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.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 4

If you’ve been keeping up with our higher-education memoir series, this is the final installment, where we ruminate on life after graduation. As always, this is Ali’s POV, while mine is over at Ali’s blog.

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Postgrad Blues

While I had chosen to completely numb my expectations of life after graduation, the initial ‘reality ensues’ kick remained quite painful. I suddenly had an abundance of free time in which I had nothing to do in except laze around, play video games, watch movies and look for jobs. Moreover, what social life and human contact I had were completely thrown out of the window. Being the only child not only worsened that, but it also put more pressure on me to get a job and move to the ‘next level’ in life.

What you don’t learn in university is that life really can be tough. That, and graduation is really not worth it – it doesn’t lead to anything unless you have ‘the connections’ to secure a decent job. Doubly so in a small, oversaturated labor market such as Bahrain: plenty of graduates and skilled candidates to go around, not enough jobs to actually accommodate them.

The only job opportunities that are open to a fresh graduate tend to be quite banal: aggressive cold-calling salespeople or outdoor sales, vehicle drivers, waiters or hotel receptionists, and graphic design. I tried the sales thing for a month and I hated it with every atom in my being. What university also doesn’t teach you is that sales jobs are like chameleons: they come under many names but they are all the same. Here’s some of them: business development executive, marketing executive, sales executive, client account manager, and client services executive. They also all work the same way: cold-call someone, set up a meeting, attempt to convince them to purchase your company’s services, meet a bazillion times, hope that the deal actually goes through.

Not my thing whatsoever.

But I digress. What makes post-graduation life difficult is not the inability to find a job but how your dreams, future plans and self-worth get crushed into a fine thin paste, assuming they are not outright evaporated. How? Allow me to elaborate:

A. Jobs

There’s a good chance that the job you actually want and is really an entry-level position has some very stringent experience requirements. Usually something such as 3 years in an equivalent position. The problem with this is that it reeks of fuzzy, catch-22 logic. You can’t get the job unless you have experience in it, but you can’t get experience unless you get the job. It’s like the chicken or the egg, but very, very real. By the way, scientists say the egg came first.

B. Dreams

Not having a job can put a damper on your dreams. It’s either because you can’t get a job which will make you eligible for your dream job, scholarship or career plan or alternatively, because you can’t get any money with which to work towards your dreams. While some people might have very broad or vague dreams which they will bend or claim flexibility on (that’s me), there are people who do have very specific plans or dreams for the future. The result is the biggest depression-inducing shock of their life as I have witnessed in many a friend.

C. Your self-worth

Oftentimes, post-graduation quickly devolves into a very routine existence of wake up, eat, sleep. This routine, coupled with things such as family pressure, an overabundance of time and having your dreams crushed can make a person feel extremely useless or worse, think themselves as a burden on those around them. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lock yourself into a cyclic trap of depression.

Finally, if you thought university was full of incompetence or disorganization and how you’ll be leaving all of that behind, don’t hold your breath going into the ‘real’ world. It is the exact same. You have those who have it figured out, and those who don’t. Even the biggest of companies harbour complete messes within their walls.

As you can see, without the right mindset or support, graduation is an abrupt, sudden shock in the life of a student. This is why I pretty much tell all of my still-students friends to not rush towards graduation. The suckerpunch will come – no need to ask for it in advance.

Is university the best time of your life? I would say no, not in the Middle East. Rather, university is more akin to ‘Life-Lite™’. You get a nice little sandbox to play in, discover how society functions and understand yourself and your peers better. It fills in most of your time with things to do and manage. In essence, university manages your life for you while you learn the ropes of society.

What it doesn’t teach you is how to manage your life completely on your own. It also doesn’t teach you crucial skills such as navigating workplace politics or how things really do happen in the real world. You’ll have to learn those on your own time, my fellow graduate or graduate-to-be.

That brings us to the grand question: are you kind of screwed coming out of university? Was it all a waste?

Well no.

University probably helped refine and temper you as a person, simply think back from when you first entered and where you are today: I’m sure you’ll find a lot to be proud of or at the very least, some things you may not be so-proud of but can rest easily that you have experienced or tried them.

So what can you do? Well, I would say that you should stay hopeful, continue to pursue your dreams and interests and not give up so easily. Surround yourself with good advice and supportive allies. Cultivate a hobby or two. Set up gatherings. Stay in touch with people. Use your newfound time to learn something, do something or join something. Create activity in your day-to-day life. If you don’t do it now, you’ll do it later: most people with jobs or marriages almost always get horribly bored a year or two into their job or marriage without any of the aforementioned in their life.

Remember, a job, marriage and kids are not the only valid moves to play in life. The trick is to find out what you can and want to play.

You can almost say that’s the beauty of life.

So go ahead. Try living.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 3

This is third installment of our education series. If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I’m featuring the voice of Ali here, while my own is over at his blog. Enjoy!

