By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I am not a sports enthusiast and don’t even faithfully follow the ongoing World Cup in Brazil, but I couldn’t help noticing and being intrigued by the scarcely perceptible but nevertheless apparent de-Africanization of Algeria by French-born Algerian midfielder Sofiane Feghouli who tweeted the following shortly after Algeria progressed to the knockout stage of the World Cup: “Thankful to God that we forty million Algerians and millions of Arabs have advanced. We gift all of the Arabs with this win, especially the people of Palestine. Thank you.”
Many black Africans who had taken vicarious pride in Algeria’s success at the Word Cup decoded Feghouli’s subtle message: that Algeria’s victory isn’t an African victory; that it’s an Arab victory. There at least two reasons why this claim is historically and sociologically problematic.
But, first, let me start by making two admissions. One, Arabism and Africanity are not mutually exclusive since contemporary Africanity isn’t an essentially racial or ethnic category. You can be an African and an Arab. Professor Ali Mazrui invented a term for that kind of dual identity: Afrabian.
Second, as my doctoral dissertation supervisor, Professor Michael Bruner, loves to say, all identity is essentially fiction, but it’s politically consequential fiction. Identities don’t have to make sense to be valid; they are valid because people who claim them cherish them. So if, for example, the Ogoni people from Nigeria’s deep south wake up one day and cherish the illusion that they are English people, no one has the right to deny them the luxury—or misery—of that illusion.
So I am not about to deny Algerians the right to an Arab identity or the right to repudiate an African identity—my arrogant, declarative title notwithstanding. I am only interested in using Feghouli’s tweet to explore historical and sociological facts about Algeria that many people may not be aware of.
First, as I wrote in my July 24, 2009 column titled “Can Arabs and Whites be Real African?” black people are actually latecomers to the appellative universe of Africa. I wrote: “The name ‘Africa’ is a holdover from present-day North Africa's association with the ancient Roman Empire of which it was a province. ‘Afri’ is the ancient Latin word for the amalgam of Berber peoples that inhabited (and still inhabit) what we today call North Africa, and ‘ca’ is the Roman suffix for ‘land’ or ‘country.’ So ‘Africa’ is basically Latin for ‘land of the Afri.’ In other words, it means land of the Berbers. It was never used to refer to the people of ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ until relatively recently.”
The vast majority of Algerians are ethnically Berbers or, as they like to call themselves, Amazigh. So they are the original Africans. It is they, not darker-skinned people in sub-Saharan Africa, that the Romans called “Africans.” Even after Arabs conquered and colonized Algeria and other North African countries in medieval times, the entire area we now call North Africa was still called "Ifriqiya," which is the Arabic rendering of “Africa.” After European cartographers arbitrarily included us in “Africa,” however, the original Africans appear to want to distance themselves from the name. Our blackness has stained the “purity” of their name. Now, they would rather be “Arabs” than “Africans.”
The trouble is: most Arabs don’t recognize North Africans, especially Algerians, as Arabs. Although Algeria is 99 percent Muslim and has adopted Arabic as its official language, it is actually linguistically disaffiliated from the rest of the Arab word. As I wrote in my July 7, 2013 grammar column titled “Multilingual Illiteracy: What Nigeria can Learn from Algeria’s Language Crisis,” “Although Berber is the ancestral language of 99 percent of Algerians, only between 27 and 30 percent of the people speak it. And, although Modern Standard Arabic is Algeria’s official language, most of the population speaks a debased, creolized form of Arabic called Darja, which is unintelligible to people in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. Competence in French, Algeria’s colonial language, is also low. Only about 11 million of Algeria’s nearly 38 million people speak some form of French. It is said that only the children of wealthy Algerians and educated people over the age of 40 speak standard French.”
That was why many Arabs were not flattered by Feghouli’s gratuitous sharing of the glories of Algerian football with the Arab world. A Syrian blogger by the name of Abou Hassan probably said out loud what many Arabs were saying in hushed tones when he wrote the following on a Palestinian blog in response to Feghouli’s tweet: “I’m Syrian and I am upset by all those Arabs who consider Algeria as an Arab country. I have the utmost respect for Algeria and Algerians, and for the language they speak -which I find beautiful in some ways-, but let’s not be hypocritical, most Arabs from the Middle East don’t understand the Algerian dialect, which is for me an independent language, a mix of Arabic, French and Amazighi…. Let’s consider Algeria as part of the Maghrebi nation, not the Arab one.
“There’s nothing racist in saying such a thing, I’m an Arab nationalist but I don’t believe that it’s an honor to be an Arab. Algerians have suffered from 132 years of French colonisation, and have suffered from the Arabization policies after independence. I live in France, which has lots of Algerians living on its soil, and I’ve met many Algerians. I’ve noticed that almost every one of them suffers from an inferiority complex in front of us (Machreqi Arabs) and always tell me that of course your dialect (the Syrian one) is so magnificent while ours is so lousy, that we admire you and such things. Well I feel sorry for them because I find it horrible that a people contempts [sic] itself [sic] so much. “…
That about sums it up.