Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Boogie Desert Nights

Newsweek International  April 4, 2005


After a bumpy flight from Madrid to the military airport in Tindouf, Algeria, we jammed ourselves and our backpacks into an antique bus, along with bulky cases containing film projectors and medicines. We passed through an Algerian Army checkpoint, then headed into the pitch black of the Sahara.

Ninety minutes later our headlights lit up Ausserd, one of four refugee camps near the border with Morocco. This collection of tents and mud huts is home to 40,000 Bedouin nomads, the Saharawi, who fled the Moroccan Army when the Spanish abandoned their colonies in the Western Sahara in 1975. They have lived as refugees ever since, subsisting on international aid in an inhospitable land where temperatures often hit 55 degrees Celsius and wealth is a dwelling with electric light-powered by a car battery. Former U.S. secretary of State James Baker tried for seven years to broker a self-rule agreement for the Saharawi but could never budge the Moroccans, supported by the French. He gave up, and the Saharawi remain in limbo.

Hence the idea for the Sahara Film Festival, a bid by a group of Spanish filmmakers to draw attention to the Saharawi's forgotten cause. Gathering on the windblown western desert last month, the event drew some 400 film buffs (and sightseers like me) who wanted to see conditions here firsthand. The fare was mostly Spanish, including the Oscar-winning "The Sea Inside," as well as entries from Cuba, India, Senegal and Denmark.

If the Saharawi seemed glad to have the attention, they were happier for the diversion of the films themselves. For many, this would be only the second time they had ever seen a movie, the first time being last year's inaugural festival. The films were shown at night, beneath the star-filled sky, on a huge outdoor screen-a drive-in with camels and goats, as it were. Saharawi men, women and especially children sat in the sand, rapt. "We are the sea inside the desert," quipped a Saharawi radio journalist, Mehdi Abedraman, as he watched an outside world rarely if ever glimpsed. When one mildly erotic scene provoked excited hoots and hollers from the crowd, tribal elders stopped the screening. After animated discussion, it resumed-once the children were shooed away.

The film types were predictably thrilled with their desert adventure and soon went about in Saharawi chic-brightly colored scarves and robes for the women, black turbans for the men. Everybody, the film stars included, bunked with Saharawi families. Food was rice or couscous, served with what might have been camel. The refugees had gone all out for their visitors. Food can be scarce here, along with everything else. In the heat of the day, the family I stayed with crowded into the relative cool of their mud house, barefoot on the rug floor. Out came a portable cassette player and the women and girls danced, usually to Arab music but often to Latin salsa. I didn't learn much about Saharawi dancing, but they did manage to teach me to say "Aneh okut!" That means "I'm lost," which I often was in the camp's featureless maze of makeshift abodes and seemingly directionless "streets."

The festival ended with an awards ceremony. The winner for best film, Senegalese director Moussa Sene Absa, was presented with a white camel. Not a statue, but an actual albino dromedary. After many thanks and a bit of a ride around, he graciously announced he would donate it to his hosts.

All Material Copyright Samuel Loewenberg