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Stories of the Sahara

par Sanmao

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Sanmao, and her husband Jose live in the Spanish Sahara among the native Sahrawi people. This book is a collection of short stories outlining their lives in the desert. Since this is a collection of short stories, at times it feels disjointed and hard to follow. Some of the stories lacked context - not knowing anything about the history of the area left me a little lost at times. I also found myself wanting to know more about the Spanish Sahara and its bid for independence. Despite these criticisms, the stories were interesting, dynamic and oftentimes humorous. I admire Sanmao and Jose's courage and sense of adventure. Overall, well worth reading. ( )
  JanaRose1 | Oct 2, 2020 |
Love in the Barrens
Review of the Bloomsbury hardcover edition (2020) translated from the original Chinese 撒哈拉的故事 (Sahara Story) (1976)

I had never previously heard of Taiwanese writer Sanmao (March 26, 1943 – January 4, 1991) until I chanced to see a film documentary Sanmao: The Desert Bride (Spain, 2019) via Toronto's online HotDocs Festival 2020.

Stories of the Sahara (1976) is a collection of travelogue and autobiographical memoir articles about Sanmao's life with her husband José María Quero y Ruíz during the early 1970's in the town then called by its Spanish name El Aaiún in the Western Sahara. It was Sanmao's attraction to the desert that caused her to first move to the Sahara and her then boyfriend José followed after getting a job at the local phosphate mines. The stories usually take a self-deprecatory tone with Sanmao adapting to a 'fish out of water' existence among the local Sahwari people. Throughout all of stories, the mutual love and support between José and herself is the running thread.

Sanmao's earliest writing was collected in the book 雨季不再来 (Gone with the Rainy Season) (July 1976) after the popular success of the original Chinese edition of Stories of the Sahara (May 1976). She has over 20 published works to her credit. As best as I can determine, this current translation of Stories of the Sahara is her first work to be published in English.

I enjoyed this book immensely due to its stories of an unique life in such extreme circumstances. The humour and zest of the story-telling leads me to hope that there will be further Sanmao translations yet to come.

Trivia and Links
The New York Times wrote a belated October 23, 2019 obituary of Sanmao in their Overlooked Series as Overlooked No More: Sanmao ‘Wandering Writer’ Who Found Her Voice in the Desert. ( )
  alanteder | Aug 31, 2020 |
Fraudulent History of Sahrawi Independence

“Stories of the Sahara” by Sanmao (real name Chen Ping), is a unique work of travel literature. The book is light and breezy with the exception of two chapters, one about slavery, and the other about the Sahrawi independence movement. Unfortunately, major events in that long, climactic chapter about the independence movement are fraudulent.

Moving to the coastal city of El Aiún (Laayoun) with her husband, Sanmao writes very well about the mundane details of life, such as municipal water delivery, nosey neighbors, and making house repairs. Sanmao also writes about her Bohemian lifestyle, artistic interests, and frequent trips to the beach. Her description of El Aiún as a backwater village in the middle of the Sahara dessert does not mesh with some of the other descriptions she includes. It is a metropolitan city with Spanish and French colonizers, including major contingents of Franco’s Spanish army and the presence of multinational mining interests, where her husband works. Still, Sanmao concentrates on describing the minutiae of life, which is absolutely fascinating.

Sanmao frequently talks about the grooming habits of her Sahrawi neighbors, commenting on their odors and dirty skin. This is a little off-putting, but certainly forgivable. In addition, while she breezes past the subject of slavery in an early chapter, she does return to the subject in a lengthy article whereby she proves her generosity and sympathy.

However, As many professional reviewers have described (such as Miriam Lang in “East Asian History,” 2000), the chapter “Crying Camels” is largely a fabrication. In this intense and energetic chapter, Sanmao meets Muhammad Bassiri, an ethnic Sahrawi independence leader. Although he died in 1970, Sanmao describes hosting Bassiri and his in-town girlfriend Shahida (who is pregnant with the child of another man) as tensions with the Spanish occupiers heat up. Inserting herself in Sahrawi independence matters and claiming to have sheltered and advised Bassiri the day before he was killed is no small matter. It would be odd if a Koranic scholar married a liberal, urbane, Catholic convert in any event, but it is even more complicated because of the fact that Sanmao was in El Aiún for two years, around 1974 and 1975.

Nowhere does the publisher, translator, or author of the forward try to account for these inconsistencies. I only found out about this after I researched information about Bassiri independently. This damages my relationship and trust in the book. I cannot separate the book from other literary forgeries, such as Margaret B. Jones, James Frey, and Nasdijj. ( )
  mvblair | Aug 8, 2020 |
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