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The Art of Waiting

 

Sara Cheikh

Images courtesy of the author.
Excerpted from Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Insha-Allah.

 

Gali is in his thirties. He tells me he lived in Alicante, Spain, for five years and insists on speaking to me in rusty Spanish. I know that any sign of ambiguity in my cultural identity, starting with the language I speak, can be used against me, and I answer him in Hassania1.

My mother has packed a bottle of hibiscus2 tea, five packets of biscuits and two tins of tuna in my backpack. I take a sip of the infusion and pass it on to my fellow travelers. Of course, we all drink from the same bottle.

In the back of the car, Brahim tries to tune in to some station on his 90s radio, and Yusef talks about the new general who runs the Mheiriz military base with a cigarette in his mouth.

"I've known him since I was a child; he was my neighbor in the camp at Dakhla. A noble and brave man. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have Wi-Fi at the base. Do you have a lighter?"

"I don't smoke," replies Sidi Buya, cleaning his glasses.

Yusef must be about thirty-five. Like the vast majority of desert men, he looks ten years older. He has been in the army since he was eighteen, has a mustache with some gray hair and wears a beige military uniform with sandals.

To my right is Nora, who can't stop talking about how much she wants to take a shower, while she laments almost hysterically:

"Abdalahi's family had no water left, so I haven't had a shower or washed my clothes for two weeks. Life in the desert is miserable."

To my left is Leila. She seems a little looser than the first day I met her and shares her "terrible" experience as a Bedouin:

"The worst thing I've had to deal with is the food. I would give anything for a strawberry muffin," she says, looking at the packet of biscuits sticking out of my backpack.

Leaving Mheiriz to return to their city life in Tindouf seems to free them.

"Can I have a couple of biscuits?" Leila asks, pointing to my backpack.

I grab a packet of biscuits, open it and pass it around to my companions.


[1] Hassania is a dialect of Arabic.
[2] Plant widely used in warm regions to relieve thirst.

 

Nora has managed to convince Brahim to let her play music on the radio. The poor man finds it hard to stop tuning in to the news but eventually gives her control of the radio. In Saharawi society, it is frowned upon to play music in front of older people. Brahim is in his sixties, and Nora doesn't seem to care about any social norms.

With the radio resting on her right shoulder, Nora alternates between raï3 and Saharawi folk songs she sings out loud. She's a bit of a firecracker, but she's livening up the trip.

Gali and Nora are not blood related. Their parents got married a couple of years ago, but Gali refers to her as "my sister."

"Excuse my sister, you will only have to put up with her for one more day until we reach the camps."

We spend the night in the nearest town to Mheiriz, Bir Tigissit, where we arrive just before dusk. Gali stops at a shop to buy meat before going to our hotel, a small mudbrick room.

We unload the essentials for the night from the car: the blankets and the equipment needed to prepare the tea. The ceremony is conducted by my uncle, Sidi Buya.

Brahim insists on not entering the room; he prefers to lie on the sand to enjoy the "fresh air." The wind must be blowing at forty kilometers an hour. Yusef and Gali go into the kitchen to prepare dinner and my two other travel companions are in the room, tasting my uncle's overly sweet tea.

One of the fears of the Saharawi is elguendi, a food poisoning that they attribute to excessively salty food. Sidi Buya, a fervent believer in this superstition, is about to face one of his greatest fears.


[3] Algerian musical genre started at the beginning of the 20th century around Oran, where regional, secular, and religious drum patterns, melodies, and instruments were blended with Western electric instrumentation.

 

Gali comes with dinner. He carries two plates of pasta with camel meat. He leaves one in the middle of the room, where the men will eat, and brings the other plate to us.

We wash our hands because eating with cutlery is not very popular here. Sidi Buya makes a ball of pasta with meat before putting it in his mouth. After the second tasting, he raises his head, looks at me and says, "Stop eating, it's too salty." He goes to the basin to wash his hands.

"Didn't you like your dinner, Sidi, or is it too salty?" Gali asks him.

"Mashallah, Mashallah4. No, it's not, it's very good, but I try not to eat too much at night," replies my uncle politely.

Brahim also stops eating for fear of getting food poisoning. Gali understands that he has been heavy-handed with the salt and suggests we stop eating.

"If you don't make it to the border, don't let it be because I've poisoned you," jokes our driver.

We leave the plates of the succulent dinner out for the three dirtiest cats I have ever seen to finish.

