What is the ‘nif algérien’ really about?

‘Nif’ is an Algerian word which literally means “nose” but metaphorically, it is used to signify many things and is often translated as ‘pride’ (English) or ‘fierté’ (French). However, I am not sure if this is an accurate translation of this word and I am going to give examples of situations which recently arose in the world of sport, where Algerians justified such or such attitude/ behavior as symbolic of the ‘nif algérien’:

– When Zidane head-butted Materazzi after he provoked him in the 2006 World Cup Final. Zidane was sent off and France lost the game. Zidane later admitted that he’d rather die than apologize to that loser Materazzi.

– When Raouraoua refused to shake hands with his Egyptian homolog in the aftermath of the pelting of the national football team’s bus in Cairo.

– When, as a response to the attack which took place on the national football team in Cairo and the disgraceful Egyptian denial of any responsibility, Bouteflika sent a fleet of planes (including military ones) to Sudan in order to transport 10 thousand fans to attend the World Cup qualifying playoff match against Egypt. The Algerian government also negotiated with its Sudanese counterpart to come up with special visa arrangements for Algerian fans. This is probably quite a good example of what Algerians call ‘nif’ because organizing such a mass transport in a couple of days is not an easy task at all, and the ‘nif algérien’ worked wonders to motivate Algerians at all levels to work together towards this common goal.

– When all football players unanimously considered that winning the playoff in Sudan was a question of ‘nif’.

When 1.61 m high Ziani punched 1.91 m high Dzeko in a training session with his Wolfsburg club.

It would appear that ‘nif’ is related to ‘dignity’ and ‘honor’ and often, it is externalized in violent ways. Either that or we as Algerians are so sensitive to the concept of ‘nif’ that we tend to approve of violence more easily when it is justified by ‘nif’ considerations. The latter seems more likely because our politicians often justify their actions by resorting to the ‘nif’, when in fact their only motivation is keeping power. If they really cared about the ‘nif Algérien’ this wouldn’t be the state of Algeria or the Algerian people. Having said that, I think that it should not be overlooked that where others see ‘violence’, we Algerians only see ‘hot bloodedness’.

For the average Algerian however, the ‘nif algérien’ is a concept that is engrained very deeply in the collective psyche and many Algerians believe that it is distinctive of Algerians as a people. But the problem is, all that we have to show for it are past heroics. Today, Algerian arguments to ‘prove’ the ‘nif algérien’ tend to be speculations and interpretations of real events so that they fit within a ‘nif’ narrative. For example, during the football crisis with Egypt, the Algerian attitude towards Israel was contrasted with the Egyptian one and the conclusion was that thanks to the ‘nif algérien’, Israel can never hope to entertain friendly relations with Algerian whereas the lack of ‘nif’ on the Egyptian side was stated as the reason for their friendly relation with the same country. What does Israel have to do with the Algerian ‘nif’ exactly? And why is the ‘nif algérien’ absent when it comes to sending Algerian patients (all the way up to the Algerian president himself) for medical treatment in French hospitals? This is just to illustrate the incoherence of this ‘nif algérien’ concept and how it is rationalized at various levels within the ordinary Algerian population.

Of course the ‘nif’ is part of every people, not just the Algerian people (this might come as a surprise to many Algerians; oops!). As a concept, it is so authentically human, and in fact quite primitive too. Every society takes pride in something, every society has values and a sense of dignity and honor. No society approves of injustice or discrimination (what is known as hogra in Algerian). The only difference is how different societies express these values, to what degree and where they come within the scale of priorities. In that sense, what characterizes us as Algerians is our violent, tribal and primitive way of expressing this ‘nif’, or rather that we perceive it as a source of pride to defend the ‘nif’ by all means necessary even violent means if it comes to it (and it often does not only come to it, but start by it!). It is about image more than any real philosophical conviction or even comprehension of what ‘nif’ really stands or should stand for. Take the Brits for example, their value of fairness is exemplified by their obsession about queueing, the fact that they value both ‘pride’ and ‘humility’ has made them appreciate self-deprecation (which is in fact a tortuous way of boasting one’s achievements whilst showing modesty). What examples do we have as a society of actual behavioral patterns which illustrate that we do really value the ‘nif’, whatever we might feel it means or stands for? All the examples I can think of show that ‘nif’ translates in Algerian reality as intransigence, a teenage-like rebellion and an uncompromising nature. Algerians find it difficult to even be polite and that too is justified by our ‘nif’!

I don’t know what the Algerian ‘nif’ means in terms of values it is supposed to embody today, but I know that it is not about pride, nor dignity because Algerians are throwing themselves by the hundreds in the sea practically every other day. It cannot be about intolerance of injustice because injustice happens everyday in Algeria and is perpetuated by Algerians themselves and in some cases is taken as a source of pride at some sense of achievement or having managed to cheat the system. It cannot be about honor either, because there seems to be no code of honor anywhere in Algerian society (except when it comes to women).

So what is it about? I say it is about image and it is a painful and embarrassing display and confirmation of our chronic inferiority complex. Whether we are prepared to acknowledge it or not (nif-permitting), the way we express what we understand by ‘nif’ exposes our deep inferiority complex; they’re two sides of the same coin. Things might have been different in the past, but today is a different story. Some might say that Algerians have proved that they can do great things when they feel under pressure (like the mass mobilization for the football match against Egypt), but even if we accept that what was achieved was a ‘great thing’, how does that prove that our ‘nif’ is capable of motivating us to unite around even greater things than football and for much longer than a few days? Because building a civilization is not exactly the same thing as winning a football match, is it now? If only building a civilization had the same charming power as football has, the face of the Earth would be totally different today. What we ‘achieved’ had more to do with football passion than with the mythical power of the ‘nif algérien’ to accomplish miracles.

