Algerians’ experience of London

Algeria has long been a contested land, usually contested by colonial powers who wanted to take advantage of the trading that could be secured by establishing ports along the Mediterranean coast. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries Moors, Spaniards and the Ottoman Empire fought each other to establish trading posts along the Mediterranean coast. In the nineteenth century it was the turn of the French, who occupied Algiers, Oran an Annaba in 1830, and later took control of the ports, followed by a wave of immigration of 100,000 Europeans into Algeria by 1840, and annexation of Algeria into the French state in 1879. Europeans living in Algeria could receive full citizenship, but Algerians could obtain this only after renouncing Islam. Algerians could not hold public meetings, carry weapons, or move around the country without permission. In 1942 Algeria became the seat of Gaulle’s exiled government, during World War II. In 1954 ten years after the end of World War II, a group of Algerians, exiled in Egypt, establishes the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which starts guerrilla activities against the French, mainly in the countryside, which draws the French army into a low-level war, which starts in the countryside, but which spreads to the cities. In 1959 with the internecine battle continuing, the French President De Gaulle gives Algerians the right to vote for independence, which they take two years later. Following the vote, many of the Europeans who were living in Algeria return to France. In 1990 an Islamic party called Front Islamique du Salut wins the provincial and municipal elections, and defeats FLN with a large margin, but the leader of the party is forced to step down by the military, who do not want the party to rule. A civil war begins to break out between supporters of the FIS and the military, which continues for most of the 1990s.

Algerians speak a mix of Arabic, English, French and Berber. They are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Algerians in the United Kingdom include Algerian born immigrants and asylum seekers to the UK and their British-born descendants. Algeria experienced a civil war in the 1990s, which saw many Algerians to flee the country, some arrived in the United Kingdom. The word Berber to describe the people of Algeria derives from the Roman name ‘barbar’ to describe foreigners and was used by the Ottomans to describe the natives of Algeria.

It is said that there are between 10 and 40 thousand Algerians living in the United Kingdom. It has been suggested that Algerians arrived in the United Kingdom in larger numbers than usual during the 1990s, in an attempt to flee the violence, which occurred during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. There are concentrations of Algerians living in Blackstock Road in London, and it has been argued that concentrations of Algerian people can be found in Walthamstow, Edgware and Leyton. The 2001 census suggested that two-thirds of all Algerians in the UK were male; this finding is suggested by what one observes walking up Blackstock Road, known for its Algerian coffee houses. Here the men sit in café bars for the main part, small, poorly lit, and shabby looking affairs, where they chew the fat, and watch football. Walking down Blackstock Road from Finsbury Park tube station you will see several groups of Algerian men hanging out on the street. However, Algerian women are conspicuous by their absence. Algerian women are conspicuous by their absence, on Blackstock Road. The café bars are exclusively male. A question remains though about whether their absence is due to the fact that they are obliged to stay at home, and whether the relatively low proportion of Algerian women recorded in the census may have been an attempt to hide the presence of Algerian women. Other explanations for the relatively low number of Algerian women in London, is that most of the people who have tried to leave Algeria are men, males in general being more determined to leave their roots and risk life and limb to start a new life.

Blackstock Road comes alive when Algeria wins an international match in a major tournament. One damp winter’s night, early in 2010, whilst stepping softly towards Finsbury Park station, a distant primal roar pierced the depressing solitude of Blackstock Road. Aggressive shouting followed. Although difficult to locate, the roar inspired Baconesque images of sadistic violence contrasting with the darkness and calmitude of my immediate surrounds. I surmised Arsenal fans, hooligans, beer and muscle, located at some distance. It was instead clans packed into terraced shells, into Blackstock Road’s insalubrious coffee houses. Through shop windows could be seen black leather, broad shoulders supporting cranes necks and heads of black curly hair facing TV screens suspended from ceilings. As I progressed past one such cafe, five or six men quickly exited, three in front and two behind. I shared a smile with a passer-by, who like me, was suspecting ambush, stunned by the suddenness with which he had become the filling in an Algerian sandwich. I maintained my walk, affecting to be unaffected, expecting to be jumped at any second. But that second never came. I looked behind me to see more men coming out on to the street, milling around the bottleneck, formed by a traffic island at the point Blackstock Road merged with Rock Road. By this time my inner anthropological policeman was demanding an ethnographic stop and search; I leant against a wall watching proceedings develop from afar. A car drove past from the station end, and stopped amongst the growing crowds. The crowds poured good spirits over the driver and passengers. Seconds later another car came past, horns beeping, outstretched arms protruding from the window. Within minutes and as I slowly sauntered back towards the traffic island the street was teeming with Algerian men, athletic, young, dressed in greys, blacks and murky colours mirroring the dirty darkened mess of Blackstock Road. They spilled on to the road, halting each car at this celebratory checkpoint, whether Algerian or otherwise. Traffic jams, disgruntlement amongst bus drivers setting out from Finsbury Park station and a small army of Metropolitan ushers were the natural consequence.

