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Until recently, the Saharawis were nomads who traveled on camels


by Adriaan Bronkhorst

It was 1973. I was an associate expert with a UN Development Administration project in Congo-Brazzaville and on a research mission to a few other African countries. I had just finished a visit with the National School of Administration in Tangier, Morocco and was on my way to Mauretania for a similar visit in the capital city, Nouakchott. We had two stopovers : In Casablanca, where the almost empty plane filled up with military and police officers, and in El-Aaiún (nowadays called Laayoune), where they would all get off, ready to fight the Sahrawi Polisario and secure this Spanish colony of the Western Sahara for the Moroccan king.

Map of the Western Sahara, south of Morocco and to the west of Algeria and Mauretania

I got this information about the troops from the Moroccan colonel who was seated to my right, on the aisle. As fate would have it, to my left, at the window, sat an old Sahrawi woman, big, barefooted, in a long black dress and the traditional kerchief with niqab. After we’d been served couscous for lunch, the stewardess picked up the empty trays. The colonel spoke in Arabic to our fellow passenger at my left who hadn’t touched her food and then addressed himself to me. ‘Sir, please, could you help my mother to eat? She has never done it this way.’ He pointed at the cutlery, the little trays, bowls, cup, and food, all neatly packed in cellophane. ’My pleasure’ I replied. Not fully understanding the request, I unpacked everything and put it on the tray, just as I had done for myself. Then I looked at the lady, made an inviting gesture and said, ‘Bon appétit’. But my neighbor didn’t move, and the colonel said, ‘No sir, she has never eaten with a fork and knife, you have to feed her.’ He made a gesture of bringing a fork to her mouth. Almost chuckling I said, ‘Me, feed her?’ But the colonel had already explained to his mother how I was going to serve her and showed her how, each time I would approach her mouth with the fork, she should raise her niqab, open her mouth, shut her mouth the moment I had put the fork inside, and lower her niqab the moment I had pulled the fork from her mouth. I realized this wasn’t a joke, but essential servicing to be executed efficiently and discreetly, in order to leave my fellow passenger with all her dignity. So, I cut the sheep meat into pieces, mixed it with the bean sauce through the couscous, took the fork and brought a first portion to my neighbor’s mouth. She raised her niqab and opened her mouth, just as the colonel had explained to her. I looked at her, ready to place the fork in her mouth but was taken aback. I tried to hide my discomfort, in vain, as the colonel had followed my every move. ‘It isn’t that bad; she won’t bite you’ he said. I imagined that he was laughing. The wide-open mouth under the niqab was a big toothless hole. It clapped shut with a smack after I had hesitantly put the fork on her enormous tongue. Gently I withdrew the fork and my neighbor lowered her niqab. Once she had emptied her mouth it would be raised again for the next bite. This ritual would be repeated until all the food was finished. By that time, we were nearly ready for landing. The folding tables had to be closed and the serving tray was taken away. The colonel started to thank me profusely. ‘My brother! You don’t mind I call you my brother, do you?’ I nodded my approval and he continued ‘Thank you so much for feeding our mother. Without your help she would have gone hungry into the desert. I am so pleased. At this moment the Sahrawi people – like her – are perhaps our enemies, but the Koran says that Allah will reward you when you feed your enemy.’


The colonel now looked at me expectantly. ‘I’d like to ask you, do you smoke?’ I pointed at the no-smoking sign right above our heads and shook my head to indicate ‘no’. But the colonel said ‘No, no, that’s not what I mean. Not tobacco, but the sacred hashish of our country?’ I was surprised and looked around me. The colonel had spoken in a pretty loud voice, all seats around us were occupied and anyone could have heard our discussion. But the colonel told me not to worry, that ‘most people here smoke hashish, its prohibition doesn’t apply to the army. But you, my brother, do you smoke?’ I smiled at him and nodded in the affirmative. Meanwhile our plane prepared for landing. Our safety belts were fastened, and we were supposed to remain seated. But the colonel snapped his fingers and ordered the stewardess who hurriedly arrived to take his briefcase out of the luggage rack and bring it to him as well as a sharp knife. Once he got both he opened his briefcase and took a pocketbook size parcel from it. Carefully he removed the packing and showed me a splendid slab of brown hashish which he cut into two equal parts. He put one part back into his briefcase and wrapped the other part neatly in the original paper and held it out to me.

