Artscape: Poets of Protest

Al Khadra: Poet of the Desert

The Sahrawi war poetess is a vivid testament to three decades of the Sahara conflict.

Editor’s note: The film was originally broadcast in 2012. 

Al Khadra is a renowned Sahrawi war poetess, living in the windswept al-Auin camp in the Algerian desert.

Now in her late 70s, the oral verse of this illiterate nomad is vivid testament to three decades of the Sahara conflict.

We witness how this extraordinary matriarch survives the hardship and desolation of life in the camp, and see how she keeps her oral poetry alive and attempts to pass on her activism to the next generation.

FILMMAKER’S VIEW: Diaries from a Sahrawi tentpolitically incorrect poet

By Noé Mendelle

Sahrawi poetess Al Khadra is 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 were not only colonised by the Spanish many moons ago. Once they managed to become independent, the Moroccans moved in on their territory, pushed them out, and built a 3,000km wall around it. They also planted over eight million landmines to make sure that the Sahrawi would 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 in – and so they have for the last 35 years. The war has moved into a stage of diplomacy rather than military action and therefore they now live peacefully in those camps – albeit in a state of complete dependence on international aid.

With Roxana Vilk, the producer of the series, we decided that Al Khadra would be the perfect example of grassroots poetry. She uses words instead of bullets in order to express her anger at Morocco’s invasion.

In 2011 three European aid workers were kidnapped in the area. So for security reasons, we decided that the production team would be just me and Luis Correia as director of photography plus a local fixer or translator.

The different camps are south of Tindouf, that is a two-hour flight from Algiers, in the heart of the Sahara. Thirty years ago I visited that part of the world, so I knew what to expect. And for the last nine years Luis and I have been running documentary workshops and filming in Africa – and managed to laugh and smile in face of all the difficulties – and believe me, they are many!

The Sahrawi people are beautiful and funny. Their cause deserves to be heard and resolved, and Al Khadra with her poems and her family became great ambassadors, sharing their feelings with us.

Click here for more on the making of this film.

About the series:

Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.

Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.

In a region long dominated by authoritarian regimes, poetry is the medium for expressing people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Poets became historians, journalists, entertainers – and even revolutionaries.