1-2-3, viva Algerie! The congregation shouted, half English, half French. As one Algerian clambered up on to a lamppost from where he waved an Algerian flag, another turned to me, laughed and said, “Please forgive us. Algerians, we are crazy”. Another guy seeing I had a camera struck a pose. Yet another guy hugged me, and still another clenched fists with me and we clashed chests in salute. I felt great.

Later on the same year in 2010 it was reported that when Algeria beat Egypt 1-0 to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, the first time in 24 years, certain streets in London were thronged with jubilant supporters dancing, waving flags, setting off fireworks and tooting their car horns. Said Tom Peck, writing for the Independent, “An hour after the game ended, the crowds had converged on Trafalgar Square, and soon there were around 3,000 fans celebrating under Nelson’s Column, some of whom managed to climb the Fourth Plinth.”

The day Algeria played England in the 2010 World Cup. Around Finsbury Park, tasty geezers, and blokes, working class blokes, were supping on Stella, and watching the big TV screens mounted in the Twelve Pins; an old guy with a Sainsbury’s shopping bag, was sat in the corner, irate that all these guys in front of him were stood in his way. Meanwhile just forty metres away in seeing and listening distance, Algerians were spilling out of their scruffy looking coffee and cake bars; urging their team on; both teams Algeria and England were woeful; but for Algerians living in England, getting some kind of result mattered a lot more; at half-time Algerians came out of their bar to chant and sing. Looking up towards the Twelve Pins all they would have seen is English fans subdued by Stella and shit football; and far too lacking in aggression to care; a few came out to have a look. As the Algerians were sucked back into the cafe, I knew that it was time to return to purgatory; during the second half, fans began to shout “get the lanky bastard on” referring to Peter Crouch, the six foot six England striker. England were woeful and the murky atmosphere of the Twelve Pins began to comatose people, you’d suddenly wake up and realise you were watching a football match. As full time approached and with neither side looking like they were going to score a goal; there was only one thing worth doing, and that’s head down Blackstock Road to watch and join in the Algerian celebrations; they act quickly the Algerians, no sooner is the full-time whistle blown, than a hundred or so Algerian men spill out on to the streets, a drum appears, a trumpet appears, chants of various types in Arabic and English can be heard; the police were there; trying to prevent the Algerians from spilling on the road, but the Algerians, were stood on traffic bollards, waving Algerian flags, photoing and filming each other. As an England fan, I was feeling down, depressed on a mix of Stella and shit football, I knew the Algerians could cheer me up, I just mixed into the crowd, took a few photos, and soaked up the atmosphere, with a mate of mine, we found ourselves next to a particular group of boisterous lads, all dancing up and down. To hell with it I thought, it being English pride, and I jumped up and down like one of the Algerians, with a big smile all over my face. I saw this sixteen year old jubilantly walking past with a spring in his step, smiling at all the dancing and celebration, until he saw me, the smile dropped, he seemed greatly disturbed that an Englishman seemed to have infiltrated the set-up, he was confused, but man I just needed a bit of joy, a shot of joy.

In 2013, supporters of Algeria’s national football team gathered in Trafalgar Square to celebrate their team’s defeat of Burkina Faso to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.

One Algerian lady living in London describes some of the mundane experiences that an Algerian has, having become acclimatised to life in the Big Smoke. She explains how you know you are becoming a Londoner when you have been able to hone the most economic and proven method of describing the geographical location of Algeria to an ignoramus, when your eyes start to roll in anticipation of a stranger telling you, “I have been to Tunisia and Morocco but never Algeria”, when you alternate between socialising with the Algerian and English crowds using one as an antidote to the other, when someone says your name wrong and you can’t bring yourself to correct them, so forevermore you will be known as Rhonda!, when you always pronounce Algeria with a very deliberate A, to avoid the puzzled question “you’re from NIGERIA???”, when somebody says you look Italian and you say “Ohh thank you”, when someone else says “oh but you don’t look Algerian” and you thank them with a beaming smile (yeah you know who you are too), when you work really hard at avoiding the Algerian stereotypes but people will still find you abrupt, direct, honest, and strong and other synonymous words they invented for rude, when you lower your voice on the phone when you see or hear another Algerian on the bus.

