Map of the tribes of Western Sahara
As with most peoples living in the Sahara, the Sahrawi culture is a mix of Berber, Black African and Arab elements. It shows mainly Berber people
core characteristics with Arab cultural elements. The privileged position of women in Sahrawi tribes is a Berber tradition that predates the arrival of Islam and Arabs,
as well as characteristics common to ethnic groups of the Sahel
. Sahrawis are composed of many tribes and are largely speakers of the Hassaniya
dialect of Arabic
, and some of them still speak Berber
word Ṣaḥrāwī صحراوي
literally means "Inhabitant of the Desert". The word Sahrawi is derived from the Arabic word Ṣaḥrā'
), meaning desert. A man is called a "Sahrawi", and a woman is called a "Sahrawiya". In other languages it is pronounced in similar or different ways:
, mainly of the Senhaja
/ Zenaga tribal
confederation, inhabited the areas now known as Western Sahara
, southern Morocco
and southwestern Algeria
, before Islam
arrived in the 8th century CE. The new faith was spread by Berbers themselves, and Arab
immigration in the first centuries of Islamic expansion was minimal. It is not known when the camel
was introduced to the region (probably in the first or second millennium BCE), but it revolutionized the traditional trade routes of North Africa
. Berber caravans transported
salt, gold, and slaves between North and West Africa
, and the control of trade routes became a major ingredient in the constant power struggles between various tribes and sedentary peoples. On more than one occasion, the Berber tribes of present-day Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara would unite behind religious leaders to sweep the surrounding governments from power, then founding principalities, dynasties, or even vast empires of their own. This was the case with the Berber Almoravid
dynasty of Morocco and Andalusia
, and several emirates
This tribe entered the domains of the Sanhaja
, and over the following centuries imposed itself upon them, intermixing with the population in the process. Berber
attempts to shake off the rule of Arab
warrior tribes occurred sporadically, but assimilation gradually won out, and after the failed Char Bouba Uprising
(1644–74), the Berber tribes would virtually without exception embrace Arab
or Muslim culture
and even claim Arab heritage.
dialect of the Beni Ḥassān
, remains the mother-tongue of Mauritania
and Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara
to this day, and is also spoken in southern Morocco
and western Algeria
, among affiliated tribes. Berber
vocabulary and cultural traits remain common, despite the fact that many if not all of the Sahrawi/Moorish tribes today claim Arab ancestry; several are even claiming to be descendants of Muhammad
, so-called sharifian
tribes (pl. shorfa
The modern Sahrawi are Arabs of Bani Hassan
or Berber with Arabs as an additional ethnicity whose cultural volume is bigger than its genetic one. The people inhabit the westernmost Sahara desert
, in the area of modern Mauritania, Morocco, Western Sahara, and parts of Algeria. (Some tribes would also traditionally migrate into northern Mali
, or even further along the Saharan caravan
routes.) As with most Saharan peoples, the tribes reflect a highly mixed heritage, combining Berber, Arab, and other influences, including ethnic and cultural characteristics found in many ethnic groups of the Sahel
. The latter were primarily acquired through mixing with Wolof
and other populations of the southern Sahel, and through the acquisition of slaves by wealthier nomad families.
In pre-colonial times, the Sahara was generally considered Blad Essiba
or "the land of dissidence" by the Moroccan central government and Sultan of Morocco
, and by the authorities of the Deys
. The governments of the pre-colonial sub-Saharan empires of Mali
appear to have had a similar relationship with the tribal territories, which were once the home of undisciplined raiding tribes and the main trade route for the Saharan caravan trade
. Central governments had little control over the region, although the Hassaniya
tribes would occasionally extend "beya
" or allegiance to prestigious rulers, to gain their political backing or, in some cases, as a religious ceremony. The Moorish
populations of what is today northern Mauritania established a number of emirates, claiming the loyalty of several different tribes and through them exercising semi-sovereignty over traditional grazing lands. This could be considered the closest thing to centralized government that was ever achieved by the Hassaniya tribes, but even these emirates were weak, conflict-ridden and rested more on the willing consent of the subject tribes than on any capacity to enforce loyalty.
