Half-lost in translation

Let’s take a walk down the Rue de Martyr’s in Algiers. On one side you have a young man dressed in Levi’s jeans, a Burberry sweater and perhaps looking at you through a pair of Gucci sunglasses.

You turn your gaze the other way and, lo and behold, there’s a woman, or at least you think it’s a woman. She’s covered from head to toe in black.
Her hands are encased in black velvet gloves and where her eyes should be is a thick dark lace so that you can’t even catch a glimpse of those windows to her soul.

It’s the same everywhere—the new perched, seemingly awkwardly, on the lap of the ancient. The beautiful tenements of Algiers hide flea markets that sometimes look as though they have been trading for centuries. The signposts are written first in French and below that in Arabic. The food is a blend of Arabic and French cuisine.

I’m a Zimbabwean and in my second year as a student in the People’s Republic of Algeria on a scholarship. And the people here are a world unto themselves, completely removed from anything I’ve met in my life.

In case you don’t know, Algeria is an Arab country. Practically the entire population is Arabic and Muslim. You can get on to the bus and be the only (how shall I put this?) Negro. I use the term in its classical sense because for once “African” doesn’t quite express what I want to say.

If, as a foreigner like me, you listened closely on the streets of Algiers, you might hear nothing but noise. But, novice though I am, let me tell you what you are listening to. You see that young boy over there sitting on the bench? He’s speaking in Arabic. You can tell by its guttural sounds and its short syllables. The couple just passing him are whispering sweet nothings to each other in French; it’s a softer and gentler language.

I remember going shopping one day and asking the price of an orange from a vendor. I was mystified by the old man’s response as I tried to translate it into English. At that stage my grasp of French was far from good so I asked him to repeat it again, only to get the same unintelligible answer.

It dawned on me only the third time he responded that he was saying the price in Arabic and not in French. Imagine my shock.

It had been bad enough discovering that the French counted in French but now that Arabic numbers were added to the mix it was worse.

But that got me thinking. What vendor in Zimbabwe would (or can) shout out the prices of his wares in Ndebele or Shona? And, even if he did, how many people would understand him? As a matter of fact, how many people in Zimbabwe can speak their language in its purest form? We all know how much people pepper their mother tongues with English corruptions pretending to be words—“i-salt” instead of itswayi, “i-cellphone” instead of umakhalem’khukhwini.

How many Zimbabweans can tell you about the history of the African people beyond just Mutapa (Monomotapa), Shaka and Mzilikazi?

How many street signs are written in the vernacular language and how many cellphone operators will tell you that “Inombolo oyicingayo ayitholakali ngalesisikhathi [The number you have dialled is not available]” the way Nedjma Telecoms does in Arabic?

And yet the beauty of it, the absolute beauty of it, is that we can never lose ourselves in those streets of our own. The thought comes back, insistent and loud, that this is Algiers, the heart of Algeria, a vein in the pulse of the Arab world.

Their identity speaks as loudly as the woman by the corner screaming out the price of olives in Arabic or the signs on the front of the shop curving in beautiful Arabic script. Their identity is as plain as the smile of the toothless old man drinking coffee who smiles and whispers “mleha” (it is good).

Bongani Ncube is a Zimbabwean studying computer science in Algiers

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