The Manufacturing of Belonging

A Study of Land Ownership in the Sahrawi Community (the Ait Oussa Tribes, 1600-1958)

As part of the Doctoral Dissertations series, the ACRPS has published The Manufacturing of Belonging: A Study of Land Ownership in the Sahrawi Community (the Ait Oussa Tribes, 1600-1958) by Salem Ouakari (488 pp.). The book investigates the relationship between Ait Oussa society and the land, asking questions relating to the space’s management and use at three levels: material-technical, sociorelational, and symbolic-cultural. These levels illustrate a serious, controversial issue, spanning epochs and various questions to become a universal social reality.

The study lays the groundwork for understanding the present and devising routes to social development. It offers a realistic, scholarly reading of the problems associated with researching Sahrawi society in Morocco by reviewing several approaches aimed at formulating an academic interpretation thereof. Using social action as a basis, the book is driven by pedagogical evidence for the representations Ait Oussa society has established about itself and its environment.

Land and inter-identity contact

Land has been a decisive factor in the formation of individual and group identity, especially in the Assa Oasis, and a resource for manufacturing belonging. People are involuntarily and irrevocably drawn toward the land, which played a fundamental role in shaping strategies and drawing the boundaries of dissent. Despite the varied foundations of these identities (Almoravid, Haratin, nomadic, etc.), land is the point of contact for them all, each one using it to legitimize and affirm its presence. We are, thus, faced with overlapping, conflicting identities that catalyse one another. They may be said to be “legitimized”, produced by dominant elites, and derived essentially from two sources: first is symbolic capital, or a temporal power using the land to justify and legitimize its dominance; and second, a “resistance” identity whereby land ownership is the highest form of resistance, to combat underestimation and degradation – as a result of the behaviour and logic of dominant elements and the formulation of an interface by which a network of oasis symbolism can emerge and acquire meaning.

Sub-identities chiefly defined by the land used to appear within each identity; thus, skin colour and race were mere justifications for what are essentially material and symbolic conflicts and a way to obscure socioeconomic inequality.

Methods of land use

Variation between landowners in the expressions of land ownership and the size of parcels had an obvious impact on how modes of land use were determined. These produced a set of forms of production, social roles, then production relations concerning land use and cultivation, and the associated forms of regulation. As a result, agricultural land in Ait Oussa territory has been subject to two forms of use: direct use and instrumental use (via a form of partnership, mortgage, or deputization).

The pastoral space

By relying on its customs and rules (which developed to suit the nomadic lifestyle and tribal system of the Bedouin), the group sought to organize the use of their space, which was not easy to control, to manage and regulate violence therein, and to defend it from incursions by other tribes in order to maintain its power. The shock that colonialism inflicted upon this space and its inhabitants had a major impact on the relationship between the space and the group, leading to power being taken away from the latter. This began with the upper-level colonial authorities’ attempt to destabilize and destroy the group’s structure with the exception of its most basic boundaries, which do not pose a direct threat. The authorities then created a group above it that they used as a means to control and monitor the space. But the efforts of the protectorate regime and its strict bureaucracy, unable to process the particularities of how the group relates to its space, motivated the Ait Oussa to maintain their traditional system as a countervailing power (contre-pouvoir) to the colonial regime. This in turn led the colonists to try and control the situation without an official acknowledgement, taking advantage of it to reach “palatable hegemony”.

Still, it is a foregone conclusion to argue that the group’s relationship to its space has changed; a space of refuge, the defence of which was a high priority, has transformed into a particular territory that operates by highly centralized rules the likes of which it had never before known (i.e., territorialization). As the group’s relationship to its space evolved, so too did its relationship to other tribal communities. Disarmament had a clear impact on mutual violent relations: the battles died down, the past was over, and a period of spatial expansion in favour of the state’s timeframe had come to an end. After losing one of its most important components, “the soil”, a new phase of the tribe’s fragmentation began.

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