi, the founder of the powerful Reguibat tribe. The river is also the homeland of the pastoralist Tekna, who stem from a Yemeni tribe who migrated here in the thirteenth century. They had begun their great journey two hundred years earlier, as troublesome refugees who flooded into Egypt like swarms of locusts, according Ibn Khaldun. They soon outstayed their welcome, and were hounded westwards where it was hoped that the Berbers would prove more than a match for them. This was indeed the case, and the unwanted visitors were pushed south of the Drâa by the Merinids. Their descendants remain here to this day, some of whom until recently bolstered their standard of living with fearsome razzias on caravans. In the past few decades, though, the fate of the once all powerful Tekna has become all too familiar to the Saharawis. The war and concurrent droughts have forced many to move to the towns, where some own shops and businesses, but have little hope of ever returning to the nomadic ways of their forefathers.
The Saguia el-Hamra is, not surprisingly, of some importance to Polisario (its acronym includes the river), with the result that this region, perhaps more than any other, has suffered most consistently in the fighting. The oasis of Lemseyed, a Moroccan infantry outpost not even five miles away, was last attacked by the guerrillas only a year before my visit, and Layoune, in consequence, was swarming with military. Before even being allowed into town, I was stopped on the north bank of the river by soldiers manning yet another checkpoint. For a change, the guards were in no mood for joking. Among many other things (a search of my body and my panniers, and a long questionnaire), I had to show them my map, because those that distinguish Morocco from the Western Sahara in addition to those that mark the disputed borders with Algeria (such as Michelin publications) are illegal, as are guidebooks with similar illustrations, or ones with more than just a brief outline of the conflict. For once, my map published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Reform of the Kingdom of Morocco served me admirably well. The soldier even allowed himself a chuckle when he saw how useless it was, and handed it back exclaiming: 'You should get a better map, Nazarene, or you may lose yourself.' He then added, as a supposedly humorous afterthought: 'And perhaps you may also lose your head.'
Official maps, such as the one I had, went so far in places that even some towns were omitted, undoubtedly for reasons of national security. Even Tah, the old border crossing, was missing, as was the defensive wall despite which, the road across it to Mauritania was drawn on as though the war had never existed. More serious is government control of the media (with a few notable exceptions, nonetheless). The papers regularly print 'testimonies' from important foreigners, supposedly attesting Morocco's rightful claim to sovereignty over the Western Sahara. One typical issue of an English language resume of the month's news included the sanctimonious eulogies of the West German ambassador to Rabat, his Polish counterpart, and one article captioned: 'The Sahara Is Part Of Morocco: Said President Omar BONGO of Gabon'. He, incidentally, is a dictator known primarily for his silver-plated personal ambulance and his gold-plated Cadillac. Television confessions and denunciations also play a regular part in this diet of propaganda, usually by 'Polisario defectors'. The papers also refer to Polisario (which they try to avoid as much as possible) as 'mercenaries' or 'bandits', and say that the refugee camps at Tindouf are merely camps of torture. I leave to the back of this book (7) details of Morocco's own record on human rights, which reduces its propaganda (like all propaganda) to the level of sick farce.
Although Layoune was founded in 1932, it is the war that has spawned the growth of this strange modern city of the desert. Still a small outpost in 1975, Morocco, when it came to occupy the region, decided to make of Layoune the jewel of the Western Sahara, living proof of Morocco's generous patronage. Layoune is the Moroccan dream of modernity set into concrete, a triumph of man's industry over the brutish and inhospitable desert. The money that was sunk into Layoune helped to pay for the construction of an entirely new part of town, as well as an airport, a Grand Hotel, and a royal palace, the latter built for the king's visit in 1985. Layoune is forever being expanded: new buildings, roads, schools, a stadium, another hospital, another mosque for the faithful... Layoune, like Saudi Arabia's neo-modernist desert cities, is a place that is both arrogant and woefully lacking in character. To be fair, perhaps this is a phenomenon common to all newly built cities, and one that can only be remedied only through the passing of time.
Like all concrete towns built in, or on, the edges of great wildernesses, Layoune sustains a healthy element of the absurd. One evening, in the dying embers of sunset, I saw a middle aged man who had erected a wooden framed glass panel in the middle of the street beside the Souk el-Djemal (the defunct camel market, now occupied by greengrocers). The man bore an uncanny resemblance to King Hassan, with his fat but dignified blue blood nose, his red fez and his cream coloured jellaba (perhaps the effect was intentional). He began his patter like the TV ads for Royal Air Maroc with exhortations to Allah (it seems as though Allah can sell anything). Brandishing a bundle of Xeroxed sheets in one hand, with the other he was eagerly (and anxiously) demonstrating a patent rubber squeegee. Handing a foam-filled plastic bucket to a lone housewife, he urged her to have a go herself, to feel how effortlessly the new invention glid over the window pane splosh, squeak, squatch, screech! And then, as if to demonstrate the efficacy of this gadget, he ran his thumb nail across the glass and then beamed triumphantly as we cringed. Unimpressed, the housewife walked away, leaving only me to keep the man company. It appeared that a medicine man nearby had robbed him of his punters.
