The Saharawis

Displaced and Divided


Some of the earliest known inhabitants of the Western Sahara were the Sanhaja Berbers, who are considered to be ancestors of modern-day Saharawis.
Archaeologists have found evidence to suggest that the Sanhaja were long-term inhabitants of the region, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic era. They were instrumental in the trans-Saharan trade that ended up bringing West Africa into contact with the Muslim cultures of North Africa. 

Between the 11th and 13th centuries successive waves of Arab tribes, known as the Beni Hassan, emanating from the Yemenite peninsula, conquered and Islamised the Sanhaja, giving the name to their spoken language, Hassaniye, and creating a cultural fusion, which included West African influences introduced through the slave trade.
The Saharawi tribes had a strong sense of belonging and connection to the landscape they roamed, particularly the territory known today as Western Sahara. This connection is reflected in Saharawi poetry which has a genre solely dedicated to landscape known as Adtlal.

Today, Saharawi culture and society must be considered from at least three different contexts that define their reality and the way they express their culture: those living under the Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara, those living in harsh refugee camps in SW Algeria and those elsewhere in the diaspora, especially in Spain where the largest number live outside the region. Under Moroccan occupation, Saharawi culture has been deeply affected by the imposition of the Moroccan language and educational system and policies that systematically seek to deny their cultural identity and history.
Meanwhile, the Saharawi refugees  in SW Algeria have sought to promote their distinct cultural identity but lack many resources and means for protecting their unique heritage. 

Increased migration and the influence of diverse cultures, especially Spanish, Cuban, and Algerian, due to the education of many Saharawi children outside the camps, has also significantly impacted  Saharawi culture and identity in recent years.
Photo by Emma Brown
Saharawi women have always enjoyed freedom and respect. In their previous nomadic way of life, they performed important social roles, such as family educators and managers of their encampments. They were able to re-marry without stigma, and were integral to cultural and spiritual transmission. Because men were often away with their animal herds, women were also in charge of hospitality towards guests, one of the most important traits of Bidhan culture.
Although their autonomy was threatened during the Spanish colonial rule, it was regained during the Saharawi revolution of 1975. During the first years of exile and war, Saharawi women were the primary community-builders within the refugee camps, supervising the national administration, and the education and health systems while the men were fighting on the frontlines.
Under Moroccan occupation, Saharawi women have consistently supported the Saharawi right to self-determination through peaceful activism. One of many outstanding examples is the story of Aminatou Haydar, who led the 2005 Saharawi intifada and has been imprisoned and tortured in several Moroccan jails.
In the refugee camps, the Saharawis speak Hassaniya on a daily basis, but Arabic and Spanish are the official languages. Spanish is also widely spoken due to the large number of Saharawis who have studied in Cuba and Spain. In recent years, more and more Saharawis are learning and using English.
In exile, women have assumed important roles at the political, social, and familial levels. Currently, there are three female ministers in the Saharawi government, and the vice-president of the African Union is a Saharawi woman.
Photo by Emma Brown
Photo by Emma Brown
Photo by Danielle Smith



The Saharawis speak Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect that got its name from the Beni Hassan tribes that invaded the region in the 11th and 13th centuries and conquered the local Sanhaja Berber tribes. In the context of the contemporary struggle, Hassaniya has become an important means of expressing Saharawi identity and resistance.
As a traditionally oral culture, sharing stories, fables, poems, and songs in Hassaniya has been part of Saharawi society for centuries, and is often a part of the traditional Saharawi tea ceremony. Through oral accounts, the Saharawis have documented aspects of their daily life and their nomadic travels, as well as preserved their collective historical memories.
The Saharawi oral tradition encompasses poetry, storytelling and the proverb. Proverbs are an integral part of educating children and reminding adults of morals and values.
"In the land of the Saharawi, where culture is faithfully preserved in the memory of the people, where the libraries are human, when an old person dies, a library dies with him."
– Bahia Mahmud Awah, Saharawi writer and poet
In the refugee camps, the Saharawis speak Hassaniya on a daily basis, but Arabic and Spanish are the official languages. Spanish is also widely spoken due to the large number of Saharawis who have studied in Cuba and Spain. In recent years, more and more Saharawis are learning and using English.

However, in the parts of Western Sahara occupied by Morocco, a former French protectorate, the Saharawis are taught French and Arabic at school. The Moroccan dialect of Arabic, "Darija" , is dominant in most public places and the new generations of Saharawis are gradually losing their knowledge of Hassaniya.
Photo by Kevin Grant

"Sahrawi child take hold of a paper and pencil
and learn literature, math and science.
Sahrawi child, sit closely by your elders
and listen carefully to the wisdom;
this is the way which in the future will come to your rescue."

- Agaila Abba Hemedia, Sahrawi Writer and Poet



The Saharawi tea ceremony is one of the most important rituals of Saharawi culture, and is central to their understanding of hospitality. The tea brewing is a central activity in gatherings. Saharawis usually drink three small cups of strong green Chinese gunpowder tea during the tea ceremony, often adding mint to the second and third cups. A Saharawi saying describes each cup the tea like a different aspect of life: "the first cup tastes as bitter as life, the second as sweet as love, and the third as mild as death. "
Photo by Matt Aslett
History of Saharawi Tea Drinking
In the 18th century, Western Sahara was understood to be a haven for trade, as a gateway to the Great Sahara and North Africa. It is through trade with the British that the potent Chinese gunpowder green tea was introduced to the Saharawis. The beverage soon became popular among the indigenous people of Western Sahara and the original ceremony was adapted to the long journeys through the desert on camel back. As tea and sugar cannot grow in the region and the Saharawis needed to trade for these luxuries, they were considered precious items, only offered initially to honour very special guests. But over time the generous spirit of the Sahrawi prevailed and the tea ceremony became obligatory and a central aspect of hospitality offered to all their guests.
A tea ceremony requires a teapot called "abarad" or abrig made of tanmint (a type of metal); a tray, "tabla", made of red or yellow bronze; bowls for sugar and tea, named "kuntiya" and "a’msar;" an air pump, "rabuz", to keep the fire alive; charcoal, "jmaar", for the fire; and, of course, a great gathering of people called a "jmaa". The perfect tea experience has 3 J's: Jmaar (the charcoal), Jma3 (the gathering) and Jaaf (lasts long).
The Refugees

"When we think of Western Sahara we think of number one, the women number two, the women number three, the women. For they are strong and they are beautiful."

– Ljadra Mint Mabruk, Saharawi poet
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