Books | Review | Settled Wanderers: The Poetry of a Landless People

Social Anthropologist Dr Alice Wilson reviews Settled Wanderers: the poetry of Western Sahara, by Sam Berkson and Mohamed Sulaiman, a recent volume of poems written from within or about the liberation movement from Western Sahara.

Books, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 11:48 - 4 Comments

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Settled Wanderers - the poety of Western Sahara

A poetic meeting: poets Beyibouh (right) and Sam Berkson (left), and translator Mohamed Sulaiman (centre), discuss their compositions in a tent in the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria.

During Eid celebrations in 2008, my Sahrawi host family in a refugee camp in south-west Algeria took me with them to greet their relatives. The eldest son took his mother, several sisters and their anthropologist in his well-worn Landrover across the sandy and rocky tracks running between tents, mud-brick houses and neighbourhoods, over to the other side of the camp. “You’re lucky”, one of my host sisters told me. “Today you will get to meet Beyibouh.”

For months I had heard about this poet, one of the most celebrated poets from the disputed North African territory of Western Sahara. Many refugees loved to cite his poems, to listen to them from recordings on their telephones, and to send them on to Sahrawi friends in the camps and further afield.

In the innovative book Settled Wanderers: the poetry of Western Sahara, poems by Beyibouh and seven other Sahrawi poets reach an even wider audience, appearing in an English translation produced through the collaboration of Sam Berkson, a London-based poet who visited the refugee camps, and local Sahrawi translator Mohmaded Sulaiman. What results is a fascinating reflection on national liberation, resistance, revolution, war, exile and aspirations for peace.

The case of Western Sahara speaks to all of these themes. Yet Western Sahara―in contrast to the Palestinian case of long-term displacement and disputed territory― is usually little known outside specialist circles and rarely makes international news. The territory, about the size of the UK, is located in north-west Africa, bordering with Morocco to the north, Mauritania to the south and the Atlantic to the west. It was a Spanish colony from the 1880s to 1975. Spain’s plans to hold a referendum to decolonize the territory were aborted, however, when Morocco (and for a while Mauritania) partially annexed the territory.

For the past forty years, the national liberation movement for the territory, Polisario Front, and Morocco have been locked in a conflict to claim sovereignty over the territory. The struggle has evolved from active warfare, via ceasefire in 1991, to diplomatic battles over resources, human rights and a potential referendum on self-determination.

The Western Sahara conflict has seen the Sahrawi population divided between on the one hand those living in Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara, and on the other hand a civilian population of Sahrawi refugees living in refugee camps in Algeria but governed by the Polisario Front. There is also an increasingly complex Sahrawi diaspora in Europe and beyond. Voices hailing from and addressing each of these Sahrawi populations appear in the poems collected in Settled Wanderers.

he book came about through the collaboration of Sam Berkson and Mohamed Sulaiman, who was born in the refugee camps. Over two visits of several weeks to the refugee camps, Berkson visited Sahrawi poets. He collected their life stories, recorded poems, worked with Sulaiman to obtain literal translations, and used the latter to produce his own more fluid translations. He also composed original poems of his own inspired by his experiences in the refugee camps.

The resulting volume is a rich collection. 25 Sahrawi poems appear in English in Berkson’s interpretations. He hopes that the reader will “hear the voice of the distant poet speaking to you in [his] voice (or perhaps [his] voice speaking in the voice of another)”. 14 of these poems also appear in an Arabic alphabet transliteration of the original Hassaniya dialect of Arabic, making the collection a valuable resource for those interested in poetic production in local varieties of Arabic. Original poems in English by Sam Berkson stand alongside those of the Sahrawi poets.

Alongside the poetry, the book is beautifully illustrated with images composed of Arabic calligraphy drawn by co-author Sulaiman. In addition, brief life stories of each of the poets provide a useful context for the poets’ experiences and points of inspiration. An essay by political scientists Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy presents an overview of the geopolitics of the Western Sahara conflict, and the importance of the very production of resistance poetry in Hassaniya in a context of intense pressure from the Moroccan authorities to “Moroccanise” Sahrawis.