I have only brought one blanket with me. Everyone else has at least two. I don't want them to notice that "the Spaniard" has come so ill-prepared, but Gali notices my lack of foresight for cold nights in the desert and gives me one of his blankets without comment.

It must be 6 am. We have tea with sugar for breakfast, or sugar with tea, depending on how you look at it.

"If we don’t make any stops, we should arrive at the border at sunset, just one day before they open," Gali informs us.

The atmosphere is almost euphoric. Sidi Buya answers Nora's jokes with good humor, Yusef is churning out funny stories, and Brahim continues to listen to his radio at full volume, with a permanent smile on his face.


[4] "Thank God" in Arabic.

 

Gali suggests we stop at a well on the way to fill up a couple of jerry cans with water.

"You never know what might happen."

While the men fetch water, Nora, Leila and I stand near the car, admiring a group of white camels. Leila replaces Beiba's role in my life, and I become her personal photographer.

"No, no. Get my whole body, let the camel show," she instructs me.

We are on track to reach our destination by the day’s end until a wheel puncture throws a spanner into the works. Gali shows no signs of concern, despite this unforeseen event. He grabs the torch and a couple of tools from under the seat and orders us to get out of the car.

"Yallah5, everybody out, let's change that wheel."

Since my camera ran out of batteries taking pictures of Land Rovers, I've started using a disposable one I brought along just in case. I pull out my disposable device and take a picture of the first mishap of our trip.

My uncle, Gali, and Yusef get ready to change the wheel. Brahim, who is too old for this kind of activity, sits in front of the car and the girls and I do the same. I cover my face with my green scarf and continue to take photos. Brahim approaches us, attracted by the flash of the camera.

"It's been a while since I've seen one of these. Let me take a picture of you."

Three hours and a small sandstorm later, we continue on our journey. We don't reach the border that day and spend the night in the middle of the road.

The next day is April 19th, and we expect to arrive at the border around midday. Everything goes smoothly until the wheel needs changing again, and we repeat the same operation as the night before. In any other context, I would worry that we might not make it to the border, but Gali’s calmness and self-assurance blocks my negative thoughts.

Our trusty driver fixes a front wheel again, and we reach our destination at about four o'clock in the afternoon.


[5] "Come on" in Arabic.

 
 

Three hundred cars are parked in front of the small sand wall separating Western Sahara from Algerian territory. Everyone is sitting in front of their vehicles, implying that the border is not open yet.

Gali parks right in front of the wall, which is guarded by about twenty soldiers. We get out of the car, and Yusef strikes up a conversation with our neighbors. It begins with the classic greeting ritual:

"How are you? How is the family doing? How is your health? Mashallah."

"All good, thank God. Is everything OK with you? How is your mother? How are you feeling? How is your family? Alhamdulillah6."

I tune in to their conversation and learn that our neighbor is called Ahmed. He has come all the way from Mauritania with his mother, two sisters, four brothers, and ten goats.

"They don't look like they'll be open today, do they?" Gali asks.

"Theoretically, they will be open for three days. If they don't let us in by the end of the afternoon, they'll certainly let us in tomorrow, Insha'Allah," Ahmed reassures us.


[6] "Thank God" in Arabic.

 
 

At our first stop in Bir Tigissit, Gali had bought a few packets of pasta, canned tuna, and a packet of flour. This purchase seemed excessive, considering that we would be arriving at our destination the next day. Thankfully, his foresight provides us dinner at about 11 pm, just after the fifth round of tea.

No one washes their face or brushes their teeth before going to sleep. I would like to continue my nightly grooming routine, but doing so could be a reason to be called a nsraniya7. So I adapt to my surroundings and crawl into the blankets in the same clothes I've been wearing for three days, probably with a piece of tuna between my teeth.

The area we are in is called "Ehdem Erih," which literally translated means: The Bone of the Wind. I don't know what the word "bone" refers to, but the "wind" part has been clear to me since the first night. If it wasn't for Gali’s extra blanket, I would have succumbed to the gale.

Our neighbor Ahmed, an Imam8 and Islamic religion teacher, wakes me up at six in the morning chanting the call to prayer. His family stands behind him to start the prayer. In my group, only Gali and Sidi Buya get up for the first of the five daily prayers. I take advantage of the fact that everyone is asleep or too tired to judge me and proceed with my morning grooming routine behind the car.

Nora and Leila wake up at ten in the morning. Leila hurries to pray, while Nora asks Yusef to pass her some tea to which he jokingly replies:

"Ah, what a pity. We'd taken you for dead, we were already handing out your blankets."

