Trying to decipher the machinations of Pakistani politics is notoriously difficult. Who is or isn’t corrupt is almost impossible to verify (and depends on who fabricates what evidence), whilst the pervasive influence of the military and the intelligence services (the notorious ISI) muddies the water with regards to civilian-military relations.
From 1958 to 1971 (mainly under Ayub Khan), 1977 to 1988 (under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq) and 1999 to 2001 (under Pervez Musharraf – who subsequently served as a ‘civilian’ president until 2008) any suggestion that Pakistan was a functioning democracy could be summarily dismissed. The generals, closely supported by and sometimes at odds with the ISI, were in charge. That this has been the state of play for almost half of Pakistan’s post-colonial history hints at a deeply flawed democratic system, lacking in transparency, where the rule of law is flouted and the will of the people overlooked.
Whether Khan is a knowing puppet of the military, a naive ex-cricketer out of his league in Pakistani politics, or a genuinely honest leader whose existence few civilians in the country would readily believe, is unclear. What is clear is that Pakistan is failing to reach its potential for enriching the lives of its people and providing equal opportunities, whilst it remains deeply mistrusted by neighbours and international powers alike. The fact that it is a nuclear power and the intentions and allegiance of its military are highly questionable only makes matters worse.
Khan may fall on his sword before the next scheduled elections in 2023 or, if his position is reliant on military backing, he may be dispensed of if deemed surplus to requirements or if he is unable to quell popular unrest. Most Pakistani political leaders are either deposed by the military, assassinated, arrested on corruption charges or forced to resign and flee abroad knowing that arrest is only moments away.
I have written before about the background to the disputed territory of Western Sahara. After the departure of Spanish colonial forces in 1974, Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario Front – representing the local Sahrawi people – fought for control of the territory. Morocco eventually came out on top, taking control of the main population centres, whilst leaving the Polisario Front with scraps of barely habitable desert in the east.
In the aftermath of the conflict, the UN ambiguously recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as legitimate representatives of the Sahrawi people who had a right to self-determination in the ‘non-self-governing’ territory of Western Sahara.
Morocco has maintained de-facto rule over this barren desert land, with most of the SADR and Polisario Front representatives, and any others refusing to accept the status quo, forced into Algerian exile. UN peacekeepers, meanwhile, have maintained a presence in Western Sahara since 1991.
Of course, the people that suffer most are the Sahrawis, forced to eke out a living under harsh political, economic and geographic conditions. Theirs is a land with considerable historical significance with regards to the Age of Exploration and Discovery; a perhaps unenviable fact for Africans, but something that can never be overlooked by the European descendants of those men who went on to conquer the world.
In Cape Bojador, or Abu Khatar (‘Father of Danger’ in Arabic), Western Sahara possessed the most substantial geographical barrier to European attempts to traverse the African coastline. Its navigation in 1434 by the Portuguese captain Gil Eannes, under the supposed direction of Prince Henry the Navigator, paved the way for a route to India and the Far East.
Reflecting on the past and present, I have written a short story about the unique situation of Western Sahara and the difficulties that might engender for those living there.
For those interested, the story is enclosed below. It is hoped that it at least serves as a reminder of a suffering people deprived of their identity on a continent with more than its fair share of troubles.
Cape Bojador: a short story
Cape Bojador is not the most imposing geographical barrier a man is likely to witness in his lifetime. Rather, it is little more than a sharp, narrow and rocky promontory that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. An ignorant observer would assume that to round it would be a mere formality. So why is this spot, on the doorstep of my home, one of the most significant icons of the Age of Discovery?
In 1433 Gil Eannes attempted to breach the gates of Cape Bojador. Commissioned by Henry the Navigator – that semi-legendary prince of the Portuguese royal house of Aviz – Eannes undertook his foolhardy mission in search of a great Christian king believed to live deep within the African interior. This king, Prester John they called him, would ally his forces with Henry to smash the burgeoning power of the North African Moors, who threatened Iberian dominance of the Mediterranean. Eannes failed in his venture, returning to spread further rumours of the perils of Cape Bojador; the tides that constantly changed direction, the ferocious winds that whipped up the dust from the Saharan coast to blind the mariners and the great sea monsters that nipped with ravenous intent at the ship’s bows.
Were it not for his chivalric patron, Eannes would surely have retired to a seaside cottage on the Portuguese seaboard, content to die in poverty and anonymity. That Prince Henry cast aside the failure with restless abandon, refusing to blame his captain, must have filled Eannes with a sense of historical destiny. ‘A man little less than divine’ was how the Portuguese court chronicler Zurara described Henry, and with little wonder. When he was not devastating the Moors at citadels like Ceuta, Melilla and Tangiers, the Prince was converting the natives of the Canary Isles or ensconced in his Vila do Infante at Sagres, surrounded by the world’s greatest cartographers and shipwrights as he planned Portugal’s domination of the high seas.
It was at the Vila do Infante that the idea of the caravel – the single greatest invention in maritime history – was born. The design of her lateen sails allowed her to navigate against the wind, a precious development in Portugal’s assault on our West African coast. It was with a precursor to this fine vessel that Eannes set sail once more in 1434. With the protection of his Christian God and the unfaltering belief of his most Christian Prince, Eannes rounded Cape Bojador. Untouched by the sea monsters, he cruised through the tidal maelstrom to set Portugal on its path to empire. His only observations of terra firma beyond the Cape were the signs of camel tracks in the sand, yet Eannes had secured his place in history. Inextricably linked to the famous life of his ambassador, he remains a national hero in Portugal. His story, although told often, is worth recounting, for its impact on global history is of paramount importance.
Yet what of the Cape? We readily remember the great men and their exploits but seldom the places of their finest hours. How many in Portugal know of Cape Bojador? How many can pinpoint it on a map? How many know of the inheritors of its barren coast? In Arabic it is Abu Khatar, the father of danger, still it is the European title that remains seared into our consciousness. I hear my wife calling and know that I must put my historical ravings on hold. She could always sense my agitation.