A further essay by Polisario diplomat Mustafa El-Kattab introduces the reader to the form and role of poetry in Hassaniya. In the past, when most Sahrawis moved between pasturelands herding animals, poetry was the main means of spreading news between dispersed groups. For Sahrawis, poetry continues to hold its place among proliferating electronic media. This is a society where, during the war, one poem caused seventy families to join Polisario in one night.

If most of the poems were composed in the refugee camps, they look far beyond them to the pro self-determination demonstrations in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, the landscapes of steppelands which refugees have not seen since the days of annexation and the lives of young Sahrawi migrants who have left the refugee camps to work abroad. Through both the Sahrawi poems and those of Berkson, the reader will come to know some of the unusual creations of life improvised through exile and displacement.

Berkson brings to life Beyibouh’s ode to the Sahrawi army’s makeshift “tank”, made out of a Landrover stripped at the back to load a gun: the “topless landrover/sawn-off shotgun loaded/with the bullets of liberation” known to Sahrawis as “Dreimissa”, literally a “hornless goat”. In one of his own poems, Berkson portrays the “un-uniformed un-official of an internationally/unrecognised government” who hands out landing cards for Polisario “in Spanish, Arabic and misspelt English”. The unforgettable hospitality of Sahrawis is touchingly recounted in the poem “Why you should never do translation in the house of your Sahrawi translator”, where translation involves plenty of tea.

Settled Wanderers - Cover - CeasefireThe Western Sahara conflict is most often neglected, and the rare discussions among international power brokers are overshadowed by impersonal political agendas that are content to maintain a deeply flawed status quo. Settled Wanderers shatters that impersonality. It is an invitation to engage with how people respond to, reflect on and project themselves beyond living for forty years through circumstances that no one should ever be asked to live through.

Settled Wanderers: The Poetry of a Landless People Paperback 
by Muhammad Sulaiman and Sam Berkson

Paperback: 170 pages
Publisher: Influx Press (1 Dec. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0992765544

Alice Wilson

Alice Wilson is Addison Wheeler Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at Durham University, UK. She is the author of the forthcoming monograph Remaking Sovereignty: state power, exile and revolution in a Saharan liberation movement.

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Independent publishers on the books they enjoyed and envied in 2015 – The Guardian | Learning toys hub
Dec 22, 2015 11:21

[…] Settled Wanderers by Sam Berkson and Mohammed Suliaman is a very important and timely reminder of the ongoing refugee crisis in Western Sahara. It is the first book that has published Saharawi poetry in translation to English. Berkson visited the near 40-year-old refugee camps in Algeria twice and worked with translator, Sulaiman to produce a beautiful document of an ignored, forgotten conflict. If more people knew about the Saharawi plight, this book would have done better! […]

Independent publishers on the books they enjoyed and envied in 2015 – The Guardian | Baby Top Outlet
Dec 22, 2015 11:22

[…] Settled Wanderers by Sam Berkson and Mohammed Suliaman is a very important and timely reminder of the ongoing refugee crisis in Western Sahara. It is the first book that has published Saharawi poetry in translation to English. Berkson visited the near 40-year-old refugee camps in Algeria twice and worked with translator, Sulaiman to produce a beautiful document of an ignored, forgotten conflict. If more people knew about the Saharawi plight, this book would have done better! […]

Independent publishers on the books they enjoyed and envied in 2015 – The Guardian | Top kids apparel
Dec 22, 2015 13:33

[…] Settled Wanderers by Sam Berkson and Mohammed Suliaman is a very important and timely reminder of the ongoing refugee crisis in Western Sahara. It is the first book that has published Saharawi poetry in translation to English. Berkson visited the near 40-year-old refugee camps in Algeria twice and worked with translator, Sulaiman to produce a beautiful document of an ignored, forgotten conflict. If more people knew about the Saharawi plight, this book would have done better! […]

Independent publishers on the books they enjoyed and envied in 2015 – The Guardian | Book Supreme Depot
Dec 22, 2015 13:41

[…] Settled Wanderers by Sam Berkson and Mohammed Suliaman is a very important and timely reminder of the ongoing refugee crisis in Western Sahara. It is the first book that has published Saharawi poetry in translation to English. Berkson visited the near 40-year-old refugee camps in Algeria twice and worked with translator, Sulaiman to produce a beautiful document of an ignored, forgotten conflict. If more people knew about the Saharawi plight, this book would have done better! […]

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