by Sarah Bellal
I sat on a rock on the coast of Tamanar, Algeria. It was the summer before college, and my first visit home in three years. With my legs in the water of the Mediterranean, facing North, I pictured France nearly five hundred miles ahead and my motherland behind me. It seemed my people saw things the same way, only not so literally; Eurocentrism was the modern pursuit, and our own culture and traditions were falling by the wayside.
As I got older and was exposed to increased diversity, I often felt very out of touch with my family’s cultural heritage. I wondered, what was my version of the Palestinian's hatta and dabke, of the Moroccan’s kaftan, of the Yemeni’s jambiya? I asked my mother if there were any good books I could read on our history. She responded that they were all in French.
I took two years of high school French with a significant amount of resentment. I refused to sing the French national anthem, no matter how many dirty glances I received from Monsieur Wallace. He, in turn, refused to give me full credit on a single assignment.
Walking around my hometown of Setif, Algeria was like witnessing a people trying to erase history; everyone I encountered was trying to be more “Western.” Clothing stores attempted to mimic French fashion. Restaurants marketed “fast food” and teenagers drenched their social media timelines with American slang phrases. It’s almost physically painful how problematic it was seeing a kid’s pink t-shirt printed with “Friends with Benefits” in blue, sparkly writing. The culture washing wasn’t even being fact checked.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this self-inflicted cultural cleansing was that there didn’t seem to be anyone trying to combat it. The voices of our grandmothers telling the youth to eat with the rest of the family and spend more time at the masjid faded into the background. It is difficult to explain to a generation that every movie, every talk show, and every textbook that told them that Algerian traditions were inferior to those of the rising West was lying to them. Brainwashing isn’t easily reversible, especially when it isn’t obvious to its victims.
More so, this brainwashing was deeply rooted in the minds of young Algerians. Every source of culture and media made the typically Algerian action akin to savagery, while French customs were modern, civilized, and refined. French textbooks used in Algeria show pictures of Ahmed being disrespectful, unclean, and idiotic, while Pierre shows students the correct way to behave.
I had a particularly heated argument with my uncle’s wife this past summer when I visited Setif. She refused to accept that we had racist beauty standards engrained in our social fabric. A word we use to describe beautiful people, “zine” or “zina,” literally means fair-skinned. My grandmother was always disappointed to see that I had come back from the beach with a tan. Getting blonde highlights is an increasingly popular trend back home, seen as a symbol of beauty and youthfulness.
A lot of what I observed about this cultural cleansing was confusing, probably because it was still in the process of happening. Remnants of tradition were still celebrated, although decreasingly so. My aunts and cousins always admired the color of my hair, saying it was “ekhel tout”— like blackberries. Then they proceeded to make me straighten out my curls for every family wedding.
I found it astonishing how many people refused to identify with Africa. I heard someone refer to the Malian refugees that have been growing in number in Algeria as “those people who came from Africa.” It was as though there was an invisible border dividing North Africans from the rest of the continent, somehow establishing their false superiority as well.
I myself found it difficult to pinpoint my place on either side of this cultural phenomenon. My American peers saw me as the “other” for as long I could remember, but it didn’t feel so bad because I thought there was still a place where I was normal, where I represented aspects of the default person: Algeria. I can honestly say that the most painful thing I experienced during my most recent visit was when my uncle’s wife referred to me as “guerre,” a term we use to refer to white foreigners. A term that I had only previously heard used in ridicule or when discussing politics. It was difficult to hide how offended I was; how could this woman, who has been part of this family for only a fraction of the time that I had, call me that? How could she call me that when Arabic was the first language I learned, even though I was born in the U.S.? How, when my whole life Americans referred to me as their own version of “guerre”? I was suddenly very confused as to what then constituted as “Algerian,” since I apparently did not. Wasn’t the American culture that I grew up with the one that they were all so actively pursuing? Whatever made me guerria was what they aspired to.
This begs the question, simply put: why? Why are Algerians choosing to wear GAP instead of gandouras and ditching faremsa for french fries? For one, the forced indoctrination of French culture by colonialism has its lasting effects. But also, the misperception of modernity in everything that’s made in the U.S.A. has very real consequences. From the other side of the Atlantic, everything here looks shiny and new. Sadly, mirages are nothing more than optical illusions.
In short, the ever increasing influx of American and French influence distorts the Algerian identity. What we once took pride in is becoming shameful and embarrassing. Granted, this isn’t to say that every Algerian thinks this way; this is merely an observation of patterns and trends.
These patterns are imprinted on more than just the cultural fabric; our faith, meant to be solidified and forever uniform, is witnessing people’s attempted imprints of change. Now more than ever, Muslims have to be cautious of societal standards that conflict with Islam, despite how rooted they may be in our surroundings. We must constantly ask ourselves as Muslims, particularly American ones: how are we allowing society’s ever-changing norms and traditions to warp our view of Islam and its teachings?
Hearing Muslim millennials refer to Islamic teachings as dated is deeply troubling. What legitimacy do morals hold if they are not constant? If the way we decided what was right or wrong was based on where and when we lived, right versus wrong would become what we feel like doing versus what is inconvenient. Our actions would be based on the established norms of whoever happened to have the most influence at that point in time.
So if standards and norms evolve with generations, what do we choose as our frame of reference? Is there something out there that lays out standards for morality and justice that has never changed? This is when you expect me to answer my own question, but you already know the answer: Islam. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful things about this religion. A verse from Surat Al-Saba’ reads, “We have not sent thee but as a universal (Messenger) to people, giving them glad tidings, and warning them (against sin), but most people understand not,” (34:28). We regard Muhammad (saw) as a messenger for all humankind. No matter how far you go, geographically, forwards or backwards in time, the Qur’an and Sunnah will always be applicable. They will always be the truth.
Winston Churchill postulated that, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride, but in the end, there it is.” There have been several malicious attempts in history to change the permanent language of the Qur’an, all of which were unsuccessful. Interestingly, the Arabic words “kafir” and “kufr” come from a root that literally means to hide. However, denying the existence of the truth has no metaphysical nor tangible consequence to it.
The fact that “times are changing” doesn’t disprove the truth behind Islam. If anything, it proves how little we can rely on social practices formed by our fellow flawed human beings. A hundred years from now, people may decide that modesty is indeed important and that crocs are an acceptable form of footwear, and a century later they may once again go back on their word. The word of Allah, however, is immune to inconsistency. It is protected from plagiarism, and unbending in the face of untruth.
It’s important to keep in mind that newer isn’t necessarily better, in both our culture and our faith. We are told they are backwards; what can be backwards about carrying tradition forward?
In the case of Islam, newer definitely isn’t better. Not when we are blessed with the perfect book and the perfect teacher. Not now, not ever.
hatta - checkered scarf that has become the symbol for Palestinians
dabke - traditional dance
kaftan - long, flowy dress
jambiya - curved dagger
gandouras - traditional Algerian men’s clothing; also refers to women’s dresses in certain regions
faremsa - Algerian dish