"Smara" Semara by maykal

Semara Travel Guide: 9 reviews and 36 photos


For many years, Smara was off-limits to tourists, as it lies close to Polisario-held areas, and, as such, is an important base for the Moroccan army. The first I heard of Smara was while looking for information on Laayoune on an official Moroccan tourist website. It mentioned "places of interest" around Laayoune, and one of these was "Historical City of Smara", which surprised me, as I had been led to believe that there were no real historical cities in Western Sahara.

The next time I came across the name, it was on Michael Palin's Sahara programme, where he visited a Sahraoui refugee camp near Tindouf in Algeria. The camp was called Smara, after the town most of the refugees called home.

And that was about it. Guidebooks missed it out. Tourist boards glossed over it without really saying why it was historical. It was there on the map, sometimes, but nobody seemed to want to say anything about it.

Then I found a blog by a traveller who had visited practically every town in Morocco and Western Sahara. He had photos of an old mosque, of red-painted buildings, of strange domed houses and of lots of soldiers. So I decided if ever I was to get to Laayoune, I would make a side trip to Smara.

From Sidi Ifni, i took a shared taxi to Goulimime, then another to Tan Tan. In Tan tan, there was a bit of a delay waiting for enough passengers for Smara, and once we did have enough, the driver realised that our combined luggage would not all fit in his tiny boot. There was much gesticulating and huffing, fingers were wagged, and rope was produced. All the drivers in the bus station came to help out, which was probably why it took a good hour before we were ready to leave, luggage billowing out of a boot vaguely held shut with a bit of string, and six bags haphazardly tied onto the roof.

Just outside Tan Tan, the checkpoints started. The first one was quite time-consuming, as the official had his form to fill in, and he was going to ask every question on it whether relevant or not. It didn't help that he was slightly deaf. Where are you going? Smara. Where?! Smara. Where have you come from? Tan Tan. Where are you from? Britain? Mauritania? No, Britain. Did he say Mauritania? No he said Britain. Why are you going to Smara? Tourism. When did you arrive? Last week. Profession? Teacher. Where? Britain. No, where? At a university. In Morocco? No. Married? No. Why? I don't know. Name before marriage? Ufffff..... Car registration number? I don't have a car, I'm sitting in a taxi you just stopped. Colour of car? I don't have a car. Yes, but what colour is it? Umm...green?! Address in Smara? I don't know yet, I haven't arrived. Hotel? Yes, probably. Which one? Umm... You have friends in Smara? Not yet. How did you get here from Mauritania? I haven't come from Mauritania. But you're Mauritanian?! (giggles from the other passengers)...You speak Arabic? Not a word. (More giggles from the others, as the whole conversation up to that point had been in Arabic).

He took one last look at my passport, peering intensely at the page with my emergency contact address on it before writing it down in his best handwriting. My emergency contact is actually my brother, and his old address was written down at nearly every checkpoint as if it was the most important piece of info in the world. He'll be most pleased.

The sun was already close to setting when we passed the final checkpoint and trundled through a market to Smara's bus station. I found my way to the main street and checked into the grandly named Hotel de Paris. It was the most basic hotel I stayed in on my trip, all threadbare sheets and lumpy mattresses, gurgling taps down the hallway next to a stinking shared toilet. But I had a room overlooking the street, and the welcome was much warmer than the water.

Exploring the busy market, which for some reason is very lively in Smara after dark, I soon ran into Tawfiq. "Hello, you are welcome in Smara, welcome in my town, Francais, Deutsche, Engleeeeesh?" We stopped at a cafe, and Tawfiq explained that he worked as security for the UN, but peddled his services as an unofficial guide when work was slow. He claimed he knew everyone in town, and that certainly did seem to be true, as every other person who walked past the cafe stopped to say hello. Did I want to be shown all of Smara?