I found a hotel that was both cheap and quiet, a rare combination. I was initially offered a windowless room inhabited by cockroaches, but ended up plumping for a three-legged bed and a slanting floor overlooking the busy Rue Mouhamed Salm. The concierge was teenager called Abdellah Ali el-Hajji, who, like Hakim of Chefchaouen's Pension Kasbah, had a very coquettish giggle, and the habit of tilting his head to one side whenever he spoke or was embarrassed. Unlike Hakim, however, Abdellah was notorious among his friends for being a womaniser, who, whenever his charms were found wanting, indulged in a special half price deal that he had negotiated with Aïsha, the hotel's resident whore.
I was invited to spend one morning with his family for a traditional dinner of couscous (dinner, during Ramadan, is taken before sunrise, while breakfast, confusingly, is served at dusk). On this occasion, the couscous was served with lamb, pepper and onion, with a side dish of cumin and salt to rub into the meat. The el-Hajjis were devoutly Muslim and, needless to say, had not the faintest inkling of what their son got up to behind their backs. I also suspected that they were none too pleased to see the filthy N'srani that their son had dragged in.
The meal began with the ritual purification of hands and faces, using lavender scented water poured from an ornate silver jug. For my part, I had also to wash my hair, which was fair enough given the state it had got into. Then, a simple grace was offered - 'Bismillah' (In the Name of Allah) - before we all tucked in. In keeping with tradition, eating with the left hand was strictly frowned upon (it is used in the toilet), so that when I once absent-mindedly held a serving spoon in that hand, I was given a dirty look from father el-Hajji, whilst his wife got up to fetch another spoon. I apologised profusely, and from then on followed precisely the movements of my hosts.
Both Abdellah's parents had been on the Hajj, the pilgrimage that all Muslims are expected to complete at least once during their lifetimes. It is performed during the second week of Dhull Hijja - the 12th month of the Hegira calendar - and represents the fulfilment of many a pious Muslim's dreams. Whosoever enters Mecca and touches the Black Stone of the Ka'bah attains eternal security. As a result, the el-Hajji family were well entitled to their name, which means 'the pilgrim'.
The el-Hajji household was only modestly furnished. Abdsalam (the father) only just made a living from his store, selling anything from Butagaz canisters to nylon stockings. There were a few family photographs hanging on the walls, although pride of place was given to two framed portraits of the king and his father. The el-Hajji's were staunch royalists, and had willingly emigrated from Casablanca to aid the repopulation of 'Our Sahara'. I suspect that they considered themselves and their duty in much the same way as the Quakers might have felt aboard the Mayflower. Abdellah shared little of his parents' puritanical enthusiasm, and longed instead for the cosmopolitan pleasures that had been left behind.
We talked little throughout the meal, except towards the end, when both parents politely urged me to finish the enormous quantity of couscous that remained. The meal ended with the usual alhamdulillah and the regulation three glasses of mint tea (during which the conversation died completely). Finally, and to everyone's relief, I made my excuses and walked back to the hotel.
* * *
Just past Layoune airport, dominated by three camouflaged Hercules transports and a couple of Sikorsky gun ships, I was stopped at yet another roadblock. 'Do you have to cycle to Dakhla?' the soldier asked wearily, not, I sensed, out of any concern at my imminent kidnapping by Polisario, but because he was incredulous that anyone would actually want to go there. With hindsight I can well understand his astonishment.
The exact distance between Layoune and Dakhla (erstwhile capital of the former Mauritanian sector) is something of a mystery. My map indicated 580km, although for the most part the road was marked only as a dotted line, and a seemingly random one at that (as though the cartographer had simply got bored with accuracy). The Michelin map of Northwest Africa states 559km, and another one omits the road altogether. Even stranger was a roadsign I passed outside Bou Izakarn, the distances of which I'd scribbled into my diary. By subtracting the figure it gave for Layoune from that to Dakhla, I arrived at 697km, which was the same as that given by a similar road sign near Tan Tan. Whatever the distance, the actual route that the road took was quite unlike anything marked on any map, past or present, although in the event, the trade wind succeeded in turning what had at first seemed a daunting prospect by bicycle, to be as easy as a Sunday morning ride around the streets of Manchester.
