In Macedonia they sing of Alexander the Great. The Yoruba of Nigeria sing of the warrior king Onikoyi. In Western Sahara they sing of the folk heroes who have struggled and are struggling now for statehood while the world ignores them.
In 1975 Morocco invaded Western Sahara. Since then, half of the population have been left to rot in refugee camps. The UN has singularly failed to help, becoming mired in geopolitical issues involving Morocco, Mauritania and ex-colonial power Spain, and then succumbing to the usual indifference when there’s no prize – oil, gold, minerals – to be won. Indeed, the plight of Western Sahara is barely known in the west.
At least Noam Chomsky knows about it. He told an audience in Gaza:
“The Arab Spring began in November 2010 when the people of Western Sahara revolted against their Moroccan occupiers. The uprising was crushed by Moroccan troops.”
But, as usual, his is almost a lone voice in the west. How fitting then that Sam Berkson, a British poet, and Mohamed Suleiman, a visual artist and translator, were able to visit the region, befriend local poets and then translate their work for a wider audience, thereby bringing the two cultures together.
How fitting and how challenging. Berkson, who does not speak Arabic, went on two trips to the region. There he recorded local poets reciting their verses. Suleiman wrote the words down and the two of them went through the laborious process of trying to make poems in English from the originals. It was a process of back-and-forth, of listening to tone as well as words, and of constant questioning as to meaning and intention.
Berkson writes: “Eventually, we would have a draft of a fairly literal translation, splattered with asterisks, footnotes, transliterations in Roman alphabet, alternative readings.”
Remarkably, the spirit of the poems comes through. The work is more political and declamatory than literary, but even shorn of the performance and the immediate context, the poems are appealing and occasionally stirring. Here’s a taut, economical poem called “The Berm” (a berm is a military wall) by Al Khadra:
The King built the Berm
staking his claim behind landmines and snares
but the army evaded it
and together took back
what was already theirs
Most of the work by the Western Saharan poets consists of homages, as above, to those involved in the struggle, and the book is organized into sections such as “War” and “Heroes.” At times, the translation lacks consistency in tone, mixing the heroic with bland phrases like “‘we stand opposed to your brutal attitude'” and “it’s my firm opinion that you should be with them!” Such problems attest to the difficulties in translating work that belongs to an oral tradition.
Part Two, which consists of original poems by Berkson, while similarly stirring, is artistically more successful. The voice is fully fledged and the poems full of telling detail: “Berlin 1884./Epauletted men recline in mahogany chairs” (from “Landscape”); “Squares of light across the carpeted floor/hint at that glasstop glare/ of the engulfing desert” (from “Tea with Beyibouh”). Of these poems, I particularly enjoyed “Friday Afternoon in Smara” and “Landscape”, a poem about the region’s history that somehow manages to evoke both W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.
In addition to the poems, the book contains evocative artwork by Sulaiman and excellent introductory essays by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, Mustafa Kattaba, and Berkson. The essays provide the background to both the region’s troubles and to the project that culminated in Settled Wanderers (Influx Press, 2015).
Overall, the book strikes me as more than a poetry collection and less than a critical history. As a hybrid, it works. It’s an invaluable primer for raising awareness of the people of Western Sahara – their struggle and the poetry that both commemorates and supports it.