One deliciously sweet yet nutritious snack you surely won’t miss out on in the Saharawi camps is a handful of dates, often dipped in a homemade sort of goat butter. While there are many choices of treat for the ever-hospitable Saharawi people to honor their guest with, dates (Arabic: atmar) are a favorite because of their deep meaning to Saharawis and in the Arab world generally.
In Islam, the majority religion of the region, dates and the date palms on which they grow are very symbolic. They represent abundance, power and faith, among other virtues. This meaning is not exclusive to Islam, as even in Judaism and Christianity, dates and date palms show up in the scriptures as having special significance.
In addition to dates being a common treat offered to guests in Saharawi homes, like other offerings of hospitality such as several rounds of tea, lotion and perfume, they play a crucial role in the Saharawi observance of their Islamic faith. During the month of Ramadan, when they join with all Muslims worldwide to fast from dawn to dusk, the daily fast is always broken first with a date. When celebrating weddings or the birth of children, dates are always available and each person should be sure to partake in this gracious gift of the hosts to their whole community.
At first thought, we may not think of words like ‘abundance’ or ‘power’ when considering people who have been refugees in the inhospitable desert for decades. But as the date palm can thrive in the harshest of environments, and still symbolize these characteristics, so do the Saharawi people. While their material resources are few, their generosity is abundant. Their love and dedication to all those they encounter is abundant. Their hope for a peaceful and just solution to their situation is powerful. And their faith is demonstrated through it all.
“Even if you are on your way out of the house and have somewhere to go – if you see someone coming over for a visit, you welcome them. You make them tea. You bring them food. You make sure they are taken care of.”
Nothing comes before honoring and respecting people in Saharawi culture. When a kind man in his 50s told me about this expectation of hospitality above all else, my Western mind really struggled to make sense of it. What if someone were on their way to something important, like a doctor’s appointment, or their job? Yet even that question revealed the deeper values at play, and the difference in priorities between my culture and his. In Saharawi culture, the guest would come before even the doctor’s appointment or job in terms of ‘importance.’
This is just one of many examples of the difference between a communal culture and an individualistic culture. The individualistic culture would leave much allowance and understanding if someone had to make sacrifices on relational grounds for the sake of their individual pursuits. The value we place on punctuality in our jobs, keeping tabs on our health and well-being, and working toward our goals can make it hard to really invest in our community and be available for the people in our lives. In communal cultures, people are interdependent and the expectation is often that relationships and helping one another would take precedence over other sorts of responsibilities.
Each type of culture certainly has its benefits and its limitations, and those aspects would be perceived differently from people of different cultures. One is not necessarily ‘more right’ than the other, and they work because everyone’s expectations and values are shaped to some extent by that culture in which they were raised. Yet taking time to deeply consider the values from the opposite type of culture opens up a great window to grow. As someone from an individualistic culture, hearing about the extent to which Saharawi people care about the people around them prompted me to examine how I personally balance my individual responsibilities and my relationships. Hopefully this examination will help me to be more cognizant about how I value my community in the future, because we individuals need our people more than we often acknowledge.
Living in isolation in the least habitable part of the Sahara Desert proves no match for the Saharawi people’s ability to connect with the world at large. One might believe, seeing a group of people who still enthusiastically embrace their historical traditions, dress and values, that they would have no interest in what is going on outside their society. But in the case of the Saharawi, that assumption could not be further from the truth. One way in which they invest much time and energy into being able to connect with the rest of the world is by diligently studying English.
Several of the Saharawi refugee camps have adult-level English programs, and each year tens of graduates celebrate the four-plus years they poured into learning this foreign language while balancing their other work and family responsibilities. As each person’s story is different, Saharawi people have various personal reasons for studying English, but some themes exist that unite their motivations and highlight deeper shared desires.
Many months into the COVID world-shutdown, English students in the refugee camps have been without their classes for a long time – some since March. Yet when I recently asked a handful of students why they study English, the reasons resembled responses I’ve heard before, and the enthusiasm has not died away with time. Among these responses a theme arose – connection. Students stressed the idea that English is the language of the world, and that they desire both to share of themselves with people in every place, and to learn about others. While relegated to one of the most isolated places on Earth, these people want anything but isolation. They will not be left out of the world’s inter-connected functioning, and rightly so. The Saharawi people have so much to offer the world community, and even though they’ve been robbed of their homeland from which to connect to wider humanity, they will not be stopped.