For the first 20km the only stretch that all the maps agreed on the road ran westwards across the dunes of Erg Lakhbayta to rejoin the coast. Cycling across the dunes, I had to keep my eyes half shut to avoid the windblown sand. Huge sandbreaks were ineffectual in preventing the southward march of the dunes across the road, which in parts was totally swamped. A couple of sand ploughs struggled gamely to keep the road open an endless and thankless task. Although sand was to dominate the landscape for much of the day, Erg Lakhbayta itself was left behind as the road hit the coast and turned south again towards Boujdour and Dakhla. Shortly after Layoune Plage - swamped by sand and choked of all life - the road swung round a huge phosphate factory, the last building I was to see until evening. From the mines at Bou Crâa one hundred kilometres inland the ore is transported along the world's longest conveyor belt all the way across the desert and straight into the heart of the factory. Bou Crâa started production in 1972, but had to be shut down in 1975 because of Polisario attacks. It had only recently resumed production, and I was stopped at two separate checkpoints where my papers and bags were scrutinised with uncommon meticulousness.
The war meant that there was more traffic in these parts than further north: invariably military. By midday (when all traffic ceased), I had seen seven Land Rovers and four trucks, driving south in two convoys. Towards evening, I settled down behind a clump of acacia, having heard the approach of another convoy. Crouching alongside a helmeted gecko, I saw nine lorries pass me by, loaded with guns, personnel carriers, and the dreaded Stalin's Organs multiple missile launchers made in Ceaucescu's Romania.
Roughly one hundred kilometres from Layoune is Lemsid and the koubba of Sidi Mohammed Bou Gambour, which, like so many other Western Saharan mausolea, was destroyed in the war. Lemsid was the smallest settlement that I was to see in all my travels and, to my utter amazement, was marked on my map! It consisted of precisely two huts and one café cum restaurant. The latter was painted in gaudy two-tone pink and caramel, and the sand around it was littered with rugged piles of blown out and shredded tyres, smashed hurricane lamps, various engine parts, broken axles and a rusty 1950s petrol pump. There was no one about. This, to the best of my abilities, is an exhaustive description of Lemsid.
* * *
The following morning, at a roadblock just outside Boujdour:
'Ah, N'srani!' exclaimed the soldier manning the barrier, who later asked: 'You do know what is Nooo-sra-ni?'
'Nooo-sra-ni,' he explained pedantically, 'is an infidel, a dog, a woof woof! You understand? I, however, am not a dog. I am Musulman, a servant of Allah. Allah who is the most merciful. Allah who is the most high...'
I was obliged to endure this irksome man for over an hour, since I was to be escorted into town for further questioning. Once there, in the army headquarters, I was subjected to half an hour of suspicious interrogation by a fat and heavily bearded gentleman, who sat behind a typewriter throughout. Using one finger, he laboriously thumped out my details on a Xeroxed sheet of paper, as I stood in front of his desk like a naughty schoolboy.
'How long have you been in Morocco?' asked the commissioner.
'What are your motives for coming here?'
'Where have you been in Morocco?'
'How long do you intend to stay in Boujdour?'
'How long do you intend to remain in Morocco?'
'Where are you going to afterwards?'
'What is the maiden name of your mother?'
'What is her nationality?'
'Where did she study?'
'What colour are her eyes?'
'Do you love your mother?' All the time, he assiduously typed down my responses.
'Ah, that is good. Very good. And your father?'
At last, he stood up, shook my hand very firmly and painfully, and said: 'Very good, you may go now, N'srani.' He even allowed himself a glimmer of a smile. Perhaps the Nazarene was not the devil in disguise after all. But the oddest thing was that, as I was leaving his office, I caught a glimpse of the sheet that he had been typing on: '0rtksvh FFTHY fdkytu...' He had covered it, from top to bottom, in utter gibberish!
Apart from the military presence, the one street town of Boujdour has an unexpectedly attractive air about it. Perhaps, though, it was my mind playing romantically with its history. The triangle of ocean between Cap Juby, the Canary Islands and Cap Bojador (Boujdour) is the southern limit of the variable Atlantic winds, meaning that from here on, the trade winds dominate exclusively. It is for this reason that in the age of sailing ships, Cap Bojador came to be the absolute southernmost limit to which sailors dared venture, for fear of being blown so far south by the trades that returning to Europe would be made impossible (as the two unfortunate Vivaldi brothers found out in 1291, who were never heard of again, and were presumed to have been blown off the edge of the world). In addition, sailing was rendered treacherous by a strong offshore current, as well as the risk of frequent and unexpected storms. Neither was the confusion surrounding the etymology of Cap Juby and Cap Bojador any great help. As early as 1375, the Catalan World Atlas of Abraham Cresques mentioned a cape called Buyetdor, only it was marked at Cap Juby, a confusion that prevailed until the last century.
