November Books 24-27) Four Books on Western Sahara

24) Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King
25) Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, by Tony Hodges
26) Endgame in the Western Sahara, by Toby Shelley
27) Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate, by Erik Jensen

Three of these books are about the conflict in Western Sahara since 1975. The first, however, is an account of a group of American sailors who were shipwrecked off the Saharan coast in 1815, captured and enslaved by the locals, and how their captain and a few of his crew eventually made it to freedom, being bought out by the British consul at Essaouira (“Swearah”) in Morocco. The captain, James Riley, and one of his crewmen published accounts of their journey and captivity after they had got back which were apparently widely read in early nineteenth-century America, the young Abraham Lincoln citing Riley’s as one of the six most important books he had read as a child.

King has filleted the published accounts of Riley and his colleague Robbins, and added a considerable amount of circumstantial and historical detail and his best guesses as to where the incidents described actually took place – no mean feat since we are talking hundreds of miles of pretty featureless desert, and he needs to make some fairly heroic corrections to Riley’s sense of direction. The last book I read to take this approach – essentially a modern spin on nineteenth-century texts – was that rather awful biography of Fanny Kemble; this time round, the author makes it work, though I did wish that we got a little more than odd scraps of the original writing from which he is drawing.

The descriptions of the desert, as it is now and was then, and of the physiological effects of dehydration and exposure to extreme climate are gripping, and there is also the human drama of the Americans’ negotiations for freedom. I was a bit surprised that King draws no particular parallel between the brutal treatment of the Americans by their captors, and of the treatment of slaves in the contemporary United States, though he does mention that Riley in later life became a fervent abolitionist. The point was obviously not lost on the young Abraham Lincoln though.

The other three books all deal with the conflict between Morocco and the indigenous Polisario Front in Western Sahara since the Spanish pulled out of their colony in 1975, reneging on their promise to hold a referendum (said referendum has now been mandated by the UN but has yet to be held). Hodges’ book, a totally comprehensive guide to the region’s history, was published in 1983, since when the world has changed but Western Sahara remains in much the same state. Shelley’s book is from 2004, and is basically a political overview of the state of play then. Jensen’s is an insider account; he was head of the UN mission to organise the referendum for four years.

While of course, the narrative is basically one of powerful Morocco being allowed to oppress the much weaker Sahrawis and exploit their territory’s mineral resources with the tacit blessing of the international community (ie primarily the US, France and Spain). so one of grand sweeping historical forces, I was struck by two moments where human contingency appeared in the narrative, where the potential for a better outcome was missed because the key individuals were distracted by other questions.

The first of these moments was on 17 October 1975, when the Spanish cabinet was meeting to discuss details of their withdrawal and the extent to which they could resist Morocco’s imminent invasion. If General Franco, who had been in power for over forty years, had been able to focus on the question, and stay clearly in control of the process, I can imagine that some kind of formal handover to the locals might have been possible rather than the messy situation which the Spanish left behind them. As it was, Franco was taken ill at the cabinet meeting, and spent the next five weeks slowly dying; Spanish policy was to a large extent on autopilot, and Spain’s policy-makers operating in an environment of extraordinary uncertainty.

The second moment was at the end of Javier Perez de Cuellar’s term as Secretary-General of the United Nations in late 1991, when the Security Council had a characteristic last-minute burst of activity. John Bolton, now of course the reviled US Ambassador to the UN, stated in 1998 (quoted by Shelley and extensively by Jensen) that there was a clear choice to be made in those last few days of the year between bedding down the UN’s work on Central America or addressing the Western Sahara issue; and for the US, of course, there was no question as to which was more important. But had Nicaragua and Guatemala been quieter at the time (which would, of course, have required a large set of preconditions) perhaps late 1991 could have been a kind of Dayton moment, when the international community as a whole might had brought its collective will to bear. If this is part of a regular sixteen-year cycle, the next window of opportunity will be in late 2007.

Otherwise, the three contemporary accounts are a depressing reminder of the ineffectiveness of the international system at defending the rights of the weak against the strong. Nobody will lean on Morocco, which portrays its oppression as part of the fight against Islamic terrorism (rather than as part of the fight against Communism, which was its line twenty years ago). The Polisario Front have done pretty much everything the international community asked of them, in terms of calling a ceasefire and cooperating with various international efforts, and have received very little in return. Jensen, charged with running the referendum for the United Nations, doubts that anyone (especially among the international community) was ever sincere about holding it, let alone enforcing the results. Shelley is rather more passionate, but unfortunately less coherent – his book could have done with more vigorous editing.

Anyway, there is plenty of work to do here.

One thought on “November Books 24-27) Four Books on Western Sahara

  1. From the Gaiman link, with my [[ comments ]].

    For a start, I had become infected by the idea that there are an infinite number of worlds, only a footstep away.

    [[ Just round the corner, someone said in the first book of Narnia. ]]

    And another part of the meme was this: some things are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.

    [[ Said in the last book of Narnia. ]]

    But in the idea that there are worlds under this one, and that London itself is magical, and dangerous, and that the underground tunnels are every bit as remote and mysterious and likely to contain Yeti as the distant Himalayas was something, author and critic Kim Newman pointed out to me, while Neverwhere was screening, that I probably took from a Troughton-era story called “The Web of Death”.

    [[ And that writer, perhaps from Chesterton and Charles Williams. ]]

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