Oral History in the Palestinian and Sahrawi Contexts: A Comparative Approach[

Oral History in the Palestinian and Sahrawi Contexts: A Comparative Approach[

Notwithstanding the specific features of the Palestinian case, many aspects of al-Nakba, or the Palestinian catastrophe have parallels in contemporary history.[2] One important but neglected case that lends itself to comparative research is the struggle of the people of Western Sahara for self-determination. Palestinians and Sahrawis have been denied their political rights that derive from the fact that they are nations. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two cases: Zionism expelled the Palestinian inhabitants in order to replace them with Jewish settlers on expropriated Palestinian land.

  As for the Moroccan regime, it aims at annexing Western Sahara and assimilating Sahrawis as Moroccan citizens; it rejects the Sahrawi right to self-determination, which according to the UN Charter means Sahrawis have the right to establish their own state, if such is the will of the nation expressed in a referendum. In light of the above, I will discuss a few themes based on oral histories and narratives I collected while conducting research in Palestinian and Sahrawi refugee camps[3] mainly to situate oral history in relation to the national project, and to outline how Palestinian and Sahrawi refugees reproduce the concepts of homeland and their imagined return. The limitations set for the article unfortunately do not allow me to elaborate on any of the points raised here, or to include excerpts from the life-histories. However, I think it is important to mention some of the issues I observed in the Sahrawi case that have resonance in the Palestinian context: a) the reshaping of gender and generational relationships in the context of prolonged conflict and displacement; b) the Moroccan ‘Wall of Shame’ ironically built upon the advise of Ariel Sharon to the late King Hassan II in the mid-eighties;[4] c) the creation of new realities by subsidizing Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara; c) the autonomy plan suggested by Morocco which has many similarities to the Oslo agreements; d) finally, forms of mobilization, organization and resistance (including the role of youth in the two Intifadas) in both national liberation movements which have straddled two centuries, and their relationship to the larger Arab world.[5]


Refugee oral histories bring stories of how individuals and communities experience prolonged conflict and displacement to the public. Because of this, and despite variations in socio-economic status, gender, generation, country of refuge embedded in the accounts, each oral history simultaneously functions as an individual and a collective history. However, by definition, an oral account is open and incomplete in the sense that what is articulated, remembered or silenced and forgotten depends on the context in which it is narrated.[6]

 Background to the Sahrawi Conflict

 Western Sahara was a Spanish colony for almost a century (1884-1975). Upon the withdrawal of Spain in 1975, Moroccan and Mauritanian forces invaded the territory, forcing the flight of Sahrawis to the inhospitable Algerian desert. Although Mauritania signed a peace agreement with the Sahrawis in 1979, Morocco continues to occupy two-thirds of the territory, and adamantly rejects the idea of a Sahrawi referendum on self-determination. In fact, Morocco claims that Western Sahara is Moroccan territory in violation of the principle of uti possidetis applied in decolonization cases,[7] the UN Charter, several Security Council and UNGA Resolutions, and a 1975 International Court of Justice advisory opinion[8]. Morocco describes the Polisario[9] as a ‘separatist’ movement, yet its underlying aim has little to do with its ideals for unity. Rather, Morocco’s interest is in controlling the rich phosphate deposits, abundant fisheries along the Atlantic coast, and a large potential of oil and gas underneath the sand and waters of Western Sahara.

 In arid Algerian desert camps built on sand,[10] the Polisario established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) .[11] The state-in-exile proceeded to implement a National Action Program directed at transforming the refugees into citizens capable of leading their own future nation-state upon their return to Western Sahara. However, neither SADR nor the refugees anticipated that their exile would last for three decades and that the referendum would have as much substance as a desert mirage.

