When a Guardian article declared Chigozie Obioma to be the âonly African writerâ to be on the shortlist for the 2015 Booker Prize, the journalist in question had clearly forgotten that there was life north of the Sahara. Fortunately, Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami, who was also on the long list, was quick to remind her: Tweeter: “I am African. It is an identity that I am often refused but on which I will always insist”.
I am well aware of Lalami’s frustration. Whenever I have to declare my ethnicity, I am reminded that “black African” is apparently the only category that exists. Being both Algerian and British, I constantly explain why I identify as European and African – as if I “choose” to be African, rather than just being a fact.
In politics and academia, the countries of North Africa are generally grouped with the Middle East under the umbrella of the MENA region. In the conferences I have attended on âAfricanâ issues, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have often had symbolic representation, if any.
But the identity equation is not as simple as Arabic speakers equal Arabs. There are still communities across the Maghreb that speak Berber or Amazigh and a dialect called darija which has a lot of sentences in French and Spanish. Besides, being Arab is not an alternative to being African, or even black. Mauritanians and Sudanese can identify as all three at the same time.
The religion argument is not waterproof either. Islam is the dominant religion in parts of East Africa and the Sahel, with large communities notably in Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Maybe then, it just comes down to the color. Could it be that to be African is to be black? And if so, which shade will do? Are the South Sudanese, with dark pigment, rich and beautiful, more African than their neighbors to the north, with lighter skin? A categorization based on race is certainly too reductive and ignores the continent’s great diversity in terms of nations, cultures and ethnicities.
There remains the question of culture. At one party, a Nigerian asked me about Algeria: “Is it conservative like Saudi Arabia?” He asked. “No,” I replied. “It’s conservative like Nigeria.”
Whether through football, music or cinema, Algerians have more in common with Nigerians than the Saudis. Ivorian cut shifted Magic System legends have joined forces with rai heavyweights Cheb Khaled and 113 as well as a number of lesser-known Maghrebian artists. During the Africa Cup of Nations, crowds gather around televisions across the continent to watch their national teams play, in an event that brings together all corners of Africa.
The experience of migrants also unifies the continent. In the French suburbs, immigrants from the former African colonies – north and south of the Sahara – share conditions of exiguity, as well as a sense of isolation and discrimination. Arabs driving sports cars or shopping on the Champs ElysÃ©es are more often from the Gulf countries than from the Maghreb.
Certainly, there is something to be said about the Maghreb people who are trying to distance themselves from âblack Africaâ. These are all sources of influence and power (after independence, countries like Egypt and Algeria looked to the Middle East for an Islamic nation model, or to the north for the ‘Europe for economic partnerships) that it is about the racism that exists here as it does everywhere else in the world.
Perhaps the glue that binds North Africa most strongly to the rest of the continent is colonial history. French colonial troops included soldiers from Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Guinea, CÃ´te d’Ivoire, Niger and the Republic of Congo. These Africans fought side by side during the Second World War and traces of it are still present in the collective memory of these countries. The British used Egyptian soldiers, as well as many other former colonies, including Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya.
In 1962, North Africa and South Africa were both struggling against colonialism and apartheid when Nelson Mandela went for military training with the Algerian FLN in Morocco. In 1969, Algiers hosted the Pan-African Culture Festival. Historically, African nations have had common struggles.
Of course, North Africa benefits from being linked to the Middle East, both for business and development. Saudi Arabia is among the top five trading partners for both imports and exports with Egypt, but this relationship should not be exclusive. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt not only share a colonial past with the rest of Africa, but also a physical continent. Although identity is largely subjective, some things are irrefutable and North Africa is one of them.