I am privileged to have been able to reside in a few countries outside my country of birth, India. And I consider myself immensely fortunate to have travelled to more than fifty countries till date, something that most people are unable to achieve in a life time. But it had also made me conscious, that this is just about a quarter of the world’s countries, and how one life is too short to even think of covering the whole world.
As an Indian man traveling and living overseas, I have been able to witness the positive and negative stereotypes that come with a person’s ethnicity, skin colour and religious affiliations. Let’s face it, an Indian, or more generically a brown man, does not get the best reception in most parts of the world. Of course, some countries are more ‘on the face’, while some others are somewhat more subtle. But it can be felt in most cases, if not seen everywhere. Most of this is due to pure racism and xenophobia, which is unjustified and unfortunate. But some of it is also due to the irresponsible and often disgusting actions of millions of Indians living abroad over generations, which has helped form negative stereotypes about anyone matching the same profile.
But today, I will not be ranting about the unfairness of the world against the Indian diaspora. Instead, I will be sharing my experience about that one country I have lived in, where Indians are not only treated well, but often treated better than people from any other country. I am sure there are some other countries where people have positive experiences too, but Algeria is at a different level, as far as treating Indians goes. I lived there for a year around 2006-07, and I have nothing but fond memories, from my time in this North African country.
Algeria (Al-Jazāʾir in Arabic and Algérie in French) is the largest country in Africa (it used to be second largest back then, when South Sudan was a part of Sudan) and the tenth largest in the world, with a population of just over 40 million. Almost 90% of the country’s land is covered by the Sahara desert to the south, while the urban capital Algiers (Alger in French) is located to the north, facing the Mediterranean Sea. I was based out of Algiers, a lovely city in general, with the city center resembling a European city, especially during day time. Algeria is a part of the ‘Maghreb’ region, along with countries like Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, and is predominantly Arabic speaking, although due to its last colonial history, the educated people would also speak reasonable French. Algeria is a country that had been historically ravaged by war, and the last two wars, the battle of independence from the French (1954-62) and the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), had particularly damaged the country and left its population in dire conditions.
By 2006, it was felt that the country had reached a state of relative calm, and the guerrilla attacks by the Islamist insurgents had mostly ceased, as the country started to rebuild itself and its economy. This was the time when my employer felt it made sense to have a person on the ground to manage the business, since the risks had gone down significantly.
Algeria, despite being in Africa, was completely different from what I had seen in West and central African countries like Ghana and Gabon. The people were different, both in terms of features and skin colour, their religion was different, their language and food was different, and most importantly, their culture and societies were completely different. In fact, I would go on to say, that Algeria is closer in terms of culture and society, to India, than it is to the rest of Africa (Black Africa).
One significant reason for this, was the emergence of Bollywood! Back in the 70s and 80s, we grew up in India, watching that one channel (and later two channels) called Doordarshan (DD), from the state broadcaster Prasar Bharati. We used to sit with our entire families, and often our entire neighbourhood, to watch movies on Saturday evenings. Soon after, Algeria, a country without an established home grown television network at that point, decided to broadcast Indian television to their audience. So from the late 70s, most Algerian families would also huddle together in their living rooms during the weekends, and watch Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna sizzle on their television screens. They would laugh, cry and sing together, watching the emotional content of our movies.
THE GREATEST MOVIE, THE MOST POPULAR SONG
But there was one movie that had moved Algeria more than any other movie, ever. It was a 1973 movie by Manmohan Desai, titled “Aa Gale Lag Jaa”, which starred Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore, Shatrughan Sinha and Master Tito, in leading roles. This typical dramatic Bollywood plot had a modest dose of romance, misunderstanding, separation, conspiracy and eventual reunification of love interests. While Shashi Kapoor became the handsome heartthrob of the entire nation’s women, Master Tito, cast as the handicapped boy Rahul, made everyone cry with compassion.
So much was the impact of this one movie on the people of Algeria, that back in the early 2000s, my employer would gift every new customer with a welcome kit, which included a DVD of ‘Aa Gale Lag Jaa’.
Apart from the whole movie itself, there was one song in this movie, which mesmerised the whole population. It was a Kishore Kumar and Sushma Shrestha (voice of Rahul, the boy) duet song, “Tera Mujhse Hai Pehle Ka Naata Koi” composed by R D Burman. The lyrics ‘Jaane Tu, Yaa Jaane na’ within the song, was particularly famous, although often wrongly sung as ‘Jaane Tu Maane Na’ and simplified as ‘Jaani Tu’.
It was commonly said that 35% of Algerians spoke French, 85% spoke Arabic, and 95% people could sing ‘Jaani Tu’!
While most Algerians would usually call Indians as ‘Hindi’, they also had an informal and a warmer name to call them; ‘Jaani Tu’! Once they had called you as ‘Jaani Tu’ it meant they had actually accepted you as their friend.
I recall the first time I encountered a favour from an Algerian. I had purchased a new Toyota Corolla that afternoon for my company, and my driver and man Friday, Mohammed, a fine gentleman in his forties, had driven me in my new car to our customers all afternoon, and had finally parked it at my apartment block in the evening, and left for his home.
I had just finished my dinner of ‘Couscous’ with some Chicken stew, and ‘Chakchouka’ made with eggs, tomato and eggplants, home cooked by the young cook Rebia. While smoking a cigarette from the balcony, I saw my new car parked below and suddenly, I had this irresistible urge to take it for a spin. I finished my smoke and gathered my keys, and in a few minutes I was out on the road, which was usually very empty in the evenings.