In many ways, the Atlantic was as formidable a barrier to African exploration as was the Sahara: the ultimate frontier beyond which it was impossible to venture, the 'Land of the Setting Sun' where Sidi Uqba ibn Nafi rode his steed into the ocean to proclaim, in the sight of Allah, that he had conquered all the land that there was left to conquer. South of Bojador, legend had it, lay the dreaded 'Mare Tenebrosum': in al-Masudi's words, 'The Green Sea of Darkness', which was worshipped out of dread by the early Saharawis, who made sacrifices and offerings to calm its frequent rages. Alexander the Great is said to have built a tower in this 'Foetid Sea' engraved with the words 'Let whosoever cometh to this place with the intention of sailing over this sea know that I have locked it up...' (8). The Greeks believed that the Pillars of Hercules (Djebel Musa and the Rock of Gibraltar) guarded the passage to Hades and the 'Exterior Sea', and perhaps even to the lost kingdom of Atlantis.
I and my companions were old and weary, when we reached the narrow, strait where Hercules set up his boundary marks, to the end that no man should proceed beyond.
Dante, Hell, Canto XXVI
As time went on, the fear of this ocean became more embellished in fable. The Atlantic beyond Bojador was commonly believed to be an all consuming sea of liquid fire where only those who had made a pact with the devil could sail. Tales abounded of monsters and demons that inhabited the seas beyond the Canary Islands: seven headed dragons, the leviathan, and man eating sea serpents. The conqueror of the sea and its legends was Gil Eanes, equerry to Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal (in whose honour Boujdour's ancient lighthouse is dedicated). In 1434, enticed by rumours of a legendary 'Golden River' that lay further south, Eanes became the first sailor to round Cap Bojador and return alive to tell the tale. The secret, he found, was to return to the north not along the coastline, which was more or less fatal, but in mid-Atlantic, where the trade winds subsided and the currents from the Americas flowed north.
The rounding of Cap Bojador was an achievement that changed the entire course of world exploration. The Gold Coast (modern Ghana) was discovered in 1475, the Congo in 1482, and in 1487 the Cape of Good Hope was rounded for the first time by Bartolomeu Dias, who called it the Cape of Storms. Ten years later - barely half a century after rounding Cap Bojador - Portuguese caravels under Vasco da Gama had reached India and all its riches. Thus, it can truly be said that the dawning of the new modern era began not with Columbus' 'discovery' of the New World in 1492, but with Gil Eanes' rather more humble voyage 58 years earlier.
* * *
The soldier at the next roadblock, a few miles to the south of Boujdour, was fast asleep when I arrived. A scruffy man, with a beard as scrappy as mine, he kept saying how kind I was for actually having bothered to wake him up, for otherwise he might have got into trouble with his superiors. When I asked him whether the road south from Dakhla to Mauritania was open, he replied with the stock excuse that the immediate region around it was still mined with explosives, that the road was still being surfaced, and that it was therefore out of bounds. I didn't want to believe him, and said so, but he just shrugged and said that he looked forward to seeing me again when I came back up north. He added that I should count myself fortunate enough in being able to travel to Dakhla at all, because the road had been closed until only the very week before.
The sky was muggy, the air humid, and the heat feverish. By mid afternoon it had reached 55ºC (131ºF), and I was thankful for the good road. Throughout the day, the scenery changed very little. The rocky ground, and sometimes the road, was covered with sand, in places thick enough to merit being called dunes. There was, as usual, very little vegetation that could survive in this waste. One of the few exceptions and the most noteworthy was Acacia radiana, a low bush that, as its name suggests, grows in ever expanding circles, so that from above it would look like an archer's target. At first glance, the wildlife too was non-existent, but that was not entirely the case. Insects and arachnids, especially, thrive in these conditions. Flies were the most irritating, and followed me everywhere, sometimes riding pillion on my panniers or shirt. They had the annoying habit of getting trapped between my face and the cheche, and then panicking. Ants, too, were regular companions, often hiding away in the round loaves of bread that I carried along with me. To my relief, though, I never once saw a scorpion (whose venom can be as poisonous as that of a cobra) mainly because I made a point of not sticking my hand under rocks and in crevices. There was also a wide selection of beetles and cockroaches, although locusts, this far south, had virtually disappeared a telling indication of the scarcity of vegetation. Snakes, though, were common, either buried like coiled ropes in the sand, or else squashed flat by vehicles, as were a variety of lizards, frogs and toads, jerboas (the desert rat), and hares. There were strange white skinks too, their shiny fish scaled skins splattered with bright red blood. A few decades ago I might have seen gazelle, wild camels, ostrich, fennec (desert fox), oryx and addax antelopes. Nowadays, they are endangered or else already extinct.
