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Reviewed by:
  • Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation
  • Randa Farah (bio)
Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation, by Pablo San Martin . Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010. $90 cloth; $35 paper.

This fascinating and informative book written by a Spanish scholar makes a special contribution to those interested in the unresolved conflict in Western Sahara, colonialism and/or nationalism.

The book opens with a reflection on the "collective amnesia" (p. 3) which accompanied Spain's transition to democracy; the silence also shrouded its colonial project in Western Sahara. This point is particularly poignant considering that Spanish descendents of Franco's victims have been clamoring for public acknowledgement, and for the unearthing of buried memories and bodies. Yet, the Spanish government has failed to take political and moral responsibility towards its former colony; Western Sahara's history and predicament remain largely obscured in the arid African desert.

The author correctly contends that the histories of Spain and its African colonies are ineluctably concatenated. In August 1898, Spain lost its Caribbean and Pacific colonial domains, which aroused the desire of the Spanish elites to consider Africa as the new "space of possibilities" (p. 17). By the early 20th century, the Rif in northern Morocco became a Spanish Protectorate. Rifian resistance resulted in a vengeful Spanish army and a new class of Spanish Africanists, among them Francisco Franco. Franco would later transform "Spanish Sahara," under Spanish colonialism from 1884-1976, into a large military garrison.

Spain was reluctant to abandon its colony with its rich phosphate mines and lucrative fishing industry. Over time, the majority of the Sahrawis had settled in urban centers, a source of cheap labor living in segregated towns. The book is scattered with little gems such as the recollections of older Sahrawis of the awakenings of national consciousness in the 1960s, along with the music of the Beatles and Jimmy Hendrix.

Since 1973, the Polisario Front led the Sahrawi national anti-colonial movement, but hopes for independence were thwarted when Morocco invaded the Territory in 1976, joined for a few years by Mauritania. The invasion forced approximately half the Sahrawi population to seek refuge in Algeria's uninhabitable desert. In 1991, the UN-sponsored a ceasefire and planned to supervise a referendum which never took place.

The author contends that historical circumstances compelled the Polisario and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, the state-in-exile) to commence with the second phase of its liberation aims before the first, that is, before taking power. In camps, SADR prepared for the future independence, built national institutions, and a democratic society based on equal citizenship. Invoking Lacan, the author contends there is a continuous tension between the process of Sahrawi nation-building and its inherent impossibility, yet the routine encounter with this impossibility generates the desire to change the situation (p. 125).

Education and "Hispanization" (p. 147) [End Page 514] in the camps are key themes tackled by the author. Refugees who studied in Cuba significantly contributed to a "Hispanization" process, animated cultural life, and clashed with a "traditional" society. The author's discussion here could be misinterpreted as a teleological view, whereby "tradition" is seen as stagnant and oppositional to a Hispanic dynamic culture. In interviews I conducted in 2007, some graduates from Cuba renounced their "Cuban ways." Our two different conclusions are not contradictory: San Martin's "Hispanic" background encouraged responses that highlighted Hispanic connections, while my background (my mother-tongue is Arabic) empahisized its Sahrawi Arab and Islamic identity.

The author examines the period of political stagnation (1991-present), which propelled the growth of markets in the camps. Using spatial analysis, he notes that the crucial challenge for SADR today is to successfully navigate between collective mobilization and equal distribution of wealth on one hand, and a free market that threatens social cohesion and creates social cleavages on the other. This is an interesting question discussed by other writers, some of whom argue that markets do not necessarily threaten the national struggle (see Farah, 1 Mundy 2 ).The author concludes that everything in the camps is precarious, that nothing can be fully achieved, and that nothing is normal for Sahrawis until independence.

I highly recommend this book for its...


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pp. 514-515
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