In another article the same blogger pointed out, “..we’re always confused by the fact that geographically we’re Africans; politically we’re in categorised as Middle-East, and culturally we’re North African with a strong French influence, sub Saharan Africans recoil at our North-African stance, You’re not Africans, you’re Arabs, Arabs say you’re not Arabs you’re Berber, and the Berber say no you’re Arabs not Berber. We don’t belong to any certain culture, we have our own, we have to embrace our origins, be it African, Mediterranean, French, Arabic or Berber and that’s what makes us Algerian.

The same blogger pointed out, “As an Algerian, you move abroad, and you stand in front of an immigration information sheet please tick your ethnic background; Black: I could be and my best friend is black, honest, I am not racist…; Chinese: NO (but the new & upcoming Algero-Chinese race might need a mention); Asian NOPE ; British white: NOPE; Irish white: NOPE; Other white: YES; Arab: YES; Other (please specify): specify what? that I am an alien? I personally stand in front of this confused, as an Algerian I could be black and I could be Arab, but I am blond, so I am other white no? No you’re Arab African and a Muslim.

One commentator, an Algerian woman in London spoke of her difficulties growing up in London, “I was born and raised in East London, a true Londoner lol, I have been a subject of racial abuse when growing up, cause I am a muslim (grew up in a white based area) and I was quite affected by it. But through out the years I learnt it was all jealousy based, I was popular, got all the lead roles in school, A* student (I could go on forever) There was even 1 point when I was ashamed of being Algerian (really bad time for me) But I had a very strong household, my mother, a very strong women, always encouraged me be happy regardless of being a muslim, an algerian. She taught me the value of life, love, family, my background, my principles, and always reminded me that there are far less unfortunate people who aren’t as blessed as I am. …In my teen years, I was in a social group called the ‘Yellows’ (full of algerians and other races) and even to this day when I have to fill out those ethnic background bullshit, it’s Yellow African all the way LOL.”

One Algerian commentator noticed how the Algerian identity, and the way in which the Algerian identity can fit into one of several categories could be useful, for when presenting a certain face to those who can give you something and who might prefer a different kind of identity depending on the circumstances. He noted, a list of situation in which the Algerian could usefully manipulate their apparent identity to their benefit,: CV: White, British (If you’re really good blag Jewish and you’re guaranteed a job!); Friends: Algerian, Arab; Enemies: Algerian, Arab!; Arabs: Arab, Algerian; Blacks: North African; South Africans: North African; Eastern European: Algerian (let them know who’s more dangerous!); Europeans: French (makes you look cultured!); Police: White (They may even let you off with minor offences if you big up Essex, Wayne Rooney and National Cricket Team! True Story); Ladies: Sicilian, Brazialian, Latino, Lebanese or any other exotic country!”

Some Algerians living in London continue to get involved in the minutiae of Algerian politics and developments, sometimes holding protests in London, to publicize their cause. In 2013 a group of Algerians who were concerned about the recent decision of the Algerian state to allow fracking in Algeria, held a demonstration outside a HSBC bank in London, which was hosting a meeting with the Algerian Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi. In 2003 Jonathon Duffy of the BBC suggested that many Algerians who had come to London during the 1990s, were men who were determined to use violence and aggression against those who they felt were not in support of their Islamic views. He spoke to one Algerian living in Blackstock Road, who commented that, some of the people who came over to London in the 1990s were members of a violent organisation called the Armed Islamic Group, “Some of them have killed 10, 20, 50 people”. It was mentioned that these men, “are still actively collecting money for the cause back in Algeria. I’ve seen them outside the mosque saying ‘Help your Mujahideen brothers back home in Algeria’.” Furthermore, “”There’s a lot of sleeping helpers – sympathisers, who will offer food, clothing, support for the extremists.”

In 2013 the London Algerian Ballet was established to showcase dances and music from different eras and regions of Algeria, their new show premiered on November the 8th at the Tabernacle in London. It was during summer 2012, for an Algerian Cultural Festival that marked the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence that Farah Nasri and Toufik Douib, two London Algerians, had the initiative to create the London Algerian Ballet. Whilst the ballet itself is focused on Algerian dance and music, the directors of the ballet have welcomed dancers from non-Algerian heritage. See the Algerian Dance Show website here.

 

References

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