War in the Sahara

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Upon arriving in Morocco in 1984, I tried to educate myself in the history of the country. Being pretty simple-minded, I bought a French-language graphic novel (obviously intended for children) called “Once Upon A Time: King Hassan II.” It was the life-story of the then king of Morocco, Hassan II, beginning with a short history of modern Morocco and continuing with his saintly father Mohammed V, Hassan’s own accession to the throne, various assassination attempts (great for a children’s book, eh?), and something called “The Green March.”

Never heard of it?

Well, Spain used to own a big chunk of the Sahara south of Morocco. It pulled out in the 1970s, leaving pretty much nothing behind. The neighboring countries – Morocco, Algeria, Mauretania – all squabbled over it. The meager local population – Bedouins and Berbers – sort of wanted to be independent (which is to say they mostly wanted to be left alone).

Hassan II marched a bunch of Moroccans (not military, just ordinary folks) into the area, to establish that the former Spanish Sahara had always been and was now and forever part of Morocco.

As you can imagine, a war broke out. It was never a very hot war, but it flickered on and off for many years. (It still flickers.) Algeria and Mauretania were of course delighted to help the Sahroui rebels (who united under the name “Polisario”). Hassan had a nasty little war on his hands – and, if you accept that the Western Sahara was part of Morocco, it was a civil war.

Kenitra, where I lived in 1984 and 1985, is in northern Morocco, and is the home of a very large air-force base. One morning in summer 1984, I woke to feel the whole house trembling. I looked out the window to see whole squadrons of planes flying south.

Later that day, I went to Casablanca by train to visit some American friends. “We went to Fez the other day on the train,” they said, “but we were delayed for more than an hour, because a bunch of troop trains were in our way.”

A few days after that, I was reading the International Herald Tribune when I saw the following item: “Massive rebel offensive in the Western Sahara.”

Well, no kidding!

We heard later that the news of the rebel offensive arrived in Rabat while the king was playing golf. His servants were under orders not to disturb the king during a game, so the military attache was hopping up and down at the edge of the course while the king finished his eighteen holes.

One of my Peace Corps friends was at the time assigned to a town in the deep south, close to the Sahroui border, in a town called Tan Tan. According to him, it was dismal: dry, forlorn, desolate. (He described a man whipping a poor forlorn donkey to death in the street.) Finally my friend left town with a crazy American paramilitary, who, as his guardian angel, probably saved his life, because the Polisario pretty much flattened Tan Tan shortly afterward.

I got to know the paramilitary guy after that. He was pretty amazing. The front license plate on his car was completely illegible, because driving at 90mph through the Moroccan desert had erased it. He was also very nice.

And he saved my Peace Corps friend’s life, I think.

So, kids: did you know about this war?

And, if not, what does this tell you about the American educational system, and the American media?

I’m just sayin’.

Start watching BBC, if you know what’s good for you. There’s a whole big fractious world out there that you don’t know the half of.

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About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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