“The fish is salty”.
“It comes from the sea”, she chastises me. “Besides, you know I save the best for Sundays”.
“Aye”, I sigh and tear away the thin shreds of briny flesh from the brittle white bones. “I sometimes feel as if the catches get worse over time”.
“And what would you know of the sea and fishing?” she asks bluntly. I shrug and accept her second chastisement silently. “Have you spoken to El Auain of your proposal?”
“I need more time to construct a persuasive argument”, I reply, pushing the remnants of the dissatisfying meal to the corner of my bowl. “What good is it me ranting down the telephone line to El Auain with half-formulated ideas?”
“It is only a plaque my dear”. I cannot tell whether she is patronising or pitying me. “You could get Aamir to make one for you”.
“That barbarian”, I scoff and rise to the clear the dishes. “I’d sooner do it myself than let Aamir loose on a work of such importance”.
“It is only a plaque”, she reminds me wearily.
“It is not the craftsmanship of the plaque that concerns me my love”, I reply with vehemence. The afternoon sun is blaring through a gap in the blinds and I quickly move to refit the cloth. “Official endorsement of my project is essential. If the authorities sanction my idea it could prove a boon to a nascent West Saharan identity”. She looks at me, almost mournfully, and it is now that I feel her sympathy burning stronger than the sun.
“Then, my dear, you will need a very convincing argument indeed if you wish the Moroccans to patronise a project aimed at nurturing West Saharan identity. Do not forget your history, my dear, for they know who you are”.
On the muezzin’s proclamation of the evening Adhan I slipped out of the house and headed for the coast. I had long retired from my religious duties, the zeal that once dwelt deep within me extinguished by the forsaking uselessness of Islam in my daily existence.
I skirted the mosque perimeter in the Quartier El Massira, watching the obedient loyalists scurry towards the cooling sanctuary of the domed interior. I often wondered whether the architectural composition of the mosque had helped perpetuate Islam across the scorching Arab world. Certainly, the old colonial churches lacked the elegant porticoes which enabled the heat to escape, the walls instead given over to the eccentricities of iconoclasm.
By the time I reached the Cape the wind had picked up, blanketing the new tarmac road with a thin layer of Saharan dust. I wrapped my arm around my waist to secure my kaftan and stumbled up to the observatory. Despite the haze it was clear to seaward and I savoured the enervating roar of the white-peaked waves of the Atlantic. Tankers cruised lazily in the near distance, transporting their wares as far away from Africa as was profitable. Looking below I saw the jagged peaks of the half-submerged rocks, revealing themselves momentarily from the midst of the foamy surf before disappearing again. Reflecting on the evolution of maritime navigation I noted a further precariousness in the ventures of the tankers’ medieval forebears. The ships of the Middle Ages were designed for coastal sailing, withdrawn from the great waves and high winds of the open ocean. Their captains, deprived of instruments giving longitudinal clarity, relied on a visual confirmation of the coast to determine their route. All locals knew the dangers of Cape Bojador’s submerged reef, which stretched some one-and-a-half miles out to sea. How many ambitions had been dashed on the hidden fiends of the shallows?
Whatever the perils of the Cape, it deserved its place in history. And not just European history at that. In my capacity as the town’s head librarian I had been fortunate enough to have access to history textbooks dating back several centuries. Eurocentric in nature, they propounded the virtues of European endeavour and ingenuity. The Portuguese rounded Cape Bojador; Gil Eannes was the conqueror of one of earth’s mythical barriers. Even during my days at school during the Spanish colonial period I had been subjected to the same argument: Europeans tamed the African coast; first its terrain, then its people. Ironically the Spaniards had claimed Eannes’ success as their own, as if Portugal had always been little more than a Spanish province. Colonial arrogance was seared into the historical consciousness of the region. The writers of history claimed a monopoly on the past. To them it did not matter that Cape Bojador was African, that the oral histories of the local tribes told of two-man fishing boats rounding the Cape on a daily basis, that this occurred centuries before the Europeans arrived.
People across the globe are proud of their natural heritage, of their geographical monuments. They are commemorated in folk tales, exploited as tourist attractions, imbued with nationalism. Cape Bojador is all we have and the Europeans claim it as their own. Living in a stateless nation such as ours one needs a cause of solidarity, a shared source of indigenous pride. I picked up a smooth-sided stone and hurled it into the watery abyss below. It was here that the plaque must stand, on this small protrusion of headland, a miniscule deviation on the map of Africa. Gil Eannes was remembered in stone up and down the coast, representations deviating from the realistic to the heroic. Nowhere were the people of the Cape memorialised. Surely the Moroccans would understand. After all, it was their disruptive ancestors that had prompted Prince Henry’s exploratory surge. Perhaps they would claim the Cape for themselves, a further embittering stab at the West Saharan heart.
It was dark when I returned and she was waiting for me. Incense burned on the tabletop and there were dried figs arranged in a platter beside the crackling stick. Candlelight illuminated a small square around the table and I fumbled in the shadows for the bucket of soapy water that she always left out. I removed my dust-stained scarf and plunged it into the tepid container. She remained silent, watching me closely. I awaited the inevitable onslaught of questions. Why was I not at the library? Is the plaque necessary? Have you forgotten your record? But tonight they did not come and, pleasantly relieved, I sat down at the table beside my wife. She was wearing a red hijab, the coarse cloth interwoven with intricate patterns of white lace, the daytime covering of the mouth pulled low beneath her chin. She still believed, although I doubted her conviction. For too long now she had been burdened by my wearisome complaints and religious denigrations. Her patience had aged her.