"Unless you pay me, you won't be seeing this face awake before 10 am," Nora replies, holding the small glass of tea.

Ahmed approaches us, looking like he is going to announce some good news.

"Give me your Saharawi ID cards. The Algerians need a list of the people who are going to cross the border."

Before I left Mheiriz, my mother put all my documents and money in a little bag that hangs around my neck, with the strict order never to take it off, not even to sleep. I discreetly turn to take my ID card out of the pouch and hand it to Ahmed.

"They will probably open the border this afternoon," predicts Sidi Buya.


[7] Nsraniya means Westerner in Hassania.
[8] In the Islamic religion, the person in charge of presiding and leading the prayer in the mosque.

 

In Saharawi society, it is not appropriate for women to work during a journey. So, contrary to the norm, in this context, it is the men who have to cook and fetch both firewood and water. Nora and Leila strictly respect this social law and spend the morning in the back of the car, glued to their phones. We have a decent enough signal to be able to call and, from time to time, send a WhatsApp message. I have an Algerian SIM card, but it doesn't have enough credit to make calls. I rely on the generosity of the girls to make a call:

"When you have finished talking, could one of you lend me a phone so I can call my aunt Nayat, please?"

"Yes, yes, I'll give you mine in a little while," Nora replies.

After calling her entire contact list and me asking a few more times, Nora lends me her phone.

"Hurry up, I'm out of battery," she says.

My aunt Nayat already knows about our arrival at the border and I share my enthusiasm to see her that evening:

"They're going to open in a couple of hours. Make me some couscous, and I'll join you for dinner."

In Arabic, the term "Insha'Allah," apart from the meaning "if it’s God’s will," can also express good wishes, encouragement, or an alternative to saying "no" or "I don't know." Its use is explained in the Quran:

(23) And do not say concerning a thing, "I will do it tomorrow."

(24) Unless you add: Insha'Allah. And remember your Lord when you forget and say: "It may be that my Lord will guide me to something closer than this to right guidance."
Sura of the Cave, Quran 18:23–24.

For a Muslim, the use of "Insha'Allah" is obligatory at the end of a sentence that implies a future action. Omitting the term risks that the action will not be fulfilled. When I announced to my aunt that I was going to have dinner with them that evening, I omitted the use of the term necessary for that action to happen. Instead of couscous for dinner, I had pasta with tuna, accompanied by a pleasant sandstorm.

Our neighbor Ahmed returns our ID cards with a hopeful message.

"In the end, they are not opening today. But all indications are that they will let us through tomorrow, Insha'Allah."

 
 

I think I can make it through another night without a shower; what I'm not quite sure about is how long my patience will last with Nora. My traveling companion likes to find someone's weaknesses or flaws and focus her energy on making them more obvious to demonstrate her superiority. Of course, such pettiness is not obvious to the naked eye, as she carries it out through the secret weapon of the Saharawi: humor.

Like any child of immigrants, I have a difficult relationship with the concept of identity, especially my own. In my first years in Spain, all I wanted was for my classmates not to see me as the "Arab," and for them to stop asking me if I had arrived in their country on a little boat when I told them almost every day that I had come by plane. After two years, I spoke Spanish fluently, and my shaved hair had grown to the point where children no longer asked their parents if I was a boy or a girl. I was ready to feel Spanish.

When we arrived in Spain in 1998, my father took us to a boarding school where several nuns, whom I considered my mothers, took in my sister Nayat and me. In my new home, there was a strict rule: finish your food. My stomach found this rule an ordeal, and I was usually the last to leave the dining room until a lovely nun, Mother Cuenqui, would discreetly pick up my plate without Agustina noticing. Agustina was a lady in her late fifties, short in stature, with a somewhat brusque manner, who grew up in that same boarding school and had been helping the nuns in the dining room for maybe longer than I’d been alive. Her main role was to make sure we left nothing on our plates. This lady helped me learn to eat everything, even though she would squeeze my food-stuffed cheeks to get me to swallow.

Without a doubt, the most important memory I have of her is the day she made it clear to me that I would never be Spaniard. She did this just after I had told a girl sitting next to me that I was also Spanish because I already spoke the language well.

"No matter how long a log sits in the water, it will never become a fish. Do you know what that means?" Agustina said to me with a half-smile.

At the time, I did not know the meaning of "log" and was far from deciphering the proverb's racially tinged message. Fortunately, Agustina clarified my doubt with a particularly pejorative tone:

"It means that, no matter how long you live in Spain, you will always be a Moor."