In those days, especially in the capital Algiers, there would be blockades by ‘Gendermerie Nationale’ (Military assigned to civil law enforcement duty) at numerous intersections. Once you see a barricade, you are supposed to slow down your car to a halt, switch off the head lights, turn down the volume of your radio or music player, lower your window glasses, and wait for the next instructions. Although I had never seen it myself, Mohammed had warned me that if someone doesn’t stop at a barricade, the Gendermerie had the rights to shoot him/her down for non-compliance. For someone who was not used to seeing Military on the streets back in india, the sight of every Gendermerie post or barricade made me feel very uncomfortable, despite the fact, that I had seen such posts all over Africa in my earlier stints as well. For locals, it was a common thing and it actually made them feel much safer, and that was very important, considering the country had been recovering from a severe war which went for over a decade.
I saw a Gendarme at a distance, and followed the necessary steps, halted next to him, and lowered my windows. He was in his complete military gear, with his rifle, that looked like a sophisticated version of AK-47, ostensibly pointing upwards.
“Salaam Alayqum khouya” (Khouya means ‘my brother’ in an affectionate way)
“Wa-alayqum Salaam” I replied with a smile. Coming from India, this Islamic greeting was pretty familiar to me.
He leaned forward and peeked inside my car for a moment, and then in French, asked for the papers related to my car. I nodded and opened the glove compartment, where I was sure Mohammed had kept the necessary documents. As I was browsing through pieces of paper, and cards, and even brochures, I realised, much to my panic, that even if the car registration papers were there, one important paper would surely be missing from the glove compartment. That was my driving license, something that I had not given to Mohammed, and something that I had forgotten to bring along, in my excitement to drive the new car.
The Gendarme waited a while and guessed something was not right, as he observed me fumbling with the papers. He asked something in Arabic and it was beyond my limited vocabulary. He repeated the question in French and I gathered he was asking me where I was from.
As I informed that I was from India, his face brightened up.
“Hindi, Habibi? Jaani Tu?” (Habibi is also used to mean something similar to ‘My dear’)
I gave him a curt smile, then started to fumble again with the contents inside my glove box.
He stepped forward again and calmly told me;
“Malesh… Malesh…” (Something like ‘Nevermind’)
Then he looked around him to make sure there was no one nearby, and then lowered his face and his voice, and asked me
“You know Dar-min-dra?”
I looked up with surprise and answered;
“Dharmendra? Yes of course I know!”
He was over joyed and continued;
“Of course, he is my favourite!”
“Who doesn’t know Shashi Kapoor? Jaani Tu…”
“Oh Habibi, you know all my favourite stars”
We talked some more about Bollywood film stars and some films, and he asked me if I had watched “Jaani Tu film” and when I said “Yes”, I could see the gleam in his eyes, and sense how impressed he was.
“Habibi, if you face any problem in this city, or in this country, you call your brother. I will help you. Take down this number, my name is Tareq”
He shared his number with me, which I keyed in my handphone, along with his name. The papers and the driving license were long forgotten and deemed useless.
We said goodbye to each other and I slowly pulled away from him, as Tarek the Gendarme kept waving at me, till he disappeared from my rear mirror’s view.
I could not help but admire this friendly Gendarme, and thanked everyone, from R D Burman, to Sahir Ludhianvi, to Kishore Kumar, and the entire Bollywood fraternity, for this mind boggling impact of their productions.
But if you found this story interesting, wait till you hear the next one, when I was taking a flight to Oran, the second largest city of Algeria.
But let me save that part for another day! Please bear with me.
Nice one Dude. You were able to keep my interest to read in till the end. Hope I will visit Algeria one day!
Thank you for the kind words. Yes, it’s surely worth a visit.
I was worried I had walked right into a National Geography or Lonely Planet document-ary for the first few paragraphs. But the second half (like any good Bollywood movie, Habibi) picked up a few gears and ended really well. Looking forward to more Africa stories from your pen!
Thanks for the encouragement. I believe that for the general readers, who would not have much of an idea about Algeria, it might be a good idea to give them some detail on the country, its history, the people and their culture.
Oops, please read that as National Geographic
Stayed there from 2006 – 2014 very fond memories ! Jaane tu is the synonym to Indian 🙂 . We first meet in Nov 2006 first in Maharaja.
And what a lovely time we had after that. Those cricket matches, those addas in the restaurant, those out of city tours. Very fond memories indeed!
Exciting narration. Thanks for the descriptions of such Country not so commonly visited.
Thanks for the kind words Mr. Banerjee. Hope you can read some of the other stories and like them as well.
Really amazed to learn,algeria just knew it as a north african war-torn country and a few good foot-ballers comming from it
Thanks for your comments Nilesh. Indeed Algeria has given some top footballers like Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani. But much before that, Algeria shocked Germany in the 1982 World Cup with a 2-1 win, a team starring Lakhdar Belloumi and Rabah Madjer. Not to forget, many Algerians consider Zinedine Zidane as their own too 🙂
Do keep reading and hopefully, you will like some other stories too.
Like!! Thank you for publishing this awesome article.
Appreciate the kind words. Please keep reading and hopefully you will find more stories worth a read.
Inspiring story there. What occurred after? Good luck!
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