“I too remember the Spanish departure”, she said softly, the candlelight flickering on the late sea breeze. “I remember the parties and the celebrations, the soldiers marching through town to the docks, the lowering of the flag at the garrison. We were both small…” she paused, her gaze turned towards the invisible coast, “but the jubilation and hope of those days was infectious, even to the young”. She had rarely spoken this way before. I knew she must have memories of those times for I did and she was two years older than me. It was for my benefit that she had maintained a façade of historical ignorance, for she knew how much the past pained me.
“Before the celebrations had died down we were within the first wall of control”, she continued. “Joy had turned to despair, ordinary citizens militarised by anger”.
“I think the old ones knew that the Spanish withdrawal was just the calm before the storm”, I ventured, remembering despite all the promises to myself. “Of course we did not know what they had promised the Moroccans or the Mauritanians”.
“The Moroccans withdrew with the Spanish”, she said, “that was what provoked the joy”.
We sat for a while in silence, neither of us wishing to prolong the conversation yet neither capable of banishing the memories that had broken the dam of mental resistance. Both of our fathers had joined the Polisario Front, heading north to wage their guerrilla war with no expectations of victory. It was a principled stand, doomed to failure against the Moroccan Army’s superior firepower. Some Sahrawis called it foolish but I had nothing but admiration for those terrified yet stoic men. Even after we had been forced into exile in Algeria, I waited eagerly for the day on which I could bear arms.
“On my majority we got married”, I said, resuming a non-existent conversation.
“And then you went to war”, she added, without any hint of bitterness in her voice. “At least what was left of the war”. She was right; the war of resistance had effectively ended by the time of my induction into Polisario. The Moroccan Wall had taken effect and our ragtag militia had no way of penetrating the homeland from its sandy exile across the Algerian border.
“That was when the surrenders began”, I whispered and I got up to go to the window. I put my hand against the wire mesh and allowed the cool air to perforate my skin, the leaden pull of my heart tempting me back into the darkness. My father had been one of the first to hand over his rifle, the same one he had carried into battle for over a decade. I never forgave him for what I perceived as a betrayal of his people, of his nation. I never truly understood.
“The ceasefire was a confirmation of our humiliating defeat”. I nodded and walked back to the table. The humiliation did not result from military annihilation, the blunders of our superiors or general cowardice. It was the sheer ineffectiveness of our struggle that brought shame upon us. Polisario had never expected victory, had been acutely aware of the potential damage its actions could inflict upon West Saharan identity; ruptures in families, the assimilated against the freedom fighters, the surrendered against the diehards. Dreams of foreign intervention had been dashed by French support for their old colonies.
“I have to report to headquarters tomorrow”, I said, hauling myself back into the present. My wife sighed and she swept her hijab from her head to reveal a tangle of black hair. Not a fleck of grey, I admired, thinking of my own peppered crown. “It gives me a chance to put forward my case at least”, I added.
“When will they let you be?” she asked, walking barefoot to the opening that led to our bedroom.
“Once Polisario always Polisario”, I recited. “Colonel Azzizi liked to repeat that at the internment camp”.
“You have served the administration well enough since then”, she said, her fatigue increasingly evident. “Do they not understand your importance in assimilating our two cultures?” It was that word again: assimilation. It carried connotations of betrayal, of national sacrilege. I could not abide that word. I had not assimilated. I was not one of them. I was, I am, Sahrawi, as sure as the day I first wielded my rifle. Did she not see that my tribute to Cape Bojador was an act of defiance against assimilation, albeit masked by a false motive of national unity? This was not the time to be angry with her, however. She had suffered more than most, and she had suffered bravely without complaint. Her father languished in a cell, her mother and brothers in the large refugee camp at Tindouf, the pitiable reside of the farcical Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. She had never asked me to join them.
“I will ask Colonel Masoud how long my forfeiture must continue”, I said, trying my best to command a reassuring tone. “He is a fair man; perhaps one day we will be above suspicion”. She smiled at me, a rare exposure of those glistening incisors that so intrigued me. As she climbed into bed I returned to the window and stared towards the coast, to Cape Bojador, where a thousand memories lay buried beneath the foamy surf.
Only one person visited the library all day. A middle-aged man in civilised attire sat for several hours at a corner table reading literature. I had no cause to bother him, and neither he me. Oftentimes days would pass without a visitor. Concealed in a dusty, bookshelf-adorned room, the library had little to offer the discerning reader. Besides, the literacy rate in Cape Bojador barely touched forty percent. It had been much higher during the colonial days, one of the few morsels of gratitude I reserved for our former Spanish masters.
It had taken some convincing for me to be given the job of librarian. Usually reserved for Moroccan natives, the town’s administrative jobs were highly sought after. Being a former Polisario member had counted against me, yet my colonial education had ultimately proved decisive. Able to read Spanish and English in addition to Arabic, the Moroccan authorities could not deny that I was the outstanding candidate. Although my budget for ordering books was miniscule, the job was a comfortable one and my salary provided me with a far more sustainable living than those that plied their trade in the town bazaar or on the trawlers offshore.
The lull in activity allowed me to recollect my thoughts on my proposal for a singularly West Saharan monument to Cape Bojador. It was difficult to escape the European view of the Cape as a milestone in their distinctive history. I had been reading Parker’s Henry the Navigator: Hero of Peninsular Renaissance Fiction. Whilst contrary to my inclinations, it was difficult not to be impressed by the exploits of the early modern Europeans:
Still bound as he [Henry] was indeed by old traditions and superstitions, undaunted he yet dared to ever hope and declare that the unknown was certain and was real.
Eulogising, fictionalising, glorifying. There were many terms that could be levelled at European history’s treatment of Henry the Navigator. Yet he was an accepted hero and he was real. My narrative could not compete with his gallant exploits and incomparable vision. The ‘Great Man’ School of history had long since perished in the world of closeted academics, yet it was the individual that popularised history. My aim was to give the West Saharan people a symbol of historical virtue, endeavour and pride. Would they really accept the Cape itself as a rallying point for homogeneity?
