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#2: "When you take care of yourself, it's also political. It's an act of resistance"
Donia Ismail on how even journalists need a break from the news, making diaspora kids feel seen, and being Algerian, Egyptian and French all at once.
Hello lovely readers,
This week’s guest is the amazing Donia Ismail. Based in Paris, Donia is a journalist, Deputy-Editor-In-Chief of Arabia Vox, Social Media Manager at Slate.Fr and producer of the award-winning Allô 213? podcast, which is all about Algeria.
Donia is also 1/8 of Arabengers, a Parisian collective that comes together to shed light on MENA cultures. They plan multidisciplinary events which showcase the diversity of identities and cultural scenes of the region.
If you happen to be in Paris this month, they’ll be at FGO-Barbara, 1 rue Fleury 75018 on 21st January from 6 pm until 1 am for a conference on immigration and pop culture, followed by a karaoke hosted by historian and researcher Naïma Yahi and a surprise show (can confirm it is set to be goooood!)
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How would you describe your heritage?
I’m Algerian on my mum's side and Egyptian on my dad's side, and I'm French as well because I was born and raised in Paris. I've never left Paris, a true Parisian! For the longest time, I just wanted to be French. But growing up, felt more Egyptian because I grew up in a really Egyptian household. My mum grew up in the 60s in Algeria, and at that time, Egyptian music and culture were everywhere because of the soft power. So in my house the food, movies, music I was listening to, everything was Egyptian. Even now, in terms of furniture, everything is Egyptian!
But then, growing up in France, there were no other Egyptians really. In my family, I was the only one apart from my dad, who passed away. So I grew up with my Algerian family, and there’s a huge Algerian diaspora in France. I had to dig into my Algerian heritage to relate to the people I met at school or in daily life, so I kind of just decided to be Algerian at one point. It really took me some time to embrace the three identities at the same time and to embrace them as much as one another.
Now I say that I’m Egyptian, Algerian and French. I live in a country where you’re French when you succeed and Algerian, Egyptian, Arab or Muslim when you fail. So I think it’s important that I be presented as Algerian, Egyptian and French when I succeed and when I fail. I always say that I'm Arab as well because my mum and dad would always say that, and it took some time to kind of question what Arab meant. I do feel like I'm Arab because of how close I am to Arab culture, and how close I am to my language and the music and movies.
How do you understand yourself in terms of race?
In France, it’s a hard question because as a country we don’t really acknowledge the concept of race. It's in our constitution that we are just one unified community. Even if you're Algerian or Egyptian, in the constitution you are just French, which in daily life is not true. No one in the street would assume I’m French, they would assume I’m Arab. So it’s really hard for people to understand that you can be French and embrace being French but also come from another country.
Even the concept of being binational is hard for [French] people to understand because they say that when you come to France, you have to become French. When you've struggled so hard, for such a long time, to understand where you come from, and to be at peace with your identity, to have society scream at you that you can’t be both Arab and French, that you have to pick, is so traumatic. The last time that happened was during the World Cup when France played against Morocco. When you support your parent's country against France in a game, they say, ‘you’re betraying us’. They don’t want you to be anything but French, but in reality, they don’t consider you to be French.
What do you like most about yourself, and do you attribute any of that to your Algerian Egyptian and French influences?
I think I just love the culture I grew up in. Thank God I get to embrace these two cultures that are really different. Even though they're from Africa and have similarities, they are so different. I really love how open it made me in terms of music. I listen to so many genres in so many different languages. And a lot of people that I meet say I’m really French, so Parisian in my personality. I’m always on the go and I just love my city so much. I love going out, going to museums and all that stuff that really links to French culture — enjoying a great meal! And also honesty. I feel like the French are really honest. Maybe it’s too much! They tell you what they have on their mind. And I definitely value honesty. I think that’s a really French trait of my personality, when I go to the UK people say, ‘Ah you’re being too French now, just chill’.
What do you think most French people don’t realise about what it is like to have North African heritage in France?
That not every North African is the same. It goes back to the representation that we have in France, it's always the same kind of framing and archetypes: you are seen as either against your religion and trying to erase everything that makes you Arab or North African or you are so into it that you are nothing but this. And this is because of colonialism, right? Because France has a huge history with it. The history between France and Algeria is still a complicated one. It’s still something we are struggling with even in 2023. It’s everywhere in our conscience because the French government has never asked for pardon. So I would love people to know the nuance of us, how French society can impact the way we build identity and how hard it can be to be at peace with our identity. And that our culture is also valuable.