 Oral History and the Nation: Subaltern, Hegemonic and as Established Tradition

 Palestinian society has a written record of its past, this despite its dispersal, the Zionist attempt to destroy its historical record, and the lack of centralized state institutions. At one level of analysis, the Palestinian written/professional or official record is described as hegemonic for its emphasis on the elite and its marginalization of the poorer segments of society. Consequently, oral history increasingly became a focus of research to capture the experiences of the poor, including refugees. Although it is not possible to conflate the Palestinian hegemonic meta-narrative of the past with that of subaltern classes, both are inseparably entangled and occupy the position of the subaltern in relation to a dominant Zionist colonial historiography.

 The Oslo context gave impetus to an upsurge in projects aiming to document Palestinian experiences before and during al-Nakba, countering the Oslo agreements which framed the conflict and its resolution upon the 1967 Israeli occupation, thereby deliberately circumventing the 1948 war and its consequences. Thus, oral histories of Palestinian refugees pose as a discourse of remembering against omission implied in the Palestinian Authority’s official policies (despite lip-service to UNGAR 194), and reaffirming they still have land claims, political and legal rights in the 1948 territories.

 Unlike the Palestinians who prior to the al-Nakba were a settled agricultural population, Sahrawi tribes were mobile pastoralists[12] who did not have a written historical record,[13] but did have an established oral tradition transmitted through narration, poetry and story-telling. However, the conflict necessitated reconstructing a Sahrawi official history in a coherent manner to counter Morocco’s claims that they do not have a distinctive national past, and to educate younger generations on the basis of national – not tribal – affiliation and belonging.

 Thus, when asked to distinguish a Sahrawi culture, refugees point to such factors as their separate historical experience shaped by Spanish colonialism as opposed to that experienced by other North African countries colonized by the French; their specific Arabic dialect called Hassaniyyah;[14] their mode of livelihood; food, dress, songs and the status of Sahrawi women.[15]

 In 1991 a cease-fire came into effect and the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was deployed with the purpose of administering the referendum. Refugees eagerly began to prepare Sanadeeq al-Awda (suitcases of return), believing they were returning to participate in the referendum which the UN planned to implement in January 1992.[16] However, Morocco succeeded in endlessly obstructing the process, and the suitcases became reminders of international betrayal for failing to pressure Morocco to abide by Security Council and UN Resolutions.

 In light of the above, it is not surprising that oral histories of Sahrawi refugees collected more than a decade after the 1991 cease-fire, reveal growing public criticism and pressure on Polisario-SADR to resume armed struggle, especially by unemployed, impoverished and educated youth who linger wasting their years in the scorching desert, as they say just ‘drinking tea.’ However, similar to the effects of the Palestinian Intifada , the Sahrawi Intifada[17] within the Moroccan occupied territory which began on the 21st of May 2005 became the focus of solidarity activities between the outside (refugee camps) and the inside (Western Sahara) reawakening nationalist sentiments.

 The oral histories of Sahrawis also map out how they situate their political and cultural identities in the context of the Arab world. Sahrawis are an Arab and Muslim people. However, refugees express anger towards Arab governments, and underscore their Sahrawi and African identity. This is not surprising considering that most Arab countries know little of their struggle and most Arab governments have sided with Morocco, while African states including South Africa and Kenya have recognized SADR as their legitimate state.

 Narratives of the Homeland and Return

 For Palestinian refugees of rural origins, their pre-1948 original village land and a ‘peasant way of life’ represent continuity, stability and contiguity within a familiar Palestinian landscape, upon which they carried out specific (gendered) tasks and mapped their social identities in elaborate genealogical charts. For city dwellers, an urban culture, the neighborhood and family house are the loci of memory and personal history.

 The Palestinian return was always a distant vision (Swedenburg, 1991) and little attention was given to the shape and concrete form of the future society after liberation. Consequently, the form of remembering Palestine strongly reshaped the conceptualization of the future return: a collective return to an original land, village and place. Thus, in the oral histories recorded shortly after the Oslo agreements, 1948-refugees did not consider that the return to a Palestinian state as citizens in the West Bank and Gaza fulfilled their dream/right of return. In fact, many of the refugees living in camps in Jordan considered a ‘return’ to a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza but not to the original village as another form of displacement.

