Gilded Serpent presents...

What Lies Beneath


Part 1, The Morocco & Western Sahara Tourists Don’t See

by Zaina Brown
posted 8-9-12

When you say you are going to travel around in Morocco, usually, the response you get can be summarized with one word: "Marrakech". Sure, Marrakech might be the "best of Morocco", but it also wasn’t going anywhere.

Some other places, however, may not always remain as accessible, and I had a few questions on my mind.

After a month of dancing in Tangier, and checking out northern Morocco, I dropped off my luggage in Casablanca. Now, I was ready to head south! My first stop was Essaouira, eight hours from Casablanca. I figured this small town would be a more interesting place for a stopover than the touristy Agadir, two hours further down. It was a good call. The town was a pleasant experience, fairly unspoiled; yet it received enough visitors to have a nice selection of restaurants and hotels. I stayed two nights–enough to spend an entire day relaxing and sightseeing.


Bright and early, I boarded a bus to Tan Tan, and began what would be a rough day on the road. First, I got screwed with the ticket price. I had a feeling I was being slightly overcharged, but didn’t react fast enough. It’s not about the money–after all, we’re only talking about a couple of dollars–it’s more about the principle. I was pissed, mainly at myself. I should have known better!

Nearing Agadir, we got onto a scenic road, winding up and down the hills beside the Atlantic. At a sharp curve, a van next to us flipped over the edge of the road. It rolled over a couple times downhill and then stopped upside down. I felt like I was watching a scene in a movie. Everyone on the bus was yelling for the driver to stop, but to our dismay, he didn’t. We just drove off from the accident scene, like, "Sorry bitches, better luck next time." Because I didn’t understand what was being said, I don’t know what the conclusion was. Had anyone called for help? I have no idea. Later on, driving through a town, we passed by a guy and his mangled bicycle lying down in the middle of the road, with a crowd of people around him. What was the saying about bad things coming in threes? This trip was not going well!

I got to Tan Tan after ten excruciating hours on the road, the last five of them shivering with cold because the roof windows would not close. I was about to fall apart. Now I understood what the benefit of taking the slightly more expensive bus from a big company was… You didn’t have to freeze, pay “foreigner price” for the ticket, sit on the bus for an extra hour waiting for it to leave the station, or stare at blackened chewing gum on the seatback in front of you.

Additionally, the more expensive ticket also ruled out certain folks: like the woman a couple of seats behind me who kept coughing throughout the entire trip without covering her mouth, as if she wanted all of us to catch her tuberculosis, or the lady who decided to entertain us loudly with a selection of Quranic recitals in her cell phone. (However, I once missed a fancy "expensive" bus, all the while sitting in the air conditioned departure lounge, because I didn’t understand the announcement. With cheap companies, they just have a guy yelling the name of the destinatio. No need to study French to catch your damned bus.) I’d just about had it by the time I arrived and only wanted to crash in the nearest possible place. The $4 hotel near the bus station had filthy squat toilets and a sink with trickling water in the hallway, and “not exactly clean” sheets (or clean anything) in the room. It was the kind of place you would only stay in the case of emergency. I felt kind of ashamed when I woke up in the morning and realized I’d slept really well. I’m not sure what that says about me.

Click this map for larger easier to read imageI crawled from under my rock and got into a shared taxi at the bus station, with four people on the backseat and two in the front, as is the norm. The destination (the whole point of this mad long journey) was a mere two hours away. About an hour into the trip, I concluded that we had crossed the invisible border and left Morocco behind. Suddenly, I felt so thrilled! The suffering of the previous day had been worth it. I had made it to Western Sahara!

Look, if you don’t know anything about an aspiring country called Western Sahara, I don’t blame you; neither did I–until I got to Morocco. Back in Tangier, I had read some travel guides, to figure out what I should see once my work was done.

I had not known this piece of land (that appeared on most maps like uninhabited, empty desert governed by Morocco) was actually much more. People lived there, and it was the subject of a land dispute! How did this Arab African conflict go beneath my radar all this time? You can imagine how excited I became upon learning this.