I studied literature in high school, and all the books we studied were French books. Never books from the diaspora or from other countries, which was really sad. We were supposed to study literature, but it was just French literature, sometimes British literature, sometimes American literature, but never North African literature. I remember at that time, one of my classmates said, “it’s because your culture is not good enough.” I was 15 and didn’t know anything about my culture then, about Arab literature. So I wish people knew how amazing and interesting our cultures are as well, that they would go beyond the negative things they hear about the region on the news and try to understand who we are.
What was your relationship like with your heritage growing up?
When I was maybe 5 or 6, Arab music was playing all the time. My mum loved listening to classical music from the 50s and 60s, which, I really adore now, but back then I hated because the songs are one hour long. I didn’t want to sit down and listen to one hour of classical music, I wanted to listen to High School Musical! Then I started to go to the UK a lot and discovered UK culture. So, for 10 years I was into everything but Arab culture. Not because I was rejecting it, but I think at some point you want to build yourself against your parents, to be different from them.
But then, when I was in high school and a classmate told me my [Arab] culture is not good enough, I was like ‘whoa!’ I couldn’t say anything back because I knew nothing. I remember just being so mad, I went to the bookshop and said to the man who was handling the books, “Give me any book, I don’t care which, just get me any book by an Arab author!” He gave me a book by Naguib Mahfouz, the biggest Egyptian writer. He got a Nobel Prize for Literature, the only one we had in the Arab region. So I started with one book, and I just fell in love with how he wrote, with the history, and it became this great way for me to get to know my countries.
So now, whenever I step into a bookshop, I find a Naguib Mahfouz book and buy it, even if I don’t read it. I just want to have hundreds of books from the Arab world. Then from literature, I went to music. I went back and kind of forced myself to listen to the classical music that my mum loved, and fell in love with it too. Ever since, from the age of 16 or 17, I started to fully embrace my Arab heritage. I read about my countries and know where I am from. Now, I'm really vocal about it. It took me so much time to be at peace with myself and my identity that now I just want to scream it.
Why do you think you ended up becoming a journalist, and how much of that do you think is tied to your mixed heritage?
I've always wanted to be a journalist, I think it's the only job I actually talked about when I was growing up. I think it's because I love to write and I love telling stories. We're from the Arab region, the Middle East, from cultures that have oral traditions, so we do tell a lot of stories. I grew up with the women in my family always telling stories so I fell in love with storytelling from a young age.
Then, as I was getting older, I got more and more interested in the Arab world but when I tried to get information on what was happening, especially during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, all the best articles were in English. They were covering it in French but all the interesting articles on things like culture, music, social questions, would be in English. And I thought that was really sad because French people need to know what’s happening, and also, we have a diaspora from the region that has the right to know what is happening in the homeland, and should be able to read these stories in French — I thought it was really important for diaspora kids to feel seen and to feel heard in France.
You’ve interviewed me for a few pieces before and the topics we’ve covered have specifically focused on SWANA women and beauty and experiences of race, are these important focuses of your work?
When I started, I was literally just writing pieces about what was happening in Algeria and Egypt, which is important, I'm still doing that — I did a piece on the rap scene in Egypt recently. But now, more and more, I want to spotlight our experiences [in the diaspora] because it's important to question the representations perpetrated in France. So, for instance, the article I interviewed you for was on Arab-fishing. Arab-fishing involves me as a person because I am also the victim of it, of people using our features [to gain money/ clout] when it’s trendy. Right now I’m trendy, but what’s going to happen to me and my mental health in 10 years, when I’m not trendy anymore? That involves me, my friends, my mother, my cousins. But nothing is written about it because [they think] our lives are not important, not worthy of research.
I want to have a corpus of research so, for example, when in 5 years someone says, ‘I want to write something about Arab-fishing,’ there is a long article on Slate.fr that’s going to help them understand what’s happening. In the article, you have experts, all women from the MENA region to show that we do have people who know about it, who write about it and who research that for their whole life and career. It says we are worthy of articles, we are worthy of research and we are important. And also, we have incredible people that are from the MENA region, and we should be able to broadcast them and showcase what they are doing.
