Before I came, I thought that Algeria was an open-minded country, where people lived together in harmony. But I was shocked even as I arrived at the airport. They stared at us, pointed at us and someone shouted: “welcome to Algeria, kahloucha!” I remember this word very well; I didn’t know yet that it was an insult.
The day I arrived at the university accommodation, it was the same, they jeered at us. Then later in the street, I had my hair in an afro style and a young guy put a cigarette in it. My hair was burned and it made a hole. An old lady came to help me extinguish the flame. Everyone was laughing. I ran back to my room, I was crying. Then some nice girls taught me how to insult in Algerian.
The more I went out, the more I was attacked, insulted or hit. It never ended, it was: “kahloucha” (the black, an insult), “kahloucha zobbi” (the black my cock), “nik mok” (fuck your mother), roh bledek (go home to your country). I was always afraid, I had a knot in my stomach. There wasn’t a single day without an attack, being hit or having my hair pulled. I sank into a terrible depression, I was close to madness. I went around with sticks to defend myself.
One girl couldn’t tolerate life here, she wasn’t even able to leave her room. In the first year, she tried to commit suicide. A week later, her family came for her. But I couldn’t go home, because I would have been ashamed that my community would think me incapable of completing my studies. They don’t know what goes on here.
Constantine is a particularly conservative city, it’s much worse that Algiers or Béjaïa. The guys constantly attack us. If they see a girl alone in the street, they go crazy. They throw rocks at you, they want to stone you. I had the impression that everyone wanted to hurt me. So I started responding with violence. They hit me, I hit them, they strike me, I strike back. I had to fight day and night, for the whole period of my studies. I didn’t even know that I had so much violence within me, but Algeria brought it all to the surface.
At the university accommodation, some girls said I was beautiful, but it was just to make fun of me. Others were so shocked to see a black person that they froze or ran away. Sometimes, some of them would later apologize. I also made friends, who were really there for me and who invited me to see their family. These friendships are my fondest memory of my years in Constantine.
Thanks to me, many things changed at the university. At the beginning, the foreign students talked little with the Algerians, they kept their headphones on so as not to be disturbed. They had no way to defend themselves, no place to go to complain. But me, I fought every time someone insulted me, and I went to see the administration. It was starting from that time that the black students started to be respected. One day, a girl said to me: “Thanks to you, I can take off my headphones, people don’t even insult me anymore. “It was through violence that I gained respect.
So the black students created a sort of family, with a lot of solidarity. The older students took care of the new ones. When one of us had a problem, everyone dealt with it.
The administration said that it was there for us. And indeed, we could complain about those who attacked us and the administration would punish them with up to a year of expulsion. But they did nothing to raise awareness among the students, asides from allocating us to working groups so that we could have contact with Algerians. They wanted us to integrate, but they didn’t want any integration for themselves. Many girls experienced racism even from the teachers. One teacher asked a girl: “Are you a girl or a boy? I can’t tell the difference with the blacks”.
I see Algerian society as closed and racist. Black people are still seen by many as slaves, as an inferior race. Here, the images you see of black Africa are illness, famine, people living in remote villages with no civilisation. There are few documentaries about Africa, African history is not taught, and Algerians do not consider themselves as Africans. They should be taught that the people who come here are from major countries and that they too are Africans. They know nothing of their history, just the Algerian revolution and the Black Decade: so how can they respect black people? Society dumbed them down. They are like sheep, while those in power drain the country’s coffers.
When I returned home, my mother expected to see me in religious attire, with the hijab. I had a shaved head, like a rock n’ roll star. My poor mother must have almost had a heart attack at the airport. She said to me: “Where were you? - Em, well I was in Algeria! - but whatever happened to your hair? - your Algerians, your pious Muslims; they burnt my hair!”
Photographer Leïla Saadna
Leïla Saadna is a visual artist and a director of documentary films. She has been living and working in Algiers for two years. After studying plastic arts in Paris, she oriented herself towards engaged and poetic film and artistic projects. Her working and research themes are post-colonial migration stories, the words and struggles of people affected by intersectional forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism, and in particular the experiences of women in a post-colonial context.