Cloth and Ink
I’ve written a few blog posts about being English Algerian and how not speaking Arabic has stopped me from being able to own my identity. It’s something I’ve often been quite harsh with my dad about, like it’s his fault people view me as English over there and not quite English here.
I just got back from Algeria. I went for a week, but it was enough to change my mind about something. If I spoke Arabic or not, Algerians would never consider me fully Algerian for a simple reason – I’m not. And people over here will always see me as a bit exotic, because I am.
I am what I am
It used to really bother me if Algerians took one look at me and decided I’m not Algerian. I used to think, is it my clothes? Is it my freckles or my paler skin? It was the feeling of ‘otherness’ I couldn’t stand. And I was being constantly reminded of it every time I stepped out of the house. For example, this time round, the following things happened to me in the first two days -
· I was sat on the plane and an excitable little Algerian kid was shouting in Arabic over the seats to his school friends. He wanted to sit with them but wasn’t sure if he could. In true Algerian style, he decided to change seats while the plane was moving. He looked at me for a split second and didn’t know what language to speak, so he decided it was more likely that I would understand English and said ‘sorry’ as he moved past me.
· When I got to Algiers airport, a guy at passport control took my Algerian passport from me, scanned my name, raised his eyebrows and said something in Arabic. Once I explained in French that I didn’t understand, he said to me ‘Oh it’s just I thought you were a foreigner until I saw your passport’ and started chuckling to himself.
· People looking at me and speaking to me in French, which is what Algerians do when they think you’re foreign.
People are also much more open and in your face in Algeria, so they have no problem with full on staring at you. It’s not considered rude and isn’t meant to be intimating, they are just interested in why you are in Algeria because tourism isn’t a big thing yet, so people who look different will get a good long stare. I am especially aware of it when I’m with my mum because she’s blonde, pale and has blue eyes. She often gets ‘welcome to Algeria’ said to her on the street when she’s been going for 20 years and understands Arabic better than me.
I’ve realised recently that trying to be something you’re not is like battling the tide, you’ll never win and it’s tiring. So, I decided to accept my duel heritage this time round and let people stare if they want. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older (and hopefully wiser) so I just care less about proving myself to other people. Realising that freed me a lot during my trip, and I think it was the first time I felt truly relaxed in my North African home. It was the first time I told myself I belonged there whether people understood it or not.
Land of the free
Algeria has recently been going through a revolution. For those not in the know, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was president of Algeria for 20 years and was historically seen as the symbol of Algerian stability because he helped the country come out of some very dark times in the 90s, where extremists tried to take control. But in a country where 70% of the population is under 30 and youth unemployment is at 26% the ‘strong and stable’ excuse was fast becoming stale. The country’s mood was on a cliff edge, the youth was angry, and the government was either snoozing at the wheel or lining its pockets.
2 months ago, Bouteflika put his name down for the next Algerian elections. This sparked a national uproar and half the country has since taken to the streets. Bouteflika eventually took his name off the ballot box, but Algerians continued to demonstrate until Bouteflika eventually stood down from his presidency. Now Algerians are demanding that all corrupt people across all public institutions step down. Many government figures have resigned, and corrupt business tycoons or army generals have been arrested.
A change is gonna come
Algeria currently has a transition government in place. This makes it a strange but exciting time to be in and visit one of the biggest countries in Africa and a place that always defies expectations. One of the reasons I went to Algeria was to go to a demonstration. I’ll never forget the feeling of being exactly where I was meant to be, in the capital of my country during a time of historic change.
What I didn’t expect was to feel like I truly belonged. I, like most demonstrators, had an Algerian flag wrapped around me, which gave me identity camouflage. I didn’t get one curious look, I just blended into the green, white and red crowd as we all moved across the streets wanting the same thing.
I’ve never been a very patriotic person or much cared about the symbols that came with it, I think because I tend to always find myself in the middle of things. But for the first time I think I truly understood why people did. Flags are more than cloth and ink, they symbolise something for a people and can help strengthen ideas, whether good or bad.
It’s also strange to think that Algeria and England are going through phenomenal shifts and are in transitional periods. Only 5 year ago both seemed like they wouldn’t change much in my lifetime. I was glad about that for the UK but for Algeria I did want to see change, I just thought it wasn’t possible. It’s ironic to think that the UK changed although I didn’t want it to, and Algeria did in the most unexpected of ways.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in both of my countries, whether we’ll be better off or worse. If I listen to my instincts, Algeria feels a lot more positive than England where we are a lot more divided about what we want to see change. One thing is for sure though, both my countries have shed their old skins and are hurtling towards something completely and utterly unrecognisable, something new.
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