Noé Mendelle is the director of Al Khadra: Poet of the Desert, part of the POETS IN PROTEST series made by SDI Productions for Al Jazeera English. Noé has previously blogged about the shoot for this film in the Western Sahara. Today, she is sharing her observations of Al Khadra, the renowned Sahrawi war poetess.
Now in her late seventies, Khadra has been composing verse about freedom since she was a child – and about the conflict with Morocco over the last 36 years. She became the Sahrawi poet and is known amongst her people as “Poet of the Rifle”. I wanted to start the film with the “wall of shame” as a way of introducing the history of Western Sahara and bring Khadra face to face with her enemy.
When we got to within five kilometres of the "wall" we had to abandon the car and leave the police escort behind. We walked a little bit closer with Khadra and the camera. The sight of the wall was very disappointing because it is so far away and looks just like one long sand dune. We could not get any closer because of the many landmines and the Moroccan rifles pointing at us. Khadra just sat on the ground, in profound silence, looking at the Moroccan soldiers who were looking back at us through their binoculars. After a while of sitting there, with just the desert wind and flies as companions, she lifted her fist to the Moroccan army and delivered a short poem that she had just made up:
I want to start the film with the 'wall of shame' as it is known from a beautiful song, as a way to introduce the history of Western Sahara. In order to get there, we had to get permission of the Polisario Protocol Bureau and get a police car escort. I asked Khadra if she would consider coming with us. She immediately accepted and offered that some of her family members join us. That meant two daughters and her son and his wife and a few kids!
They asked me to go and buy camel meat so we could have a picnic in the desert. The two Land Rovers were loaded with pots and pans and meat. It took a 2-hour drive across sand and stone to get there. The police car was driving sometimes at the front, sometimes at the back, trying to foresee danger. It felt like we were in a car chase movie! Meanwhile in our Land Rover, music was blasting out of the speakers and the women were waving their arms in the air and singing along. They have many revolutionary songs with wonderful rhythms. It was impossible to film or take photos, as the car was shaking so much. But I want you to imagine those beautiful, rather large women, with every inch of skin covered but their eyes. And some of them had large black sunglasses. In total disguise, yet having the time of their lives!
Woke up with the anticipation of visiting Algiers. It is such a beautiful city, built on hills and looking at the sea. People compare it to Marseilles, but actually it is more beautiful. White buildings with beautiful blue iron balcomies. Large pleasant avenues with trees and gardens, and the constant view of the sea. Having a rest from walking through the casbah, we saw that the cinematheque was playing one of my favourite films, Touki Bouki, so we went in. There were four of us! The sound kept breaking down, but it was still pleasurable to see the film on a big screen in Africa.
Time to get to airport, only to discover that we had two seats but bad luck: the pilots were on strike, so we may or may not have a plane... So we waited and waited, and two hours later we were rushed through customs (yes, it seems they can do it) and onto a plane to Tindouf. Our poor fixer Hamdi had been waiting for us there for the last 30 hours.
The Scottish Documentary Institute has been commissioned by Aljazeera to make a six-part series on Poets in Protest. One of them is on the Sahrawi poetess Khadra who happens to be an old lady living in exile in one of the Polisario Camps in the middle of Sahara.
For those of you who do not know about the Sahrawi cause, these citizens of Western Sahara not only got colonised by the Spanish many moons ago. Once they managed to become independent, the Morrocans moved on their territory, pushed them out, and build a 3,000km wall around it. They also planted over 8 million land mines to make sure that the Sahrawi will not cross back into their land. Algeria gave the Sahrawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, refuge on its territory and set up several camps for people to live – and so they have for the last 35 years. The war has moved into diplomacy rather than military and therefore they now live peacefully in those camps but In a state of complete dependence on international aid.
With Roxana Vilk, the producer of the series, we decided that Al Khadra will be the perfect example of grassroot poetry. She uses words instead of bullets in order to express her anger at Morocco's invasion.