Anyone who has spoken to me for longer than 15 minutes, will know that I’m English Algerian who was born in Germany and lived in France throughout my early and mid 20s. It’s a life story overshare that’s hard to avoid when most chit-chat includes where someone lives or comes from.
When I was younger this gave me a nice little identity crisis. At the time, I thought I had to choose between them all, or let my identities battle it out until the victor became who I am. Now I see it more as a multi-faceted richness, a layered identity that I need to proactively work on so that I always balance it correctly. Reconnecting with each side of my cultural identity is something I’ve learnt to take time and care to work on, because each country, language and heritage forms part of who I am.
Now I know that if you split me open at any given time my identity pie charts would always be different. Sometimes 60% would be English, sometimes it would be Algerian and sometimes all 4 would be in perfect balance. But it depends on where I am, how much of a language I’m speaking or on my mood.
One of the best things I’ve heard is that speaking different languages and coming from different cultures is a bit like being schizophrenic. To speak a language exactly like the people or to assimilate into a culture you have to think and act like them, you have to immerse yourself in their cultural behaviour and switch on different parts of your personality as you go. I think it perfectly explains how I feel when I jump between each identity, I’m still myself but I’m slightly different in each language or cultural setting.
You forget yourself
This year I went back to both Germany and Algeria for the first time in 7 years.
I find it hard to write about Germany, even now my fingers keep hovering over the keyboard, not knowing where to start. My relationship with Germany is complicated because neither of my parents are German but they spent 20 years living there. So now, as an adult, my only real tie to the country is my childhood memories and the language.
Germany is where I was born and where I grew up bilingually speaking English and German until the age of 8. When we moved to England I slowly stopped speaking German because my parents did and I wanted to fit in with the other English kids at school. My German now has an English lilt and is peppered with anglophone mistakes that I don’t think will ever totally disappear. I’m the living testimony that anyone can forget their mother tongue.
I’m basically German without being German.
This used to give me such a crisis of self that I would avoid speaking the language or explaining my past. So when a German tells me that ‘my German was good’ I’d normally smile and let them think that I was English who learnt it at school. I'd also cringe whenever a well-meaning friend would introduce me to their German friend as a fellow German - it always made me feel like an imposter, especially when I stumble over ill-practiced Deutsch. I actually at one point didn’t speak it out loud for 3 years because I got myself into such a state about it.
Ein Kaffee bitte
I went to Cologne to see my brother in April, a city I’ve never been to before but which helped me to remember what I absolute love about Germany. When I stepped off the plane, my childhood memories and ‘German-ness’ flooded back. It felt like I’d been constantly thirsty and just got used to it, but the moment I drank a sip I needed to down the whole bottle.
I realised in Cologne how much I missed my birth country. From how people spoke the language, the efficiency, creativeness, food, nightlife, filter coffee and how direct and honest the people are. It made me realise that I needed to come back more and it was the slap in the face I needed to get over myself and just start speaking German again.
My German is also different to my French, I realised in Cologne how much deeper ingrained it is and how much quicker it improves. I now know that I can get rusty at speaking my mother tongue but it never actually goes away, it’s hardwired into me, ready to jump start again as soon as the words start flooding back into my brain. The best way to describe it is like something waking up after a really long and deep nap.
What’s new pussycat
I went back to Berlin this spring. I lived in Leipzig as a student and visited Berlin a lot during that time. When I think of Berlin 7 years ago I remember spring evenings spent in the park listening to my friends play guitar and sing far too well, I think of outrageous parties in ridiculous places, of feather bowers and drunk fancy dress apartments. The memory that really sticks in my mind, is my Leipzig flatmate carrying a boombox and blasting out Tom Jones ‘it’s not unusual’ at top volume, dancing with a beer as she walks down the ex-communist streets.
