Book Review

Settled Wanderers by Sam Berkson and Mohamed Sulaiman

a book about an unfamiliar struggle

I am writing to you, again, from the recent past, and again from my recent holiday. I read most of this book while sat on La Graciosa, which is – I believe – tbe smallest permanently settled island of the Canary Isles. It is a roughly 30 minute ferry ride from Orzula, and a stunning, small, piece of land very visibly created by a handful of massive volcanic eruptions. The whole island evidences its own liquid origin, not just in the multiple conical hills, but in the undulating rivers of solidified rock that flow, static, from each of these once-living mountains down to the cool ocean thst surrounds them. I sat on a beach, looking at further, smaller, islands as the archipelago running north from Lanzerote petered out in the distance, and I squinted east towards the horizon, trying to work out if I could see Africa. I might have been able to, but i might also have been staring at a dark, low, cloud. I fell over while scrabbling around off the island’s roads so was bleeding from the hand and cut and bruised like a tree-climbing five year old, so I may well have convinced myself of Africa’s visibility as a way to distract myself from my own petty pain.

ANYWAY.

Africa, obviously, is due east of the Canary Isles, but the geographic specificity of the land that exists there is more complex. Western Sahara was Spain’s final African colony until it was ceded (on the UN’s advice) to Morocco in the mid-70s. The land that exists here is highly disputed, with its original Bedouin inhabitants wanting independence, while Morocco has no plans whatsoever to step away from what is technically (possibly) the last colony in Africa. Settled Wanderers is a 2015 publication from Influx Press (the guys behind recent stonkers Hold Tight and Attrib., as well as the bizarrely pro-Home Counties, anti-public transport infrastructure investment propaganda piece, Signal Failure), and it is sub-titled The Poetry of Western Sahara. In this book, which is credited on the cover to Sam Berkson and Mohamed Sulaiman, are essays and poems by numerous writers, all of whom are writing about the people of Western Sahara. There is an essay by academics who study the region explaining the political background to these pieces, there is an essay by a Saharawi dignitary explaining the history of the Saharawi poem, there are then 60 pages of interpretations/translations of recent poetry from the country, then 60 pages of Berkson’s personal poetry about his time collecting these poems, then biographical information about the Saharawi poets, followed by Arabic transcriptions of some of the pieces translated by Berkson and Mohamed Sulaiman (a Saharawi translator and illustrator).

What the book does well is introduce a reader into a situation of which – for me at least – I knew very little. Although I’ve noticed the blurred line separating Morocco and Western Sahara on maps before, and though I’ve even fucking BEEN to the Sahara in Morocco, the colonial situation – and how recent it is, was something I was ignorant of. The natives of Western Sahara were predominantly nomadic, and when Morocco decided that it wanted the Spanish colony to its South, they manipulated their position as an American ally in the Cold War to make sure the UN gave the land to them (all they had to give up were the fishing rights between the mainland and the Canaries, which they were never even interested in). Moroccan repression was quite heavy, and there was a strong resistance to colonial movements from the 70s onwards. There is still to this day a massive wall erected on the land, and guerrilla and independence movements still exist. Berkson met Sulaiman and they traveled to a refugee camp just over the border in Algeria, where displaced Saharawis lived, waiting for their country to be theirs again. Berkson met several of the people here who were poets – the Saharawis have a great oral tradition – and managed to secure the funding and time to get this collection of their work published.

The Saharawi poems included here (both in Arabic and English translations/interpretations) deal almost entirely with the conflict, and its repercussions. This is a charged geographical space to be in, its ownership disputed, and as a displaced people it is unsurprising that their cultural output is overwhelmingly politicised. What I would have liked to have seen, though, would have been poems included here that dealt with Saharawi life on a more day to day level, which the poems that use [versions of] the Saharawis own words don’t quite allow them to do. It is only when the collection shifts explicitly into Berkson’s voice, and Berkson’s poems, that we begin to get a firmer idea of Saharawi as individuals with individual lives, and rereading the Saharawi poems with a firmer idea of who the poets are does give them a lift.

Berkson’s poems here are stronger than the Saharawi poems: they are more varied in scope and tone and voice, and do not embody the nervous fear of form that his and Sulaiman’s translations/interpretations of the Saharawi poems do. Sorry, I’ve explained that badly: lots of Saharawi poetry has strong formal rhythm and rhyme, but these English language versions aim towards a clarity of meaning more than style. This means that sometimes rhyme is retained, sometimes technical terms or slang are untranslated, and I think – more than anything – it is Berkson’s willingness to allow these other voices to speak that leaves him perhaps underwriting them. By not trying to make the Saharawi verse sound like his own poetic voice – which is strong and engaging – he is perhaps doing them a disservice: by aiming for this honesty in conveyance he doesn’t give these poems the best possible translation, he instead gives them the most “accurate”. This is, I suppose, an idealogical decision, but it feels a little unfair, to me, as I read this book that is ostensibly a collection of Saharawi poetry and came away most impressed by Sam Berkson’s own poetry.

Berkson’s poems explore the people he met while in the refugee camp and nearby, and there is lots of observation, lots of recording. Rather than tell us how these places and people made him feel, he allows them to tell their own stories, he describes their homes and their rituals and their families. Berkson’s poems are not about Berkson, they are about what he is witnessing, and there is a warmth and care to his poetry that firmly humanises the poets whose work – often quite [understandably] blinkered in content – the book contains elsewhere. So, what I think I’m trying to say is that Settled Wanderers is a contradictory book: it is both testament to a culture, but somehow manages to overshadow this culture with its own production. Berkson’s poems here were great, I enjoyed them, but I’m not certain they should have been in the same book as the Saharawi poems, not when, lyrically, poetically, emotionally, his are more successful as poems to a contemporary Western reader.

Then again, maybe this is my own warped reading, and is it my innate preference for the viewpoint of the white Englishman that I should be questioning more harshly? Maybe I am reading Settled Wanderers with my own irresponsible prejudice, and maybe it is me who should have known to avoid the Berkson poets for fear of preferring them to the Saharawi ones?

An interesting and informative collection, with some valuable pieces. I think Berkson, Sulaiman and Influx Press have done an important job in bringing these voices and these poems to the page, but I think it might have been braver to have dedicated the entire volume to Saharawi poets, and allowed them to speak on issues more diverse than just their political struggle. Worth a look, definitely.

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