I itched for the saltwater air and, guiltily excusing myself, ushered the lone reader out of the library. He refused to loan the book, fearing the reprisals if it got damaged. I tried to reassure him that such an event was unlikely and far from disastrous but he pleaded clumsy and was soon on his way.
A group of tourists huddled around the bronze bust of Gil Eannes that stood at the entrance to the visitor centre some three-hundred yards shy of the Cape. It was a futile gesture, for the centre only opened on request to the town authorities. It contained no information of historical value, just a small selection of pointless souvenirs sold at exorbitant prices. We got very few foreign visitors, despite the supposedly sacred location we occupied on the landscape of European history. Facilities in the town hardly encouraged tourism, unless one merited the aesthetic qualities of adobe-painted hovels lining dust-layered streets. I almost pitied the white invaders as I marched past them to sit at the headland.
Despite my proximity to the Atlantic I had seldom ventured onto the open ocean. Preferring to view it from my lofty coastal perch, I had always felt uncomfortable on its tantalising waves. Although I always thought of Cape Bojador as my home I had spent my adolescence preparing for war in the Saharan interior. Whilst those that stayed were being inducted into the life of the mariner, I was being versed in the arts of guerrilla combat. The old ones always said that you needed to experience the sea young to be truly at one with it.
According to my watch I had an hour before my appointment with Colonel Masoud. I lay back on the sandy ground and visualised our conversation. The day had been still, sweltering, yet the cool current of the ocean tempered my discomfort. I pondered the wisdom of my approach. Would it not be better to go straight to the Culture Minister in Rabat? There had been a heritage attaché in El Auain several years ago. Was he still active? I believed in my concept yet the gulf between visualisation and realisation was vast. Funding was critical, the justification for my idea paramount. If Colonel Masoud dismissed it out of hand then the plaque would never be erected. I would not dare go over his head to El Auain. Bypassing him was another matter. If I gained acceptance from the capital then the decision would be forced upon him. It would be up to the Colonel to launch a prohibitive counter-argument. My mind raced as I lay there in the dust like a reluctant camel. I had been searching for a meaning to my existence, a peaceful way of uniting my people. As a race the Sahrawis had capitulated, enabling subordination. It was irrelevant that the foremost powers of the international institutions refused to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over our land when we were seen to be accepting it. But how to gain attention without resorting to bloodshed? My plaque would certainly not upend the terminable malaise but it might make people re-evaluate their identity. There was a common cause to be made and it needed to happen soon before the younger generation completed the dreaded assimilation of their forebears.
“You are late”.
“I am sorry Colonel Masoud”, I wheezed, wiping the sweat from my brow with the sleeve of my kaftan. “I was over at the Cape and misjudged the walk back into town”.
“Why were you not at the library?”
“It was closing time and I had no patrons Colonel”. Colonel Masoud shrugged, pursing his lips into a dismissive grimace. He did not care. My tardiness would have been greeted with vitriolic abuse by some of his predecessors but the Colonel was of a new generation of weary officials content to pass through life with the minimum of fuss. He knew, like the rest of the Moroccan hierarchy in town, that their hegemony over Western Sahara was secure. Only an act of unnecessary brutality on his part could provoke renewed resistance.
“Is there a way of encouraging more readers?” he asked, leaning back in a reclining leather chair. “I mean, if the library is not used the resource could be employed elsewhere”.
“We always have empty days”, I mumbled, concerned with the opening of the conversation. “If more people could read it would help”. The Colonel laughed heartily, cigarette-stained teeth revealed below a moustached upper lip.
“Hmm…”, he chuckled, “hmm, that would certainly be a starting point. Perhaps you could drive a literacy campaign in town. Why not ally yourself with some of the teachers and encourage the young ones to learn?” He continued to chuckle to himself and I doubted his sincerity. “Tell them that if they learn to read and visit your library that one day they might escape this filthy backwater and live in the real world”. He concluded with a roar of hilarity and I smiled politely. What initially appeared to have been a genuine scheme of improvement had quickly descended into a mocking triumph of wit for the Colonel.
“Funding is an issue”, I began meekly.
“And it shall continue to be”, Colonel Masoud said with a teasing smile. “Our resources are stretched thin enough as it is without draining money on needless cultural projects”. I sat glumly, staring at the wall behind the Colonel’s desk which was adorned with grainy black-and-white photos whose origins I could not determine. “I am pleased to see that your work means so much to you”, he resumed pointedly. “Few of your former Polisario comrades have assimilated so comfortably”. I bit my lip against that most condemnatory word. “Your file is beginning to resemble a success story, one my benefactors will be particularly satisfied with”.
“I have a proposal to make Colonel Masoud”, I blurted out, desperate to seize on this conciliatory moment. “Will you please hear it?” The Colonel checked his silver wristwatch and furrowed his brow.
“Hmm…”, he exhaled before checking his watch again. “I have two more appointments this evening and I had hoped to visit the saloon before closing time”. He eyed me challengingly. I reached into the money belt that I kept fastened tightly to my kaftan and withdrew a ten dirham note. As I proffered the crumpled paper towards the Colonel he put a silencing finger to his lips and accepted the currency without comment. “As it happens, I recall that the saloon remains open late tonight. Please outline your proposal to me”. Below the bristling moustache was an overbearing smile that revived all the hatreds of my past. Had my proposal been anything less trivial I would have struck the Colonel without hesitation. As it was, I took a couple of restraining breaths, eyes focused on the black-and-white pictures hanging behind the desk, before relating my proposition.
My explanation was necessarily vague; I emphasised the low manufacturing cost rather than the potential political importance, suggesting that the plaque would be a symbol of anti-colonialism and anti-Europeanism, evoking the notions of pan-Africanism that the Moroccans had often toyed with. Colonel Masoud listened with an interest which if feigned was expertly played. He did not cut me off when my argument became swamped in abstract theories of cultural and geographical inferiority that even I did not understand. He listened until I had finished talking, something I was not accustomed to in this town of ignorance. Perhaps it was a reasonable exchange to pay for time, particularly in a system defined by corruption.
