The South, under Surveillance

I am being followed.

At least I was. I found out when I was sitting in a small cafe in Tarfaya eating grilled sardines. Sadat, the man who I came to Tarfaya to meet, came up to my table. “I got three phone calls today about you,” he said. “You are the centre of attention. Let’s go somewhere else and talk.” He brought me to a little cafe run by an old man with hair like white lamb’s wool and a cement mixer voice. The authorities had told Sadat that I had met with a known activist when I was in Laayoune and that they wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. Sadat told them that I was a student and was his guest. He also advised me to leave the hotel and move in to his place where I would be left alone.

I had not met with anyone in Laayoune, but I did meet with an activist in Smara, the town where I started my visit to the ‘occupied zone.’ I wanted to go to Smara because I had heard so much about the place when I was in the camps. In fact, one of the camps is named for Smara. Smara is also the closest city the ‘the Wall.’ I figured a visit here, to the other side, would be a poetic echo to the place I’d seen in the Algerian desert.

Smara is a beautiful city, with a surprising vibrancy to it considering its location far from anything but an oppressive heat. The nights are especially active with the streets filled with shoppers and walkers, and the cafes jammed with men watching European soccer on satellite television. After being a tourist in the ‘north’, it was refreshing to be among regular people whose welcomes were not edged with commerce.

I had one o my best meals in a while in Smara. On a street filled with meat shops, a butchers hacked off a few bits of lamb for me, slapped them into a plastic bag, and pointed to the grill next door. I handed my meat to the man standing over the coals. He grilled my meat alongside some tomatoes and onions, sprinkled the lot with salt and cumin, and dropped it in front of me with a round of fresh bread. Some days I pity the poor vegetarian.

The activist in Smara didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know about the Saharawi situation. He, like the rest, still hope for Saharawi independance in the face of increasing odds against it. It is likely that my meeting with him in Smara was the reason for my being followed by the authorities.

They must have followed me to Laayoune, the ‘capital’ city of the south. Laayoune is a strange place. The only neighborhood that is more than 30 years old is in ruins. The central square is called Canary Plaza but has none of the lightness and whimsy that the name implies. Instead it is filled with rubble and trash and a few trees that scarcely have the motivation to grow leaves. The surrounding homes are falling apart, and marked with cracks and lesions. This is the old Saharawi neighborhood.

The rest of the city, though, is new and prosperous. A beautiful new mosque boasts carved plaster and stained glass. It sits on a city square made of spotless tile. The new soccer stadium grows real grass – a near miracle in the desert. The wealth here is inorganic, built of subsidies and tax exemptions, but manufatured prosperity is still prosperity, and the citizens are enjoying a sort of boom that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the country.

For all of this, it is an ugly city. I remember speaking to some young women in the camps. They had been born in the camps and had never seen Laayoune, but they were sure the place was beautiful. In the imagination of a refugee, home, wherever it is, must be a beautiul place. Why else fight to return there?

From Laayoune I went to the fishing town of Tarfaya. The place is just north of the disputed territory, but is was here that the Green March of 1975 set off to claim the Western Sahara for Morocco. It is also the place where tea was first introduced to the people of the desert by a British trader passing through on his way home from India. The fortress he built still stands in the surf a few metres from the dune-curved beach. I came to meet Sadat, a kind man who is the only Saharawi I met who doesn’t believe that independance is a realistic goal for the Saharawis. He is a community development worker who focuses on keeping Saharawi culture alive, but he is not convinced that a sovereign Saharawi state is an attainable goal. It was valuable for me, and for the book, to gain this differing view.

I stayed in Tarfaya for a few days, a guest of Sadat and under the eyes of what ever authorities followed me this far. I was rattled by the news that I was being monitored. Everybody warned me that this would happen, but just the thought of men in uniform in different cities calling each other and talking about ‘that Canadian’ burns a hollow in my chest. I wasn’t afraid. I’d broken no laws and gave them no reason to arrest me. Still, the whole episode made me feel uneasy.

I am in Rabat now, en route to the far north where I will begin the second part of the research for the Walls book. I am far from disputed lands and I doubt the officials still care about me. Still, I can’t help but look behind me every so often just to see if I’ve seen any of those faces before.