Mariem Hassan

The voice of the Exile of Western Sahara

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mariam Hassan the Beauty of the desert

Mariem Hassan the music Diplomatic for the Saharawi people

Saharaui singer Mariem Hasan has become the representative voice for her exiled people throughout the world. After a number of collaborations with musicians from Africa and Europe, Deseo presents her in a more personal forum, accompanied by her brother Boika on guitar and percussionist Leila, under the direction of arranger and guitarist Baba Salama, three great musicians coming out of the refugee camps of Tinduf. The rough, bluesy sound is not unlike Tinariwen's 'desert blues' groove, but the voice of Hassan takes it all to a new level. These raw and wonderful songs speak of despair and hope, love and beauty in the face of hardship, and the acompaniment is equal to their force.

Mariem Biography

Mariem Hassan sings music from the Western Sahara. Her people are Saharawis living in exile on Algerian lands. The women singers are the pillars of the refugee camps. They articulate the social life, raise the children, and humanize their living conditions until they are able to elevate their community beyond mere survival during the years of their exile.
In a rare interview, translated from Spanish, Mariem talked about her music and her life: "When I began to compose I did not have no instrument with me, only a drum. A poet sees a woman and she describes it and she makes a poem, but I no, I do the things singing.
"When I have problems I say: Mulana (God), ay! The life is thus, if some has problems, if some is ill, some is dead, some lives well, some lives bad, some has problems with its family, its government, its work, the life follows. For example, if my husband is dead, have I died also? No, I must think now about living, and how they, my children, are going to live in the future."
After the Spaniards abandoned the Saharawi colony, the Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania. The Saharawi people fled to Algerian lands and founded the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic, recognized by 76 countries. These songs are their story.

Arab women of a different kind

El Ayoun Refugee Camp, Algeria - The sun chars everything to cinder around here. It's a barren, wind-lashed, inhospitable desert - hardly the place to raise children or much of anything else.
But thousands of Saharawis, cast here by political upheaval, have lived for the last 25 years in refugee camps in these wastelands of southwest Algeria. Against all odds, they have raised a nation-in-exile.
What's more remarkable is the society that's emerged, largely nurtured by women, stands out starkly from that of other Arab and Muslim peoples. Saharawi women have demanded and won equal rights. They receive full education, have work opportunities similar to men and can vote in elections held every four years.
On a personal level, marriage partners are freely chosen, women can initiate divorce, and contraception and abortion are permitted.
"We are proud to be women, proud to be Arabs, proud to be Muslim, but we do not intend letting anyone dictate to us how we should live our lives," Mariam Salek, culture minister in the Saharawi government-in-exile, told The Associated Press.
The Saharawis, descendants of nomadic tribes, live in tent cities that sprouted when they fled their neighbouring Western Sahara homeland after Morocco annexed the 285 000sq km land at the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1976.
Morocco still insists it is the rightful ruler of the territory, which is rich in phosphates, and says Saharawis are simply Moroccans.
To assert their claim, Saharawi men formed the Polisario militia - the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia de Hamra and Rio de Oro, the regions of the former Spanish Sahara. They fought a 15-year insurgency, something of a Cold War conflict since their allies in the battle against US-backed Morocco were often radical states such as Algeria, Libya and Cuba.
Today, a 10-year-old, UN-forged cease-fire is holding while debate drags on over the terms of an independence referendum. The Saharawis are resisting attempts to have Moroccans who've moved to the territory given the right to vote.
The latest mandate for UN peacekeepers ends later this month, and the Saharawi men are again on patrols, ready for a possible return to war. It reminds Salek of earlier days when women organised the first camps while men did the fighting.
"With men at the front, we had to invent a social organisation," she said.
In those days, the main task was not to succumb to the temptation to return to territory under Moroccan control or disperse and integrate into Algeria or neighbouring Mauritania.
"When we first came here there was nothing, absolutely nothing," said Mariam Hassan who at 16 fled the Western Sahara city of Smara hundreds of kilometres to the east and escaped by foot from the Moroccans.
"At night, we used to unwrap our shawl dresses and, with some sticks, we'd set up tents to shelter the children," said Hassan, a leading Saharawi singer who lost three brothers in the war. Now 41, she has five children, all born in the camps.
The Saharawi camps are named after the four main cities of the Western Sahara - El Ayoun, Smara, Dhakla and Aoussert - and the refugees are distributed according to their origins.
Built on parched, sandy land, the settlements have mushroomed into virtual cities with a population of some 200 000. They lack running water and draw electricity from solar-powered car batteries, but are models of organisation, divided into districts with "town halls" run by the women.
Women are 56 percent of the electorate and have seven deputies in the 51-seat Parliament. Salek's appointment last year as the first woman minister in President Mohammed Abdelaziz's Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic was seen as recognition of the women's achievements.
Salek said she felt the Saharawis were "unique and very advanced" compared to the rest of the Arab world.
"In so many countries, women almost don't exist," she said. "They're not allowed to vote or do so many things, they have no basic rights. There is nothing the Saharan men can do that women cannot.
"Much still needs to be done to further the equality, but the problem now is with ourselves, our own self confidence as women, not with men, laws or the government," said the 36-year-old Salek.
The Saharawis' economy has not kept pace with their politics, however. They remain almost totally reliant on United Nations aid and contributions from friendly nations. Besides some mud-brick structures, the camps consist of thousands of single-room tents, the vast majority UN-supplied. Each family is entitled to a tent and a milk goat.
Money has little function in the camps since there is not much to buy or sell. Work in the schools, hospitals and communal farms is carried out on a co-operative basis.
Food is rationed, and the daily diet consists of semolina or legumes and tinned fish, along with bread, goat's milk and the traditional green tea and mint of Arab society.
Warts on children's faces and the stains on their teeth point to widespread nutritional problems, but no one goes hungry.
Perhaps the Saharawis' most ambitious achievement has been in education. Under Spanish colonial rule, an estimated 90 percent of Saharawis were illiterate. Now, virtually everyone can read and write, most speak one or two foreign languages and many are trained as doctors, nurses, mechanics or technicians.
"From the beginning, we were aware that we must have as many children as possible but we must also educate them. Otherwise, our race would disappear," said Maarouf Bud-da, 29, a soldier who studied in Havana, Cuba, for 11 years.
The average Saharawi family has five or six children. Boys and girls attend camp schools until age 12 when, with few exceptions, they are sent to study in politically friendly countries. After completing high school or college, most return to the camps or join the army.
The revolution has bolstered the Saharawis' pride and helps to explain why they have shown themselves such formidable foes despite their small numbers.
"The fact that we have survived these past 25 years of suffering and sacrifice in the desert refutes Morocco's claim that the Saharawis do not exist as a separate people," President Abdelaziz said in February, marking the 25th anniversary of his Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.
While the Saharawis have built a liberal society in exile, some fear their women's achievements may be washed away should they get back home. Salek insists that won't happen.
"When we get independence and a normal country, we won't let men cut back the role we play," she said. "Besides we don't believe they will try."