I awaited the Colonel’s response. He had mystically lighted a cigarette during my passionate harangue and was now exhaling smoke with unerring accuracy towards a yellow patch on the ceiling. He was a strange character, the Colonel. An intelligible agitation accompanied his every move, as if his mind and body were in constant conflict over whether to abandon the hellish outpost in which their master had been imprisoned. His mood changed from one meeting to the next; sometimes jovial and friendly, other times mean and disparaging. Such unpredictability made him dangerous.
“I have no issue with a plaque”, was his simple response. “It is a good idea to honour one’s hometown I think”. I nodded vigorously, pleased to see that he was receptive to the idea. “This is not a matter that need involve El Auain”, he added, his face momentarily covered by a haze of ash. “We have funds for such matters in the town budget. If you employ a local craftsman I cannot imagine that the materials required for your plaque would be unbearable. Perhaps you exercise this matter as a community project, use it to publicise your library”. The Colonel smiled and I tried hard to reciprocate.
“With all due respect Colonel Masoud”, I began nervously, “I must insist that El Auain be involved”. My palms were uncharacteristically sweaty and I wiped them down the sides of my kaftan. The smile had left the Colonel’s lips and he was slouched back in his worn leather chair with a scowl across his countenance. “This project is an opportunity to give the local people a sense of shared purpose, of shared history that has nothing to do with Polisario or the colonial era before it. It has the potential to unite the West Saharan citizens, whatever their creed, with peaceful intent. If endorsed by your authorities in El Auain it will achieve greater credence, indeed it will be accepted as a major concession by Morocco to the needs and desires of its people”.
“And why would we want to do that?” Colonel Masoud hissed menacingly. He had sprung forward from his chair, hands on the desk as he leant towards me, putrid breath making my eyes water. “For what reason would El Auain deem it appropriate to make concessions to a populace that has consistently defied it?”
“Because such an act would undermine the government-in-exile”, I pleaded, holding the Colonel’s stare amid the pungent air. “It would be a compromise between the ruled and the rulers. It would give the Sahrawis recognition as a separate people without challenging the authority of the state”. I was improvising now, meaningless statements gushing forth with abandon. Of course my desire was not to see the plaque used as an advert for Moroccan benevolence. My overriding aim was to challenge the authority of the state, not strengthen it. Yet I had to be savvy if I was to win the Colonel over. Without his backing I could not go to El Auain, and I needed Moroccan representatives from the capital to authorise my proposal; they had to be present at the unveiling. I stayed clear, however, of national identity. This phrase more than any other infuriated the Moroccans. For them, West Sahara was part of the Moroccan nation. You were either a Moroccan citizen or you were a foreigner, the consequences for the latter potentially ruinous. I had to couch the argument in terms of ethnicity, rather than in terms of nationality. The Sahrawis could be their own people whilst remaining Moroccans. It was an argument I did not believe in, yet the only one that had a chance of success.
Colonel Masoud’s fury had cooled somewhat and he had returned to slouching in his seat. Lighting another cigarette he closed his eyes, the lids of which twitched with a vibrant current that refused to hide his tension.
“If you like we can discuss this further next week Colonel”, I mooted, my own anxiety at being concealed in the suffocating office starting to become overpowering.
“I shall forward your proposal to the appropriate channels in El Auain” Colonel Masoud said, his eyes still closed. “I must admit that there appears to be logic to your argument…however difficult it may be to decipher. Creating a peaceful rallying point for your people has its merits. It will detract from the credibility of those terrorists in Tindouf and, who knows, with the right publicity may even lead the international community to dampen its opposition to our so-called occupation”.
“Thank you Colonel”, I blustered, not believing my luck. I thrust my hand forward to shake an agreement with the perplexing official only to find that his eyes were still closed. I quickly withdrew and instead straightened the creases in my kaftan.
“Most importantly, your plaque, if erected, must create an autonomy of the mind for your people. It must convince them that they are a separate and free people with their own identity when in reality it will be just another step on the path to their complete assimilation under the Moroccan flag. Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I must prepare for my next appointment”.
‘If Morocco claims our land then it claims our history with it’. My father had been a man of few words but within his verbal retinue were a selection of phrases that he would periodically repeat. This had been the one that I best remembered and Colonel Masoud’s chilling warning reminded me of it.
Without thinking I walked back across town towards the Cape, drawn like a mariner’s compass to its magnetic pull. The evening adhan sounded and I put my head down and increased my pace. Whatever the Colonel foresaw would not come to fruition, I promised myself. Jogging across the deserted highway, I welcomed the soft touch of the sandy dunes on my sandaled feet. ‘Assimilation under the Moroccan flag’; a sentence I would not allow for my people. The coastline was deserted, the dusk descending as the sun met the ocean on the horizon. My father had never been assimilated, not even after surrendering. Yet the stubbornness of the old devil had condemned him to an agonising death at the refugee camp in Tindouf, refusing the medical supplies of the Moroccan authorities that would certainly have saved him.
Assimilation was synonymous with colonialism, the subjugation of peoples. Cape Bojador had for millennia prohibited the assimilation of the African tribes to the south into the European worldview. Nearly all of them had spent the intervening centuries seeking freedom from this bondage, at once both physical and mental. Again the muezzin trumpeted and I sank to my knees and faced the ocean; Mecca had its own assimilating force.
I traced the outline of the plaque in the dirt, refining the design that for months I had set down on paper. It must be grandiose yet solemn, I thought, licking the sand away from my raw fingertip. El Auain, should it bless me with its patronage, could not feel threatened. In one sense the Colonel had been correct; the erection of this West Saharan symbol could elicit a programme of re-education at the library. I would lead it, invigorating the pupils with my enthusiasm for the peaceful Sahrawi cause. My sudden excitement provoked in me a surge of energy and I leapt up to embrace the cooling winds of the Atlantic. I saluted the returning gulls as they sought their cliffside nests and hailed the fishermen wrestling their trawlers into port. This was my land and I would reclaim it for my people.
