I am quite a clumsy person, and so it was only a matter of time that I smash my smartphone, and smash it I did. Cut to me sitting in a phone shop asking for a protective cover for my new one -
The assistant “Where’s your last name from?” This is a question I often get asked, I think because people can’t quite place me.
“It’s Algerian.” I reply neutrally while I think about my lists of tasks for the day, aware that in England people mostly know where it is but that’s about it.
“Do you speak French?” he asks me, I look at him a little surprised and then pay him the attention I should have given him from the start.
“Yeh I do actually”
“My colleague speaks French he’s from Mauritius.” He gets his colleague to come over like an awkward language blind date and we have a light-hearted chat in French about his home and why he’s in a small northern town in England.
The English assistant then says something that keeps jarring in my head “Isn’t it funny that you’re both able to communicate in the same language because you were part of the same colony?” he said to us smiling, clearly meaning it to be a joke.
The Mauritian and I look at each other, and for a split second I am sure we both instantly understood each other. It hit me round the brain like a lightning rod, and the thing is that it never really crossed my mind before.
Algeria, like Mauritius was a French colony. Algeria was France’s longest colony and the two main languages are actually Arabic and Berber (the indigenous language) swiftly followed by French.
My father was born in a French Algeria, is Arabic Algerian. He was a child when the Algerian revolution first sparked. He often tells me about the gun shots that kept him awake at night and how we are related to one of the revolutionaries.
He brought me and my brother up in a mix of Arabic hearty warmth and French passion for life. A mix of exotic smells that would waft from colourful ceramic plates, the drum beat of Arabic radio blaring out in our very English kitchen and my dad’s determination to prove that most things have an Arabic origin. But also, the sad French songs he played, his passionate descriptions of the best wine regions of a country he’s never lived in or the emotive way he would tell us about the origins of French words.
Smoke and Mirrors
I think my relationship with France is complicated because France and Algeria are inextricably linked, not just in my life but geopolitically and culturally, they are like cousins who aren’t quite sure if they like each other, but ultimately share a kinship. I think it’s why I feel at home when I hear both Arabic and French but also feel at odds by them coexisting.
I know the phone shop memory keeps playing over in my mind because I don’t speak my father’s mother tongue, Arabic, I speak a language he learnt at school and spoke to the colonial authorities.
When I was younger and didn’t speak Arabic or French and when I went to Algeria I wasn’t able to speak to my family. I have memories of summers on beaches where I would sit on the side-lines, smile and use the brilliantly versatile ‘un petit peu’ while my family had passionate debates or in-depth gossip sessions in Arabic infused with French.
When I last saw my Algerian family, we were finally able to get to know each other by speaking French. But there was a barrier, because speaking 100% in French isn’t something that comes naturally and they often slipped back into their hybrid Arabic-French discussions.
Learning Arabic has always been on my very long bucket list. Quite tellingly, I tried to learn it when I was doing a Uni year abroad in France but was often too hungover from drinking wine and trying to turn my tongue around particularly hard French words to turn up to the 8am Arabic lessons.
The time has come
Something inside me yearns to be reconnected with the bright white Casbah of Algiers that descends into the glittering Mediterranean Sea, the shaking of hips and tribal whistling to Arabic drums and the loud bustling market streets of North Africa.
Anyone who is from several cultures or is living away from their home will know what I’m talking about. The pull is like a rope that eventually gets so tight it pulls you right back to the source.