In Spain, Moor translates into "mora," which can refer to Arabs from North Africa, but also means "blackberry." I only knew the meaning referring to the fruit. At that moment, I thought that the lady, who squeezed my cheeks to get me to swallow food I didn’t like, had just paid me a compliment.

"I think Agustina likes me now," I said to Zakia, a Moroccan fourteen-year-old at my table.

"No, Sara. Spaniards almost always use the word "Moor" or "Moorish" in a derogatory way to refer to Arabs."

Agustina not only planted the seed of confusion in the perception of my identity but also made me hate a fruit I had never tasted.

 

Sidi Buya prepares our morning tea. In addition to being afraid of salty food, my uncle is particularly afraid of the evil eye. A superstition present in several cultures (especially in the Arab world, as well as Turkey and Greece), it is often used to explain the misfortunes that befall a person. Nora realizes Sidi Buya's fear of this belief and focuses her morning jokes on further stoking the flames of his terror, with malicious phrases and without including a "Mashallah" or "Alhamdulillah," which, in theory, protect against the evil eye.

It’s 3 pm. We pack up our camp once again. Today is the last of the three days during which the Algerians had planned to open the border between the free territories of Western Sahara and the refugee camps. The cars have formed a caravan to cross it. Yusef has nicknamed Nora "lfeisda," which means "the fool;" Brahim has been missing since the first round of tea in the morning; Sidi Buya is reciting some verse from the Quran to ward off the evil eye that Nora has cast on him; and Leila keeps asking me if I have any biscuits left.

"I'm sorry, Leila, we finished the last packet this morning," I reply for the fourth time.

Brahim reappears after a couple of hours with a few logs, which he drops on the sand, exhausted.

"Yallah, let's make lunch, we're not moving from here."

With his cooking firewood, Brahim brings us the scoop of the day: Algeria's president has postponed the opening of the borders for another month, and the soldiers have been ordered not to let us pass until then. I don't know whether to cry with joy because I'm going to eat something soon or with frustration at the thought of the windy and cold nights ahead of me.

Gali is skeptical about the news.

"We're almost out of food and water, so I don't think they'll leave us here for too long."

Ahmed, who has joined our discussion, adds, "Don't worry, trust in God's plans."

"I hope God has planned for me not to starve to death here," says Nora from the passenger seat.

"Here goes the fool... I'm going to keep your blankets and you'll die, but from the cold," jokes Yusef.

Thanks to Gali's foresight, we have some flour left to make bread, a packet of pasta and two jerry cans of water that we collected at one of the wells on the way to the border.

On the fourth day of waiting, we all assume that the opening date is uncertain, and a third of the caravan, which had hoped to cross to the camps, decides to go back where they came from due to the lack of food and water.

 
 

Shortly before Gali and Sidi Buya begin to prepare the last remaining packet of pasta, we are approached by a woman dragging two pieces of luggage. She is accompanied by a girl who looks around four years old and a boy of about six. Her name is Fatma, and she is about 1.57 meters tall and voluptuous. Exactly the prototype of beauty to which Beiba aspires.

The greeting loop with Fatma (from which I can’t escape) lasts about three minutes and the curiosity to meet her makes Nora and Leila get out of the car for the first time all day.

"I came from Mheiriz with my brother and his wife, but they decided to return this morning. They didn't want to keep waiting with hardly any food. My children haven't seen their father for six months, so I'm staying here for as long as it takes until they open. Do you have room in the car for us?"

There's barely room for a pin in the Land Rover.

"Sure, we will leave the fool here to make space for you," Yusef replies, laughing.

"I still have some rice and a few biscuits left," Fatma adds.

Leila's face lights up when she hears "biscuits." Nora responds with good humor to Yusef's joke, referring to her again as "the fool," and welcomes Fatma.

It’s our fifth day at the border. The Algerian soldiers brought us water tanks today and placed them right in front of the border wall.

"Go get water now that there is hardly any left," warns our neighbor, Ahmed.

"Finally, something to do," I think to myself. I rush to find the empty jerry cans in the back of the car, where my three female traveling companions are now sitting.

"What do you want those cans for?" Nora asks me.

"I am going to fetch some water."

Nora bursts out laughing before saying to Fatma in a mocking tone, "Excuse this Spaniard, who doesn't know that this is a man's job, the poor thing…"

If Agustina had heard her call me a Spaniard, she'd be in shock. At this point, I'm indifferent to jokes about my identity. I smile at them and head off on my mission. Halfway there, with a jerry can in each hand, I hear someone shouting my name.

