Interview with Saharawi Singer Mariem Hassan

Mariem Hassan
Mariem Hassan expresses herself naturally in Hassania, the language of the Saharawis, but has serious difficulties with Spanish. That’s why she has rarely agreed to be interviewed. This is why this interview, reproduced from a long encounter with Carmelo Lattassa, has double value.

“We have our language (Hassania, closely related to the Berbers of Mauritania). The Mauritanians have the same music that we do but ours is more modern. They have the haul (aboriginal rhythm and form) as we do. Our songs are different because we talk of our problems since we fled from the Sahara, songs of the
children crying because their fathers went to war and never came back. They talk about the women whose husbands and fathers went to war, never to return, they talk about the deaths, of life, of politics, of god, of our land to which we hope to return. 

I have a song about my brothers. It’s called “Tus Ojos Lloran” (Your Eyes Cry) and talks about my brothers and my father. One afternoon, in a rehearsal, a friend of mine came. She called me away to tell me that my brothers were dead. So, I cried and after that I started to sing. When I wrote the song, I thought of my brothers, in the time we lived in the Sahara, climbing the mountain with them, entering our jaima with them, talking with them, living with them, and I ask myself “where are they?After the Spaniards abandoned the Saharawi colony, the Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania. The Saharawi people fled to Algerian lands and founded the S.D.A.R. (Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic, recognized by 76 countries). 

The Mauritanian perseverance ceased, but even today, we are waiting for a referendum on the land, occupied by the Moroccan government. The Saharawis confronted the military occupation, but the Moroccan army superiority brought many deaths to the Saharawis.

When I have problems, I say: “Mulana (God), help me.” Life is like that. If someone has problems, if someone is ill, someone is dead, someone lives well, someone lives badly, someone has problems with his family, his government, his work, life goes on. For example, if my husband died, did I die too? No, I have
to think about how I should live and how my children are going to live in the future. That’s how it is.

You, the Westerners, have walls to hang your portraits. We, instead, live in cloth tents. When it rains, the water gets in the tent and wets the mats and everything. When it is cold, it’s really cold. (In the desert, temperatures can reach below freezing point.) Most of the people have nothing to heat the tents with. When it’s hot, it can reach over 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) and that makes life really hard.

We cook all the dry foods: lentils, beans, and things like that because they last longer. Then we go to the wells to look for the water to cook it. The water is really salty, but that’s what there is. We make the bread, the food and everything with the hands and we all live inside the jaimas, the mother, the father, the children and the one who comes to visit.

When I started to compose, I didn’t have an instrument with me, only a drum. Before, we sat in circles and sang for ourselves but each year we do more things. We go out and do it differently. Now we gather Shueta, Mudleila (Saharawi singers) and me, together with two guitar players and compose. But when I’m alone, I compose only with a drum. I do the lyrics and then the music, like this, until the song comes out. Sometimes it works well, sometimes badly, like this. I only write the lyrics. The music is by heart.

A poet sees a woman, and describes her and makes a poem, but I don’t, I do things singing. Before the war, we did songs of love and beautiful things but the war and the lack of our land made us talk of more important things about the kids, the martyrs, the war.

The haul has really strict rules of memory and interpretation. The contemporary singers usually write the lyrics but the rest of it is still being done in the old way. The accompaniment is with the tebal, a drum of about 60 centimeters in diameter, made of a dug out wooden bowl and leather from the skin of a camel or goat. It is played with the hands, almost exclusively by women, producing a dry and deep sound at the same time.

From its origin, they used the tidinit, an instrument of dug out wood and a leather lid, similar to a four-stringed guitar. Since some time ago, the guitar is used in the songs because of its harmonic richness. It’s interpreted from the forms of the tidinitthat’s why it sounds so different and is especially difficult for the Westerner, accustomed to the classical guitar.

When I sing for someone different than my people, I feel happy, always happy. And when the audience applauds, I do it better, with more joy. I was married two times. My first husband didn’t want me to sing or to do these cultural things. When I got married, it was in the old way he talks with my family, my brothers, but
not with me. I gave him three sons but I didn’t like his attitude. He didn’t like me to do anything, neither singing, nor working in the wilaya, so I told him that I couldn’t continue this way. Then, he signed a letter saying that he released me because the woman cannot separate from the men by Islamic law (Sharia).

But I chose my present husband first ,you have to build the love and then the rest. We participate in everything the men do because our Islam is easy, it’s not an imposed Islam. I travel many time out of the wilaya, to different countries and my husband sees it as normal. When I return I go back to my other work, as a nurse. I always think of returning to the occupied Sahara. I only think of return.

The interview with Carmelo Lattassa ends with this illustration:

Mariem’s Spanish is simple and limited. She had great difficulties to answer the questions. When she was asked for the first time if she found poetry in everyday life, she answered, “When I’m in the camps, I get up at seven and get the children ready for school. Sometimes I leave the lentils in the kitchen and ask
my neighbor to take care of them. Then I go to work, and when I return, I find the kitchen burnt.  Then, I do couscous, I do rice, preserves with milk…”

Courtesy of Nubenegra. Translated by José Ocaña and Tess Mangum-Ocaña. Edited by Angel Romero

jaima is a large desert tent. Pronounced ha-ee-mah

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