Growing up, I didn’t have much of an identity.
I was born in Algeria and left when I was five; I didn’t return until I was almost fourteen. For nine years, my life was the west; it was a place that refused to accept me, but it was all I knew. I come from a family with a diverse cultural, linguistic, and ethnic background but I was never taught any of that. I didn’t know what home was, I didn’t even like telling people where I was from because my country of origin was virtually unknown, and people’s ignorance to its existence made me ashamed.
My parents informed me of our imminent return about a year before we actually left; I didn’t believe them. The threat of being put on a plane and being sent home had been on the tip of my mother’s tongue for quite a while and a year seemed like a long time; I figured they’d probably end up changing their minds. They didn’t. Their decision to return was simple: me. They wanted me to fully understand my culture and where I came from. They had attempted to do that by plunging me headfirst into Islam since childhood but as I reached adolescence, that technique no longer worked; in fact, it had catapulted me in the opposite direction.
I screamed, I cried, I protested; I even plotted my escape. I did not like my life at the time but nothing in the world terrified me more than returning to a foreign land that I could barely remember, speaking a language I had refused to utter for years, and spending time with a family I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.
It’s very easy for people who have never struggled with their identity to dismiss it’s importance, especially in young adolescents. I had never belonged anywhere. I was already alienated due to my appearance and foreign upbringing and to make it worse, the one identity that was given to me was the one that made me more foreign than anything. I was different, and I was thirteen; an age where it’s hard to comprehend that being different is okay, especially when all my world consisted of was cliques and people who were obsessed with being carbon copies of each other.
Moving back had an immediate effect on me. For the first time since I could remember, everyone looked like me; same skin tone, same hair texture, same features. Even if they didn’t, even if they were darker or lighter, even if they had straight hair or kinky hair; I would always find something in their appearance that was similar to mine. I could talk to girls about the fact that I had quite a bit of body hair and how none of it was blonde and they would completely understand my dilemma, because they had the same problem.
For a young adolescent girl who had spent the past few years doing everything in her power to try and fit in, to not stick out like a sore thumb in a sea full of blonde hair and blue eyes, who had spent so long thinking something was wrong with her because everything that grew on her body was black and brown; I could have almost cried out of relief.
Within a few months, I stopped straightening my hair. And not long after that, I cut it all off. I had spent so long trying to make it as long and as straight as possible; because I couldn’t wear my hair natural without people trying to touch it or stare and point at the frizzy, flyaway bits at the front that always poked out. I didn’t care anymore, because now I was in a place where everyone had frizzy, flyaway bits at the front that always poked out; and I stopped feeling so alone and so alien. I started to feel comfortable in my own skin. I no longer wished for straight hair, or light hair, or light eyes or paler skin. I had started to love myself, albeit in small pieces.
Don’t get me wrong, like the rest of the world, Algerians are susceptible to the same European beauty standards as everyone else; in fact, many do everything they can to meet those standards. The country is not a haven for women of color, especially those with darker skin and so-called “bad” hair; but that feeling of belonging and finding women who shared my struggle did wonders.
I sometimes wonder what I would’ve become had I not returned home; the thought makes me shudder. Algeria is a jungle of a country with no infrastructure or just general order, but it gave me the space to grow into a person and form my own identity; something I didn’t realize I could do before.
During my years in the UK, I had switched out my native tongue for english and had lost it in the process; I spent years trying to relearn it again. I learned about my origins, I visited my ancestral villages, I read up on my country’s history, and later, I learned about my family’s role in it gaining its sovereignty. Despite the anti-women sentiment I often felt from men in my own country, I grew quite close to my mother and the older women in my family and they taught me not to take shit from anyone; least of all a man. All of these things helped form the person I am today.
Nowadays, despite the fact that I once again reside in the west; I know who I am now. I refuse to be a faceless entity or dip into the shadows because people don’t want to see me or acknowledge my presence. I know what Home is now, and it is not here. I have formed my own identity and I refuse to let anyone belittle it, take it away, or try to replace it with what they think I should be.