 The oral histories of Sahrawis resemble those of Palestinian refugees, including a narrative trope that is reconstructed around contrasts: as before and after the Moroccan ghazu (invasion) which had resulted in their mass flight in 1975 referred to as al-Intilaqa (departure) a term equivalent to the Palestinian al-Hijra or al-Nakba. These oral narratives depict pastoral nomadism as central to the Sahrawi cultural ethos and nationalist discourse, just as the rural hinterland and the fallah (peasant or farmer) informed Palestinian nationalism, despite the fact that new generations were born in exile and many had lived in urban centers even prior to their displacement.

 For Sahrawi refugees of all generations the historical homeland is remembered as a landscape where they were free, dignified nomads and warriors who moved from place to place following the rain and greener pasture. However, movement and settlement are specified as along familiar and known routes, wells, streams and hills, which took on more significance as Sahrawi territory in the context of the anti-colonial struggle and their displacement. This attachment to Sahrawi territory counters the popular conception that nomads or Bedouins are not attached to national territories, because their mode of livelihood implies crossing between geo-political boundaries.

 Unlike Palestinian refugee oral histories of return which focus on the land and original village, Sahrawis center their imagined return on the independent state. This is partially due to the nature of the conflict, wherein Morocco is willing at best to accept an autonomy, while Sahrawis aspire for sovereignty. However, the yearning for their own dawla (state), an objective prevalent in Sahrawi oral histories, may also be attributed to the role of the Polisario-SADR in mobilizing for the future on the basis of citizenship, and upon modernist ideals of development and progress.

 SADR’s National Action Program required collective mobilization and participation at all levels. This process involved administering camps as if they were provinces, districts and municipalities, and the establishment of ministries, popular committees, national unions, schools, hospitals, etc. Thus, the Polisario-SADR took over many of the functions previously carried out by the family and tribal freeg,[18] initiating fundamental social transformation. The aim of SADR was to pave the way for the return of refugees, which was outlined in the UN sponsored peace plan ‘as a stage necessary for the completion of a peace process’ (Bhatia 2003:786).

 In conclusion, I would like to point out that research outside the Palestinian case is not only theoretically interesting, but is important to draw lessons in forms of resistance and political struggle. One issue that stands out here is the importance of collective mobilization around a strategic vision, and the conditions that promote or challenge popular consent. For both peoples, the hope of return has not vanished despite decades of displacement and it is clear that such a return is imagined as a collective one based on national rights. However, for Palestinians the past informs the imagined future, wherein the expropriated land and property lost in 1948 are yet to be reclaimed and returned. For Sahrawi refugees, sovereignty in the form of a state is central in their discourse of return. What is certain is that despite decades of overwhelming power and repression imposed on these two stateless populations, their forms of struggle have changed, but not silenced.


Amnesty International. 2006. “Report 2006,” < http://web.amnesty.org/report2006/mar-summary-eng>.

Bhatia, Michael. 2003. 2003. “Repatriation under a Peace Process: Mandated Return in the Western Sahara.” International Journal of Refugee Law. 15 (4): 786-822.

Farah, Randa. 2003. “Western Sahara and Palestine: Shared Refugee Experiences.” Forced Migration Review. Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre with the Norwegian Refugee Council/Global IDP Project. January, 16: 20-23.

--- 2002. ‘The Significance of Oral Narratives and Life Histories.’ Al-Jana: The Harvest: File on Palestinian Oral History. Rosemary Sayigh, ed., Beirut: Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts, pp 24-27.

International Court of Justice, Case Summaries. 1975. “Western Sahara: Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975.” < http://www.icj-cij.org/icjwww/idecisions/isummaries/isasummary751016.htm>.

Joffe, George. 1996. “Self-Determination and Uti Possidetis: The Western Sahara and the "Lost Provinces."” The Journal of the Society for Moroccan Studies. 1: 97-115.