I think I fell in love with the city then. So when I went back 7 years later it flipped some sort of switch in me, I felt like I was home again. I felt like Berlin was and still is living a moment and I wanted to be part of it. I also finally didn’t need to prove my Germanness anymore, I could be someone who just speaks German well and has an affinity with the country and language.
I always point North
I’m writing this from Algeria, on my last fews days in the country.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, I don’t speak Arabic but I do speak French, a language that Algerians speak because the country was colonised by the French for over 100 years. Children were taught in French in Algerian schools during the occupation, but when independence hit in the 60s it changed to Arabic. So you have the older generation who is better at French and you have the younger who is better at classical Arabic. A real language generational split.
French has definitely brought me closer to feeling Algerian and I can freely communicate with my family, but it’s made me realise the extent of the gap, a bit like speaking to someone through a window.
Algeria is also a country that is hard to describe in a soundbite. It’s a country that lives everything to the fullest while being relaxed and laughing along the way. Explaining Algeria properly could fill up another blog post, so here is a snapshot into my favourite things about my North African home -
The cinematic insanity of the roads
· Goats/sheep/any moveable animal in the back of vans
· people sat on their car window ledges on the motorway celebrating a wedding
· families holding and letting off fireworks on roundabouts and one-way streets - stopping traffic with youyous, car window dancing and rhythmic car beeping.
· a dog having a casual nap in the middle of a sunny motorway
· kids opening up their van doors and playing African drums at 60 miles an hour
· all the wonderfully random things you can buy on the side of the road, from goldfish to boiled eggs.
· Young men playing table football underneath a traffic light, at a junction.
· people using the hard shoulder as an actual lane at all times
· the acrobatic brilliance of a boy grabbing bread from a bakery and running into a moving van in the backstreets of Algiers. He jumped in and all his family cheered.
Tell any Algerian something that’s wrong with you and expect a lengthy and hearty discussion. Algerians really can’t get enough of it and the subject is actively encouraged, it’s almost as juicy as gossip in Algeria. Just to bring it home, there is even a weekly prime time show dedicated to medical advice on the national Algerian TV channel.
Some of the best remedies Algerians suggest sound hilarious but actually work, because they’re based on deep knowledge of the surroundings. A lot of the food even has medicinal properties. A great example is when I had a blocked ear from the sea and my aunty told me to bang two seaside pebbles together next to my ear, before I could laugh at her she did it and my ear completely unblocked - lost for words is an understatement.
My dad is obsessed with olive oil, kind of like the dad in my big fat Greek wedding with Windowlene. Any health problem, he’ll recommend it. It’s a running joke in the family and if you ask my dad he’ll sit you down and carefully explain, from the plant properties to the Qu ‘ran, why olive oil is the best thing you could ever do to yourself.
Also don’t expect anything to be kept secret, health problems are to be discussed openly and in groups in Algeria. If you have an embarrassing health condition, best keep it to yourself.
Words and their cultural relevance
I am a bit obsessed with language and its relation to how people think and behave, here are some of my favourite Algerian words that I think explain the mindset well and offer a glimpse into the culture -
· Assab – shew or go away just for cats. You can’t use the word for any other animal. My dad said it while we were eating merguez in a street side café and found it funny that I liked it so much. In my mind I like thinking that it’s to do with the Egyptians and how they worshipped cats.
· Mektoub – a well-known phrase but still very cultural for Algeria. It means ‘it’s written’ or whatever happens is destiny. It’s something that is said a lot for when things either go your way or don’t. It means a lot of North Africans are beyond chilled about the future because it’s already been decided for them. It also goes a long way to explain why nothing ever gets done on time.
· Koul atla fiha kheir - very similar to Mektoub, it’s basically the ‘Mañana’ of North Africa, i.e. when things don’t go to plan good things will happen after
· Bouqala - where women meet in small groups and share spoken poetry, proverbs and short stories, which are either handed down through their ancestors or improvised on the spot. The stories are usually about love or eternal truths. Algerian women are quite strong-willed and have big characters and to me this cultural habit makes a lot of sense. I also love that women have had their own space to do this for hundreds of years.
