And while we’re on the topic of refugees, let’s not forget about a four decade-plus ongoing refugee issue in Western Sahara that began following its 1975 independence from Spain and its subsequent struggle for nationhood against the Kingdom of Morocco. Aziza Brahim is a Sahrawi singer-songwriter who has spent most of her life exiled from her Western Sahara homeland, and she has not forgot.
Born in refugee camps bordering Algeria, and then exiled to Cuba, where she received secondary education but was denied higher education for music, she now makes her home in Barcelona and performs all over the globe. Yet her music speaks to the issue of displacement, not just for her Sahwari people, but for everyone forced by war from their homelands.
As you may be aware (I was not), Western Sahara was a conquest of Spain since the mid-1800s turning administrative control over to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. Like the French colonization of Morocco, Algeria, Syria, and Lebanon; the Italian colonization of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Libya; and the British colonization Egypt, Palestine, and India; Spain’s presence in Western Sahara was a display of power and authority aimed more toward competitive imperialism, human exploitation, extraction of resources, and less about increasing quality of life. The Spanish relinquished control, in part, due to the Sahwari Polisario Front, who began as a nationalistic student movement and quickly transformed into a political-military entity when Morocco, in partnership with Mauritania, invaded Western Sahara for annexation.
Western Sahara, at first glance, is not exactly the land of milk and honey. It is a rocky, sometimes featureless desert terrain that is perhaps one-fifth farmable land. However, it does have desirable natural resources, most notabley, phosphate, and it is presumed to have offshore oil and gas deposits that are not exploited because of Morocco’s ongoing illegitimate and unrecognized occupation of it. Western Sahara has a significant fishing industry too. It is one of the most sparsely populated places on earth, with just over half a million souls for 130,000 square miles, or roughly 4.5 people per square mile.
Why Morocco wants Western Sahara is a blurry issue: both Morocco and Mauritania maintain parallel arguments that Western Sahara was previously part of their respective domains and should be rightfully reunited. This idea, by the way, is not entirely unlike Syria’s ongoing effort to reunite Bilad al-Sham — the Levant: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, parts of Iraq, and Jordan — into the single geographical-cultural unit it was prior to Briton Sykes and Frenchman Pikot carving up the region for each countries’ colonial intentions. In short, both Morocco and Mauritania offered historic geographical history as their rationale annexation of Western Sahara.
However, much of the world has not looked kindly on Morocco’s invasion. In 1975 the United Nations did not legitimize Morocco’s effort with the International Court of Justice determining that, historic connections aside, the Sahwari had rights of self-determination. And only recently in 2016 the European Union stated that Western Sahara is not part of Moroccan territory. Yet Morocco is steadfast in its occupation, and the conflict has generated refugees — and continues to do with a current estimate of 1.9 million of them, according to Wikipedia.
And this is what drives Aziza Brahim to write and perform songs that respond to exile.
Exile is loss of home, homeland, family, community, customs, and culture, and almost all of these losses are caused by political motives and military means. Of these driving forces, she says:
I’m not able to separate politics, cultural and personal concerns. So, the focus of my music is all of these areas at the same time. Political, because of its commitment to the denunciation of social injustice. Cultural, because it searches for new musical ideas. Personal, because it expresses the worries of a person that aspires to live with dignity in a better world.
By using song and including international musical talent, and by performing worldwide, Aziza Brahim penetrates multiple cultures to bring awareness to forty years of refugee suffering that has largely gone unrecognized in the wake of other global issues, but awaken us she has. Further, she has leveraged the Sahwari plight to shine a spotlight on refugees in exile everywhere, and her use of music enables us to understand and build empathy for those without a home.
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