It was dark by the time I reached home and my kaftan was studded with fine particles of sand that scattered across the kitchen floor as I stepped silently into the cramped dwelling. My wife sat at the table in the candlelight, her face expressionless. I greeted her kindly and went to the bucket to soak my feet.
“There’s some fish in the pot”. I nodded my acceptance and she fetched me a plate. The saltiness of the stew was almost unbearable but I forced it down. What else was a woman supposed to cook for her man in Cape Bojador?
“The Colonel was receptive to my idea”, I said, watching as she removed the hijab, an act performed only in my presence. “He is going to relay the message to El Auain”.
“I am pleased for you”, she said without feeling. “Was the library busy today?” I ignored her and went back to my fish. The ingratitude was stifling I thought during the interminable mouthfuls. Was I not doing this for her as much as for me? Her unwillingness to confront the subject resurrected my doubts about the potential success of the plaque. What if it was too brazen? What if the Sahrawis feared its confrontational message? How deep did their assimilation run? Of more concern was the potential international reaction. Whilst unlikely to dominate global headlines, the Moroccans could use the erection of the plaque as a diplomatic stage from which to pronounce their desire to bolster the spirit and integrity of their subjects. Nominally, the international community was on our side; Moroccan sovereignty of Western Sahara was not recognised and yet it was wholly accepted. Any notions of guilt the international community may hold over their failure to address the West Saharan issue could quite easily be dispelled by a show of Moroccan largesse.
“It will be a few days before we hear anything”, I pressed on, “but I am hopeful of a positive resolution”. Who was I trying to convince? She smiled kindly, a sympathetic smile reserved for the deranged and the moronic. I nodded and let her go to bed. It was late and she was no doubt tired. Her support had never been found wanting in the past and I knew that it would not be now. Tomorrow I would make enquiries at the local masons. Regardless of patronage, I would have my plaque.
Consecutive days meshed into one; the purposeful stalking of the Cape, in search of the ideal foundation stone; the enquiries to Colonel Masoud, always too busy to see me; the evenings of silent tension at home. All the while the library was neglected. I would close the building at noon and not return for the day. Taking whatever book I was reading under my arm, I would scour the town for the ideal materials for my plaque, seeking out the sculptors, engravers and masons who would undertake the job. It had to be a local endeavour, shorn of the interference of the Moroccan administrators.
One afternoon I was perusing Zurara’s chronicle in the town square. His account of the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta – a Moorish stronghold on the North African coast – in 1415 was particularly lively. Naturally, Henry the Navigator was at the centre of the action, commanding a troupe of knights into battle for five hours in the searing heat before the garrison finally fell. In a show of chivalric posturing, Henry and his brothers were knighted on the battlefield, their tunics still stained in the blood of the infidel. Zurara hailed the conquest of Ceuta as remarkable, the city labelled as ‘the key to the whole Mediterranean Sea’. Ultimately, the conquest would serve a greater purpose to the house of Aviz. The confidence gained from a victory against such overwhelming odds – supplemented by the repulsing of a one-hundred-thousand strong Moorish army three years later – precipitated the brave adventuring that would characterise the Portuguese for the remainder of the fifteenth century.
I watched the crowds bustle before me, deliberating needlessly over the scant choice of produce at the market stalls. These were not the Moorish infidels of Zurara’s account, yet the Europeans would soon discover them as heretics. This identification did little to dissuade me from the story, for the sheer passion imbued in the chronicle was overpowering. I found myself willing Henry and his knights on, silently cheering each bloody encounter as another Moor bit the dust. Perhaps it was the realisation of what Ceuta meant to the Moroccans that excited me. Even today it remained a European exclave (albeit a Spanish one), an insulting pockmark on the Moroccan psyche. Maybe it was this that amused me, that allowed me to revel in the infamous exploits of the great Navigator. I detested Moroccan hypocrisy. They lambasted the Spanish for their preservation of colonialism on the North African mainland, yet nothing was said of Western Sahara, an inalienable possession of the overlords in Rabat.
A sandstorm sent the vendors scurrying for doorway sanctuaries. I shut my eyes and allowed the grit to pummel my face. One encountered far severer storms in the Sahara. I still remembered one particularly punishing whirlwind that had buried half of our rebel encampment. Two people had lost their lives at a time when even the elements were seen to be turning against Polisario. When a people have been submissive for so long they become weak and the Sahrawis of Cape Bojador were infected with cowardice. They no longer had the desire to stand alone, to fight for the singular identity so long denied them. I believed, I hoped desperately that the fight was still buried deep within them, that with a suitable rallying point it could be raised to the surface once again. Who would imagine that a man of the Sahara would dive for shelter to evade the sand? This was a coastal swirl, no deadly sirocco. Cowardice had dulled their senses.
I passed by the Moroccan barracks on my way home, the military quarters lit up by the conical stone lighthouse that protruded skywards from its centre. Colonel Masoud was occupied, his secretary informed me, but to my surprise I had been left a message:
‘Problems communicating with El Auain; may take longer than anticipated. To discuss at an appropriate time. Colonel Driss Masoud’.
I folded the letter calmly, aware of the beady-eyed secretary filing invisible papers at my flank. Walking solemnly into the barracks courtyard I was met my two youthful guards who escorted me to the main gates. I thanked them and proceeded along the dimly-lit streets, cursing the wailing of the muezzin as the pious bundled their way towards the mosque. Against my nature I slammed the door on my entrance to home. Taking the piece of paper from my pocket I set it to burn on the flame of the candle. My wife watched with me as the paper turned to ash and the thin black smoke rose to the ceiling, extinguishing my dreams of national revival.