Let me lay down some facts as briefly as I can, and you be the judge of this mess: Morocco gained independence from Spain and France in 1958. Western Sahara remained a Spanish colony until 1975. As Spain finally moved out, Morocco saw its chance. King Hassan II took his case for "Greater Morocco" to the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 1975,–but lost. The court had found few pre-colonial ties between Morocco and Western Sahara. It ruled that Sahrawis, the indigenous people of Western Sahara, were entitled to self-determination. A sore loser, Hassan II moved onto plan B, and took over the land anyway, and as a result, 350 000 Moroccan settlers moved in.

With his mighty military and a population of thirty plus million (the Sahrawi population in 1975 was around just 70,000), taking over the neighboring country would be a piece of cake. …or so he thought.

The king had severely misunderestimated the desert people. They wanted their freedom like the rest of the former colonies. A decades-long guerrilla war broke out between Morocco and Polisario (the Sahrawi pro-independence militia). Many Sahrawis escaped the fighting into Algeria, where they still remain in refugee camps in the desert. A ceasefire was brokered by the UN in 1991, and a referendum, for Sahrawis to choose either independence of integration with Morocco, was supposed to follow shortly after. A sand-wall known as the “berm” now divides the area into Moroccan controlled west and a small slice of Polisario controlled east. The Moroccan military planted landmines on the berm to prevent crossing. The other side of the berm is accessible through Algeria, neighbor of Western Sahara and its biggest ally but only to those accepted by Polisario. (Herein lies the reason why Algeria and Morocco are enemies, and the land border between the two is closed.) Western Sahara’s sovereignty is recognized by several countries. Many others, including all Scandinavian nations, recognize Polisario as the representative of the Sahrawi people, and have diplomatic relations with it.


So, with a court ruling, and some international support, what could be blocking the independence? They can’t make the referendum happen. The problem is voter eligibility. Morocco wants to include settlers in the election, and obviously, this condition is rejected by Polisario. Allowing everybody and their mother vote would mean an easy victory for Morocco; there are probably more Moroccan residents than Sahrawis in the desert these days, and most of them are military families. The government also lures people to move south with tax breaks and government subsidies on gasoline and other goods. The two sides return to the negotiation table every few years, but haven’t accomplished anything so far.

As in every armed conflict, this one, too, is about money. There is phosphate, offshore oil, and the land on the coast is suitable for agriculture with plenty of sun and water. The fishing industry is also profitable, and Morocco exports plenty of seafood from the area.

Who are the Sahrawis? (Sahrawi literally means Saharan, but to distinguish between the nationality and the adjective, Sah(a)rawi is used in English as well.) They may be Moroccan citizens for the time being, but that’s where the similarities end. By their own definition, they are Arabs and African people whose homeland is the desert. Ethnically, they are a mix of Berbers, and Yemeni Arabs who migrated there in the 13th century. They speak Hassani Arabic like Mauritanians, not Darija like Moroccans, and they follow a non-mosque-based form of Islam. They dress like Mauritanians. They are a desert people with a distinct culture and way of life.

Sahrawis dress

Ask any Moroccan about the status of Western Sahara, and you get the same predictable answer. They sound like children to me. "Our Dad said that’s our playground, so we can push the other kids aside." Ask them why Morocco should have the Western Sahara, and you’ll hear explanations that are as simple as they are uninformed. "Polisario is all Algerian, most Sahrawis don’t want independence." (That’s what they say on state television anyway.) "They are Muslim like Moroccans…they speak Arabic like Moroccans…they are Moroccans." (Other Arabs may beg to differ.) Also, what about Sebta and Melilla, the Spanish towns on the Mediterranean coast? They belong to Morocco too, naturally. You get the picture…

It was time to hear it from the Sahrawis themselves. Since the ladies were usually not so easily approached in traditional societies, I had to do the unthinkable: talk to random guys. Oh man! If I were going to be my usual suspicious self, I would get nothing out of this trip. I also wanted to talk to someone from the UN, to get that perspective. I went in with an open mind, not knowing what I would find.

One thing that every true traveler knows: The universe always delivers. This trip was a prime example of that. When you take a chance, and let go of control and plans, the planets align and bring you just what you need. You’ll be so glad you went.


My first stop was a town called Smara (pronounced Esmara). The taxi from Tan Tan unloaded at a gas station for a lengthy coffee break. Waiting for the ride to continue, I got bored and snapped a few pictures at the vast desert all around. Little did I know that up ahead there was a police checkpoint, the first of many, many, many.