 
 

"Maine, Maine!"

It's Gali, and he comes running towards me. He takes the jerry cans out of my hand.

"I'll do it," he says sweetly.

Doomed to adhere to the division of roles, I return to the Land Rover and accept my duty of doing nothing. At least I can play with Fatma's hyperactive children…

Brahim appears at the end of the day. We thought he had gone to fetch firewood, but he returns without wood, swinging his radio with one hand and looking disappointed.

"Almost two hundred people in this place and nobody has batteries for my radio..."

Yusef dedicates a sketch to him, in which he plays a radio news presenter.

"With hardly any food or water, hundreds of Saharawi have been stuck for almost a week at the Algerian border. We spoke to one of those affected, Yusef Melhanin, who tells us that every time he asks when this situation of uncertainty and abandonment will end, the answer is: ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, Insha'Allah.’"

Yusef's sense of humor makes us downplay the fact that we are not going to have dinner, and we may not have anything to eat tomorrow either. It is already dark. Emir and Salma, Fatma's children, are chasing birds. It is the first time I have seen such small birds in the desert.

"They are turtledoves, and it would do us good to eat their meat," says Gali.

"He's joking," I think to myself.

 

Ten minutes later, we're all in the Land Rover, trying to hit these birds. In a normal context, I'd think it'd be a savage thing to kill these little things. On an empty stomach, I forget that I'm vegetarian and give Gali directions so that he can run over our future food.

Five of them succumb to the blows of the car. Sidi Buya and Gali finish off the stunned birds with a halal sacrifice9: they both pronounce "Bismillah10" before killing the animals. The procedure is performed with the bird facing Mecca. Sidi Buya grabs the bird by the neck while Gali inflicts a quick incision with a sharp blade on the throat, severing the jugular and carotid arteries. The essence of the sacrifice is that the animal's suffering is minimized.

The hunt is productive. I'm not sure if the five birds will be enough for the ten mouths, but we're not here to complain.

We have been practicing the art of waiting for six days. It must be 1 pm. Sidi Buya has lost his unusually good mood of the first few days. The cold nights, insufficient food, and the frustration of not knowing when we will be able to leave have taken their toll on his emotional state. After almost a week of doing the bare minimum, Nora agrees to knead the flour and water mixture. Yusef makes a fire to heat the ground and places the bread dough under the sand to bake it. Gali serves a plate of turtledoves with wet bread for the men and another for the women and little Salma and Emir.


[9] Arabic for "lawful." In this context, it refers to the method of slaughtering animals for meat prescribed by the Muslim religion and set out in the Quran. It involves cutting the animal's throat, bleeding it, and causing its death as quickly as possible.
[10] "In the name of God" in Arabic.

 
 

The world is a mess because, apparently, some guys decided that eating bats was a good idea, and here we are, eating some poor wild birds...

During our "feast," I spot a white Toyota approaching the wall, guarded by the Algerian military.

"But who would think of approaching the soldiers, knowing that they would not let them pass?" I ask rhetorically.

Everyone looks up from their plate at the same time.

"It's an official car," says Yusef.

The driver gets out of his SUV and limps towards one of the soldiers. Sidi Buya jumps to his feet.

"It's Bashir Mustafa Sayed," says my uncle, with the first smile I've seen in many days.

"With Shahid El Uali Mustafa Sayed’s brother here, they will definitely let us in tomorrow, Insha'Allah," adds Yusef.

One of the most important people in the history of Western Sahara is El Uali Mustafa Sayed. A goat herder, El Uali was born in Bir Lehlu, under Spanish colonization. He was the founder of the Polisario Front, a movement to liberate the Sahara from colonial control. A few months after unifying the tribes of his land by proclaiming the formation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), he fought against the invasion of Morocco and Mauritania until he perished on the battlefield at the age of twenty-eight. El Uali is considered a shahid11, a national hero.

After a quick conversation with the soldiers, Bashir limps back to his SUV and turns around. He gets out of the car, waving his hand to the crowd to come towards him.

Gali, our driver and leader, makes his way to the white Toyota. He is joined by a representative from each group or family. The rest of us wait impatiently for the message brought to us by the brother of the man who proclaimed liberation of the Sahara from colonialism and who, we hope, is going to "liberate" us from The Bone of the Wind.

"I've tried, but there's nothing I can do to get us out of here. The Algerians won't open the borders under any circumstances, and the Polisario can't take the risk of an outbreak of COVID in the camps either. The only solution is for us to go back thirty kilometers where they will bring us tents and supplies, until the borders are officially opened."