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The Drop

By 2011, the administration in my university was more or less nuked as a direct result of the ‘Arab Spring’. After some two months or so of university being put on pause, classes started up again, but this time around almost everything that was fun in university was removed.

A good deal of tutors had packed up and left while others started packing up. Moreover, the summer scholarship abroad became history remembered by few and building 24 was put down: it got stripped of everything it contained and turned into a boring empty space. Classes also started becoming more vague and aimless.

But more importantly, it was time for me to pick a major in business. I had a choice between banking and finance, accounting, management or marketing. Against every bit of my parents’ wishes (or my dad’s more specifically), I picked management because I was informed that it would have tones of psychology in it and that was that; not that I regret my decision whatsoever. It turned out to be the jack-of-all-trade’s degree: the perfect companion to a person with far too broad of an attention span and a finger in every pie, so to speak; something I found out later in life.

Sadly, having to choose a major also caused a split in my group of my friends as each went on his or her own way and we couldn’t meet up as frequently as before thanks to scheduling differences. Over the coming years, the split got bigger until I was spending most of my time with one or two people at the most, assuming I wasn’t alone to begin with.

Overall, the quality of education continued to drop sharply over time. It also didn’t help that I was the guinea pig of my university due to my status as a student of ‘the first batch’. The only thing that kept me sane was my relationships with my tutors as mentors and friends in addition to my student friends. Other than that I was mostly zoned out in class, with only half a grip on what’s going on. Luckily, I didn’t miss out on much so my grades weren’t affected.

By the time my graduation project rolled around, I was completely burnt out in regards to university. I completely stopped caring at this point. I just wanted it all to be done with, to hell with grades. I want to go and experience the real world. The real-real world that is; my graduation project was to work for a company on a ‘real’ project, but it was so disorganized and chaotic, I was convinced that this cannot be the way companies operate in the real world.

On the bright side however, my character and personality was vastly improved after 2012 thanks to a refreshing summer exchange program and a more balanced view on life. I realized a year later that not only had I matured a great deal throughout my university years, but I also built up an almost inhuman resistance to whatever adversity that came through my way thanks to all the downers I encountered until then. Losing some 25 kilograms did wonders to my self-confidence as well, now that I was ‘in shape’.

Come June 2013, I had submitted my final project report and completed all things university. For all practical intents and purposes, I had graduated, minus the actual certificate and a fancy party. It was time to roll out.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 2

Alright, here’s part deux of The Graduation Gauntlet, a look at university education in the MENA,through the eyes of Ali. For my perspective, you can check it out on his blog here.

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The Carefree Years

By the time year 2 and 3 rolled around, I had settled into a bit of a comfortable rhythm at university: I had found a core group of friends with which to hang with 24/7 and could identify with to some extent as ‘my people’. A typical day would consist of going to class, meeting with my group, enduring class and then going out with the group, usually visiting the recreational area or carpooling outside of university and over to a restaurant or something.

I had also started to build a relationship with most of my tutors through after-class chit-chats, usually about completely irrelevant topics in comparison to class. Most of my classes weren’t very interesting in and out of themselves, but the class conversations and tutor personalities often made up for that. The interesting classes were my elective ones, such as music composition, music around the world and general law. Other fun ones included theater and journalism, but alas, one could only take one or two electives at any given time.

It was also at this time that university really was a lot of fun. I had great tutors, a good group of friends and easy access to entertainment. As an example, the recreational building in my university (henceforth dubbed building 24) was a nice place to be during year 1 and 2 of university. It contained generous amounts of sofas, satellite TV as well as a TV connected with a Playstation 3. Students would either ‘rent’ one of the available games or bring their own games and set up a ‘king of the hill’ style getup where the winner gets to continue playing as challengers rotate. I had sunk many hours into Street Fighter 4, Soul Calibur 4 and Mortal Kombat 9 in that building.

If you weren’t the video-gaming type, building 24 still had other fun for you: miniature football, table tennis, billiards and for some strange reason, a leg-press machine in the middle of the building which later paved the way for a full gym. The building itself quickly gained status as the place to be in-between classes. It got so popular, some students would come before classes just to get a couple of games in the morning.

But of course, there had to be someone to ruin it for everyone else. During year 1 and 2, there was no such thing as an attendance policy in my university. You were expected to be an adult and attend your classes or skip them if you felt you didn’t need them. I think it was a good system that should’ve lasted. But who am I kidding? Of course it was abused.

Students would skip their classes and spend their entire day in building 24, then complain and moan once they get an assignment and realize that they can’t do any parts of it. It got worse when some students got the bright idea of coming in first thing in the morning simply to hide behind sofas and make out.

