A dozen women recline on the steps of the main girls' school in the Saharawi refugee camps, their pastel robes like blots of water-color on the whitewashed cement. When the door opens and the headmistress emerges, the women suddenly leap up and crowd around her, clamoring. They are mothers seeking places for their daughters in the already-crowded school.
The Saharawi women are among the most liberated of the Muslim world, and their status is characteristic of the well- organized, egalitarian society that has developed in the refugee camps over the past three decades. For all their bleakness, the Saharawi camps boast a representative government, a 95 percent literacy rate, and a constitution that enshrines religious tolerance and gender equality.
The Saharawis are the Arab nomads of Western Sahara, bound together by their Yemeni ancestry and their dialect, Hassaniya, which remains close to classical Arabic. For centuries, they roamed the territory with their camels and goats, sometimes trading with Spanish colonizers, and became known as "blue men" for the indigo robes they wear.
When Spain abandoned Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco invaded and drove the Saharawis into neighboring Algeria. Trading their camels for Land Rovers, they fought a guerrilla war under the leadership of the Polisario Front, an independence movement, until the UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991. Since then, the promised vote on independence has been stalled by disagreement over who should be allowed to participate.
Meanwhile the Saharawi refugees, numbering some 160,000, have clung on in camps amid the flat, stony wastes near the town of Tindouf, in southwest Algeria. Subsisting on foreign aid - chiefly rice, bread, and a few root vegetables - most suffer from chronic malnutrition. Their settlements consist almost wholly of adobe huts and dusty canvas tents, appearing from afar as brown smudges on the slightly lighter brown desert.
"Women built these camps," says Menana Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the Union of Saharawi Women. When the Saharawis arrived at Tindouf, most of the men had stayed behind as soldiers. "You'll still find women doing all kinds of work, including leading," Ms. Mohammed adds.
While most of the top brass are men, the minister of culture is a woman. Women hold one fourth of the seats in the Saharawi parliament, and they make up most of the civil service, including teachers, nurses, and doctors.
"These days our chief concern is education," says Mohammed. All young Saharawis learn Spanish as well as Arabic, and some attend universities in Spain, Cuba, and Algeria through the sponsorship of those countries' governments.
"In the camps, we had to be both sexes, because the men were all away fighting," says Mohammed. There is an old Saharawi saying, she says, that rings especially true today: "A tent is raised on two poles: a man and a woman." The Saharawis' traditionally tough, wandering lifestyle has always made them regard husband and wife as equal leaders of the household.
It has also begotten an individualistic approach to Islam. While most Muslims tend to stress the importance of the Islamic community, "the Saharawis believe that religion is a very personal issue," says Mouloud Said, the Polisario's representative in the United States. "It's a personal relationship between the human being and his Creator. This is the mentality of the nomadic society."
Mosques are conspicuously absent from the camps, in large part because the Saharawis "don't believe that to speak to God, you need a fancy place," explains Mr. Said.
Saharawis seldom pray in groups save on important Muslim holidays, and view even these ceremonies as purely optional. For some, this is a welcome escape-hatch from the religion's bloodier rituals.
"Each person has his own Islam," says Zorgan Laroussi, a translator in the camps who chose not to attend the mass slaughter of camels for the feast of al-Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. His brother-in-law Salek did go, and relishes explaining the ritual's finer points while the two men and their families share a dish of grilled hindquarters.
Saharawis are equally welcoming of other religions. "There is an almost continuous presence of church groups from all over the world - in particular the US - in the camps," says Said. "Every year for the last four years, there has been a joint prayer at Easter."
"Tolerance is not something new, but it's something [Saharawi leaders] encourage," he says. "In a tolerant society, the center prevails, not the extremes. That means respect for others, whether for the faith or their ideas."
This credo finds ample use in the Saharawis' recent conversion to a united democratic government. Following their flight from Western Sahara, they quickly saw that overcoming the desert and the Moroccan Army meant forsaking old tribal loyalties. "What's most important is that we Saharawis hang together, so we highlight stories that promote unity among us," says Minister of Culture Miriam Salek, who works with the Ministry of Education and the Saharawi Youth Organization to keep alive Saharawi folklore and history.
In 1976, the Polisario proclaimed, and more or less became, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. Although a government-in-exile, it is recognized by 75 countries, and the UN formally considers Western Sahara an occupied territory.
Tier upon tier of elected officials make up the camp government, from the national parliament down to neighborhood councils. Saharawis are avid voters, and many participate in local civil service - even if it's merely taking a twice-weekly shift on the trash detail, or helping dole out rations.
This could be the blueprint for an independent Western Sahara, and there is a general sense of pride and excitement among the Saharawis for their new society. "This has worked so far, what we have here," says one young daira (district) councilman, "and it should still work in Western Sahara. We built this on the hope of the people, and I don't think they'll want to change."
But as the years drag on, many fear they will never have the chance to find out. Their smoothly running camps and refusal to resort to terrorism keep them out of the public consciousness, relieving pressure on the UN to push for a quick settlement to the 29-year-old conflict. "We have been landless for so long," laments Tellib Helli Embarik, an old tribal leader. "I don't know if the UN is just waiting for us to disappear or what!"