Fighting for a University: Interview with Saharawi Poet Hamza Lakhal
Hamza Lakhal was born in El Aaiún, capital of Western Sahara, eight years after the 1975 invasion of his country by Morocco. His first poetry collection, published in Arabic by L’Harmattan-RASD, talks of a young man’s passion for his violated but resistant homeland. Joanna Allan interviews Lakhal about the struggles of a poet and activist living under a brutal and repressive occupation.
The right to education is a key theme in this interview. Lakhal initiated the first demonstrations demanding a university for Western Sahara back in 2002, which led to his expulsion from secondary school. He was then prevented from sitting for his baccalaureate exams for the following 12 years. Lakhal and Allan’s conversation also touches on the 2010 Gdeim Izik protest camp, which Noam Chomsky argues was the start of the Arab Spring.
Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975, has been partially occupied by Morocco for the last forty years. The longest active military wall in the world separates the liberated part from the colonized part. Around 180,000 Saharawi refugees live in camps of southwest Algeria under the leadership of their guerrilla liberation movement and government-in-exile, the POLISARIO. During its four decades in Western Sahara, Morocco has not seen fit to build any universities there. Saharawis, as Lakhal’s case demonstrates, commonly suffer discrimination in educational establishments, especially if they are not prepared to accept the Moroccan status quo.
The interview, which was conducted in English, took place in the occupied capital of Western Sahara, El Aaiún, in August 2014. Although audio was recorded, the interviewer transcribed this interview and others before deleting all audios. This was due to the need to protect the anonymity of other interviewees, given the common practice of Moroccan authorities confiscating the cameras and dictaphones of those exiting Western Sahara and suspected of meeting with Saharawi nationalists.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview. Read an earlier article by Allan on Saharawi eduction in Morocco publishing on Al-Diwan here.
Joanna Allan (JA): Can you tell me when you first became involved in resistance activities?
Hamza Lakhal (HL): Before 1999, I, like a lot of Saharawi children, used to paint our flag and pro-independence slogans on the walls of the city. During the 1999 uprisings, my friends and I were secondary school students. When the intifada came to an end, the city returned to calmness. It was during this period of a relative lack of troubles that I began to think about culture and its role in the resistance. I started to build relationships with many activists and tried to convince them that cultural tactics could help us to reach our goals.
We saw that the occupation wanted us to be outside of the world. We were living in a dead city: no universities, no squares, no playground, no cultural centers, no cinema, etc. It was like military barracks, or a big jail. And our school was like that. The headmaster was a prison administrator so you can imagine what kind of students we were. We had no right to speak, to ask for a library, to be like other students elsewhere in the world.
So that’s why we started to speak out. Firstly, we started with the small demands like a cultural week, a poetry reading, a library, and step-by-step, after two years and after a lot of problems with the Moroccan authorities, we asked for a university in 2002. For me, this was not an overtly political demand. But the Moroccan regime saw it as political. For Morocco, a university means independence. That is why the Moroccan occupiers refuse to build one in Western Sahara. They wish to keep the Saharawis in a jail-like state.
Saharawi youth haven’t anything to do. They have no place to learn skills. This is how the Moroccan regime kills youth: they push you towards the street, to drug addiction. That is what happens in reality. There are a lot of Saharawis with addiction problems, fruit of their lack of opportunities. For this reason, it seemed important to me to campaign for a university. I began to talk to other activists, and then, together, we talked to Saharawi students at three schools in El Aaiún. At first, it was hard to convince others of the importance of this demand – they thought we should just resist through demanding our freedom, our independence, as we had done up until then – but in time other students agreed to campaign with me for a university.
In 2002, at my school, we tried to stage a protest demanding a university in Western Sahara. However, on the day of the protest, we found Moroccan police waiting for us: spies had informed them of our plans. Nevertheless, we went into the school hall and began our protest. The police began to enter and attack us, and so some of us responded by throwing stones to prevent more police from entering.