The desert seemed as hostile to me as an ocean would be to a shipwrecked mariner. The land was eerily silent in its vastness, and yet, it was a beautiful silence. The Arabs tell a tale about Allah having created the desert so that He could be at peace with Himself when reflecting on the world that He had created. I imagined that if He were to spend too long a time in all this silence, then He too would begin to go slightly mad. I remember once picking up a pebble that was more or less the exact replica of a nearby mountain, eroded to reveal layer upon layer of stratified rock. I put it in my mouth, chewed it for a while, and then spat it out. I also recall laughing for a good half hour at the thought of darkling beetles and the droning bukhakes bumblebee beetle of the Rif exploding, caused by the air in their pockets overheating: Bzzzzz, bzzzzz, bzzzzzzz... BANG! I also recalled English pop songs, that whirred endlessly through my head as the wheels whirred through the sand, though the thing that annoyed me most was that I could only ever remember two or three tunes, and so for hours I would whistle and hum the same piece over and over again, until I became so sick of it that I condemned my physical struggles to silence.
About fifty or sixty kilometres south of Boujdour I came to an area of wind scarred ruins, interlaced with barbed wire and anonymous mechanical contraptions that were scattered around. As far as could make out, this was the abandoned settlement of Aoufist [though it may have been Hassi Aouziouah - curse my map!]. Here, an earlier part of the Moroccan defensive wall drops down all the way to the coast. The beach to my right was barred with wire, concrete and mounds of rubble. From Aoufist, all maps were ignored again as the road started up the valley of the dead River Assaq, where in the year 1500, the Spanish who had wanted to construct a fort at its mouth were massacred by local tribes. The river hasn't flowed for decades. The land hereabouts consisted of bizarrely eroded tufa - a porous rock made of calcium carbonate deposited from ancient springs that crumbled like meringue if ever I touched it. On leaving the valley some way inland the colour of the land turned to a violent orange, a maddening Martian landscape that contrasted starkly with the bright blue sky. Mile upon mile of flat orange desert followed, devoid of any wildlife whatsoever, flattened or otherwise. The infinite disc of the rusty horizon was interrupted only by lazy mirages with blurred edges that floated across my vision. In places, not a single twig or blade of grass could be seen, and the only relief for my sun-broiled eyes was the blue sky. The early morning clouds had been blown swiftly away in the hot and dusty wind, but this only made the heat bite still more keenly. My nose once again got red and burnt, as did my cheeks and forehead, despite the protection of the cheche.
For much of the day, the only living creature that I saw was a solitary cream coloured courser, huddled in the scant shade of a small bush. I was surprised to see such a delicate little thing in such a harsh place, and so I stopped cycling and walked towards her. At first, she feigned death, but was given away by the shrill cries of her distant chicks. Then she flew about in short leaps, hoping to lure me away from the nest (the courser is one of the few birds to nest in the desert). It is odd to realise that birds are in fact the last surviving true dinosaurs. I suspect that they have survived so long because of their mobility, their migrations. In a way, I had followed them down all the way from England (several species nest there and fly across the Sahara to spend their winter in Senegal). The Arabic verb 'to travel' (safara) is related to saffat, which describes the soaring of flocks of birds.
To travel with the wind is something truly fabulous, especially on a bicycle. On the newly built road, the going was easy, and the kilometres fell quickly away to the sound of hissing rubber on smooth asphalt, and to the sound of my body: inhaling, exhaling, inhaling... the only rhythm that I could hear. There are no limits to the wheel. No top and no bottom. No one point that is forever rooted to the ground or yearning for the sky. A wheel can only turn, turn around and around. The bicycle was perfect in its simplicity the perfect machine. When it behaved, and didn't cause me too much anguish with punctures and squeaks and jammed gears or chain, it was almost an extension of my body, and no longer a mechanical 'thing' on top of which I had to fight and curse in order to get somewhere. At times like these the whole world seemed to be a perfect kind of place, and I was happy.
Heat and monotony mesmerise the traveller. All deserts have unusually high rates of road accidents (in spite of there being so little to collide with). A particularly gruesome sight was the aftermath of a crash that had involved a lorry carrying a load of goats. Although the vehicle had been towed away (I saw its remains in Dakhla, and was told that five people had been killed), much debris remained, in addition to sixteen dead goats, some bloated in the heat, others dismembered, their limbs and other pieces of flesh scattered over the road: bloodied ears, legs, heads, and guts. The stench made me sick. When I turned to look back at the scene, a couple of miles afterwards, I saw a jackal flitting between some nearby boulders. I was pleased to have seen a live desert mammal, and the jackal made me smile. At least someone had gained from all the carnage, I thought, as I headed off towards Dakhla.