Bashir, one of the most important politicians in the Sahara, not only can’t get us out of here but is just as stuck as we are. The idea of sleeping in a tent is enough for me to celebrate this man’s message, though.


[11] "Martyr" in Arabic.

 
 

"We only have enough fuel to get to the camps. If we turn back, we won't have enough to cross the border," says Gali.

"We won't have signal if we move away from The Bone of the Wind. Why can't they bring us a tent and food here?" adds Nora.

"They don't want us to post on Facebook about the conditions we are in here," Sieda complains.

Of course, now that I have internalized the idea of not complaining, inspired by the stoic mentality of the desert, these people come out with this criticism.

Ahmed, who is with us commenting on the news, reminds us that, "If we are still here, it is because God has willed it" and insists that "we must trust in the Lord's plan."

After hearing Bashir’s message, the vast majority of cars turn back, attracted by the shelter of a tent and the possibility of camel meat. Bashir gives us his word that he will return with enough fuel for those who don't have enough to go back thirty kilometers.

"When did Bashir say he would bring us the petrol?" Sidi Buya asks.

"Tomorrow, tomorrow, Insha'Allah," jokes Yusef.

Ahmed's family, who also don't have enough fuel to go back, stay in The Bone of the Wind and sacrifice one of their goats, which they share with us. The Algerian military begin to hand out three loaves of bread to each group and continue to supply us with jerry cans of water, the drinkability of which is questionable.

Three days after Yusef's joke, Bashir fulfills his promise, and we get the petrol that will take us out of here to go back thirty kilometers to where the Polisario has prepared provisional tents and food. We are to continue being stuck in the desert but in slightly better conditions.

 
 

Our Land Rover does not have enough room for Fatma, her children, and all their luggage.

"Three people will have to go in Binaser's car; he’s Ahmed’s brother," Gali proposes.

Nora, Fatma, and I offer to separate from our group. Binaser approaches us in his not-so-new Toyota. With him are his mother in the passenger seat and two of his sisters in the back seat.

"The big lady won't fit," says Binaser, referring to Fatma.

Fatma, who is actually only twenty-eight years old and has a temper that I don't recommend inciting, confronts Binaser for alluding to her weight without saying "Mashallah."

"What a bastard, casting the evil eye on me!" Fatma lets out, visibly upset.

Binaser tries to apologize, claiming that his objection was purely practical because of the limited space in the car. He insists that he did not mean to offend her, but Fatma feels insulted and walks away from the car, cursing the driver. She ends up getting into Gali's Land Rover.

Just before we leave, one of the Algerian soldiers approaches the Toyota. He offers us bottles of water and chocolates that he could have brought us earlier. I feel gratitude and a certain sadness at being away from the soldiers, who have left us hungry and trapped in the wind for more than a week. I think I'm getting Stockholm syndrome.

We arrive at the "waiting camp" about forty minutes later. There are around twenty tents. The organization exceeds my expectations. We join Ahmed's family and occupy a large tent. The distribution of food consists of a packet of rice, sugar, water, and camel meat for each tent, a luxury topped off by a camping stove for making tea and cooking.

Smara camp, where I was born, was the last camp to get electricity. When the Saharawi women built the camps, where they took refuge from the war in 1976, they intended it to be a temporary solution. In 2018, forty-three years later, electricity arrived in Smara. The Saharawi refugees lamented the fact that they could turn on the light in their mud-brick rooms at the flick of a switch. That gesture symbolized, in their eyes, a comfort that would turn the temporary solution into a permanent one.

The comfort of shelter, water, food, and butane bottles has had the same effect on the "waiting camp" as electricity in Smara.

"With all this luxury, we're bound to be here for a while," Fatma laments.

 

“This song is a message of fortitude that the Saharawi have been applying to their lives for a long time now, keeping the spirit of struggle and peaceful resistance high.”

 

Ramadan has already begun. A month of introspection, gratitude, and fasting that the Saharawi do not observe as strictly as their North African neighbors. Of the twenty of us in the tent, only my uncle Sidi Buya complies with the obligation to abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The Quran makes certain exceptions for people who should not fast: being a minor, traveling, having a chronic illness, and, in the case of women, being pregnant, breastfeeding, or menstruating.

Ahmed, who has spent the whole week giving religious sermons and waking us up at 6 am with the call to prayer, makes use of one of the exceptions in Islam's holy book to continue drinking tea during the day.

"Technically, we are still traveling because we have not yet reached our final destination. So fasting should be a personal decision and not an obligation."