Now this felt very awkward. I'm not one for guides, preferring to find my own way around in my own time. Smara didn't appear to be very big, and I was planning to have a quick look around in the morning, then head off to Laayoune in the afternoon. Did I need a guide? Well...no, not really. But then it would be good company, having a local to talk to and show me the sights. But then I've met many locals who have shown me around because they wanted to, not because I was paying them to. Tawfiq seemed likeable enough, but his knowledge of history was shaky. Walking around town, it became clear his version of being a tour guide was to point out every thing he saw. This is a fruit shop, that is a bookshop, over there is a butchers...that sort of thing. I said I'd think about it, and headed back to my hotel for the night.

In the morning, I bumped into him five minutes after leaving the hotel. Smara is only small, so I suppose it wasn't that difficult to track me down. We had coffee. Over the road, a group of Sahraoui women sat on the ground, throwing a piece of cloth at every man who walked past. I asked what they were doing, and Tawfiq told me about this custom where if the cloth hits you, you have to sit down and chat, bringing the women luck. He then started to tell me all about Sahraoui culture, something he was passionate about being a Sahraoui himself. So I decided to give this guide lark a shot, and we set off for a busy day sightseeing.

Smara had more to offer than I first thought. Our first stop was the old Spanish mosque in the market area. Undergoing restoration work, it was technically off limits to everyone, but Tawfiq knew the builders, so we were invited to jump the fence and wander around inside. Moroccan mosques are not usually open to non-muslims, so this was a great opportunity for this atheist to see how Moroccan mosques differ from those elsewhere. Opposite, he showed me some more Spanish relics, former army barracks but now converted into private houses, strange corrugated iron domes poking out of the ground.

After sampling another of Smara's several cafes, we walked through the huge military areas to a patch of wasteground where some particularly merry soldiers waved their beer cans at us. Hidden among the bushes and the drunks, Tawfiq showed me a monument to the "first ever European" to reach Smara, then we explored the ruins of the Great Mosque. The highlight was gaining access to the nearby Zaouia of Sheikh Ma al-Ainein, Smara's main attraction, and chatting to the sheikh. If I had been on my own, I doubt if this would have been possible, but Tawfiq knew the sheikh and introduced me. Not ancient by anyone's standards, this zaouia is still the oldest building in Smara, and indeed if it wasn't for the religious school attached, Smara probably wouldn't have ever been build.

Then it was off for a walk around the newer parts of town, where the Saudis are building a huge new mosque to eclipse the big new one the Moroccan government had build not long ago. I asked Tawfiq what Smara needed, what it didn't have. A cinema, a sports ground, a good school, a swimming pool, a better hospital...his list went on. So why did Smara need another enormous mosque? It was already awash with mosques, with one on practically every street. I saw exactly the same in Kosovo and Albania, tiny villages with oversized mosques funded by Saudi Arabia. Sure, mosques are important, but if you've got twenty mosques and no good hospital, why do you need another mosque?

Our final stop was a visit to the Ensemble Artisanal, something which didn't really interest me at first. I assumed it would be some sort of souvenir arcade, but it was more like a museum of local culture. Craftsmen hammered away at bits of wood and metal in tiny workshops around a courtyard, while a group of women sat on the floor weaving a goat hair tent the traditional way. There was no pressure to buy any of the items I was shown, and I wasn't even sure if they were for sale at all...in fact, the only pressure was to sit and chat over some Sahraoui tea!

I could certainly have "done" Smara on my own, but it wouldn't have been as interesting. With Tawfiq, I entered places that were not normally open for tourists. I met more people than I would have done sat by myself in a cafe. I also learnt a bit more about Sahraoui culture and the Hassaniya language, albeit without venturing into the murky waters of Saharan politics. So, if you happen to be in Smara and meet a young guy called Tawfiq, don't dismiss him as an annoyance as I nearly did...he made Smara for me.

Smara isn't for everyone (I feel I say that a lot on my pages!!). You won't find sights galore here, nor much comfort in any of the town's hotels. But to find out a bit about Sahraoui culture as well as experience life in a Moroccan garrison town, think about making a detour next time you're in Tan Tan or Laayoune.

  • Last visit to Semara: Jan 2010
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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