|Ibn Ibn Battuta takes the stage (Photo courtesy of Abderrahmane Yaniss Otmani / CAP)|
That, in essence, was the message of the talk I delivered at WikiStage Algiers, a TEDx-style event held back in December in the capital's brand new, Chinese-built opera house. (The video, I'm told, will be available soon.) In the audience were something close to a thousand young people, many of them from ENP, Algeria's national polytechnical university, whose principal student club organizes the event each year. This year, to cap off my high-profile 2016, they had invited me to speak on a topic of my choice. With guidance from some wise friends, I settled on a topic that is obviously close to my heart—storytelling.
Encouraging young people to tell their stories in the age of Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat might seem unnecessary back in the US, but here in Algeria, young people lead very different lives. Facebook is just as ubiquitous as back home (if not more so) precisely because of how little opportunity young people here have for self-expression in the real world. Algerian society tends to place high value on respect for elders—who, in turn, tend to abuse this fact by endlessly telling young people how to live their lives. Most youth also feel pressure to conform to very narrow definitions of success. (For some of the elite students I was addressing, for example, family expectations might boil down to "Doctor, pilot, move to France, or you're a letdown... and no complaining about it.")
But regardless of social norms, family expectations, or cultural circumstances, we're all human. We all have talents, we all spill out of the molds and color outside the lines, and we all face unique challenges, opportunities, tragedies, and bouts of good fortune. As a result, we all have stories. And as I said in my talk, Algeria is sharing surprisingly few stories with the outside world. For a country so diverse and fascinating, that's a shame.
So at the end of my talk, I invited the students to send me a brief story—whether of their whole life, a particularly challenging or fascinating period, or just a striking episode. In the weeks that followed, many did just that! And as promised, I am publishing some favorites from the many submissions, in order to start sharing young Algerians' unique stories with the world. I have translated those sent in French or Arabic, and made just minor copy edits on those sent in English:
Lylia C shared her story: (my translation from the original French)
I have always been someone who adores activities that get me out of my everyday surroundings. Setting out on a whim toward some "nowhere" makes every fiber of my being vibrate. And conversely, this shitty routine poisons me. But life is crazy, I have so many things to live, experiences to try. And yet I remain stuck in this daily repetition, as if I'm glued to it, trapped in it, unable to escape it. Morning comes every day, and I wake up. Night falls endlessly, and I fly off. The seasons slip by month after month, then return no matter what I do. And I repeat myself again, but the routine bores me. Sometimes I wish I could live backwards, rising with the moon and laying down my head with the arrival of the sun, forgetting myself among the seasons, distracting myself from my life and my torments. My feet above me, walking backwards, eating with my ears and standing upright, living in my garden and pruning my house, inviting my enemies and avoiding my friends, until finally I fall into another routine. Some people tell me I live in another world, and yes! In my world every shred of substance evaporates, hesitation is quashed outright, and I leave my imagination all the space it needs to transport me away.Melissa M shared her story:
I constructed a galaxy, a galaxy that belongs only to me.
I explain what I feel though a machine, a machine that resembles a stairway, a stairway that leads from my feelings toward an exterior world.
My machine helps me to memorialize instants, to capture the hint of a laugh or a tear, a canvas of miracles or misfortune. My machine gives me snapshots, and my snapshots are my galaxy.
I never believed in myself. [As a] child I was the anti-social girl who needed others' attention but couldn't get it. Others' opinions of me were so important for me, one bad comment could push me to stop going out for days, until the day it almost killed me. People in my class made fun of me on social media and put me as a joke. Being just a child, I didn't think before reacting, and start mutilation.Imad B shared his story in the form of a slam poetry video (in Arabic) and photographs.
My big sister helped me a lot. She decided to push me into [civil society] and there I discovered that how you look doesn't matter to people as much as who you are—who you really are, no makeup, no lies... just you, your motivation, your smile—not your dress or your shoes or even your face. They made me believe that everyone is WOW, just as each of them is! Even with my scars I started having confidence. The big challenge for me was to go on stage and speak without asking myself, Am I speaking well? Do they think I'm ugly? Am I ugly? Do they really care about my speech?
And you know what? I went on stage in front of 400 people, spoke as hard as I can, and I felt good... really good. I want to tell everyone who doesn't accept themselves: You are perfect and original!
Mery shared her story: (my translation from the original French)
In my memory, what remains of my childhood is that I cried so much, and that I went to several psychologists. I remember that I cried on the first day of school, and that my mother grew mad at me. She wouldn't accompany me to elementary school. But that horrible scene, among others, has accompanied me throughout my life until today, when I write you these words with ink made from tears. It's no secret that I lived happy moments in a very rich family. It's true that the comfort sometimes makes me forget the tears, and that money fills the emptiness in my pockets, but it can never fill the emptiness in a broken heart.Anonymous shared his/her story:
I grew up and realized that I had crushed that emptiness through a remarkably balanced, strong personality who nobody ever saw cry. I was a model student and remain so to this day. I expect compliments from no one, not even my parents. I have grown up and learned early that every change begins with me, and that joy is found in the simplest details. It's pointless to wait for everything from others. I have to be happy with myself!
In our religion, we have two ways to convince people, the tarhib way and the targhib. The first means that we attract people by presenting them the advantageous side of the thing—which was my style—and the second way consists of creating and giving a kind of fear, to [make someone] avoid doing that thing or being with those people.Anonymous shared his/her story:
The story started at my fourth class [ninth grade], where I had a lot of problems with two of my classmates, for some foolish reasons—ni queue, ni tête [you can't make heads or tails of it]. They were often unpleasant, almost aggressive, and they never accepted others' opinions or even respected them—the most basic element of any human being—and the most important, [in their eyes] they were always right!
They made me crazy with their attitude, so to escape this atmosphere, I passed all my time at my friend’s school, which was near mine, and where I noticed one of his classmates, a dynamic and stupid one at the same time—that was my first feeling of this guy.
My friend always requested that I come to support her, so for those reasons I passed most of my time there, and I saw him day after day, particularly after my confrontation with my classmates when they forbade me to make part of a presentation, because they thought that I would humiliate them for some reason.
Each time I met him, he boosted me. He was like sunshine! I have learned many things from him, especially at Wikistage, where a professional showed us how to present, manage our fear of public speaking, and turn [it into an advantage]. After that, I've made the best presentations and everyone congratulates me!
No matter the reason of my coming to their school, maybe it was to see him or to be with my friend, at the end only the result counts.
Everyone thinks I am perfect and that I have it all together, without knowing that I have struggled from mental illness all day long, for many years now. What they see is this put-together, young, strong woman (an example for some, a threat for some others), without knowing that it takes me at least one hour to get myself out of bed in the morning and that sometimes, the noise in my head is so disturbing I can't even breathe. Some tell me, "You are a lucky girl." It is true, I am lucky; I have been born and raised in one of the most coveted places in Algiers, I had access to and lived so many amazing opportunities I know some people won't even dare to dream about and I will always be grateful for that. But the taste is bittersweet... What hurts the most is that people think you are being lazy or that you are just acting. Moreover, you can't even explain your situation without being belittled since mental illness is not something taken seriously here. What truly breaks my heart though, is that so many people who suffer from mental illness are not even being diagnosed. I think dealing with mental illness shouldn’t be a shame, even if the entire world wants to "find you guilty" for feeling that way.Thank you so much to all of you who took the time and gathered the courage to share your stories with the world. I hope this is just the start.
If you are a young Algerian and would like to share your short story, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to turn this post into a recurring series!
|(Photo courtesy of Instagram user @zahra.our)|