The Sahrawi Nurse Popstar who Battled Cancer and united her People through Song

Mariam Hassan is a Sahrawi legend born in Smara, Western Sahara. Before becoming a singer and lyricist, Hassan was a nurse during the 1975 war for Western Saharan independence between Morocco and the Polisario. Following Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, Hassan and her family fled to refugee camps in southern Algeria. While Saharawi men had to leave for the battlefield, the women stayed behind to take care of the camps and to heal the wounded men who came back. After three of her brothers were killed in the war, Hassan found her voice through music.

Although singing was not a part of Hassan’s childhood, listening to music and poetry was part of her daily life due to the culture engrained in her nomadic family, in which she was one of ten siblings. A year after the war broke out, Hassan quit her nursing job to join the Saharawi musical group Shahid El Hafed Buyema, a band that was founded in honor of Wali-Mustapa Sayed, the founder of the Polisario. The band became well known after playing in different events in the refugee camps, often traveling to Europe. Being the lead singer, Hassan was able to travel with the band. Her voice rose to popularity after singing the famous track “Polisario Vencera,” meaning “Polisario will prevail.” The song was a hit after it was listened to by thousands of Saharawi via Saharawi radio. After the song was played for a decade, the band officially recorded the track in 1982.

In 1995, Hassan joined the Saharawi group Leyoad and featured on their debut album A pesar de las heridas released by the Spanish label Nubenegra, in 2002. In collaboration with Leyoad, Hassan recorded another album. What made it special was her band’s collaborative tour across Europe with the famous Saharawi guitarist, Nayem Alala.

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After the success of Leyoad’s tour, Hassan made her mark as a solo artist when she recorded her first album Mejed in 2004. The album opened new doors for Hassan not only in Spain where she toured, but also France and Belgium. Just before she departed for her tour in Europe, Hassan was diagnosed with breast cancer, which led to her permanent residency in Spain where she received her treatment.

While still battling cancer in 2005, Hassan recorded her second album ‘Deseos’, meaning ‘wishes’. The album is a reflection of Hassan’s battle with cancer and her personal desire to live and continue to be the voice of the Saharawi people, just as she had been before. The album became a success for various reasons. The main reason was that for the first time Hassan included into her music, the traditional Bidan – meaning the white people of desert in Mauritania and Western Sahara – and their style of music, el Haul. The desert blues track on the album “La Tumchu anni,”, which means b‘don’t leave me’, became incredibly famous. Hassan’s composition of the song was not only a way for her to honor her brothers who were killed in the war, but also a way for her to urge the Saharawi people not to leave her in her fight against cancer.

Despite the success of the album and ‘La Tumchu anni’, a tragedy hit which affected not only Hassan, but also her plan to tour. In the same year the she was hospitalized for more treatment, the producer and guitarist of the album, Baba Salama, passed away due to cancer. This forced her to take a break from performing. In 2007, before her last major operation, Hassan collaborated with the Spanish director Manuel Dominguez to create the documentary “Mariam Hassan: La Voz Del Sahara.” Their aim was to highlight Hassan’s life and musical career. The documentary also explains why Hassan is so highly admired by the thousands of Saharawi in camps and abroad. In the documentary she is described by Manuel Dominguez as a “courageous and enduring character who has become one of the most charismatic and respected singers of the world music scene.”

After successfully enduring her treatment and surgeries, Hassan came back with a new album Shouka in 2010. She made sure to include not only all traditional Saharawi musical instruments and rhythms, but also to touch on the historical past of Spanish colonialism of Western Sahara and the promises given by Spanish politicians that were never kept. Hassan used her new album to advocate for Saharawi rights and to shed light on the refugee situation.

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After the success of Shouka, in 2012, Hassan released her third album ‘El Aaiun egdat’ to honor the Gdeim Izik protest camp which was built in 2010 outside of Western Sahara in protest against Moroccan occupation and the social economic conditions that Saharawi lived under. A few days after the protests took place, Morocco’s security forces raided the camps resulting in dozens of Saharawi injured and several deaths. Shortly after its release, El Aaiun egdat’, made it to number one in the European World Music charts. For her third album, Hassan mixed blues and jazz with traditional Saharawi music and was the first singer to do so. With the success of the album and her improved health, she was able to tour across Africa and Europe.

Mariam Hassan’s music not only made her the voice of her people, but also allowed her to participate in various music festivals. In 2005 she was invited to the World Music Expo (WOMEX) in Australia and after her appearance there, she performed in similar events across the world. ‘El Aaiun egdat’ was not only an international success, but it became a part of the Sahrawi home, especially amongst those who immigrated to Spain in search for a better life. Through her participation in political protests and events, Hassan’s voice became one that united the Saharawi community.

In April 2014, Hassan headed to the refugee camps for her last appearance at FiSahara, an international cinema festival that takes place every year in the camps. Hassan wanted to give her last performance after she received the tragic news that she had only a short time to live due to her cancer coming out of remission. Going back to the camps, she was welcomed by thousands of Saharawi who either wished to hear her for the last time or to say their goodbyes. The night Hassan gave her last concert, she began with an emotional pledge by thanking her people for allowing her to be their voice and also asked for their forgiveness for not being able to continue to fight for their cause for self-determination. Hassan will always be remembered as the voice of the Saharawi people.

Agaila Abba is a writer and poet specializing in North African and Middle Eastern affairs. She is also the editor of Aloha Arabia and can be followed on twitter @Agailita.

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