Interview with Saharawi Singer Mariem Hassan

“We have our language (Hassania, closely related to the Berbers of Mauritania). The Mauritanians have the same music that we do but ours is more modern. They have the haul (aboriginal rhythm and form) as we do. Our songs are different because we talk of our problems since we fled from the Sahara, songs of the children crying because their fathers went to war and never came back. They talk about the women whose husbands and fathers went to war, never to return, they talk about the deaths, of life, of politics, of god, of our land to which we hope to return. I have a song about my brothers. It’s called “Tus Ojos Lloran” (Your Eyes Cry) and talks about my brothers and my father. One afternoon, in a rehearsal, a friend of mine came. She called me away to tell me that my brothers were dead. So, I cried and after that I started to sing. When I wrote the song, I thought of my brothers, in the time we lived in the Sahara, climbing the mountain with them, entering our jaima with them, talking with them, living with them, and I ask myself “where are they?After the Spaniards abandoned the Saharawi colony, the Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania. The Saharawi people fled to Algerian lands and founded the S.D.A.R. (Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic, recognized by 76 countries).
The Mauritanian perseverance ceased, but even today, we are waiting for a referendum on the land, occupied by the Moroccan government. The Saharawis confronted the military occupation, but the Moroccan army superiority brought many deaths to the Saharawis.When I have problems, I say: “Mulana (God), help me.” Life is like that. If someone has problems, if someone is ill, someone is dead, someone lives well, someone lives badly, someone has problems with his family, his government, his work, life goes on. For example, if my husband died, did I die too? No, I have to think about how I should live and how my children are going to live in the future. That’s how it is.You, the Westerners, have walls to hang your portraits. We, instead, live in cloth tents. When it rains, the water gets in the tent and wets the mats and everything. When it is cold, it’s really cold. (In the desert, temperatures can reach below freezing point.) Most of the people have nothing to heat the tents with. When it’s hot, it can reach over 43 degress Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) and that makes life really hard.We cook all the dry foods: lentils, beans, and things like that because they last longer. Then we go to the wells to look for the water to cook it. The water is really salty, but that’s what there is. We make the bread, the food and everything with the hands and we all live inside the jaimas, the mother, the father, the children and the one who comes to visit.When I started to compose, I didn’t have an instrument with me, only a drum. Before, we sat in circles and sang for ourselves but each year we do more things. We go out and do it differently. Now we gather Shueta, Mudleila (Saharawi singers) and me, together with two guitar players and compose. But when I’m alone, I compose only with a drum. I do the lyrics and then the music, like this, until the song comes out. Sometimes it works well, sometimes badly, like this. I only write the lyrics. The music is by heart.A poet sees a woman, and describes her and makes a poem, but I don’t, I do things singing. Before the war, we did songs of love and beautiful things but the war and the lack of our land made us talk of more important thingsabout the kids, the martyrs, the war.The haul has really strict rules of memory and interpretation. The contemporary singers usually write the lyrics but the rest of it is still being done in the old way. The accompaniment is with the tebal, a drum of about 60 centimeters in diameter, made of a dug out wooden bowl and leather from the skin of a camel or goat. It is played with the hands, almost exclusively by women, producing a dry and deep sound at the same time.From its origin, they used the tidinit, an instrument of dug out wood and a leather lid, similar to a four-stringed guitar. Since some time ago, the guitar is used in the songs because of its harmonic richness. It’s interpreted from the forms of the tidinitthat’s why it sounds so different and is especially difficult for the Westerner, accustomed to the classical guitar.When I sing for someone different than my people, I feel happy, always happy. And when the audience applauds, I do it better, with more joy. I was married two times. My first husband didn’t want me to sing or to do these cultural things. When I got married, it was in the old wayhe talks with my family, my brothers, but not with me. I gave him three sons but I didn’t like his attitude. He didn’t like me to do anything, neither singing, nor working in the wilaya, so I told him that I couldn’t continue this way. Then, he signed a letter saying that he released me because the woman cannot separate from the men by Islamic law (Sharia).But I chose my present husbandfirst you have to build the love and then the rest. We participate in everything the men do because our Islam is easy, it’s not an imposed Islam. I travel many time out of the wilaya, to different countries and my husband sees it as normal. When I return I go back to my other work, as a nurse. I always think of returning to the occupied Sahara. I only think of return.