One of the most obvious qualities of the Saharawi people is patience. Mariem Hassan sings about it in a song written by Baba Salama, Sbar (Patience).

With a little patience,
Oh people, you will achieve your independence.
Your independence will be found
only with a little patience.
You will achieve independence
only with a little patience.

شووي من الصبر
يشعب استقلالك ينجبر
شووي من الصبر
يشعب استقلالك ينجبر
شووي من الصبر

This song is a message of fortitude that the Saharawi have been applying to their lives for a long time now, keeping the spirit of struggle and peaceful resistance high. My main conclusion this week is: give these people a little water, tea, and dominoes, and they'll put up with anything.

 

Nora and Fatma, who have been the best of friends all this time, have now fallen out because Nora called her half-brother Gali a "useless brat" for having put us together with Ahmed's family in the same tent instead of getting one for ourselves.

"If it wasn't for Gali, you would have died of hunger and cold by now, you ingrate!" Fatma shouts at her.

An agitated exchange of insults ensues. Leila sides with her niece and stops talking to Fatma. I, who had intended to remain neutral and stay out of the fuss, am coerced to get involved as night falls.

"Maine, don't sleep with Nora and Leila, come and sleep next to me, I have plenty of blankets," Fatma says to entice me.

I accept the invitation because, deep down, I really don’t like Nora, and it's about time I give back Gali’s blanket, which saved me from hypothermia in The Bone of the Wind. I'm happy to be sleeping in a tent. That joy disappears as soon as Fatma falls asleep. Her snoring is worse than any sandstorm at 3 am. I don’t get any sleep.

The next day, in the queue for our daily food, I join a conversation with two ladies who seem to have information about when we are going to get out of here.

"I heard that they're going to let women, children, and the elderly in," one of them says.

"That's what my cousin told me this morning," says the other.

"And do you know when?" I ask them.

"Tomorrow, tomorrow, Insha'Allah," says the first lady in a pink melhfa12, smiling.

The Saharawi have as much hope in saying, "Tomorrow, tomorrow, Insha'Allah," as they do in the liberation of their country.


[12] Melhfa is traditional Saharawi clothing.

 

We have been in this temporary camp for three days now. Sidi Buya has exchanged our overcrowded tent for a smaller one that he shares with five men and where he breaks his fast with a glass of water and a couple of dates. Nora and Fatma have made up. Brahim and Yusef have run out of tobacco and disappear during the day in search of anyone to bum a cigarette from.

Three of Ahmed's brothers, aged between twenty-five and thirty, who have done their military service and know this part of the desert well, decide to leave the camp to cross the border, which is guarded by the Algerian military, at night and on foot. Their names are Hamza, Habib, and Fadel. Ahmed is against this risky plan but ends up agreeing to drive them to The Bone of the Wind. Two days later, Fadel and Habib return to the tent, dirty and tired.

"What happened, where is Hamza?" Ahmed asks them anxiously.

"He has crossed and must have reached the camps by now," says Habib.

"What about you?"

"This fool was spotted by the Algerian soldiers and we had to run like hell back here," says Fadel, pointing to Habib.

They tell us about their journey with a sense of humor that makes us all laugh hysterically.

We have been on our odyssey for so many days that the social norm of men taking care of all the chores during a trip is losing its relevance, and the women go back to their usual chores. Gali and Yusef take turns making tea, and Fatma shares the cooking with one of Ahmed's sisters.

 
 

I still have one book left that saves me from the despair of having nothing to do besides washing two dishes a day. In the tent, there is a heated discussion about tribes. Ahmed's family is from a tribe that tends to receive a lot of criticism within Sahawari society, and Fatma's family is from another tribe that, historically, does not get on well with Ahmed's tribe. I decide I’m not in the mood for this drama and go to the Land Rover to read.

Emir, Fatma's son, is in front of the car, playing with a number plate he has found lying around. He is barefoot, as usual.

"Can I hop up there with you?" he asks me, with snot hanging out of his nose.

I open the driver's door, and he goes straight for the steering wheel. He tells me about his father's car, a Land Rover.

"But not a rotten one like this one, it’s a brand new one."

I listen to him listing all the parts of the car.

"This is the accelerator, with this other thing you brake, this is to see if you have any petrol left…"

I grab the camera in my backpack to take a photo of him and come across a packet of biscuits that I didn't know existed. I feel like crying tears of joy. Emir pounces on them. We share a few minutes of chatting about powerful cars while enjoying our tasty find when Leila suddenly appears at my window. I am startled. Leila fixes her gaze on the biscuits that I had sworn to her days ago were gone. I roll down the window.