Modern distinctions drawn between the various Hassaniya
groups are primarily political, but cultural differences dating from different colonial and post-colonial histories are also apparent. An important divider is whether the tribal confederations fell under French
colonial rule. France
conquered most of North
and West Africa
largely during the late 19th century. This included Algeria
, and, from 1912, Morocco
. But Western Sahara
and scattered minor parts of Morocco
fell to Spain
, and were named Spanish Sahara
(subdivided into Río de Oro
and Saguia el-Hamra
) and Spanish Morocco
respectively. These colonial intrusions brought the Muslim Saharan peoples under Christian European
rule for the first time, and created lasting cultural and political divides between and within existing populations, as well as upsetting traditional balances of power in differing ways.
areas, then still undefined as to exact territorial boundaries, proved troublesome for the colonizers, just as they had for neighbouring dynasties in previous centuries. The political loyalty of these populations were first and foremost to their respective tribes, and supertribal allegiances and alliances would shift rapidly and unexpectedly. Their nomadic lifestyle made direct control over the territories hard to achieve, as did general lawlessness, an absence of prior central authority, and a widely held contempt for the kind of settled life that the colonizers sought to bring about. Centuries of intertribal warfare and raids for loot (ghazzu
) guaranteed that the populations were well armed and versed in guerilla-style warfare. Tribes allied to hostile European powers would now also be considered fair game for cattle raids on those grounds, which tied the struggle against France
into the traditional power play of the nomads, aggravating the internal struggles.
Uprisings and violent tribal clashes therefore took place with increasing frequency as European encroachment increased, and on occasion took the form of anti-colonial holy war, or Jihad
, as in the case of the Ma al-'Aynayn
uprising in the first years of the 20th century. It was not until the 1930s that Spain
was able to finally subdue the interior of present-day Western Sahara
, and then only with strong French military assistance. Mauritania's raiding Moors
had been brought under control in the previous decades, partly through skilful exploitation by the French of traditional rivalries and social divisions between the tribes. In these encounters, the large Reguibat tribe
proved especially resistant to the new rulers, and its fighters would regularly slip in out of French and Spanish territory, similarly exploiting the rivalries between European powers. The last major Reguibat
raid took place in 1934, after which the Spanish authorities occupied Smara
, finally gaining control over the last unpatrolled border territories.
The Sahrawi-Moorish tribes remained largely nomadic until the early to mid-20th century, when Franco-Spanish rivalries (as well as disagreements between different wings of the French colonial regime) managed to impose rigid, if arbitrary, borders on the previously fluid Sahara. The wide-ranging grazing lands
of the nomads were split apart, and their traditional economies, based on trans-Saharan caravantrade
and raiding of each other and the northern and southern Sahel
neighbors, were broken. Little attention was paid to existing tribal confederations and zones of influence when dividing up the Saharan interior.
Different colonial practices
French and Spanish colonial governments would gradually, and with varying force, impose their own systems of government and education over these territories, exposing the native populations to differing colonial experiences. The populations in Algeria
were subjected to direct French rule, which was organized to enable the massive settlement of French and European immigrants. In Mauritania
, they experienced a French non-settler colonial administration which, if light in its demands on the nomads, also deliberately overturned the existing social order, allying itself with lower-ranking marabout
tribes against the powerful warrior clans of the Hassane
Arabs. In southern Morocco, France upheld indirect rule through the sultanate
in some areas, while Spain
exercised direct administration in others. Spanish Sahara
was treated first as a colony, and later as an overseas province, with gradually tightening political conditions, and, in later years, a rapid influx of Spanish
settlers (making Spaniards
about 20% of the population in 1975). By the time of decolonization in 1950s–1970s, Sahrawi tribes in all these different territories had experienced roughly a generation or more of distinct experiences; often, however, their nomadic lifestyle had guaranteed that they were subjected to less interference than what sedentary populations experienced in the same areas.
Debate on pre-colonial allegiances
The period of colonization
radically changed existing power structures, leaving a confused legacy of contradictory political affiliations, European-drawn borders with little resemblance to ethnic and tribal realities, and the foundations of modern political conflict.
For example, both sides in the Western Sahara conflict
vs. the Polisario Front
) draw heavily on colonial history to prove their version of reality. Proponents of the Greater Morocco
ideology point to some Sahrawi tribes calling upon the Moroccan sultan
, who until 1912 remained the last independent Islamic ruler of the area, for assistance against the Europeans (see Ma al-'Aynayn
Sahrawis, on the other hand, point out that such statements of allegiance were almost routinely given by various tribal leaders to create short-term alliances, and that other heads of tribes indeed similarly proclaimed allegiance to Spain
, to France
, to Mauritanian
emirates, and indeed to each other; they argue that such arrangements always proved temporary, and that the tribal confederations always maintained de facto
independence of central authority, and would even fight to maintain this independence.
