The Forgotten Wall

Here is a very brief excerpt from the piece I wrote in Banff.

It is a time of no war and no peace. The ceasefire holds but cracks are starting to show. The refugees wait, and though one man says it is courageous to be patient, it has already been more than thirty years. There are more than a hundred thousand refugees and they’ve built a nation out of nothing on wretched hard-packed sand. They are ready to cross over the wall that separates them from home.

The wall is built of sand and stone, but also of rumors, half-truths and bluster. I hear the wall is an Israeli design, and that Americans provided the radar installations. I hear the entire Moroccan army stands along its length. I hear that the minefields that line the wall are veritable catalogues of ordnance: three million mines of every brand and design. Someone tells me the wall is the only thing keeping the Saharawi people from reclaiming their territory. I hear it stretches for 2700 kilometres, and I hear it is much less than that. I hear it is the longest wall in the world.

The Saharawi refugee camps lie on the eastern side of the wall, near the city of Tindouf in the Algerian Sahara. The land is a gift of the Algerian government, but it is not much of an offering. It is called the Hamada du Draâ, a rocky limestone plateau covered with sand and devoid of beauty. The few plants that survive here grow armed with thorns. This land is far from imagined desert scenes. Like most of the Sahara, there are no sudden green oases here, and no slow shift of curving dunes. Instead, there is only pallor and the whip of winter gales.

Only the Saharawi themselves interrupt the paleness. The men walk through the camps in blue or white robes that crinkle like tissue, embroidered with gold thread, and fragrant with tea steam and tobacco. The women swaddle their bodies in colors that don’t exist in the natural desert. Bold reds. Tie-dyed blues and greens and purples. The colorful fabrics keep the skin beneath cool and colourless. Pale skin, pale as the desert itself, is prized among the women here. I find this vanity strange. But then again, here on the barren plain, it is perplexing that there is any life at all.