"I promise you we've just found them. Here you go, take some."

Leila takes the whole pack without a word and returns to the tent. Emir grows tired of my company and my limited knowledge of cars and goes back to playing with another kid.

 
 

Gali has spent all day fixing the car of a man he doesn't know. He comes back to his Land Rover to drop off the tools and finds me in the passenger seat, reading. His hands are black with grease. I offer to pour water from a bottle while he rubs the dirt off his hands. I realize that in the almost two weeks I've been with him, I've barely heard anything about his life.

"Are your parents in Mheiriz?" I ask him as I fetch a cloth for him to dry his hands.

"My father died in the war in 1988, a few months after I was born."

After returning from Alicante, he studied in Algeria and dropped out of university to take care of his grandmother in Mheiriz. He is an only child, which is unusual.

"But I have Nora, even if she is not my sister technically, and many cousins who are like my sisters," he adds, noticing my surprise.

He moves between Mheiriz, where he helps his mother with the goats, and the camps, where he works in a pharmacy.

"How's your blood pressure?" he asks me.

"Normal, I suppose."

He pulls out a blood pressure monitor from under his seat and puts it around my arm. My blood pressure is low. Gali doesn't have a phone, but he asks for my number.

"When this whole virus thing is over, I'll go back to the camps and get a mobile phone."

I can't find a pen to write down my number.

"Whatever, I'm going to memorize it," he says, smiling.

 

I haven't showered or eaten properly for a little over two weeks. I wake up thinking about a plate of pasta with pesto. To my left, Fatma snores loudly and, to my right, her two children use my arm as a pillow. It’s 8 am. The lady in the pink melhfa who assured me we were going to get out of here "tomorrow, tomorrow, Insha'Allah" six days ago enters our tent.

"Pack up your things, we are leaving today."

I raise my head, confirm that it is the same woman who made me empty promises some days ago, and go back to bed. Shortly afterwards, Gali appears.

"Yallah, Yallah. Get ready to leave. They are going to let women, children, and the elderly through."

It takes us fifteen minutes to pack. Gali cannot take us in his car because he is at risk of not being able to return to Mheiriz. Nora, Leila, Fatma, little Emir, Salma, and I get into a blue Land Rover Santana, belonging to a man in his seventies, dressed in military uniform. His name is Burki, and he is accompanied by his nephew, Khadad, a middle-aged man with a serious countenance, also dressed in military uniform. Brahim, who is considered elderly, gets into his cousin's car, which has just passed us.

The condition for entering the camps is to spend a fortnight in quarantine in a school, taking advantage of the fact that classes have been canceled for more than a month for fear of contracting the virus. When we cross the border, the soldiers will take our Saharawi ID cards and return them to us at the end of the fifteen days of isolation. We form a caravan of cars, in which there are soldiers at the front, in the middle, and at the end to make sure that no one evades the quarantine.

We are the first ones. I ride in the front of the car, with Khadad on my left and Emir and his sister Salma on my lap. Nora, Leila, and Fatma share the space with the luggage in the back.

Yusef and Sidi Buya do not fit into any of the categories: women, children, and the elderly, so they have to keep waiting in the camp. I give my blanket to my uncle.

There is an interpretation of Islam that forbids shaking hands with people of the opposite sex unless it is a close relative. In Saharawi society, breaching this norm is not seen as severe, although more and more people are taking it seriously. Gali approaches my window. I hold out my hand to him to say goodbye. He fixes his gaze on my hand, then shakes it with his right hand for ten seconds before taking it to his heart.

I try not to dwell on the idea of spending another fortnight in "captivity" and focus on the fact that (fingers crossed) tonight, I am finally going to be able to take a shower. Insha'Allah.

 
 


Sara Cheikh

Sara Cheikh is a digital product designer based in Barcelona. She was born in the Saharawi refugee camps of Tindouf in Algeria. At the age of six, her father, an ex-political prisoner who was then working as a translator for MINURSO, a UN mission in charge of the conflict between Western Sahara and Morocco, managed to bring her and her siblings to Spain, where she has grown up. Aware of the luck she has had, Sara has always felt the moral duty to give voice to the more than two hundred thousand people who are still waiting in the refugee camps to return to the occupied Sahara. A duty that she fulfills in her first book Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Insha-Allah, where she recounts an epic journey through the desert while describing the Saharawi society, their struggle and stoic patience.

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