The mile high club

The mile high club

In the Sahara with Manu Chao and Javier Bardem


Manu Chao, festival director Javier Carcuera and Javier Bardem

The in-flight entertainment on the Air Algeria flight from Algiers to Madrid was first class: as the flight took off, world music stalwart Manu Chao and his sidekick Madjid were strumming their guitars and despite discussion among the air stewards, they then simply carried on playing. A friend of Manu’s – a musician, philosopher and bar-owner called Johnny MacLoud – announced with a megaphone that appeared from nowhere that everyone could smoke as well (although no-one did). Half-way across the Med, people were dancing in the aisles. Could this have been the gig of the year? Or was that the impromptu bongo jam with Javier Bardem days earlier?

The plane was also carrying the Oscar-winning actor, as well as his brother and fellow thespian Carlos, together with other celebrities fresh from the Sahara Film Festival. The festival takes place in inhospitable desert three hours from Tinduf in Algeria – ‘the backyard of hell’, as Javier put it to me.

We had all first flown to Tinduf in the south-west of Algeria, jumped in a convoy of mini-vans and travelled for three hours to a refugee camp in Dajla, where the festival was taking place. Part of the intention is to publicise the plight of the Sahrawis, who have lived for more than thirty years in relative isolation in the Algerian desert: there is an estimated 200,000 of them there, scattered in camps.

The area today referred to as Western Sahara, remains according to the United Nations one of the world’s last remaining major non-self governing territories. Since the 1970s, the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed movement, has claimed independence for the territory but this has been disputed. Conflict between Morocco and the Polisario ended in a cease-fire in 1991, but a promised referendum on the state of the Sahrawis hasn’t yet come to pass and while nothing happens the refugees stay put. An entire generation has been brought up these camps, with their schools and hospitals, run by the Polisario – a long way off the media radar.

When we arrived, a couple of figures in djellabas and cool shades seemed to stand out. ‘I wonder if they run the place,’ I said to Manu. ‘The boss here is the sun,’ he replied. No argument from me on that score.

The film festival, now in its fifth year, featured numerous political films including Ken Loach’s It’s A Free World (which deals with the exploitation of immigrant workers in Britain); others were simply entertaining movies, culled from around the world. I particularly liked Byambasuren Davaa’s El Perro Mongol – a charming tale about a family of nomads.

The Western Sahara used to be a Spanish colony and Bardem and Chao both told me they thought the Spanish have an obligation to sort out the mess they have helped create. Manu drew the comparison between Tibet and China – and suggested the 2016 Olympics should be staged in the Sahara.

It was incredibly easy to get lost out there. Trying one night to find my way back to my tent across the dunes, after watching an excellent documentary dealing with the politics of the Sahara, I was invited into a tent where Javier Bardem was playing bongos (rather well, in fact) with a Venezuelan singer called Luzmira (you read about her here first) and Manu’s astonishingly good guitarist Madjid. Better than the Vanity Fair party at the Oscars, I told Bardem, as we traded bongo licks.

Bardem also played bongos with Manu and Luzmira the next night at a concert outside one of the schools, along with Johnny Macloud and the Berber musician Akli D (whose album Ma Yela, Manu produced). The banner behind read ‘FISAHARA 08 – LIBERTAD PARA SHARA’ and Manu wrapped himself in a Sahara Libre flag, which the local refugees went wild for. Then he pumped up the crowd with ‘La Vida Tombola’ and ‘Me Llamen Calle’ from his album La Radiolina and classics including his hymn to Bob Marley ‘Mr Bobby’. Akli D sung his song ‘Good Morning Chechenya’, adapting it for desert conditions.

While it was exhilarating and moving to be there, after a few days of sand in your eyes (one of the worst problems in the camp are cataracts) and living on camel meat and couscous, it was a relief to head home. The 200,000 refugee are stuck there until the wheels of diplomacy start turning – with younger Saharawis telling me if nothing happens they will have to resort to violence again.

At least the presence of the likes of Manu and Bardem meant the event received coverage in Spain and pressure is being put on the government there.