Western Sahara Part 3: The Saharawi Wedding

After our disastrous camping experience in the desert, we headed South to Dakhla, a small city located on a narrow peninsula of the Atlantic coast. The drive there was relatively uneventful, apart from being held up by an enormous heard  of camels crossing the road. I’m still not quite sure what to make of Dakhla, it’s a city with two very different sides. To the East there are beautiful wide sandy beaches and  shallow lagoons, which are perfect for kitesurfing. There are numerous existing resorts and many more under construction  to cater for the tourists who fly in to Dakhla airport on all inclusive kite surfing holidays. There is a large camping area next to the beach filled almost exclusively with semi-permanent French campervans, whose occupants rarely seem to leave that spot. To the West is the city of Dakhla. Besides the occasional, mostly empty up-market hotel there is little sign of the booming tourist industry which exists less than 10km away. The lifeblood of this part of the city is fishing. One noticeable difference between Dakhla and other places we had visited in Western Sahara was the number of black Africans living there.  Most were from Senegal or The Gambia and had come in search of work. The flurry of hotels being constructed further up the coast created a demand for cheap day labour, though this demand was evidently less than the number of people willing to supply it. Every morning on the road outside out hotel we would watch as young men in jeans and too big wellies waited, some optimistically doing warm up stretches, for a van to pull up and for the driver to pick one or two men out the 20 or so gathered for a few days work. Many of the guys spoke good English and like us, had time to kill and so we would often end up chatting. They all lived in cramped, rented apartments and told us that it was not uncommon to work for a few weeks and for their (Moroccan) bosses to refuse to pay them, or to pay them far less than they had agreed.

Since our budget didn’t quite stretch to all inclusive kitesurfing, we stayed in the city. We had picked our hotel because it was cheap and also had an outside terrace for the bike. When we arrived however we found that our parking space had been taken by another Africa Twin! The bike belonged to Chi, a relentlessly upbeat and friendly  Chinese guy who had spent most of the last 10 years making his way around the world. He was now taking the same route as us down the West Coast of Africa to Cape Town, on his 1992 Africa Twin. Over a bowl of Harira soup (a traditional Moroccan soup, made of tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and pasta) we exchanged stories and he gave us some advice, ‘travelling is cheaper than staying in one place, when you stay in one place you get into your comfort zone, you start thinking about luxuries and you get bored of eating the same cheap food every day. When you travel, you don’t worry about luxuries and you don’t get bored of eating cheap because the cheap food keeps changing.’  I agreed  with the sentiment though I felt that 6 weeks in, I had already eaten enough Tagines and Harira soups to last me a lifetime.  

We ended up staying in Dakhla far longer than planned as first Leon, then I was unwell. I was feeling quite low; travelling though the Sahara had been tougher than I expected and we still had a very long way to go, apart from one conversation I had not met many Saharawi’s or seen anything of their culture and to me Western Sahara felt exactly like Morrocco only without the ancient cities and beautiful and varied scenery. I ended up directing my frustration at Dakhla; it was boring and I couldn’t wait to leave. I had a bad experience when I was followed whilst out walking alone and this only cemented my view further, I wasn’t going to try and explore any more. I had already decided there was nothing to see. 

The best nights often come when they are least unexpected and that was definitely the case here. Leon, Chi and I had gone across the road from our hotel to a large square, where each night around 9pm a makeshift restaurant would appear. I nearly did not go, but at the last minute in a bid to cheer myself up decided to leave the 4 walls of the hotel room. Hastily arranged plastic tables and chairs were set out on the street and the restaurant proprietor, a friendly man with very few teeth, carefully turned skewers of meat on a large and very smokey grill. Whilst the proprietor continued to bring us plates of food we had not ordered and for which he would refuse to take payment, including cubes of sizzling chicken fat which melted in the mouth, we watched with amusement the games and squabbles of the neighbourhood children. Every so often the wind would change direction and we would be covered in a thick cloud of meaty smelling smoke. 

Across the square a large tent was being decorated. It was around 10.30pm and so we speculated that it was probably being prepared for an event the following day. We were surprised therefore when we heard a band begin to play. Leon was still unwell and so decided to go back to the room, whilst Chi and I went over to take a look. We were quickly spotted loitering outside and  were warmly ushered in. The inside of the tent was draped in brightly coloured striped fabric, the floor was covered in mismatched rugs and there were around 10 circular tables, each laid with platters of biscuits. Next to where the band were playing there were enormous silver bowls filled with fruit and a table with cartons of juice and jugs of milk. It was explained to us that this was a Saharawi wedding, the tent and the band were there for the men’s celebration. Most of the men had yet to arrive, the band were playing to an almost empty tent, the majority of the people milling around were waiters. 