The sun disappeared and I spent the following week inventorying the library stock. Religious texts proliferated, nineteenth century interpretations of the Koran dust-strewn and spineless. Some worthy collections of literature appeared on occasion; Al-Hamadhani, Ahmad Shidyaq, Salim al-Bustani, the poetry of Hafez Ibrahim. None of the copies were worn from overuse. Rather, the pages drooped miserably, softened by the heat, the titles on their cover pages evaporating into the miasma of time.
Colonel Masoud’s discouraging note had sucked the air out of me and as I looked around the empty library daily I began to develop within me a horrible malady of apathy. Why should I fight for the cause of a people who had resigned themselves to a perceived fate? What good was it creating a rallying point of nationhood when many Sahrawis seemingly had no interest in their cultural heritage? In moments of utter exasperation I would retire to the backroom of the small building and browse the special collections. Not only did these include rare European texts rarely found in African libraries but also a precious catalogue of indigenous writing. Much of it, it was true, consisted of transcriptions of oral literature, poetry, history and lyrics passed down the generations. There were Spanish-language works by Sahrawi authors, the writer perhaps acknowledging the futility of publishing for an indigenous readership. Most important were the testimonies written in Hassaniya. They were of little literary significance yet their messages were undiluted by foreign incursion or mistranslation. Written predominantly during the period of civil war, these texts spoke of the hopes and dreams of ordinary men and women. Without politicising their content, the anonymous authors imagined an era of independence where cultural and artistic freedom would flourish. Pragmatic to the end, they admitted the unlikeliness of such a scenario, wishing only that they could escape the bloodshed and the fear.
If it were not for the reaffirming frankness encompassed within the Sahrawi texts I would not have remained Cape Bojador’s librarian. The institution was effectively defunct, unused, its closure prevented only by a skittish Moroccan administration afraid of provoking unrest. They need not worry, I often thought, for the Sahrawis had forgotten the meaning of resistance.
Cape Bojador is a revealing place when the sun hides itself. The Atlantic wind whips up, provoking the menacing waters of the shallows to perform their dance of death. It was these conditions of treachery that the Europeans fought to conquer; it was this geographical resistance that had halted their advance, albeit temporarily.
I was still drawn there in the evenings, searching for an inspiration that I felt had deserted me. Tankers twinkled temptingly in the distance, reminding me of the boundless opportunities that existed beyond these fettered shores. Sometimes I resented my birthplace, the life I had been born into, and my chest would tighten with such excruciating pressure that I had to scream to prevent a fatal haemorrhage. After such an outburst I would look around sheepishly. I had no desire to become known as the ‘howling madman of the Cape’ in a society that valued its mundanity. Yet there was little to be concerned about for few locals visited the Cape. Perhaps they, like me, were aware of the temptations of desertion and no longer wanted to test themselves. Maybe they yearned to turn their back on the ocean and head home into the deserted interior but lacked the courage. My confliction towards my own people was mirrored by their actions. What did they want? Was it worth my consideration or should I, like them, bow to the inevitable?
My dilemma made me increasingly sullen at home and my wife grew tired of her unresponsive husband, his refusal to eat and his careless meandering around town. She tried to talk of the old times, to spark the flame that had ignited my quest for a plaque. She even quizzed me on the European explorers, on Gil Eannes, Bartolomeo Dias and Vasco da Gama, knowing how their exploits excited me. I remained silent, glowering at an unknown foe in the candlelight. After waiting patiently she would retire to bed, knowing that I would not join her until the wick had melted to its core. Wax was not cheap, she would gently remind me each morning. I would nod before closing the door behind me with unnecessary firmness.
I knew as well as she that this behaviour could not continue but I had become incapable of change. Every evening when I returned home and I saw that candlelit table in the centre of the room, the water bucket in the corner, and smelt the putrid odour of stewed fish, I regained my sulky disposition. It reviled me as much as her and yet only she could shake me free of my childish repose.
“What do you expect to achieve?” she asked pointedly after another untouched meal had turned cold. “Please tell me what you expect to achieve?” I got up to stand by the window but refused to answer. She cornered me against the dry, adobe wall and waited. There was a determination in her dark eyes that had long been absent. I had witnessed that fiery resolve daily in exile, during the months on the desert trek between guerrilla encampments and field hospitals. She had inherited her father’s toughness.
“What would you like the answer to be?” I countered feebly, my own resolve withering with the last vestiges of daylight. “I have explained my actions countless times but still you are not satisfied”. She drew closer and I could smell the conflicting aroma of incense and boiled fish heads. Within a foot of me she paused and I yearned for her warm embrace.
“There are times”, she began softly, so quietly that I had to lean forward to hear, “when I believe that you are trying to repay an unbreakable debt”. I frowned and she smiled, apparently amused by my bafflement. “Times gone you would have scoffed at the idea of a plaque for the people”. She continued to smile and I suddenly felt angry being mocked by my closest companion. I thought of striking her but she folded her lips into a solemn purse and the volcanic rage subsided. “I have always had absolute conviction in your intentions…” her voice broke and I pressed back against the wall with all my weight. I had never seen her cry; not when her father had been imprisoned, not when we abandoned our families at the camp in Tindouf, not even when our child was stillborn. I could not understand. I wanted to banish the hurt from both of us.
“My intentions have never changed”, I pleaded, holding out my hand to touch hers. Her palm was dry, temperate and she allowed me to press down reassuringly without reciprocating the gesture.
“You are ashamed and wish for redemption”, she whispered. I released my grip on her hand and it dropped loosely by her side. She looked at me again, any hint of weakness suddenly well hidden. “There was nothing that compelled us to return here. We had no relatives, no prospects. We were fugitives. Yet we returned and begged for clemency. We grovelled and promised to lie prostrate at the feet of the Moroccans”. I tried to sidle around her but she blocked my escape in the knowledge that I would not use force to secure my passage. “You talk constantly of assimilation, of your father’s betrayal, of the malaise of the Sahrawis but the hypocrisy of your attacks reflects your inner torment. You are guilty about our return to Cape Bojador. With one grand gesture you hope to banish the demons that plague your every step”. Her eyes were moist now, her lips trembling with uncontrollable emotion. A loose strand of black hair hung between her brow and I resisted the temptation to brush it away.