Eventually, in the evening of the third day from Layoune, I reached a road junction. The left branch ostensibly led to Mauritania via the border town of Lagouera, 400km to the south. The other fork went to Dakhla, situated at the very end of a 40km peninsula (hence its full name, ad-Dakhla, which means 'the Bay's Mouth'). Beside the junction were mounds of rubble and grit, rolls of barbed wire, geometric concrete castings, and a couple of large bulldozers. These, I was told later, were for building the road to Lagouera. The barbed wire and concrete blocks, however, led me to the conclusion that these materials were being used only to bolster the defensive wall that runs alongside the Mauritanian frontier. The sixth and final stage of this project was completed in April 1987, after heavy fighting. The wall stretches over 1500km, and is made of sand, rubble, barbed wire and land mines, and is protected by electronic sensors, radar, tanks, and 160,000 troops. The cost of these defences were estimated in 1988 to run into the order of one million US dollars each and every day.
For a while, I was tempted to try the Lagouera road regardless of what I had been told, until a passing police car stopped and warned me of land mines south of the village of Al Argoub (40km away). Reluctantly, but not overly willing to risk being shot at or else blown sky high, I took the road to Dakhla. Not even two minutes' cycling brought me to yet another roadblock: the old and once picturesque settlement of Tamayya, which now houses a small barracks to guard the neck of the peninsula. Bleached and threadbare flags fluttered atop a couple of very tall poles, and the soldiers looked meaner and altogether much more serious than elsewhere. I was ordered to stop with machine guns pointed at my chest, and it took quite an exhaustive show of friendly smiles, humouring platitudes and solemn assurances for the soldiers to drop their suspicions, and their weapons. Again, I was recounted the official excuse that the road south had not yet been properly asphalted, and was therefore out of bounds, which was plainly nonsense. Pleading for a lift on some army truck was no good either. When I asked how the people in Lagouera coped with not being able to travel up to Dakhla, I was bluntly told that there no longer were any people in Lagouera.
'Mister...' He burbled my name as he read it from my passport. 'You, monsieur, are going back to Layoune. You are going back now. Yallah, be off with you!'
After a good deal of pleading (I was damned if I was going to cycle back up north against the wind), I finally got permission to travel as far as Dakhla, on condition that I reported immediately to the Chief Commissioner of the Gendarmerie, and to ensure that I did this, he radioed through my details. I was bitterly disappointed as I left the barrage, knowing that Dakhla was the end of my travels in the Western Sahara. I was especially gutted by the thought that to reach Mauritania would have only required another three days cycling, and that, instead, I would have to pay my way there via Layoune and an expensive flight via the Canary Islands. At least I could console myself with the fact that I had been luckier than some. In Boujdour, I'd seen a couple of Frenchmen turned back by the, military. They had hoped to go sea bass fishing off Dakhla. The panorama from the neck of the peninsula was beautiful. The dusky pastel light, so soft and yet so bright, seemed to stroke the silvery sand flats, velvety dunes and sapphire sea. To my right lay the crumbling white ruins of an ancient tufa fort or barracks, it was hard to tell which. In the bay to my left, dolphins and seals bobbed about and played. There was a slight breeze, which made the atmosphere most bearable, and the chalky tufa clearings caught the setting sun with a deepening glow of warmth. But there was also a sinister undercurrent to all this. After all, I was in a war zone. This knowledge was hard to reconcile with the beauty of the land. It was also difficult to tell whether the ruins of the fort really were ancient, or whether they had, in fact, been bombed to the ground only recently. There were also a few fire gutted vehicles lying about, and the masts of wrecks protruding from the bay. On the mainland, I thought that I could just make out a faint line of fortifications near al-Argoub, but perhaps that was just my imagination. Beyond the village is the Tropic of Cancer, south of which is no man's land, out of bounds even to the Moroccan military.
