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.
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.
Read More: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/11/algeria-black-africa-north-africa-shared-history