A year after, the free attendance policy was revoked and turned into a ‘20% absence and you’re out’ policy. More amusingly however, students were actually given a chance to prevent this from happening: an open ‘forum’ was set up for a whole day where any student could come and argue in favor of keeping the free attendance policy. Unfortunately, most visitors did not present a reasonable viewpoint as much as they merely went to grumble and complain about the coming change.

Like all good things, building 24 didn’t last for long either. By year 2 it had gained a reputation as either ‘Africa’ due to its overpopulation and dirtiness or as a ‘seedy underbelly of immorality’, depending on who you asked. Either way, it would soon become a place that no ‘self-respecting student’ would enter or spend time at. Boo.

Things were still pretty good otherwise. However, I remained a cynical bastard; I figured that next year would probably get worse and lucky for me, turns out I wasn’t so wrong. Not that remaining cynical did any good to my popularity or character, of course.

The Graduation Gauntlet

I wanted to do something a little different this time. A friend of mine (the awesome Ali) suggested we could to a collaboration piece. Instead of the typical rant on politics, society, or the other headline-making problems that plague our part of the world, we decided to focus on something that never seems to get much attention; education. Specifically, university education, and our own personal experiences.

To mix things up a little, this is Ali’s point of view, and you can catch mine over on his blog here. We divided up our work into four parts, each focusing on a different part of the journey. We’ll upload each part once a day.

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Year 1| The Reset

I think I am on the complete opposite side of Nada on university. Fresh out of a school of ‘hard knocks’ so to speak, I was completely nonchalant about the idea of enrolling into university. I knew it was supposed to be a big decision that sets in motion the direction of your coming years, but I had trouble imagining that for two reasons.

The first is that I’ve always been the one kid who never knew what they wanted to be. When other kids were busy enthusiastically saying ‘I want to be an astronaut!’, I was the child who would look at you in total, genuine confusion.

The second is that I was both glad to be out of school and yet fully convinced that university would be a lot like school while simultaneously hoping that it isn’t, if that makes any sense. Moreover, I had actually entered university with a completely broken spirit.

School consisted of three terrible years of survivalism so to speak. It was full of bullying, freeloading and delinquency, starting with exchanging insults and vulgarities in the morning all the way to sabotaging the teacher or classroom in some way as to cancel class. In a class full of people who would (and did) take a piss in the class’ cupboard, I felt like the only sane person. In retrospect, this sounds very melodramatic, but I honestly cannot describe it any other way.

But I digress, that was just one half of why I had a broken spirit. The other half was being limited by my choice of university: I could have gone to a university with many fields and disciplines, but incredibly terrible teaching and student life versus going to a university that has just opened its doors. It told tales of a student-teacher relationship based on respect and a vibrant, active student life. It didn’t take long for me to take a chance by going with the new one, but it came at the cost of only having four fields to select from: business, ICT, engineering or logistics. None of which I was particularly interested in.

Combine having no idea of what to pursue with that of a broken spirit and you get complete nonchalance about entering university. Furthermore, my school experience had turned me into a shut-in cynic so I couldn’t hold the skepticism about university being different. The only difference I had a guarantee on is that university would 100% contain the alien species known as ‘girls’.

I chose business as my field based on a very pragmatic line of thinking: business is the broadest field. I might be able to decide on a path within it once it’s time to select a major. Furthermore, it’s the most likely to get me employed. Employment equals money and money means I can pursue my hobbies and interests once they are de-mystified!

Yep, that was pretty much it.

Thus started my university journey. While I was by all accounts and means, an incredibly bright student, I also had the manners, emotional intelligence and social skills of a neanderthal. School had conditioned me to be defensive, introverted and extremely bitter and blunt. I had all the grace of a slug.

I was fond of provoking or opposing authority figures and I was absolutely incapable of getting along with most people because of how much I voiced disagreement or ‘called’ their ‘stupidity’ in my opinion. The next two years of university would prove to be a very intense crash course in learning how to deal with people. I’m still amazed to this day how my tutors actually put up with me, nay, they even engaged with me. If I was teaching myself, I would either ignore or kick myself out of class for being an asinine little shit – but I guess they saw there was something beyond that crusty, hard exterior.

Oh the drama.

University was otherwise a strange hybrid of great times and bad times. Bad times would be the boring classes I had to endure and generally stumbling about this ‘socializing’ thing. Great times however, were finding out that university is different.

For the first time in my life, I was actually treated with respect by my tutors who also would level with you personally. Student life had multiple activities and fun events, my tutors were from all over the world and being a student at university felt like a privilege or perk due to how much help was available to me during the initial two years. There was even a summer scholarship to go abroad with no requirements save for proving you have decent English!

That one was a funny one however: I got rejected because I have too high a level of English and the scholarship’s purpose was to learn English. Ouch.

Still, times were looking up and I eased up over the two years, yet I remained a cynical bastard nonetheless. One that complained too often and too vocally for his own good.