At the checkpoint, everyone had to present their ID papers. Because I was a foreigner, I had to go inside the little office, where a policeman wrote down all the information on my passport. (Don’t be Spanish, by the way: Spain has been quite vocal about the fate of its ex-colony. If you are Algerian, you can forget it.)

He asked what my profession was, and I told him I was a school teacher. I had done my homework and was expecting all of this. (Wrong answers included journalist or aid worker, and anything in that neighborhood. Journalists and NGO’s are banned from Western Sahara.) Then, he asked to see the photos in my camera. He already knew I’d pointed my camera at the checkpoint, far away in the distance. (Word got around quickly.)

I showed him the photos, and he saw nothing in them except for the desert. I got back in the car and the trip continued. The same procedure repeated itself at another checkpoint a little later, minus the camera check.

Arriving in a desert town is a magical moment. After hours of empty, monotonous land, you know, desert, seeing a town emerge in the distance feels unreal, like a product of your imagination. (However, then a police checkpoint brings you back to reality.) To me, the desert is like a mystery to which I keep returning. Each time I return, I understand it slightly better but never can quite figure it out. I have lived in a couple of desert towns–like Dubai, Sharm el Sheikh and Las Vegas–but although I appreciate the beauty of nature, I struggle with its dry climate and salty water. I admire people who live in harmony with the desert–with it and not in spite of it.

Smara had the feel of a small town, if not a village. The buildings were old and rundown. The bus station was surrounded by dirt roads, but I quickly found the big paved commercial street and a hotel there. This place received virtually no tourists. I saw none during my two days there and everyone saw me. There were no nice hotels or real restaurants. The hotel had no rooms with a bathroom, so again, it was a shared squat-toilet and shower in the hallway. I didn’t care. I went out to find food, and my only option was street food with a few plastic tables as a seating area. I normally wouldn’t go to these places because they were the men’s domain, and didn’t really trust the food to be clean. However, it was either that or starve. Well, at least there were no other customers. I ate a chicken sandwich with salad, fully realizing that if I were trying to get food poisoning, this would be the exact thing I would have in this exact place. I was fine.

Chicken Sandwich
The best restaurant in Smara

Also, I began racially profiling people. I didn’t want to straight-up ask if they were Sahrawi or Moroccan, so I inquired every shop owner, or sandwich guy, if they were "from here". They would usually say which town in Morocco they were from. No surprise there. The ladies were easier to spot (or so I thought). Sahrawi women wore a melhafa, a colorful cloth wrapped around the head and the entire body. A much more practical garment in the desert than a black abaya! However, looks can fool you. I soon discovered that some Moroccan women wore them too. Still, there were tiny clues about who’s who.

A Moroccan woman was more likely to wear her melhafa like an outfit while a Sahrawiya, like the lady who would be sitting next to me on the front seat from Smara to Laayoune, had certain mannerisms. During the ride she kept covering and uncovering her face–an exceptional thing for a Muslim woman to do–depending if the sun was shining or the wind blowing, or if many men were around. The melhafa was not like the niqab, which normally stayed on once it was on. For Sahrawis, it was all about the elements. Men covered their faces, too, when in the desert. The clothing was something organic, like a part of the body.

After two nights in Smara, I'm waiting for the shared taxi to leave for Laayone (Al Ayoun), the major city in WS. The cat was keeping me company. The Sahrawi lady in the background sat on the front seat with me when we finally got going.
After two nights in Smara, I’m waiting for the shared taxi to leave for Laayone (Al Ayoun), the major city in WS.
The cat was keeping me company. The Sahrawi lady in the background sat on the front seat with me when we finally got going.

I walked around and took pictures. The usual: kids, doors, buildings, sneaky shots of women while pretending to be shooting something else, and they just happened to walk into my photo. At one doorstep, two teenage girls waved hello and asked, "How are you?" in English. I went over and to say hello. A little group gathered around to meet me, the exotic stranger. It turned out that "How are you?" was the extent of their English, but we chatted in Arabic and French. They proudly declared to be Sahrawis and not Moroccans; they didn’t like Moroccans, and they wanted me to know it. Two of the girls–who were dressed in Western clothes–offered to go for a walk with me. Another one, who wore a melhafa, told me that if she was to walk on the street with me, the police might stop us and ask them what they were doing with me. Really? Really! That’s how things were around here. I told them that if anyone asked, we would say that I got lost and they were showing me back to my hotel. Luckily no one did.

