What to Read – What to Do – Western Sahara/Algeria
THE PLACE: Western Sahara/Algeria
WHAT TO READ: See How Much I Love You by Luis Leante
WHAT TO DO: Run a marathon in the Sahara
“We could lay down foundations for buildings, plan streets, dig drains into the ground. But that would mean we’re giving up. We’re only here temporarily, because our country is occupied by invaders. Once the war is over, we’ll go back. And all this will be swallowed by the desert.” – See How Much I Love You (p138)
THE BOOK: Luis Leante’s book See How Much I Love You is set in the Western Sahara, a disputed territory either south of Morocco, or IN the south of Morocco, depending on which side of the dispute you find yourself. In 1975 Santiago, a young broken-hearted Spaniard, decides to get as far away from home and his failed relationship with girlfriend Montse as he can imagine, by do his military service in Spain’s only African colony, Western Sahara. But it is the dying days of the colony and with the death of dictator Francisco Franco, Spain decides it is time to get out and leave this desert land to the local Saharawi people, some of whom Santiago has befriended. At the last minute, Spain changes its mind and negotiates to allow Morocco and Mauritania to take over Western Sahara.
Thirty years later Montse wonders what has happened to her first love, and sets out to find him. She travels to Algeria, where thousands of Saharawi fled to escape Moroccan rule. They settled in refugee camps and have been there for decades as they try to win back their land.
WHAT TO DO: Independent travel to much of Western Sahara and the areas around the refugee camps is not recommended; a read of See How Much I Love you and a closer look at the political situation will explain why. But there is one way you can make an escorted visit to the camps and experience life there for yourself. Towards the end of February each year, the Sahara marathon brings together hundreds of international runners and and similar numbers of Saharawi who take part in 5k, 10k, 21k or 42k races across the desert near the refugee camps.
Image courtesy of SaharaMarathon
Not only can you participate in one of the races, but you can join a week-long cultural and educational program in the camps,which will see you living with a Saharawi family. There are four main refugee camps all named after places in Western Sahara proper, which are run by the Saharawi themselves. After more than 35 years, the camps are more like small towns, with schools, hospitals, prisons and courts.
Image courtesy of SaharaMarathon
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: Taking part in the Saharamarathon is not just a unique travel experience, or a chance to prove your sporting prowess, it is a political statement. The marathon is aimed at showing solidarity to the Saharawi people and their quest to win autonomy for Western Sahara. I would advise you to do your research and make sure you are comfortable with that before taking part. And while the organisers of the marathon and support group Sandblast do all they can to make the event a safe one, just be aware that there are always going to be risks involved in traveling to this area of Algeria. Ask questions, do your reading, and if you are satisfied with the answers, then enjoy taking part in a unique experience that invites you into the heart of Saharawi life and culture.
VIDEO TO WATCH: This promotional video for the marathon is a little out of date – but it gives you an idea of what to expect.
One person’s experience of the marathon “I felt so pleased that I’d actually done it, not only for having completed the marathon but also because I’d been able to learn about what is going on here.”
Questions and Answers about the marathon “Walk around the camps, talk with people, play with kids… that will be an awesome experience. “
Further info about the camps
BOOK SOURCE: Own copy
P.S If you have enjoyed this post, then I suspect you would enjoy my free online bookclub, in which we are taking a fiction adventure around the world. Read more about it here.