We Are Niggers in Algiers

There is a kind of synchronicity to Bongani Ncube-Zikhali’s experience of racist discrimination as a black African at the hands of official Algeria. A parallel to what Algerians themselves face on the other side of the Mediterranean, and a melancholic coda to Algeria’s once-proud role in the Pan-African and non-aligned world of the 1970s.

Drawn to the southern rim of the Mediterranean by hopes of a dangerous crossing to Europe, or drawn like the author of this essay to the cities of North Africa by the promise of a university education, black Africans are an increasingly common part of the fabric of life in Algiers and other cities of Africa’s Arabic-speaking north. It is a hard welcome for many, writes Ncube-Zikhali.

It is night time as the bus speeds through the Maghrebi countryside on its way to Algiers. I prefer taking the late bus and arriving at the crack of dawn. That way, my weekend is not consumed by the eight hour trip between Tlemcen and the capital.

The loud chatter of travelling has given way to a peaceful silence; most of the people in the bus are now asleep and just a cough here or a gentle murmur there rises above the quiet hum of the engine. My eyes are fixed on the distant peaks of the Atlas mountains picked up in stark relief by the waning moon but my thoughts range far and wide. I hardly ever sleep in buses, and perhaps having a clear head is what saved me that night, I shall never know.

They are in the bus almost as soon as it comes to a halt at the road block. Green fatigues and clean shaven chins, guns slung over their shoulders, more guns in holsters by their sides. The Algerian military police make no mistake about looking formidable. Almost everyone in the bus has come to life but everyone remains calm, it is their country. I, on the other hand, having lived through so many similar police check points have a rough idea of what is to come.

“You! Come.” It is more of a bark than a method of communicating with me. My black face in the sea of Arab and Berber faces has marked me out. They make no pretense of checking anyone else. I am the foreigner, I am the one to be inspected. I put on my jacket and walk quietly to the front of the bus as whispers gather all around me; some of them are snickers bordering on laughter. Outside I am made to state my name, my destination and my departure point. I am asked about my occupation and when I reply student they ask for my student card and passport.

They inspect those two in the headlights of the idling bus for a very long time as they discuss in Arabic amongst themselves. We move to the baggage area of the bus and I am made to open my bags and they ruffle through the clothes, letting some fall to the tarmac. Above me I can make out more than one face eagerly watching the cinema going on outside. One of the police officers picks up my toothpaste, opens the tube and a dirty finger brings the paste to his mouth. Finding the familiar taste of Signal he closes it and hands it back to me, I refuse it and throw it away. An argument has broken out amongst them in Arabic. I stand quietly, watching them argue, noticing from the corner of my eye the driver growing impatient with every passing minute.

Come with us they tell me, in French. I protest about my bus leaving me, they tell me to ask the driver to bring anything else I have left in my seat. Why I ask? Their reply is in Arabic. At this point I lose my temper and a torrent of English escapes me. I am going nowhere until they tell me why they want to detain me at two am in the back of beyond for no apparent reason. One of them tells me they don’t understand English, I retort; neither do I understand Arabic which you have been hurling at me for the past few minutes.

“You don’t speak Arabic? You are not from Mali?” He asks incredulous. For FUCKING crying out loud. My passport says Zimbabwe, how the hell do I come from Mali with a Zimbabwean passport. I am almost shouting now, the bitingly cold night air, the frustration and the fear of standing in the middle of nowhere with four armed men is threatening to overwhelm me. The police officers start laughing, we thought you were from Mali, that your passport is fake. Many drug dealers come from Mali. You can go my brother. Bon voyage!. It is all a misunderstanding, my blackness must have confused them.

My blackness seems to confuse a lot of people in this land that Assia Djebar called ‘a dream of sand’. By the time I leave the country four years later, events like this will have ceased to be existential crisis’ and developed into major and minor irritations depending on their severity.

Being called L’africain by people at my faculty including the University professors as if my identity is intrinsically tied to my blackness and their geography has conveniently located Algeria on a different continent.

Being asked if we have cars in my country and how on earth I had managed to make the 9000 km journey from Bulawayo to Algiers – the idea that airports and planes existed in deep Africa would draw mild squeals of surprise and in one case, stubborn disbelief. My faculty is at times a jungle I have to navigate, never quite knowing what will elicit surprise or scorn, or a condescending mixture of both.