The road passed along the remaining thirty odd kilometres on a sandy causeway only a few feet above the water. To the left and east, between the mainland and the peninsula, was the lagoon of Rio de Oro, sheltering a dozen sandy bays and the island of Kerne (or Herne) where, in 420 BC, Hanno the Carthaginian's galleys put in on their journey around Africa (ironically, the Atlantic was navigable in those days, because oars were used instead of sails). Rio de Oro is one of only two important gulfs on the Sahara's Atlantic coastline (the other being the Baie du Lévrier, 400km further south on the Mauritanian border). As its name betrays, European interest in Rio de Oro stemmed from the mistaken belief that there was gold to be had here. Hanno's mission, if his Periplus is to be believed, was to establish coastal settlements with the purpose of preserving direct trading links with West Africa, which, according to Herodotus, supplied much of North Africa's gold (West African gold is believed to have been used to cover the Phoenician Temple of Solomon). In the late-fourteenth century, Abraham Cresques' World Atlas mentioned a sea voyage in quest of the Rio do Ouro, although nothing more is known about it (perhaps it was a reference to the Vivaldi brothers?) Like those of Timbuctoo, the legends surrounding the mysterious River of Gold grew from strength to strength. According to Yaqut, gold sprouted on its sandy banks like carrots. Others believed that gold grew like coral, renewing itself with the turning of the seasons. Richard de Haldingham's thirteenth-century Mappa Mundi even mentioned the celebrated legend of gold found in the nests of ants, ants according to Herodotus 'bigger than a fox, but not so big as a dog.' It now seems incredible that such tales were taken seriously at all, yet even the Genoan secret archives, which determined their goals of exploration throughout the Middle Ages (and which Colombus consulted before chasing his American Utopia), mentioned a river in which:
one may gather patines of gold... the larger part of the people who, inhabit the region are employed in gathering gold from this river which, a league across, is deep enough for even the world's largest vessels. (9)
The Portuguese sailor, Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaia, is believed to have been the first European since Hanno to 'discover' Rio de Oro when, in 1436, he returned from the lagoon with the first shipment of black slaves ever brought back to Europe. Gold too, was obtained, though it had to bartered from the Moors who, with hindsight, had transported it by caravan from the mines in the Tropics. Rio de Oro is, of course, a complete misnomer. Not only is it not a river, but it has absolutely no gold of its own. The Portuguese had mistaken the bay for the River Senegal, seven hundred miles further south, and even it was to disappoint. And with no gold to be found, European interest in the Western Sahara dwindled, to be next rekindled only during the frantic Scramble for Africa in the run up to the Great War.
I was waved through the last checkpoint they'd heard that I was coming and made my way past a massive infantry barracks into the centre of town. Dakhla is a city of long anonymous avenues, cinemas and whores. There is a seaweed processing factory, built in the 1960s, and mile upon mile of tall, unforgiving walls, with few windows or entrances to betray any secrets. There are posters everywhere, advertising Indian love epics and popular kung fu films, as well as pro-government May Day demonstrations. Because this city is the southern headquarters of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, civilians are vastly outnumbered by the military. In any case, most of the original inhabitants fled Dakhla at the outset of the war, and the civilians nowadays are mostly Moroccan settlers. Most of the buildings are official, festooned with flags and the ubiquitous portraits of the king. The beach is a military scrap yard, strewn with old signposts, engines, tattered uniforms, wheels and other mechanical parts. There is a constant flow of tanks, gun trucks, armoured vehicles and jeeps.
At the commissariat, I had to pass three further checkpoints and their sour faced denizens before being allowed to speak to the commissioner himself. He gave me precisely one day to get out of Dakhla, or else. That was fine, though, because I didn't much want to stay. When I enquired about possible boats to Mauritania, he grinned weakly and shook his head. 'Not possible, not possible,' he sighed. 'The mercenaries, you see. I'm sorry, you had better go.' Nevertheless, I tried the port, but was hounded away by other gendarmes who threw stones and hurled obscenities.
I cycled back to the checkpoint just outside town, and introduced myself, in the hope of catching a lift back to Layoune (from where I would fly to Nouâdhibou via the Canary Islands). The two guards, a soldier and a gendarme, were a peculiar pair. The gendarme resembled Rowan Atkinson both in looks and in his little pernickety mannerisms. For instance, when he sipped tea, he used only his thumb and index finger, the other three fingers pointing away as far as possible from the glass. Then, he would tilt his head right back to reveal his hairy nostrils, before delicately slurping the liquid down his throat to a sound like the last few inches of bath water disappearing down the plug hole.
The soldier was a scatterbrain. He looked permanently dazed and confused, like a child transported into an adult's body. He kept asking the same questions of me, repeating them in an endless dirge. He never managed to grasp the fact that I lived in England and not in France or Spain. He also had the habit of frequently gargling his saliva before spitting it out onto the floor (for strict Muslims, fasting forbids even the swallowing of saliva, and hence kissing). He was also completely entranced by my bicycle, and repeatedly asked whether he could have it as a present. On failing that, he tried everything to get my camera, my anorak, my water bottles, and even my diary!
'Ignore him,' advised the gendarme when the soldier wobbled uneasily away on my bicycle, swerving erratically past a laughable concrete wall built to deter guerrilla attacks. 'He is only a small child,' he continued as we heard a distant thud followed by a short yelp.
In the evening, a jeep passed by the checkpoint. On spotting my bicycle, it howled to a halt and disgorged a small man with a moustache. The two guards saluted. Colonel Mahmoud bel Souza wanted to know how the N'srani had managed to get here with a bicycle. When I explained that I'd cycled from England, he smiled, and then grinned: 'Yo, boy! You betcha goddam ass you sure am one cooool kat!!!' What could I say? He offered me his hand, then explained that he had been stationed in the States in 1952, and had loved every minute of it. It seemed that the only English he knew was some kind of crazy southern slang, complete with the accent.