Ketama Gold hashish, from the Moroccan Ketama region

“This is the best Ketama Gold I've got. As between brothers, one half for you, one half for me. I’ll need it to fight the Sahrawi, so that I will not forget, even then, that they also are my brothers.”
Dumbfounded and without fully realizing what the colonel had said, I took the hashish. I thanked him and saw the joy in his eyes because we now shared this present. ‘Now we too are forever brothers,’ he said solemnly. A few minutes later the plane landed, and my Sahrawi neighbor and all the military disembarked. When he reached the end of the gangway the colonel turned around, looked at me and tipped his kepi for a final salute. Farewell, mon frère.

It took me years to fully appreciate what had happened. The colonel, a man of great sensitivity, eager to meet others with respect and love, was also a professional who hired his services in the combat industry. Even if he did not agree with the objectives of the battle, he would have to fight, it was his contractual duty. There was no way to escape responsibility for his actions, fighting was his own choice. He fully took this responsibility and as he wanted to be a human among his fellows, while justifying being able to kill them, he also had to, and wanted to, fraternize unconditionally, even with the victim he was going to kill.

He honored an unknown Sahrawi woman as his own mother and made sure that she was taken care of and the person who was helping her to do so became like his own brother. He was willing to welcome everyone he met on his way as his family. And especially in combat, instead of quenching his feelings and dehumanizing the enemy before killing him or being killed by him, he embraced him like a brother. As a soldier, the colonel had to fight, to die was his possible fate, to kill his duty, but at that fatal moment he would not behave like a coward, but like a man, a brother, who, at the moment when the end of his life was approaching or that he took the life of the other, honored him. Even while causing death, he wanted to live brotherhood, savor humanity and life.

That the colonel gave me half his hash has always intrigued me. A disproportionate reward for trivial service, I thought. But my intervention was important to the colonel, because it confirmed my recognition of his respect for his fellow human beings, the proof of his own life. Thanks to my help for the Saharawi woman, I became his brother who helped him take care of our mother. And for the colonel, fraternity is not divided according to learned formulas but according to the heart's desire for equality between members of the human family.

Hemp and war. The experience with the colonel is part of the tradition of peaceful relations between war and hemp. Like those of the American soldiers in Vietnam who, through the use of marijuana, gradually turned into pacifists. Further into the past begins the story of the Nihangs, the soldiers of the Sikh armed order, famous for their military victories. As combatants, they were allowed to use the bang, for free from fear they ensured order, peace, and were called "Servants of the Timeless". And if it is further asserted that the 11th century Hashishins of Syria and Iran, were going to assassinate because they had used hashish, we know that the opposite is the case, because we do not seek the unity that the hashish provides to destroy it, but to cherish it in the ruptures that life imposes on us. Hashish could only have been for these Assassins the medicine that softened the wound of the murder, as it was for my brother the Colonel.

Just as hemp allows us to live heartbreaking but ineluctable moments in a spiritual and emotional balance that it generates and allows us to unite with adversity and the adversary - winner or victim - it can, conversely, also prevent us to destroy precious relationships and situations when a logic of hatred and anguish divides us and urges us to kill each other, even between citizens and friends. A remarkable example comes from Rwanda, a country with a long tradition of using hemp. In the days preceding the start of the Tutsi genocide - which finally began on April 6, 1994 - it was announced at regular intervals on the Hutu genocidal radio station that, "You are listening to Radio Milles Collines. Our chances are high. "Tutsis are in the minority. They represent only 10% of the population. On April 4 and 5, something is about to happen in Kigali. Something that will continue for the following days. Keep an eye on your own area, no cockroach should escape. If you see one, shoot it. Do not smoke your joint until after. Hohoho! ".
Hemp has its reasons that the logic of war does not know. These are the reasons of the heart that inspired the colonel and inspire me too at every meeting