The International Court of Justice
issued a ruling
on the matter in 1975, stating that there had
existed ties between the Moroccan sultan
and some (mainly northerly Tekna
) tribes in then-Spanish Sahara
, but that these ties were not
sufficient to abrogate Western Sahara's
right to self-determination
. The same kind of ruling was issued with regard to Mauritania
, where the court found that there were indeed strong tribal and cultural links between the Sahrawis and Mauritanian
populations, including historical allegiance to some Moorish
emirates, but that these were not ties of a state or government character, and did not constitute formal bonds of sovereignty. Thus, the court recommended the UN
to continue to pursue self-determination
for the Sahrawis, enabling them to choose for themselves whether they wanted Spanish Sahara
to turn into an independent state, or to be annexed to Morocco or Mauritania.
The Western Sahara conflict
The Polisario Front
The Polisario Front
is the Western Sahara
's national liberation movement, fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara since 1973—originally against Spanish rule; after 1975, against Mauritania and Morocco; since 1979, against Morocco only. The organization is based in Algeria
, where it is responsible for the Tindouf
refugee camps. The organization has maintained a cease-fire
since 1991 (see Settlement Plan
), but continues to strive for the territory's independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
(SADR) through peaceful negotiations. The Polisario Front restricts its claims to the colonially-defined Western Sahara, holding no claim to, for example, the Sahrawi-populated Tarfaya Strip
in Morocco, or any part of Mauritania
. Since 1979, the Polisario Front has been recognized by the United Nations
as the representative of the people of Western Sahara.
Ethnic background: Berbers and Arabs
Group of Saharawi women.
Some tribes, such as the large Reguibat
, have a Berber background but have since been thoroughly arabized; others, such as the Oulad Delim
, are considered descendants of the Beni Hassan
, even though intermarriage with other tribes and former slaves have occurred; a few, such as the Tekna tribal confederation
, have retained some Berber dialect of the area. Often, though not in the case of the Tekna, the Berber-Arab elements of a tribe's cultural heritage reflects social stratification. In traditional Moorish-Sahrawi society, Arab tribes of the Tekna confederation claimed a role as rulers and protectors of the disarmed weaker Berber tribes of the Takna confederation. Thus, the warrior tribes and nobility would be Arab.
However, most tribes, regardless of their mixed heritage, tend to claim some form of Arab ancestry, as this has been key to achieving social status. Many (the so-called chorfa
tribes) will also claim descendancy from the Prophet Muhammad
himself. In any case, no tribal identity is cut in stone, and over the centuries a great deal of intermarriage and tribal re-affiliation has occurred to blur former ethnic/cultural lines; groups have often seamlessly re-identified to higher status identities, after achieving the military or economic strength to defeat former rulers. This was, for example, the case of the largest of the Sahrawi tribes, the Reguibat
. A Berber-descended zawiya
(scholarly) tribe who in the 18th century took up camel
nomadism and warrior traditions, they simultaneously took on more and more of an Arab identity, reflecting their new position alongside the traditional warrior castes of Arab Hassane origin, such as the Oulad Delim and the Arabic-speaking tribes of the Tekna confederation.
Social and ethnic hierarchy
Generally speaking, the Hassaniya populations were (or are) divided into several groups, of different social status.
At the peak of society were the aristocratic
"warrior" lineages or clans
, the Hassane
, supposed descendants of the Beni Hassan Arab tribe (cf. Oulad Delim
). Below them stood the "scholarly" or "clerical" lineages. These were called marabout
tribes (cf. Oulad Tidrarine
). The latter designation the preferred one in among the Western Sahara-centered tribes, who would also almost invariably claim chorfa
status to enhance their religious credibility. The zawiya tribes were protected by Hassan overlords in exchange for their religious services and payment of the horma
, a tributary tax in cattle
or goods; while they were in a sense exploited, the relationship was often more or less symbiotic. Under both these groups, but still part of the Western Sahara society, stood the znaga
tribes—tribal groups labouring in demeaning occupations, such as fishermen
), as well as peripheral semi-tribal groups working in the same fields (among them the "professional" castes, mallemin
). All these groups were considered to be among the bidan
, or whites.
Below them ranked servile groups known as Haratin
, a black population, according to some sources descendants of the original Sahara population, but more generally seen to be the descendants of freed slaves of African
. (Note that "Haratin", a term of obscure origin, has a different meaning in the Berber regions of Morocco.) They often lived serving affiliated bidan
(white) families, and as such formed part of the tribe, not tribes of their own. Below them came the slaves themselves, who were owned individually or in family groups, and could hope at best to be freed and rise to the status of Haratin. Rich bidan families would normally own a few slaves at the most, as nomadic societies have less use of slave labour than sedentary societies; however, in some cases, slaves were used to work oasis
plantations, farming dates
, digging wells
Best reference on Sahrawi population ethnography is the work of Spanish anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja
, who in 1952–53 spent several months among native tribes all along the Spanish Sahara
. He published in 1955 a monumental book on the subject,
whose thoroughness and depth have not been equaled so far
According to the Ethnologue database, there were more than three million Hassaniya
speakers in 2006, of whom 2.7 million resided in Mauritania.