Time seems to stand still in the mid-day sun that bleaches the tan surroundings white with its oppressive light. The refugee camps take on an eerie quietness at this time of day, that hints at the 45 years of ‘quietness’ in response to the Saharawi people’s peaceful pursuit of justice. Yet while the waiting gives the impression that exile here is timeless, the regular distribution of international aid serves as a symbol of the ticking clock. The gas cans that are laboriously rolled down sandy paths every month remind the residents of how many months have added up to 45 years of monotony. 45 years of lack of progress toward the justice they deserve. 45 years of estrangement from their homeland and their families.
While the rest of the world has experienced just a taste of this – of options being taken away, of monotony, of being trapped, of the unknown – let’s remember that the Saharawi have been in this position we’re temporarily experiencing for 45 years. That’s several generations who have known nothing but this waiting period. If you have extra time on your hands these days, consider using some of it to tell others about the Saharawi cause. Share blog posts, share news articles, follow Not Forgotten International on Facebook, check out some of the other Facebook pages we share there. We’re committed to making sure that the passing time and endless routines don’t erase these people and the injustices committed against them.
Everything in the Hamada of the Sahara Desert seems to be against the chances of a seed sending out roots, finding nourishment and sustaining life – the beating sun, dry ground and temporary nature of its settlers being just a few of those things. Yet some Saharawis have been able to cultivate gardens and see life thrive in spite of that, teaching us all some very important lessons through their efforts.
Those who have undertaken the challenge to grow produce in the Saharawi camps have had their fair share of setbacks and have had to persist in the face of many hardships because of the value they see in their gardens. In addition to the adversaries mentioned above, they regularly deal with goats getting into their plants, water shortages, and sometimes their neighbors’ pessimism. They also have to wrestle with what this sort of project means for their outlook on living in the refugee camps – does causing plants to send down roots into this sand mean that they are accepting this temporary location as home? Agriculturalists I conversed with would say no – they don’t see a conflict between making the best of the current situation but being ready at the drop of a hat to go home.
Home-grown produce is valuable not only for improving the bland diet provided by humanitarian aid, but it opens people’s eyes to the fact that some things they have always considered impossible might just be within their reach. It adds color and life and new scents and flavors to an other wise bland landscape, and reminds the people of the color and life that they themselves contribute to their world.
The entire peaceful yet committed endurance the Saharawi people have shown as a whole over their 45 years of exile is the ultimate picture of thriving against all odds, and these gardens are a tangible symbol of that.
NFI’s desire over the decades of our involvement with the Saharawi people has been to help unheard, forgotten, ignored voices to be heard. We pursue those goals through advocacy – using our own voices on their behalf – and teaching English – so they can share their story in a language the world understands. Yet the ultimate goal is not just to add their voices to the soundscape of the world, but that the world would be reminded of some significant gaps in justice and be moved to address them.
The recently unfolding events of our own country have brought to the forefront another set of voices that have largely gone unnoticed for far too long. These are the voices that have principally experienced a long history tainted with racism, violence and an oppressive system, and they are coming together now, refusing to be ignored any longer. These voices are afraid, angry, grieving – and they have been for as long as they can remember. Our country is filled with people whose stories some of us can’t even begin to imagine, partly because we’ve refused to listen and consider what they have to say.
To anyone reading this who has not been personally affected by racial inequality (I, the writer, fall into this camp), please consider finding someone who has, even if you find just a story on the internet. There are plenty. Regardless of your convictions about protest or police, nothing can improve in our nation until we stop assuming our experience is the same as ultimate reality and start listening to others.
I have been attempting that just over the last few years and can promise you that it is worth it. While there have been difficult things to wrestle with about the society that has been so good to me and about myself, ultimately my experience is so much richer, my love for others so much more real, because of it. So please, don’t overlook or discredit the voices telling you things that are hard to hear. Listen. Wrestle. And let’s unite to push our country to be good for everyone involved. NFI stands for the dignity of all and we continue to push for listening to stories that are not like our own.