Representing North Africa
For someone to fall under the category of “North African” a person must be from the countries that are located in the northern most region of the continent of Africa. Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, and even Mauritanians, fall under this category. Being Algerian, I strongly identify as North African; according to my peers, I might as well have “Algerian” tattooed on my forehead. Although this is said lightly for the sake of humor, I do make it very known that I am North African and proud. It is important to me to shine light on North Africa and its rich history considering we are very underrepresented in western society. Because of this, I have made it my goal to highlight the rich and dense history of the region and bring attention to my people through my voice and the voices of other North African.
What Comes to Mind?
When people think of North Africa, maybe Morocco’s touristic cities and beautiful beaches come into mind; perhaps Gaddafi crosses their minds as they faintly remember hearing about Libya in the news; or maybe Egypt’s political turmoil is thought up. Regardless of which of those is in your mind when asked about North Africa, it’s important to realize that the region is so much more fruitful than what is advertised.
With the different indigenous groups, the multiple colonial groups, and vast region, people and language are the two most interesting concepts of the region. Some people are from areas where only the indigenous languages are spoken, while others are from areas that almost completely speak French or Spanish. Some people refuse to be called Arab while others don’t think much of it. What this all says though is that North Africa has a complicated history that has very different people who identify differently.
I interviewed two North African women who seemed to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of identification. I first asked blatantly what the two women identified as and one said “Amazigh” while the other said “Arab.” The woman that identified as Amazigh was an 18-year-old Moroccan while the woman that identified as Arab was a 23-year-old Algerian. Naoual, 18, was very stern in her identification as she made sure to emphasize that she did not like to be confused with Arab as most people tend to do when referring to North Africans. Amina, 23, however, seemed very lax on the topic and casually said she was Arab, then said she was Kabyle. Kabyles are indigenous to the northern region of Algeria so it was interesting to hear her call herself Arab despite being of indigenous descent. This just goes to show the extent of the difference in identity of the people.
What Language do You Speak?
In regard to the language spoken, Naoual, 18, said she spoke “darija” which is the colloquial speech in the Maghreb region that came as a result of indigenous and colonial languages mixed to create a new form. Amina, 23, said she spoke Arabic and Berber. So both women acknowledge the indigenous and colonial languages as a big part of what is spoken in North Africa. The way each woman stated the languages is interesting in that Naoual didn’t call it Arabic, while Amina separated the two main aspects of the language in general.
When asked which of the colonial languages they felt was most dominant in the colloquial speech, both women said Arabic. This is understandable as the Arabs spent the most time in the region in comparison to the French, Ottomans, and Spaniards. Because of the modern colonialism of the French and Spanish, Moroccans and Algerians will find themselves saying a lot of words from those two languages. After all, the colloquial language is a mesh of borrowed words from multiple languages so it’s normal that northern Moroccans call a bed “cama” or that Algerians refer to cheese as “fromage.” So when taking French or Spanish in high school, both women found it relatively easy to grasp the concepts of these languages.
Creating a New Form of Language?
In North Africa what is taught in schools is far from what is spoken around the countries. There is no written form of this mesh of borrowed words so in schools they are taught Arabic, French, and Spanish. And when asked what written form is most appropriate, Naoual said either Arabic or creating a new written form altogether that more appropriately matches the spoken form. Amina on the other hand, said it wasn’t necessary to create a written form to match the speech. She elaborated by saying, “We don’t need to separate ourselves from the rest of the world.” She thought it would be appropriate to teach kids Arabic and French just as they are doing now. And in regards to teaching the indigenous languages, both women felt it was appropriate for it to be a part of the curriculum. Clearly language is an important aspect in the identity of North Africans.
Debate Surrounding Identity
An ongoing debate, many people argue that North Africa is Arab and only Arabic should be taught in schools, while others do not believe it is connected to the Arab world. Because of the connection in religion and language, often it is assumed that we are Arab. However, self-identity varies. This is why it is important to get everyone’s take on the issue of self-identity in North Africa.