MosqueLater that night, I went to the shop across the street to buy water. "You don’t look like you’re from here", a man’s voice behind me said in clear English. I turned around to face a gray haired man in shorts. Maybe I wasn’t the only tourist in town after all…
"What, I don’t look like a Sahrawiya? What about you, are you from here?"
He laughed.
"No…actually I’m here with the UN."
"Oh, and how’s that going for you guys?" I replied with an unimpressed tone, not letting my excitement show on my face.

We began a conversation. The UN fellow, let’s call him Miguel, also introduced the shop owner, Ahmed, to me. Ahmed was a Sahrawi with a decent grasp of English. (I made a note to myself to come back later to talk to him.) Miguel probably hadn’t had a female companion for a while. He was desperate to continue the chat over a cup of coffee. I excused myself because it was "late" and I was "tired" but said I’d like a tour of Smara the next day, if he had time.

Was I a journalist? Of course not, just a harmless tourist. This puppy would tell me everything I wanted to know; I love being a woman.

The next day, I wandered out in the scorching afternoon heat to see the one sight in town, ruins of an old mosque. I couldn’t quite find it the first time around and ended up walking around a huge military base. I was playing with my camera, snapping away at whatever I thought looked semi-interesting. Soon enough, someone told me not to take photos around the military base. Fine. I found the ruins, took a couple of photos and had another chicken sandwich for lunch on the main street before returning to the hotel to cool off.

Slum kids

As the sun was going down I continued looking around. I thought I’d say hi to the girls I’d met the day before; I remembered the way to their house, but they weren’t home. I’m sure the kids to whom I spoke would tell them that I’d passed by, and maybe the girls would be happy to hear that. I continued walking and found myself on the edge of the town, on a street lined with low mud houses. Smara was far from fancy, but this place was just desolate, nothing like the rest of the town. Clearly it was the ghetto. I wanted to get a closer look and slowly walked down the dirt road into the slum. Men were sitting on the ground by the mud houses, and congregating around a couple of little shacks that served as shops. Some were dressed in Sahrawi clothes. When they saw me, all conversation stopped, and they just stared at me–completely bewildered. I said a couple of As-salam aleikum greetings to break the spell, to which they of course responded. I did not see a single woman; it was like no place I’d ever seen.

A few kids began following me, giggly and curious. I was dying to take photos, and finally pulled out my camera to take a picture of the children, my safest bet. Little did I know I’d just opened Pandora’s box.

Slum kidsDozens of kids began to run over, laughing and screaming, pushing each other to get close to me and the camera. A teenage boy approached me, and I took this as an opportunity to ask for permission to take pictures. I couldn’t make anything of his Arabic, and he tried to talk Egyptian back at me so I would understand. Meanwhile I turned on the video as we spoke, to memorialize this intense scene of children swarming around me, as taking photos in the midst of them seemed pretty hard. The boy walked around with me a little, telling me what pictures were okay to shoot. Holding my camera up high, beyond the kids’ reach, I took a few random snapshots of the streets and the houses. The children were getting more raucous by the second. They were just so insanely excited that an outsider was walking on their streets. I was probably the first white person they ever saw. The pushing and shoving around me intensified, and started to feel threatening. My purse, hair and butt became a target of tugging and pinching. I turned around and gave the kids behind me an angry face a few times, and finally raised my hand as if to slap a little boy who had just grabbed my ass in the most unpleasant, inappropriate, aberrant adult kind of way.

Nevertheless, the same continued as soon as I turned my back to what by now was an aggressive mob of children. The boy who was acting as my guide tried to control the kids the best he could, yelling at them every few seconds, but it didn’t do much. Clearly, it was time for me to leave. As the boy began escorting me away, a rock hit the back of my head. That did it–I burst into tears. He rushed me down to the main street, where I had come from, all the while intensely talking to me in a language I didn’t understand. I tried to offer him money for his assistance, which he refused strictly. The taxi took me away, and I wiped my face and rubbed the enormous aching bump in the back of my head wondering what had just happened.

It had gotten so out of control, so fast! I’d never had little kids get so nasty with me, anywhere, ever. I guess it was a case of childish curiosity mixed with a mob mentality. There were just so many of them, and they all wanted to be at the center of the action. I felt like a such wimp for letting a bunch of kids make me cry, and I hate how that ruins the (until now) spotless reputation of desert slum children.