I do not claim, nor will I ever, that people like this were in the majority, no. Most of my Algerian friends are friendly, warm, sympathetic and amazing people. But one must speak of those who were not amazing, those who were not warm or sympathetic; those that would constantly try to tear down your world and trample on it

The world outside the university is no better. One day in summer a group of us, all black Zimbabweans, decide to go to the Nokia showroom. One soon discovered that shopping sprees are a good way to get over the ennui of homesickness and the boredom of nothing to do. The guard has his eye on us the moment we walk into the building.

People stare as they are wont to, black people walking down the street can be met with anything from indifference all the way to hostile stares. He follows us around, literally breathing down our necks. We stoically ignore him, determined not to let him cow us into submission. We have every right to be here as much as the next person we think. But soon we can no longer pretend to not be bothered by him trailing us from stand to stand, and I begin to wonder if we should just leave.

As I think this, he leaves and the tension in the group visibly breaks up; we think we have won. But not for long, he is soon back with a can of lavender air freshener which he begins to visibly and purposefully spray in the area around us.

We leave.

And that is what I learn to do. Leave the situation as fast as I can.

Leave when the children of a beggar on our way from church start running after us and calling us baboons.

Leave when the police stop me at the bus-stop from town and conduct an intimate search of my person that borders on molestation (there is a world of difference between patting and squeezing).

Leave when a fight breaks out between the Cape Verdian students and the Algerians – the Cape Verdians had been called savages by the Algerian team. And soon I pretend not to hear it anymore.

Pretend not to be deeply hurt when an old woman refuses loudly in a bus to let me sit next to her. By then I know what kahlouche means and I make my way to stand at the back of the bus. And on the day I leave the country for good, my heart breaks when my Algerian friend literally turns red in the face at Zenata – Messali El Hadj when the airport staff loudly say good riddance to another baboon. He is angry for me, furious at them in a way I have never seen him ever become. Angrier than even I can bring myself to become anymore. I hug him and tell him it doesn’t matter. Ignore them my friend. But they are shaming my country for you, he says. No, I reply, they are shaming themselves.

But is it shame? I wonder sometimes. Wonder what brings a man, woman or a child to have such hate based on what? Prejudice? Stories of a dark continent filled with wild savages and lions heard in infancy? Pictures of war and famine repeated ad nauseaum on CNN and BBC.

I remember one day walking along a highway from visiting a friend at the girls residence (University residences here are gender separated). I was tired from a long day and just wanted to get back to my residence so it all seemed to happen at once. The grey car slow down next to me, the window rolling down and the bottle of water splashed in my face. “Baboon, baboon!” they screamed as they rejoined traffic and drove off. I was too amazed to be angry; the effort of slowing down the car when they saw me, looking for the water bottle, opening the window in the middle of a busy road? For what? Does the fear of the colour of my skin drive that? How deep does it go and what depths of rage dwell there. Rage against what? I dried myself with my T-shirt and walked away.

Again, I cannot stress enough that up to this day, France included, Algeria is the most welcoming country I have ever lived in (including South Africa….that is another story).

I cannot stress enough that most Algerians are wonderful amazing people, just as most but not all people are. I write this for those people who are not wonderful or amazing, I write to ask them of their fears, write to ask them what in my blackness scared them, scares them still.

I write to those who fear brown people or white people. Those today who fear Syrians and Iraqi’s to the point of blocking their borders to them as they flee a war that they did not start. Because the same fear that drove that car to a stop near me, that guard with an aerosol can behind me, those soldiers with their guns in in my face is the same fear that drives them build a wall. I want to ask: What do you fear my friend?

I write for those people of colour who everyday quietly suffer indignities and just leave. I write to join those who stay and stand up for themselves. I write for those people who have experienced these gentle reminders of a world not built in their image and I write for those who have never imagined it could happen, that it still happens; everyday, all around them.

The quiet Arab professor living in France who always has to identify himself at the University gates as his white colleagues walk by.

The young black boy who knows better than to carry a backpack into a French supermarket like everyone else does. I write for those who would say to me and others, ‘Why does everything have to be about race? Get over it, it’s all in the past, we should move past issues of colour. I don’t see colour anymore.’

Yes, you don’t see colour because we are always leaving, always running, always fleeing. By the time you open your eyes, there is nothing left to see.

Bongani Ncube-Zikhali

  • Josie Brown

    So beautifully written, thank you Bongani