Friday, May 11, 2007

Meal 43. Sahrawi Couscous

This meal is the most "political" meal I have had during the whole project. The nationality "Sahrawi" probably won't ring a bell for most people. It is the term used by/for refugees from the Western Sahara territory. This is a huge chunk of Morocco; on some maps it will have a different color. After Spain left Morocco in 1975, control of the Western Sahara has been disputed by Mauritania, the Moroccan government and Frente Polisario, who want independence for the region.

And it is the representation for Polisario in the Netherlands, Ali, who will be making couscous for me tonight. I got to know him through a friend of mine, who got a visa from him to visit the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. It is very interesting to meet someone whose life has been influenced so strongly by the politics of his home country. He had just been studying medicine in Spain for three years when he was called back in the mid seventies to help his country fight the Moroccan rule. He mostly served by running the Red Cross and remembers the period as very difficult. There was a lot of fighting then, guerilla warfare with a lot of people getting hurt or killed.
The Polisario formed a kind of government in exile of the Sahrawi refugee population in Algeria. Ali was their minister of education for a while and tells me about many young Sahrawi being educated in Cuba. Mostly as doctors and as teachers. They shared the language and the common past as Spanish colonies.
Ali has had many different "nationalities", as the Sahrawi passport is only recognized in certain countries and he has to be able to travel freely to represent Polisario. At the moment, he is officially Spanish.

During the preparations for the meal, we speak about the past and present of his country and I am impressed by his gentle spirit. His attitude seems to be a mix of sadness, frustration, determination and hope. The fight for independence has been going on for so long now, more than 30 years. And though there has been a ceasefire and talk of a referendum since 1991, no real steps forward have been taken. It is virtually impossible for a Sahrawi to travel from the camps in Algeria to his birthplace because of the wall that has been built by the Moroccan government.

In essence, the couscous Ali is preparing is not that different from the Moroccan couscous I had earlier (see Meal 12. ). Again, the couscous is steamed twice, with a lot of attention to the "fluffing" in between, as seen at right. It is served with succulent lamb, chick peas and a multitude of vegetables. Squash, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, tomatoes and nabos, turnips. Ali tells me that though this is typical, a more unique meal is eaten in the Sahara desert. When groups of men head out into the desert for whatever reason, they will take flour, onions and meat with them. The flour is made into unleavened bread with the sand as an oven. This is served with a sauce of meat and onions on top. For the authentic experience I think I would have to travel with them into the desert! Who knows if this might happen one day...who knows what the situation of the Western Sahara will be then...


Anonymous said...

Ms Jaffe, your post mentioned that "It is virtually impossible for a Sahrawi to travel from the camps in Algeria to his birthplace because of the wall that has been built by the Moroccan government". That's a half of truth mixed with a half of lie. The wall was indeed built by Morocco for a reason : to stop Polisario attacks and it has succeeded in that. Since the war began in the 70's until now, the East side of the Western Sahara, where troops are located, is a war zone, i.e. no one uses it to travel because of the military presence and because of landmines put there by both parties. Now, people in the camps who want to visit relatives in the Moroccan side of the Sahara (and vice-versa) can do so through the U.N who runs a program called "family visits" where a limited number of families from the Moroccan side of the Sahara and the refugee camps are flown by UN airplanes (see Another way for sahrawis refugees to go to Morocco is simply to escape from the camps in Algeria, something that hundreds of normal people and senior member of Polisario have done through the years (
For these reasons, your guest's statement that refugees can't go to their birthplace because of the wall was lacking in precision if not honesty.

80meals said...

Well, it doesn't sound like a simple trip to me!
Thank you for your attention to detail. I know this is a controversial topic and I hope it can be brought to the attention of a wider public. Though my 80meals project isn't that politically motivated. I just wanted to show how interesting it is to have people from different cultures living in our country.

StudentintheUS said...

It seems that your culinary project led you to a complex cuisine this time !

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny,

Great to read this story, it makes me miss the nice Sahrawi desert meals. Sheep meat with onions and a bit salt boiled for a very long time on a wood fire, to be eaten with bread. It is actually very tasty. Wood is precious in the desert so when we found some we would carry it with us for days (with a 4x4 but still...). Nice memories :-)


80meals said...

Ali asked me to respond to the first commentary by saying that indeed it is possible to visit family through the UN, but it is very difficult. Partly because the Moroccan authorities don't trust and thus don't facilitate these visits. He suggests you read the reporting of the Moroccan journalist Ali Lemrabet (written in 2006) to get a better idea of life in the camps.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Jaffe, I am obliged again to answer Mr. Ali statement that Morocco is responsible of not facilitating the family visits. I am not going to bring subjective sources, I will go straight to the U.N 2007 report (the organisation that runs the program) about the Western Sahara. Here is the link to the report from the U.N website ( if you go to page 7, title D - Confidence Building Measures, you will read that the U.N Secretay General is clearly saying that both parties are helping to ensure the good execution of that operation. He didn't mention any obstacle put either by Morocco nor by Polisario.
Mr Ali, I can respect that you want to defend a cause, but I don't respect that you do that by lying.

Property in Morocco said...

Wow nice blog.
Very amazing pictures.
Morocco, the culinary star of North Africa, is the doorway between Europe and Africa. Much imperial and trade influence has been filtered through her and blended into her culture. Unlike the herb-based cooking across the sea to the north, Moroccan cooking is characterized by rich spices. I like Moroccan cuisine very much. Very sorry that in the city where i am living is no such cuisine.