'Marine Corps, Louisiana, U. S. of A. D'you know it, boy?'
'No shit, kick ass! Those goddam sonnovabitch mudderfuckers sure got huge knockers boy!' And when he saw the kilo of dried figs that I'd bought in Dakhla, he exclaimed, 'You sure gonna have one goddam fiery asshole tonite, you betcha goddam ass boy!' He then wished me the best of luck for the rest of my life, saluted and left. The two guards looked on speechless.
Dinner was served at sunset. I was famished! It was a rushed affair of sorts: bread, harira, a gloopy rice pudding, mint tea and processed cheese, all in all not bad considering it came courtesy of the Moroccan army. Soon after, the soldier was replaced by another, and immediately, I noticed a degree of animosity between the newcomer and the gendarme. When the former sloped off somewhere, as he often did, the gendarme would lean over the table and confide, rather too theatrically, that the new guy was with Polisario, oh yes, because he was born in Tan Tan. Despite his overly royalist leanings, though, I quickly got to like the gendarme he made me laugh. The soldier, too, was okay. He was intelligent, nimble minded, and for his part confessed his belief that the war was futile. He was a fountain of information. Apart from confirming the little I knew about the wall and the no go areas, he also recited a sad litany of what newspapers would call 'tragic human interest' stories: families who had been ruined when their fathers were killed by land mines; horrific injuries; friends missing in action, and so on. He also pointed out presently 'problematic' zones on my map, meaning areas of ongoing hostility or places under constant threat of guerrilla attack. In particular, the region around a village called Techlé, near the Mauritanian border, he called Hell. It was the first time that I had heard the word used in Morocco. Last July, Polisario seized 40km of the wall near Techlé, and the ensuing battle had claimed 275 Moroccan lives. According to the government in Rabat, these were 'sustainable losses'.
As he continued, the soldier became more and more downcast, and no longer criticised only Polisario in his stories. Some of the things he said were disparaging even of the Moroccan army. In particular, he told of one colonel who had forced his prisoners to sweep a minefield by walking across it. It soon became obvious to me that the soldier rarely had the opportunity to talk to someone who wasn't about to report him to the court martial, and several times I got the feeling that he was only telling me all this to alert me to the fact that there was a war going on. He wanted to tell me of a war that most of the world prefers to ignore, and that war meant horror, destruction and death. 'Please remember what war really means,' he seemed to be saying across his stories.
The gendarme, on the other hand, believed vehemently in the God-given right of Morocco to occupy the Western Sahara. 'The reason is simple,' he explained: 'this is Morocco.' In the gendarme's opinion, anyone who disagreed with this deserved whatever punishment was meted out to them. The original citizens of Dakhla those who had not joined the exodus to Tindouf were, in the eyes of this man, traitors, informers, scoundrels and dogs, no better than Christians or other forms of dirt.
Thus counterpoised, the soldier and the gendarme were, in essence, the embodiment of Morocco. All its wisdom and stupidity, its tolerance and bigotry, its contradictions, its generosity, and its naiveté contrasting with its intellect and pragmatism. Yet only here, in the war zone, at the very southernmost limit of Hassan's power, did people deign to talk about such matters with an outsider. The soldier even joked about the pictures of the king that adorn every public building in the realm something that I'd grown quite accustomed to by saying that he couldn't even pick his nose without Hassan knowing about it. 'Hassan knows all,' he said, leering at the photograph, and that was that.
It was funny to think how perfect a clichéd outpost this little concrete shack was, stuck in all isolation at the end of the world. Even Dakhla was out of sight, no more than a gloaming in the pitch black sky. The wind brought with it great washes of sand and dust that rustled gently over the cabin. Later on, in the silence the wind now dead there were bobbing lights of trucks, both military and civilian, little ships sailing a black ocean, riding like brave cavaliers off into the unknown (or so the drivers liked to believe, who festooned their cabs with great twinkling garlands of fairy lights). At night, the stillness overwhelmed the conversation, and we sat, not really thinking or feeling anything, just watching the darkness ebb and sway, at times tense, and then, at other times, welcoming. The air smelt of gasoline and burnt rubber. A praying mantis skidded across the road, in hot pursuit of an unseen insect.
At one point, the soldier wearily heaved himself up and started dancing an improvised jig, his heavy boots kicking up great clouds of dust as he swirled and feigned swoons, flung off his imaginary veils, then grabbed me along too, so that finally we both lay quite still, panting, giggling, spread-eagled on the sand. The gendarme, who had almost fallen off his stool through laughing, then lay down beside us, convulsed in fits of hysterics.