While we were fighting with police, one of the students climbed above the main entrance of school and took down the Moroccan flag that was waving there, replacing it with the flag of our country. So, you can imagine, the police became enraged with anger when they saw this. They were beating the students ever more violently. Some of us found ways to escape. Myself, I managed to climb over the school walls.
After that, the police were searching for me and so I hid in the house of a friend. I stayed for one week, but eventually I decided to return to school, asking myself “what can they do? If they catch me, they catch me.” And I went to school, and they caught me.
It’s quite normal for police to enter schools to ask for the kids that participate in protests. In my case, they knew I was the unofficial leader of the pro-university protest, the one who had the idea. Nevertheless, they didn’t believe that I didn’t have older and more experienced activists supporting me. This kind of demand was completely new, and so the Moroccans wouldn’t believe that there was not someone else older, directing me. Anyway, they carried out their interrogation within the school walls.
JA: Can you remember what date it was?
HL: This was in April or May 2002
After police interrogated me in the school, I was expelled and prevented from attending any other secondary school.
JA: Was your first experience of activism the pro-university campaign?
HL: You could say that it was my first disciplined activity. I had joined the movement of 1999, but I was just a secondary school student at the time, a child. Our name in those days, in 1999, was the student movement, because it was the first time that students, school students, had joined a political movement. That was how I got started. But 2002 was my real start, because it was mine.
In 2005, it was daily activism. Every day there were movements, every day there were protests, demonstrations, fighting, prisoners, victims, wounded… every day.
JA: Did you go to Gdeim Izik?
HL: Yes, I was there.
JA: Can you tell me about it?
HL: Gdeim Izik was an experience through which we showed the world that we could rule ourselves. Saharawis can govern. We can lead a country. Because just us, without the POLISARIO, without educated people who practice politics in government, we created a small country. It was disciplined; everyone had his or her rights. We had our own police in the camp. We had medical centers. It was a small country. It was magnificent.
People lived in peace, and it was the first time we had lived just us, the Saharawi people. It was a wonderful experience, even though, from the outset, the military had surrounded the camp and every day, up until the final invasion, pretended they were about to attack. But this threat made us take up our pens, and encouraged us to sing slogans about our rights. It was a great experience, but it ended in tragedy.
In the first, simple days of the camp, we just lived, like they do in the refugee camps. The people came and went amongst the tents. It was nice, very nice. We had our challenges: many people there felt what responsibility means, because you can imagine: who has responsibility in these Gdeim Izik camps? Is it just the Saharawi youth who don’t have jobs or work in life? The youth who just live at home, on the streets, without anything to do? So when we went to Gdeim Izik, the youth felt for the first time that they had a job, they had responsibilities. Some of them acted as police, some of them played roles organizing and administering the camps, some did cleaning and rubbish collection. The young people were happy to have something to do in life. The people who took the role of negotiating with the Moroccan military are jobless in reality. They are simple, humble people. And yet Gdeim Izik illustrated clearly that the Saharawi people, if given the chance to rule themselves, would be capable.
JA: Why was it the youth that led Gdeim Izik rather than the older generation?
HL: The Saharawi always believe in youth. And indeed I think that all peoples trust in their youth. It’s young people who can fight, the young who can start revolutions, all over the world. It’s young people who are capable of the hard work, who have the passion, because they have good health. But the older generation have wisdom; they can advise us.
JA: Thank you for sharing this.
HL: You’re welcome. By the way, Western Sahara still doesn’t have a university. No cinema, no museums, no art galleries, no theaters. Nothing has changed. They have started to build some playgrounds and squares, but that is due to pressure from the United Nations and European Union.
JA: I heard that work on a “technical” university has begun?
HL: No. Morocco has built a technical college which is linked to Agadir University. But we can’t call it a faculty. After Gdeim Izik, the pressure Morocco faced forced it to build a few things and offer some jobs to give the impression that there are no problems here. And because of their agreements with the European Union they have started to pretend that Saharawis benefit from natural resource exploitation, and that Saharawis can enjoy their cities. But, on the ground, this is all a falsehood.