The number of Hassaniya speakers identifying as Sahrawi
in the modern political sense is unknown, and estimates are hotly contested by partisans in the Western Sahara conflict. Most estimates however center around 200,000 to 400,000.
These populations are centered in southern Morocco, Western Sahara, and in the Tindouf Province
of Algeria, where large number of refugees
from Western Sahara are located.
Sahrawis' native language is the Hassānīya
, a variety of Arabic originally spoken by the Beni Hassan
Arabian tribes of the Western Sahara
. It has almost completely replaced the Berber languages originally spoken in this region. Though clearly a western dialect, Hassānīya is relatively distant from other North African variants of Arabic. Its geographical location exposed it to influence from Zenaga
. There are several dialects of Hassaniya; the primary differences among them are phonetics. Today Hassaniya is spoken in south-western Algeria, northern Mali, Mauritania, southern-Morocco and Western Sahara. (Mauritania has the biggest concentration of speakers)
. Some Sahrawis speak Tashelhit
and/or Moroccan Arabic
as a second language due to interaction with neighboring populations.
The current Moroccan constitution (adopted in July 2011) mentions, in its 5th article, the Hassaniya language and recommends its preservation as a cultural heritage of Morocco.
Algerian authorities have estimated the number of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria to be 165,000. For many years this figure was referred to by UNCHR
, but in 2005 the organization reduced the number of "vulnerable refugees
" to 90,000, until a census
to determine the exact number of refugees in the camps could be done.
The Moroccan government contends that the figure is much lower, around 45,000 to 50,000, and that these people are kept in the refugee camps against their will by Polisario.
Mauritania houses about 26,000 Sahrawi refugees,
classified by UNHCR as "people in a refugee-like situation".
This population consists both of original refugees to the territory, and of former Tindouf dwellers who have since migrated to Mauritania.
, the Sahrawis are Sunni Muslims
of the Maliki
rite or school. Historically, religious practice has been pragmatically adapted to nomad life and local tradition. Also, since the late medieval period, various Sufi Turuq
(brotherhoods or orders), have played an important role in popular religious practice; the most important among these are the Qadiriyya
. Further, among the Hassaniya tribes, certain lineages reputed to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed, the chorfa
, have played an important role in intertribal religious society.
was the historical basis of social and political organisation among the Hassaniya-speaking tribes of the Sahara, well into the colonial and arguably post-colonial period. Traditionally, Hassaniya Sahrawi society was completely tribal, organized in a complex web of shifting alliances and tribal confederations, with no stable and centralized governing authority.
Lawmaking, conflict resolution and central decision-making within the tribe, was carried out by the Djema'a
, (Arabic, gathering) a gathering of elected elders (shaykhs
) and religious scholars. Occasionally, larger tribal gatherings could be held in the form of the Ait Arbein (Group of Forty)
, which would handle supratribal affairs such as common defence of the territory or common diplomacy
. During colonial times, Spain attempted to assume some of the legitimacy of these traditional institutions by creating its own Djema'a, a state-run political association that supported its claims to the territory.
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Western Sahara conflict
- Hodges, Tony (1983), Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Lawrence Hill Books (ISBN 0-88208-152-7)
- Jensen, Erik (2005), Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate, International Peace Studies (ISBN 1-58826-305-3)
- Mercer, John (1976), Spanish Sahara, George Allen & Unwid Ltd (ISBN 0-04-966013-6)
- Norris, H.T. (1986), The Arab Conquest of the Western Sahara, Longman Publishing Group (ISBN 0-582-75643-X)
- Pazzanita, Anthony G. and Hodges, Tony (1994), Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, Scarecrow Press (ISBN 0-8108-2661-5)
- Shelley, Toby (2004), Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa's Last Colony?, Zed Books (ISBN 1-84277-341-0)
- Thobhani, Akbarali (2002), Western Sahara Since 1975 Under Moroccan Administration: Social, Economic, and Political Transformation, Edwin Mellen Press (ISBN 0-7734-7173-1)
- Thompson, Virginia and Adloff, Richard (1980), The Western Saharans. Background to Conflict, Barnes & Noble Books (ISBN 0-389-20148-0)
Last edited on 20 April 2021, at 16:06
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