Settled Wanderers - The Poetry of Western Sahara

Western Sahara, is a former Spanish colony on the north west coast of Africa. Following the death of Franco (1975) and subsequent invasion by Morocco and Mauritania, the territory has been under occupation, the people denied self-determination land annexed as the ‘southern provinces of the Kingdom of Morocco’. Around half of the former nomadic people of Western Sahara (the Saharawi) live in refugee camps around the isolated desert of Tindouf over the border in Algeria. 2015 marks the 40th year of exile. Poetry is a cultural tradition in the Western Sahara that goes back millennia.

In 2013 and 2014 poet Sam Berkson travelled to the camps to gather and translate some of the contemporary poetry of the Saharawi. Settled Wanderers, a new book from Influx Press, is a collection of interpreted poems from the greatest living poets of the Western Sahara, such as Badi, Beyibouh and Al Khadra. They have been translated into English by Sam and a Saharawi translator and illustrator Mohamed Labat Sulaiman. Below we have a link to one such poem, Tishuash by Badi, and we are very grateful to Influx and Sam for this biography of the poet and the chance to present this fascinating project on the Elsewhere blog:

Now in his 70s, Badi is a much revered poet among Saharawi. Born under Spanish occupation, Badi was a goat and camel herder until 1960 when his family lost most of their herd in a severe drought, and with it their livelihood. Forced to find a way to earn a living, he enrolled in the Tropas Nómadas of Franco’s colonial army. They escaped their homeland after the Moroccan invasion.

I met Badi just before sunset in his tent in Smara camp, where many of his family were sitting too, including his granddaughter who is studying Hassaniyyah poetry at university in Algeria. There were goats and children playing outside. For some reason I remember a cat, but perhaps I’ve made that up. A small man with glasses, Badi proved generous, interesting and lively company despite health problems affecting his lungs and eyes – a common condition on the camps, which are hit by frequent sandstorms.

He started by telling me about the history and form of Saharawi poetry. Before the war, he explained, all poetry was accompanied by music and performed with a singer, but it is still now considered to be an art form very close to song, with strict rhythm and rhyme patterns.

After a time, he grew bored of lecturing me and asked me about the history of English poetry. I did my best to explain what I knew and we debated whether free verse could be poetry. Badi thinks not. He recited for me a couple of short and profound poems, and then again turned the tables on his interviewer, and asked me to read him one of mine.  I read him ‘Ode to the Bicycle’ from my first collection, prefacing it with the explanation that it is a poem for people who prefer simpler, cleaner forms of technology to the faster and more polluting methods of transport. His eyes lit up when this sentence was translated.

‘Poets have always liked the simple life!’ he told me.

After hearing this, he gave me ‘Tishuash’. Mohamed, Chaka and I finally came round to translating this poem on the last night of my stay and late into the desert night I could see what a strikingly profound poem it is for Saharawi refugees. It retells the nomad’s desert knowledge and recreates with a melancholic beauty the traditional life of herdsmen which many Saharawi have never known. It is replete with words which even my local translators had to ask about; words like ‘srei’ meaning ‘the travelling done before dawn’ or ‘torda’, which is ‘a small hole dug where water lies close to the surface after the rains in the middle of a valley’. These words of an oral language, this intimate understanding of the desert have almost been forgotten after forty years of forced settlement and thus their recital in poetry is itself an act of resistance. They are the Inuit’s apocryphal ‘hundred words for snow’ and an interesting challenge to translate. However, as is clear in the words of ‘Landscape II’, the act of remembering these lost places and lost knowledge is, for Badi, almost the equivalent of a holy duty.

Tishuash by Badi - Excerpt from Settled Wanderers

Settled Wanderers will be launched on May 12th at Rich Mix London, where Sam Berkson will present the poetry of the Saharawi in translation and its original form, with music, photos, short film and talks - Facebook Event Page

Settled Wanderers by Sam Berkson & Mohamed Sulaiman (Influx Press, 2015)