“May I sit please?” She stood aside and allowed me to the table. After several minutes of silence she joined me and we eyed each other through the weak flame of the candle.
“I do not blame you for making us return here”, she finally said.
“I could not allow you to spend your days wasting away in that camp”, I replied, my eyes cast down on the splintered wood of the table. “Instead I have condemned you to a wasteful existence in this pitiful hovel”.
“There have been good times here”.
“I do not recall”.
“You must remember the afternoons at the Cape? We would stroll for hours along the clifftop searching the horizon, moulding our dreams around a planned escape. Remember how we would buy fresh fish at the harbour from Shahid? He would cook them for us in foil and we would eat on the beach as the others deserted for the mosque”. She evoked a vivid memory, my wife. It was unfathomable how such blessed images had escaped me.
“Why did we stop?”
“You became consumed by your guilt”, she said affirmatively, her voice steadying. “Reading those books at the library stirred in you a renewed sense of nationalism that you had done well to bury”. I started to object but she hushed me as a mother would a child. “Our cause, the cause of the Sahrawi people, was always hopeless. There comes a point when one must accept his or her fate. We both agreed to return to Cape Bojador. You forced no decision upon me. You know how headstrong I was. But whilst I was able to acknowledge the sacrifice of self for a stable future you retained that weighty millstone around your neck. Your wish for a plaque is evidence that it has finally dragged you to your knees”.
“What should I do? Should I accept the Colonel’s note as terminal? What would you have me do?”
“You must press him to execute your plan”. Her reply came as a surprise and I found myself contorting my features in an expression of exhausted bewilderment. “Celebrate Cape Bojador for the African people, regardless of whether they are Sahrawi or Moroccan. We share this land and it is ours. Why should our identities diverge when we are of the same creed? Carry out your intentions to the fullest and exorcise your guilt”.
Colonel Masoud reiterated his promise; he would take up my cause with El Auain. I accused him of breaking his word and a fiery exchange ensued. The Colonel was his usual contradictory self, one moment hoarse with fury, the next timid and apologetic. I noticed a shelf stacked with conspicuous brown jars, a private pharmacopeia to help the Colonel survive his posting in the wilderness.
When I left his office I felt reinvigorated, buoyed constantly by my wife’s encouragement. Perhaps I had been deluding myself as to my true intentions. Maybe the plaque was an effort to dismiss any lingering shame I felt for having given up the fight. Either way, it needed to happen. The Colonel’s eventual sincerity made me believe his previous note. It was more likely that the authorities in El Auain were the problem. How could they be convinced that such a monument would be in their interest? Again, I resisted the temptation to contact them directly. They still had a file on me after all.
I felt tense over the course of the next week, awaiting the news that would define my status in Cape Bojador. My books provided little solace and I found myself wandering the sleepy settlement with increasing regularity. Every venture ended at the Cape.
For twelve years prior to 1434 Henry the Navigator had sent voyagers to conquer the ‘torrid zone’. Aside from the perilous tidal conditions and the myths of sea monsters, there had been the warnings of the ancient geographers about ‘the interior’, a barren wasteland of inhospitable terrain and warlike tribes whose heathen practices were anathema to Christian godliness in every way. In a sense the ancients were accurate; the interior was a far more treacherous place than the coast. Even now it had not been fully tamed. Certainly the Portuguese hopes of finding a lost Christian kingdom had floundered like their ships on the rocky surf of Abu Khatar.
I refined my inscription for the plaque:
At this point stands the barrier between two worlds
A guard between the old and the new
This formidable cape represents the resilience of the West African
Conquered but untamed, subordinated but unassimilated
In pursuit of greater things we must first recognise the wealth of our land
Of the history and spirit embodied by our geography
With Abu Khatar watching over us we can feel secure
It had to be honest but understated, a source of indigenous pride without the trappings of nationalist agitation, at once personal and communal.
By my next scheduled meeting with Colonel Masoud the response had arrived. On recycled paper, under an ungainly header of officialdom, was a brief message: ‘The administration in El Auain, after consultation with Rabat, agrees to the proposal for a commemorative plaque at Cape Bojador to be erected in the presence of an appointed delegation from the Ministry of Culture. All necessary expenses will be provided by the government representatives in the settlement of Cape Bojador’.
It was a victory. Unemotional and terse. It was disappointing to see the Moroccan authorities use the European name for the Cape but it was of little consequence. I would have my plaque. It might not deliver the Sahrawi people from their bondage but it was an accomplishment of which I was proud. Colonel Masoud was nonplussed and he was in a hurry to define my meagre budget for the project.
“Once this is set you cannot break it”, he warned, his swarthy face encircled by a haze of cigarette smoke.
“No matter”, I replied, “there is no call for fancy adornments. A sturdy monument to survive the winds of change is all I seek”. The Colonel nodded and motioned for me to leave.
We walked hand-in-hand along the Cape, the first time in recent memory. I showed her where the plaque would stand and she smiled and held me close. The wind was strong and it blew the sand and the saltwater up from the surf into our faces. We laughed and confronted the breeze. We looked out at the tankers on the horizon and envisioned what was on the far side of that blue expanse. We planned a life beyond the waves, dreamed the dreams of young lovers. For an hour we stood on the headland of our birth until the cold numbed our fingers. Before turning back, she pointed into the distance.
“Do you yearn for it?” I inhaled the sea air and strained my eyes against the sun’s blinding reflection. I thought back on the months of agonising, the compulsive planning, my dark temper and the inescapable sense of failure. I turned to my wife and brushed aside a strand of hair that had loosened itself from beneath her hijab.
“How can I yearn for what is not mine?” She smiled again, that devastating smile. The surf roared and the wind howled. Perhaps she had not heard me. But she understood.