· Jinn – a supernatural creature or ghost. Muslims believe there are two worlds i.e. a parallel world that we can’t access. But sometimes our two worlds collide and Jinns are creatures from that world. They also believe that children can see the other world until it is closed off to them as they start to grow up. I especially like this belief because it has ripples in a lot of stories and folklore and even in science as the parallel universe theory.
The mixed identity
Algeria is a hotbed of colonised pasts and gives the country a real unique look – from the Romans, the Turks, the Arabs, the Spanish, the French and a few others. You’ll see crumbling roman ruins next to white Mosques, concrete flats and grand French buildings. And not forgetting the indigenous peoples of Algeria, the Berber, Mozabite and the Tuareg, who built traditional houses in both the mountains and the desert.
The Algerian dialect, which everyone speaks on the street, is actually testament to its rich and diverse history and is a blend of Arabic, Berber and French but also has traces of Spanish, Italian and Ottoman Turkish. And because of its huge coastline and geographic position, the landscape even looks like a mix of a lot of countries. You know you are in north Africa, but you can also see hints of Greece, Spain, Turkey and the South of France.
Like most Mediterranean countries, food is everything here. It is revered, discussed and brings family and friends together for meals that last for hours. As one of our family friends said to me ‘In Algeria, we never stop eating’.
Here are staples of the north African cuisine that make it ultimately unique –
- Orange blossom
My favourite smell and something I can pick up from ridiculous distances, like a north African bloodhound.
The Honey here is insanely good so it’s draped and soaked into the cakes. I even found orange blossom honey, basically North African crack in a pot.
What Couscous is made out of, but is also used in cakes and other dishes
Staple spice of any self-respecting north African dish
Because of the sheer size of Algeria the cuisine differs from other North African food and tends to be more varied, one of the ways it differs is through its liberal use of tomato based sauces
An ingredient you’ll find in most traditional cakes, some are even entirely made from the sweet nut
Most famously in mint tea which has different recipes per region, the more south you go the stronger it gets. Harira, the traditional Ramadan soup is one of my favourite dishes where mint is added.
- Ras el Hanout
A North African spice mix. Most families have a recipe or their own special blend. My aunty promised to show me her version which was passed down by my grandma, so I can start to use it in England.
- Olive oil
This isn’t really exclusive to Algeria but an ingredient that no Mediterranean country could do without. The superfood is also talked about in the Qu’aran, along with figs, for its health properties.
And to cap it off, one of my favourite things of all time about Algeria is how proud they are about everything. Sometimes you roll your eyes but mostly it’s quite heart-warming. From my dad pointing at the new building for the ministry of finance (the most Algerian tourist guide ever) to people in the airport taking a picture of a new building development advert, or Algerians telling you they are one of the top exporters of cork in the world (a practical fact to reuse in my daily life).
Even Algerians who don’t think the country is where it should be or debate in depth about their opposition to the current political party, still have their proud points - whether that’s the cultural heritage, the natural beauty of the landscape or their family's hearty and spiced cooking.
Something that most people don't realise is Algerians are most proud of being African. A lot of people misunderstand the North African culture as Middle Eastern because of their long-standing Arabic heritage, but the majority of Algerians (indigenous and Arabic decent) will tell you that they are African before anything else. My dad's favourite ever phrase that he likes to proudly declare every time he shakes his hip to Algerian songs is -
'Rhythm started in Africa'
I think this year has been quite an important year for me. 2018 is teaching me to be more comfortable with my chameleon-like identity. I’m learning to celebrate and look after it instead of constantly fretting about not being enough of one or the other.
I guess it’s like most things in life, choosing to see something from a positive perspective will only help it blossom and evolve into something better. And sometimes you aren’t quite who you want to be or not enough of your ideal self, but like a writer friend said to me - that’s OK because it’s exactly who you are meant to be in that given moment, so enjoy it.