The Elusive North African Identity

Yes, reader, I know, it has been (checks calendar) six months (!) since I last posted anything on here. Part of the reason has been the general whirlwind of life (I’m not a procrastinating architecture student anymore) but the other more pressing reason is to do with security. You know me, I don’t like blogging unless it’s a contentious issue that’ll start Twitter wars, but unfortunately the time where I could speak freely without real-world consequences has passed in Libya. The all-seeing Eye of Sauron is back, in a more disorganized, flip-flop wearing form – and it’s staring at me. I have a lot of posts on the backburner which I can’t risk publishing now, but fear not! your reckless Benghazi blogger will not be deterred. The Libyan saga is far from over and I will be here to chronicle it all, I will just be more careful in my timing and personal safety.


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Maghreb pocket change

Now, I’m no anthropologist, but indicators are pointing to more progress when it comes to the science of categorizing people. Race, ethnicity and nationality are getting a closer inspection, especially as more minorities are able to make themselves heard through new media platforms. The intersection of religion and identity is also becoming more scrutinized as global debate continues on the issue of integration.

One type of identity that personally affects me is that of North Africa, and one which I feel doesn’t get a lot of attention in (non-francophone) discussions. I’ve always been focused on the Libyan identity, but I always thought of it in a vacuum. Lately I’ve been contemplating more on our identity in the wider regional context.

I’m think that some strides have been made in separating North Africa from the Middle East (evidenced through the increasingly ubiquitous ‘MENA’ acronym) and the term ‘Greater Maghreb’ (a more politically correct version of the Arab Maghreb) is starting to be used more often in the mainstream. Of course the biggest culprit of lumping the MENA region together is Western media, where the difference between a Moroccan and an Omani isn’t discernible to those audiences.

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The Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli Libya. Roman ruins can be found throughout the Maghreb

The Greater Maghreb is comprised of the five North African states (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). We have our own Maghreb Union which theoretically should work on promoting political and economic cooperation between the five countries – such as allowing free movement – but the political and historic issues among the five nations has limited what the Union can actually achieve. Morocco violated the sole achievement of the Union (visa-free travel) by placing a visa restrictions on Libyans and maintains a closed border with Algeria over the Western Sahara issue. Libya showed disregard for the union when it changed the passport colour from green to blue. Four of the five states are francophone due to French colonization, while Libya instead inherited good coffee and pasta (and nothing else) from Italian occupation.

This francophone difference has created a kind of barrier between Libya and its Maghreb brethren. Because of the widely different local dialects, French has acted as a lingua franca for these four countries which Libyans do not have access to. I have frequently been that lone Libyan among Maghreb friends as they happily chat away in French before realizing that I couldn’t understand anything. Speaking in our own local dialects doesn’t help much, as theirs is peppered in French while my East Libyan accent is closer to Egyptian than to anything Maghreb. We end up unenthusiastically conversing in broken English (or broken traditional Arabic).

The first level of  “identity” in the Maghreb is Amazigh and Arab, which acts as a source of many tensions. The Amazigh claim to be the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa while the Arab inhabitants supposedly came from the Muslim conquerors of the continent (ostensibly all “descendants of the prophet Muhammed”). The problem with painting North Africa in this black and white narrative is that it’s extremely narrow. (If you’re a racist Amazighi or Arab, you can jump to the comments section now to make your incoherent rant.)

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Sidi M’Cid bridge, Constantine, Algeria

The region has witnesses countless occupations, migrations and other movements, and so to claim that you are from a separate distinct ethnicity is hard to believe – and indeed hard to prove. In Libya, while many Amazigh follow the more extreme practice of only marrying within their ethnicity, claims of being “pure” Amazighi should be taken with a grain of salt. An Amazighi man I know in Tripoli conducted a DNA test to assert his pure blood, only to discover that he had almost no Amazighi heritage. The same goes with the so-called Arab inhabitants, who are more likely descendants of Amazigh tribes from across the region who have chosen to intermarry, rather than being purely from the Arab Gulf. Add to this the Turkish, Greek, Phoenician, Moorish, Sub-Saharan African and colonist movements, and you’re looking at a smorgasbord of different ethnicities.

I’m sure someone will chime in claiming that they have an obscure document passed down by their great-great-great-grandfather which is definitive, inarguable proof that they are indeed a full-blooded straight-from-the-sand-dunes Arab (thanks Nasserism), and could probably name the palm tree in Saudi Arabia that their ancestor owned, but I’m not convinced that this really applies to the majority North Africans, simply because it’s not realistic.

(Do note that here I am talking about biological origin and not identity. Whether a person feels Amazighi or Arab is an entirely different issue.)

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Crags off the Mediterranean in Korbous, Tunisia

My skepticism was stoked when I wanted to learn where my dad’s tribe came from. At first I was told that it migrated from the “Saqiyah Al-Hamra” in the Western Sahara/Morocco. Later I was told that, no, we are actually from the Arab Gulf. Then I was informed that the tribe is really an Amazighi tribe that “became Arabized”. Later on I was told that, actually, we’re descendants of North African Jews. All these claims have “the documents to prove it.” A university friend of mine told me that her Oasis-based tribe came from Yemen. Later I read that this tribe was Amazigh who had lied to Arab occupiers to avoid persecution. All of these clashing narratives have made me question the validity of what people claim about their heritage.

It is an unfortunate habit in the MENA region that we always want to be from somewhere other than our own countries, we want to belong to other groups because we are not able to create a sense of belonging together. We weave improbable narratives to meet these ends. National identity has tried to unite different ethnicities and groups, but in the case of Libya it is disintegrating rapidly. The Arab-Amazigh narrative is a useful political tool which polarizes an already tense situation (and has been used by colonialists in the past) and erases an underlying Maghreb identity which could be used to build a strong region on the basis of economic, political and cultural growth and development. But instead we’re too busy nit-picking over where each drop of our blood comes from. If you feel Arab or Amazigh because of language or upbringing, that’s entirely up to you, but you are missing out on a great opportunity to be part of something unique to our region because of these self-imposed limitations. You can have a combined identity, one doesn’t have to cancel the other.

I recently visited my fourth of the five Maghreb countries, and I have found more similarities than I expected. It’s in the way we look, our shared vocabulary, in our local culture, music, cuisine and traditions. Discussions of who has the better Ma’louf music or who taught couscous-making to the others are light-hearted and fun, because we are discussing mutual heritage that we all enjoy. There is a familiarity by proximity that I can’t quite describe, and a sense of reassurance that we could be part of something bigger, that isolation isn’t our only fate.

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The old medina, Casablanca, Morocco. ‘Medina Quarters’ are unique to North Africa (with a few influenced in Malta)

Today, many Libyans hold grievances against the other Maghreb countries because they “don’t have our backs” during this period of instability, which is somewhat true but not entirely unexpected due to the lack of unity in this region in the first place. Aside from the romantic dreams of shared cultural festivals and exchange programs by your fanciful blogger, regional cooperation is in fact a necessary prerequisite for security, as well as political and economic stability. It is not a luxury that we can afford to turn our noses up at, because mutual interests upstage hurt feelings.

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One thought on “The Elusive North African Identity

  1. Missed your blogs. I only wish that our world was not is such disagreement that we had to fear putting to pen our thoughts and feelings. Perhaps better times lie ahead.

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