When a Guardian article stated that Chigozie Obioma was the “sole African writer” to be longlisted for the 2015 Booker prize, the journalist in question had clearly forgotten there was life north of the Sahara. Thankfully, the Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami, who was also longlisted, was quick to remind him, tweeting: “I am African. It’s an identity I’m often denied but that I will always insist upon”.
I know Lalami’s frustration well. Every time I have to declare my ethnicity I am reminded that “black African” is seemingly the only category that exists. Being both Algerian and British, I am constantly explaining why I identify as European and African – as though I’m “choosing” to be African, rather than it simply being a fact.
In politics and academia, north African countries are commonly grouped with the Middle East under the umbrella of MENA. In conferences I have been to on “African” issues, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have often had tokenistic representation, if any at all.
But the identity equation isn’t as simple as Arabic speakers equal Arab people. There are still communities across the Maghreb that speak Berber or Amazigh and a dialect called darija that heavily features French and Spanish phrases. Besides, being Arab isn’t an alternative to being African, or even black. Mauritanians and Sudanese can identify as all three at once.
The religion argument isn’t watertight either. Islam is the dominant religion in parts of east Africa and the Sahel, with notably large communities in Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Perhaps then, it simply boils down to colour. Could it be that to be African is to be black? And if so, what shade will do? Are the South Sudanese, with a pigment that is dark, rich and beautiful, more African than their neighbours to the north, of lighter skin? Surely a categorisation based on race is too reductive and ignores the continent’s great diversity in nations, cultures and ethnicities.
A categorisation based on race ignores the continent’s great diversity in nations, cultures and ethnicities
That leaves the question of culture. At a party a Nigerian quizzed me about Algeria: “Is it conservative like Saudi Arabia?”, he asked. “No,” I replied. “It’s conservative like Nigeria.”
Whether through football, music or film, Algerians have more in common with Nigerians than Saudis. Ivorian coupé-décalé legends Magic System have joined forces with rai heavyweights Cheb Khaled and 113 as well as a number of lesser-known Maghrebi artists. During the African Cup of Nations, crowds cluster around televisions across the continent to see their national teams play, in an event that brings every corner of Africa together.
The migrant experience also unifies the continent. In France’s banlieues, immigrants from the former African colonies – north and south of the Sahara – share cramped conditions, as well as a sense of isolation and discrimination. The Arabs driving sports cars or shopping on the Champs Elysées are more likely to be from the Gulf states than from the Maghreb.
Certainly there is something to be said about north Africans trying to distance themselves from “black Africa”. This is as much about sources of influence and power (after independence, countries like Egypt and Algeria looked to the Middle East for a model of an Islamic nation, or north to Europe for economic partnerships) as it is about the racism that exists here as it does everywhere else in the world.
Perhaps the glue that most strongly connects north Africa to the rest of the continent is colonial history. France’s colonial troops included soldiers from Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger and the Republic of Congo. These Africans fought side by side in the second world war and the traces of this are still present in the collective memory of these countries. The British used soldiers from Egypt, as well as many from the 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 to receive military training with the Algerian FLN in Morocco. In 1969, Algiers hosted the Pan-African culture festival. Historically, African nations have had shared struggles.
Of course, north Africa benefits from being linked to the Middle East, both for business and development. Saudi is in the top five trading partners both for imports and exports with Egypt, but this relationship shouldn’t be exclusive. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt share not only 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 being in Africa is part of that.