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Outside the tent a camel was tied up, its four legs bound together so that it could only turn its head. A group of small boys rejoiced in taunting the camel, trying to leapfrog over its back as it trashed it head around and growled at them baring its teeth. Chi speaks Spanish, as do many older Saharawi’s (Western Sahara used to be Spanish Sahara) and with him interpreting we were able to chat to an uncle of the bride. He told us that the camel had been bought by distant relatives and friends of the bride and groom as a wedding gift. The price of a camel is around 1000 euros. In addition to the camel tied up outside, the family of the bride had also given the grooms family 2 further camels and 3000 euros in cash as her bride price. To put his into some perspective, the staff in our hotel were paid 2000 Dirham or approximately 200 Euro per month and so this would equate to more than 2 years wages. Apparently this was relatively modest, in a few days time a neighbour, also Saharawi would marry and they had paid 5 camels as bride price. The brides uncle told us that in Dakhla most Saharwai’s were part of the aspiring middle classes and many families stretched themselves to pay for lavish celebrations. As the evening wore on more and more men arrived, dressed in shiny blue and white darra’s (a traditional robe).

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If the men were late in arriving it was nothing compared to the women, who did not start to turn up until around midnight. Many of the older women wore more muted colours, but the younger women wore beautiful brightly patterned tunics and scarves. They arrived en mass, like a flock of tiny exotic birds. Their hands were decorated with  henna which had been applied as part of celebrations the day before. I was surprised to see than many of the young women were heavily made up, they wore bold lipsticks and high scrappy sandals and carried designer handbags. I was quickly adopted by a glamorous 16 year old girl called Nurha. Like most 16 year olds her mobile phone was never out of her hand and she insisted on posing for numerous selfies with me, in which she looked beautiful, in a sultry and pouty sort of way and I grinned stupidly.  Although Nurha spoke no English, French or Spanish we somehow managed to understand one another, although our conversations frequently descended into giggling. She found it very amusing that I was staying out all night in the company of a strange Chinese man, whilst my ‘husband’ was back at our hotel. She introduced me to her older sister (also very glamorous) and together with some of her friends we all linked hands and promenaded around the block, stopping every so often to greet her relatives and the occasion group of similarly aged boys who I suspected had gathered in the nearby streets in the hope of such a meeting. Her and her friends then tried (in vain) to teach me the beautiful and intricate hand gestures of Saharawi dancing. 

Around midnight there was a big commotion as the groom’s cavalcade arrived, car horns blaring. He was surrounded by a large group of men in perfectly pressed shiny robes and in the middle of them all he looked very young. As they arrived the older women all gathered around and began clapping and ululating (making a high pitched tongue trill). The friend we had made earlier filled us in on the order of the evening. The bride was still elsewhere getting ready. After the men and women have finished eating everyone would jump in their cars and go to fetch the bride. Then they would take her and the groom to an apartment. 

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Later on I was invited to the upstairs of a building directly opposite the tent, where the women’s celebration was happening. One of the advantages of travelling as a western woman is that you are able to enter spaces which are only for women and you are also often treated as an ‘honorary’ man, meaning you are able to enter spaces traditionally meant for men. In  Morrocco and Western Sahara however I had found that nearly all my conversations and interactions were with men, it therefore felt like a unique privilege to be invited into this space. 

I was ushered up the stairs and into a room, where around 30 women sat on cushions arranged in a circle. As soon as I entered the women began clapping, Nouha pulled me into the centre of the  circle and much to my intense embarrassment indicated that I should dance. I actually felt a pang of sympathy for how Theresa May must have felt hen faced with the same request. I guess at least my attempt wasn’t likely to be broadcast to millions. I did my best, twirling around and waving my hands in some vague approximation of what Nouha had shown me outside. I was mercifully rescued when two of the older ladies stood up to show me how it was done. They pulled their scarf up over their head so their face was completely covered and began twirling, making intricate motions with their fingers. As the clapping intensified they twirled faster and faster and one women began a long wavering high pitched ululation. 

After dancing we were served milk with dates and biscuits. Then the real food arrived, waiters carried in enormous silver platters piled high with mutton meat, the curly sheep’s horn balanced on top. By this time however it was almost 3am and there was no sign of the bride and so I decided to call it a night. I guess that when you live in the desert it makes sense to have  feasts and festivities during the night, when it is much cooler, but I definitely lacked the stamina to see it through to the end. 

It was nevertheless an amazing experience and one which could not have come at a better time. It reminded me that it is your mindset that has the biggest impact on how you experience a place, a place is never completely amazing or completely terrible, there is always something interesting or beautiful to be seen, if you leave yourself open to it. 

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