Later on Miguel picked me up in his UN vehicle, and we drove around Smara for a bit. Again, I had to assure him I was not a reporter who was out to ruin his military career, just a little belly dancer. Fair enough. He explained that there was only one way to get in and out of Smara. If you tried to exit through another road, you would be turned back by the military. All traffic in and out of the town was tightly controlled. To Sahrawis, it seemed like the UN was useless, or even sided with Morocco. Indeed, whenever riots broke out and Moroccan forces beat or gunned down protesters, the UN just stood by and did nothing. They had no mandate to intervene in human rights abuses, the only such UN mission in the world. However, they patrolled the desert, and checked Moroccan army vehicles–Morocco wasn’t allowed to increase the number of weapons since the time of the 1991 ceasefire. In other words, the UN was there to make sure that Morocco couldn’t quSlum kidsietly wipe out the Sahrawis with no one watching. I wouldn’t put it past them.

We continued to walk around town and its busy market streets. There were plainclothes cops on every street corner, Miguel informed me. I told him about my confusion with some Moroccan women wearing Sahrawi clothing. He told me there were rumors that this was the work of the Moroccan government.

They did all they could to blur the line between a Moroccan and a Sahrawi. I wondered if the election would ever happen, after decades of limbo. Time was on Morocco’s side. The longer the Moroccans lived in Sahara, and the more Moroccans were born there, the more complex the issue of voter eligibility became.

After eating another street sandwich I said good night (as unfortunate as that may have been for Miguel). Soon after we had parted ways, he called me. A plainclothes cop had stopped him on the street to ask if I was a journalist, how well he knew me, what I was doing Smara, what we had talked about and so forth.

"They are watching you. Be very careful."

Still on the phone with him, I heard a knock on my door. I opened to see a tall man in a tracksuit. He showed me his badge, and I got off the phone.

"Francais? English?"

"English, please," I giggled.

The policeman went on to ask me twenty-one questions. He studied every page in my passport. We went over my Moroccan itinerary. I repeated my story of being a teacher. What did I teach, history? No, English. I was there just to see the place, admire the nature, and leave. The cop told me that for a tourist, I was taking too many pictures. A few photos were okay, as a memory from the trip, but I was overdoing it. He said that I was still welcome, but I had to be more careful and respectful. I kept asking where I’d gone wrong, to not repeat my mistake; I was curious whether this had anything to do with the slum incident. He didn’t want to give me a direct answer but finally dropped the word "military". Ah! "Why didn’t you just go to Agadir instead", the policeman sighed. He also warned me about the landmines by the berm. That was nice of him. Apparently, I seemed just the type who would go wandering in the desert alone. I said I didn’t want to die. By the time he asked if I was married, I knew I’d passed the test. I tried to be funny and made him laugh a little. We ended the conversation in pleasant terms.

True to my word, I left town the next afternoon, which was my plan anyway. It was time to check out the so-called capital. Luckily what happened in Smara had stayed in Smara, and I got through the checkpoints smoothly.


Part 2: The Morocco Tourists Don’t See:
Suspicion, Lifestyle, Wedding, & Rescue – Coming soon!

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  1. Evelyn Reece

    Aug 17, 2012 - 05:08:34

    I just returned from living in Morocco for over five years and this article is a very good account of the people and the attitudes there. Well done Zaina Brown!

  2. Anthea Kawakib

    Aug 27, 2012 - 04:08:46

    Thanks for writing your story, love reading about travel, especially in North Africa. Looking forward to more!

  3. Amaya Mattei

    Mar 28, 2013 - 07:03:49

    Well written!    Natural sounding, full of information. Really fascinating.  The henna pictures immediately made me realize the Mauritanian connection.   Ahh he power of symbols……..

  4. Ernesto

    Jul 27, 2017 - 05:07:16

    All very well said. About the people you talk to, unfortunately there’s no way to know if the nice guy who seems willing to tell you the truth about WS is not really an undercover Moroccan agent. I have to admit, after a couple days I could not trust anybody, no matter how straight they sounded. It does not help that the few clearly black people I spoke to -Saharawis can be black or “tan” but Moroccans are never fully black- were immigrants from other African countries.

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