From Algiers to Astoria: A generational struggle against cultural assimilation
This summer, I visited New York City for the first time. As a former resident of the Big Apple, my father was my designated tour guide.
He immigrated from Algeria to the United States in 1997, when he was just 19-years-old, and NYC was the first place he lived before moving to North Carolina.
My favorite part of the trip was strolling through his old neighborhood in Astoria, Queens. The streets were packed with halal businesses, and their owners hailed from all over the Muslim world — including Algeria, where my family is from.
While walking the streets of Astoria, I found myself grappling with something that has bothered me for a long time: homesickness. The Algerian and Muslim culture that perseveres in Astoria is a culture that I’ve lost touch with since moving back to the United States when I was 4-years-old.
I miss it. Badly.
I remember living in the capital Algiers, and in Kabylia. Kabylia is home to my people, the Amazigh: “free men.” I remember speaking Darja, a mixture of Arabic, Tamazight, French and whatever other languages have found their way into the Maghreb.
My older sister, Sumaya, remembers these things too.
“Pretty much my earliest memories start in Algeria,” she says. “I just remember overseas. That's where the beginning is for me.”
I no longer remember how to speak Darja, and that loss of language has morphed into a kind of estrangement from my fatherland. Sumaya agrees.
“Knowing the language like that gives you [a] connection to the culture. It gives you [the] ability to understand the people whenever they are talking," she says. "And me having forgotten that language, it’s like an automatic barrier between me and the rest of my family.”
Moving from the mountains of Algeria to the coastal plains of North Carolina was a major culture shock for my sister and me. We traded in couscous for cornbread, tisane for sweet tea, Darja for English, and hijab for harassment.
When we returned to the United States, I had a buffer year before starting kindergarten. I used this time to refamiliarize myself with a culture that was foreign to me, but my sister didn’t have that luxury. She was thrusted headfirst into American schools. She struggled with English and spoke with an accent. Wearing a hijab made her stick out even more. In fourth grade, bullies chased her on the playground and pushed her off a platform. She ended up fracturing her wrist.
Like me, my sister was coerced into prioritizing American culture over the Algerian culture we’d grown up with. Those around us, both peers and teachers, tried to mold us into “good” Muslims. Ones that were willing to hide the parts of ourselves that scared them. But we were not scary. They were ignorant.
I’ve started to realize that cultural assimilation wasn’t some innate part of our reintegration process — it’s a survival mechanism. And that pressure to assimilate into western culture isn’t new to my family.
My grandfather, Ahmed Bedreddine, grew up during the French colonization of Algeria. Under French rule, the native population of my country was stripped of their land, ghettoized and forced to renounce their religion to be granted French citizenship, a sacrifice most were not willing to make. Millions of Algerians were killed, with over 1.5 million of those casualties occurring during the Algerian War of Independence alone. The rest were forced to assimilate.
The French implemented a plan known as “Plan Constantine.” They hoped that by developing the infrastructure of Algeria, they could justify their occupation of the country. Part of that plan was to teach French to the children of Algeria in lieu of their native languages, whether they liked it or not.
My grandfather Ahmed was just 11-years-old when he found out he would be forced to learn French, and he looked to his father for guidance. Ahmed’s father — my great-grandfather — was an Algerian revolutionary, and he was killed during French Operation Jumelles in 1959.
But a year before his death, Ahmed met with him in secret. His father told him to learn the language, and that though he may not need it presently, it might come in handy in the future. He told him that maybe one day, he could use their oppressor’s language in the fight against them.
Ahmed took his father’s advice to heart, and he attended French school for a couple of weeks. But with his father away at war, he had to stop attending classes to care for his family.
When his teacher, a French soldier, found out he was skipping classes, he visited Ahmed’s home. He demanded that Ahmed return to school, and pointed his revolver at Ahmed’s grandfather. He said he would pull the trigger if Ahmed refused. My grandfather relented.
Even after the Algerian War of Independence was won in 1964, my family’s ancestral language and culture was still under threat. Ethnic tensions between Berbers and the country’s Arab majority grew, and numerous laws were put into place to prevent the use of Tamazight, the Berber languages. As a Kabyle-Berber, my father Samir Bedreddine was pressured to let go of the language he’d grown up with.
“There was a point in the 70s where if you spoke Berber — I think I was very young —but I remember even when I spoke to my mom on the bus or something, she’d be like 'Shh. Quietly, try not to speak in Berber,'" he recalls. “Because you know, people will look at you like, you know, ‘Why are you speaking Berber?’”
Still, my father wouldn’t be deterred from speaking his native language; if not in public, then in private.
“That’s what we learned at home,” he says. “That’s probably what made my mom even more stuck to her guns, making sure they’re not going to take that away from us.”
During the revolution, my grandparents resisted attempts at cultural assimilation by the French. They passed along that resistance to my father after the revolution. He’s instilled that same spirit of resistance in me.
“Is it going to be tough for y’all to be here? I mean, am I going to ask you to assimilate and just give up who you are so you can survive here? Absolutely not. It’s the other way around. I’ve been fighting, I mean I’ve been telling y’all since y’all were young," he explained. "You are different when you become like them or they force you to be what they want you to be molded as. Once you become that, you’re nothing. Because now they have control.”
I know now that cultural assimilation doesn’t just happen. It's a process encouraged by both individuals and institutions, by playground bullies and settler-colonialism. But it’s a process my family has resisted for over three generations.
And though our struggle seems hereditary, that spirit of resistance seems to be hereditary too; it’s a spirit I hope to keep alive today.
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