Is there someone from a SWANA diaspora you find inspiring right now?
All the women who are with me in the Arabengers collective: Fatma Torkhani, journalist and editor-in-chief of Arabia Vox, Ouafae Mameche; music journalist and co-founder of Faces Cachées éditions; Nadia Bouchenni; journalist and co-founder of Dialna; Lina Soualem, director of Their Algeria; Hajer Ben Boubaker, independent researcher, podcast producers and creator of the podcast Vintage Arab; Farah Khodja, founder of Récits d’Algérie; Dorothée-Myriam Kellou, journalist and director of the documentary, In Mansourah you separated us. They are amazing, they’ve pushed me to embrace who I am and are great mental support. They’ve achieved so much and are real changemakers!
What is something that you have changed your mind about lately?
I used to think I have to read everything and be connected in every shape or form to what is happening in France because I'm a journalist. And it was getting to my mental health, it was really hard because in France, we do have a lot of scandals. And it’s racist debates all the time. For instance, a few weeks ago, Omar Sy, who is the biggest French actor — he did Lupin on Netflix — did an interview, and was like, ‘of course, we are really concerned about what's happening in Ukraine, it’s really sad, but it’s not that different from what’s happening in Africa. But when it is Africa, you don’t cover it.’ He is Black and Muslim, and he got the biggest backlash ever on television with people saying he isn’t grateful for the country he was born in.
For the longest time, Omar Sy was nominated as the favourite personality in France because he didn’t talk about those things. And Zinedine Zidane, the biggest footballer in the history of France, got racist backlash as well recently. He’s Algerian. So it’s like, you can be Zinedine Zidane in France and they’re gonna disrespect you. So imagine me, obviously, they’re gonna disrespect me. Sometimes it gets to you. And so the thing I've changed my mind about recently is that now, I don't follow everything that's happening in France. I decided to take a step back. I've cut out television news, which was a big thing for me growing up. I'm deciding when I'm watching and what I'll watch. I used to read the newspaper every morning and now I'm really catering it to my needs, reading when I want to and what I want to. I think that's really important because it kind of helps you to stay mentally sane in this country.
As a fellow journalist, I’m so glad you chose this. I think we can be really hard on ourselves about it!
Yes, and we really have to take care of ourselves. For them, the easiest thing would be for us to just stop and quit, and just be exhausted all the time. When you take care of yourself, it's also political. It's an act of resistance. If you don't want to be on social media, then don't be on social media. That's okay. And if you don't want to listen to everything that's happening in the world, or everything that’s happening in your field, that’s okay too. I'm writing about diaspora, so I have to know what's happening. But if today I don't feel comfortable reading about those things because I know how it's going to affect me, then I don't do it. Why would you do that? It’s just a job at the end of the day. Your mental health is just more important than that.
What is the cultural artefact that has had the biggest influence on you?
The first one would be the book, Dérives sur le Nil (A Drift on the Nile) by Naguib Mahfouz. It really allowed me to dip more into my culture. And the other would be a song by Umm Kulthum, El Atlal. Whenever I listen to it, it’s a huge throwback for me to Egypt, to happy moments and memories. The song is called El Atlal, which means ‘the ruins’, and she talks about the ruins of her past love. But because Egypt had just lost a war when it was released, you can think of it as the ruins of Egypt. I really liked it because it was the first time I listened to a song and wanted to know more about the history of what happened in Egypt at that time. Also, Umm Kulthum is a huge figure for me. She's like a mum, I really love her. In my bedroom there are posters of her everywhere. She’s the first and foremost link I had to Egypt, to the Arab world, and she is terribly important in Egypt. She died in 1975, and she is still one of the most played artists in the MENA region. She's really close to my heart!
What is the best thing about having mixed geographies?
Well, it's more travel destinations, firstly! I think it allows you to be more curious, which is really nice, especially when you're a journalist because you have to be curious. I listen to a lot of Arab rap — a lot of Egyptian rap — but at the same time, I'm big on musicals: Funny Girl, and West Side Story. So I do feel a mixed heritage makes us more open to all different cultures. I can listen to Italian music, Spanish music, without needing to understand all the words.
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