I have learned to feel empowered by rootlessness. Growing up first generation, far away from either of my parents’ homelands or families, I had trouble feeling that I belonged anywhere. In fact, I spent all of my time mimicking the people around me at any given moment, desperate for a singular, uncomplicated identity. America was my reality—but it was not my history. My histories were old and imbedded in the Mediterranean, the Eastern Sahara.
This rootlessness, however, is only metaphorical and metaphysical. I exist in databases and have papers proving that I am a citizen of the United States. Belonging to either Italy or Egypt are social perceptions of my name and my background, but they have no bearing on my rights as a citizen of a recognized nation. In the eyes of international law, my rights as a human are qualified and dependent on my citizenship to a country. Essentially, my reality is not rootless at all.
That is not true for my fellow Saharan, Hamdi Jaafar Mohammed. He, like many other Sahrawi from the Western Sahara, has been waiting for Western Sahara to officially become an independent country since 1991. The Sahrawi were part of the Spanish Occupied Sahara until Morocco invaded the area in the 1960s. Spain withdrew and split the territory between Morocco and Mauritania, ignoring the Sahrawi’s indigenous claims for independence.
This fight for independence had been an active, militant project by the Polisario Front against Spanish occupation years before the Western Sahara was surrendered to Morocco. One of the last colonies in Africa, and annexed again without a United Nations approved vote on the future of the state, the Polisario Front declared themselves part of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February of 1976.
After years of fighting, Mauritania finally withdrew from the area, leaving Morocco to seize control of the entire country. The fighting continued until Morocco and the Polisario signed a ceasefire in 1991, agreeing that the Sahrawi people would be able to vote in a referendum the next year. It was one of the only options left to the Front, after Morocco built a sand wall over 990 miles long and surrounded by land mines. This wall trapped the Polisario to the inland desert, effectively halting their resistance to Moroccan occupation. Those thousands who were able to flee to sympathetic Algeria are still waiting in refugee camps for the referendum they were promised.
Hamdi, currently a soldier in the Polisario, has had his roots taken from him. Although he is among the few that remain in Sahrawi controlled Western Sahara, he is no less stateless than those who are in camps on the other side of the wall. In the halls of the United Nations and in the pages of academic journals, we discuss the struggle of decolonization. Meanwhile, the Western Sahara remains, to this day, the only open file left at the United Nations Decolonization Committee. The transition from colony to independent state is notorious for conflict, and the Sahrawi people are some of the last in Africa to have been denied the chance to transition.
The reality of Hamdi’s identity is tied to the borders that confine nationhood, arbitrarily drawn by those who have the might and money to do so. The sovereignty of the Polisario has been recognized by some nations and the African Union, while others—including the Arab League—acknowledge Morocco’s claim. The Sahrawi people wait on the whims and political interests of other nations to acknowledge their claim, never having had the chance to exercise their human right to self-determination.
I am privileged to be able to mull over my identity while having nations and a citizenship to ground me. I can choose to call myself Egyptian or Italian, I can even apply for dual citizenship with either country. Hamdi has been made Moroccan and he cannot be Sahrawi, so he waits, rootless in his exile of sand.
By Myriam Bestowrous