Swedenburg, Ted. 1991. "Popular Memory and the Palestinian National Past." In Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in History and Anthropology, Jay O'Brien and William Roseberry, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 152-79.

Tamari, Salim. 1994. “Problems of Social Science Research In Palestine: An Overview,” Cuurent Sociology, 42(2):69-86.



[1] I would like to express my gratitude to the Sahrawi and Palestinian refugees who allowed me to record their life-histories. I am also grateful to the Office of the Vice-President, Research and International Relations at the University of Western Ontario, which provided me with funds that allowed me to conduct research in the last two years in Sahrawi camps.

[2] On the importance of comparative studies, see S. Tamara (1994).

[3] I conducted anthropological field research in Palestinian camps between 1995 and 2000, and the material used for this paper on the Sahrawi case took place between 2004 and 2006, although I have been visiting the camps since 2003.

[4] See speech delivered by Margot Kessler on 19th April 2002 during the Euromed conference in Valencia, Spain organized by the United Left in which she stated: “Western Sahara is split in two: a 1800 kms long military defence wall was built in the early 80's by Hassan II on the advise of someone who will be much talked about at this conference: that is … Ariel Sharon.”

[5] For more information on Sahrawi and Palestinian camps see Farah, 2003.

[6] On Palestinian oral narratives see R. Farah (2002).

[7] In 1964 the Organization of African Unity (currently the African Union) adopted this principle which establishes the boundaries of the colonial territories as the frontiers of newly independent states. For more on this question see G. Joffe (1996).

[8] See the International Court of Justice. 1975. “Case Summaries: Western Sahara: Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975.” < http://www.icj-cij.org/icjwww/idecisions/isummaries/isasummary751016.htm>.

[9] Polisario is the Spanish acronym for Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro or The Popular Front for the Liberation of al-Saqiya al-Hamra and Rio de Oro, the two regions that constitute Western Sahara. The Polisario was established on the 10 May 1973 and led the Sahrawi resistance against the Spanish and later against the Moroccan and Mauritanian invasion.

[10] The nearest town to the Sahrawi camps is Tindouf, a small Algerian border town. The camps are geographically isolated in one of the harshest deserts, where temperatures can soar to over fifty degrees in the summer and below zero in winter. There are no electricity lines or water pipes, therefore most refugees rely on batteries for electricity and water tanks. This is in contrast to Palestinian camps located in or near major urban centers in the Middle East.

[11] The Sahrawi state was declared in exile in the refugee camps in Algeria on the 27th of February 1976 and is recognized by over eighty countries.

[12] The Sahrawis subsidized their livelihood with seasonal cultivation, trade, fishing and towards the end of the Spanish colonial era, many were forced to settle in urban centers working as cheap labor in colonial enterprises, primarily in the phosphate industry and the construction of roads.

[13] Sahrawis often hired a Mrabet or Koranic teacher who taught reading and writing to the children of a freeg (see note xviii). The Mrabet moved with the freeg and was usually paid in kind for his services.

[14] Sahrawis are the descendents of tribes who migrated to North Africa during the Islamic conquest and intermarried with local Berbers, one of these tribes was Bani Hassan, hence the term Hassaniyya.

[15] Sahrawis point to the fact that unlike the situation of women in surrounding Arab countries, Sahrawi women are highly respected (violence against women is absent and abhorred among Sahrawis), autonomous and have equal rights enshrined in SADR’s constitution.

[16] Many Sahrawis informed me they were so sure they were returning that they sold all their meager belongings.

[17] See Amnesty International http://web.amnesty.org/report2006/mar-summary-eng, which stated that popular protests were met with ‘excessive use of force’. Many Sahrawis have been killed, injured or imprisoned as a result of their demands for self-determination and human rights. For more information on the Sahrawi Intifada see

[18] The freeg or group is the basic socio-economic unit in the Sahrawi tribal society made of three to five tents or families who cooperated in carrying out daily functions.