We cannot let go of our nif, our nif wouldn’t let us, but sadly, it has let go of us long ago and the ironic thing is, we didn’t even realize it! (too proud to realize it probably). We still feel it is there though, stuck somewhere in the middle of our face, but that is how people who’ve had limbs amputated feel also. It is a psychological trick, a mirage.

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18 thoughts on “What is the ‘nif algérien’ really about?

  1. YES!!! that is exactly what it is Algeriana…a mirage as everything is, the democracy, the republic…and even the independence…all …nothing but a mirage…
    he he he 123 viva l’Algérie

    • Well I wouldn’t go that far bentaljazair! But everything is a mirage to some extent, even existence he he he.

      And I just thought of something which shows the incoherence of this ‘nif’ obsession even more. When Chaouchi head-butted the referee in the semi-final match against Egypt in the CAN 2010 tournament in Angola, most Algerians had a go at him and nobody cried ‘nif’ like when Zidane did it with Materazzi.

      What exactly makes Zidane’s headbutt nif-ful and Chaouchi’s nif-less and in fact according to many (surprise surprise!) Algerians, irresponsible?

      Any clues?

      • Zidane reacted after Materazzi had insulted his mum and sister, so it was Nif + honor + rodjla. Chaouchi reacted to Codjia’s hogra, and in the Nif scale, hogra comes second.

        Another display of Algerian Nif is the fact Algerians rarely criticize their country/rulers in presence of foreigners, and whoever does it is accused of being Nif-less.

        It’s interesting to note that all the Algerian populations give the biggest importance to this value (yes it is one). A Kabyle saying goes as “a narrezz wala neknou” translating into “We’d rather break than bend”, while an Arab one is “ennif wlekhsara” translating as “lose everything but/for the sake of Nif”. Which brings me back to football with this saying “bara khir men but”.

        PS: I find it ironic for the Egyptians to lack the Nif when they have such big noses shaklan wa madhmounan. Sorry, it’s my Nif acting.

        • Thanks MnarviDZ for showing some of the nuances in the Algerian concept of ‘nif’. I have a question:

          What is so great about breaking and not bending? I mean wouldn’t a more adaptable nature be more suitable to be approved of as a societal value as it denotes a certain ability to find creative solutions and a willingness to co-habit in a diverse world?

          In many other societies, bending is more appreciated than breaking, because breaking doesn’t achieve anything and often broken things do look so pathetic.

          The Algerian concept of ‘nif’ works best when Algerians are in the right, but when we are not (and often humans are not in the right), it becomes a destructive force in my view. What do you think?

        • I have no answers to your questions algerianna. And is it that important anyway? It is a mirage after all, right?

          May be we only see the deformed/negative aspects of it. I think that when we say rather break than bend, we mean that we don’t want to break or bend. There’s a difference between agreement (French compromis) and compromise (French compromission). The latter is what I consider as bending.

          Elkhabar published an article two days ago in which they said that Algerian women liked men with Nif. It actually seems to be the only thing they like in Algerian men. But this leads me to another question: Why do we think men when we mention Nif and rarely/never women? Is it because Algerian Nif is tightly linked to violence, and women are by definition djins latif?

        • You are cheating MnarviDZ! It is only my view that the ‘nif’ we adore boasting about is a mirage, however it is very real for Algerians and as I said it is deeply engrained in our collective psyche. Therefore my question remains valid. And it is important in the same way as ‘what values do Algerian people share?’ is important.

          You ask:

          Why do we think men when we mention Nif and rarely/never women? Is it because Algerian Nif is tightly linked to violence, and women are by definition djins latif?

          Valid point. But it has little to do with el djins ellatif although it would be an easy and convenient way out to pretend that it does. In my view, it is yet another indication that ‘nif’ is really about primitive (alpha) male instincts, it is a reactionnary behavior, it is impetuous and is about showing who wears the trousers. Yes it is true that feeling of injustice is the most frequent factor which flares it up, but often, it is simply the equivalent of a lion’s roaring. Algerian women respond favourably to it, because this loud display of vigor is interpreted by females (at a pimitive level) as a guarantee of security; that the male is capable of defending and protecting her.

          My point is, it is not a reliable indicator of any real value per se in the modern world with its increased complexity and sophistication.

          Just my two cents’ worth.

        • So you are saying that the Algerian men are not sophisticated enough, and haven’t evolved (yet?) to another “level” where they’d react differently? If that is so, then why only Algerians decided to not evolve? (unless it’s my Nif making me think we’re unique.)

          And why does education not seem to have an effect here? I mean this lion’s roaring as you call it can be seen with (almost) every Algerian man regardless of their education. Is it some sort of genetic Mindset?

        • So you are saying that the Algerian men are not sophisticated enough, and haven’t evolved (yet?) to another “level” where they’d react differently?

          Well in a way yes, but I hasten to add that this characteristic is not Algerian per se, but common to all primitive societies (so ‘genetic Mindset’ is out of the question). What sets Algerians apart is the disproportionate value they attach to the concept of Nif is making them self-destruct at worst and blocking their ‘evolution’ at best. It is dangerous to have this Nif so highly rated in a societal scale of values, and I frankly struggle to see what good it’s done to us in recent years?

          We needn’t eliminate it (we couldn’t anyway and it would be a stupid idea) but we’d better re-evaluate it and try and extract its ethically-useful essences.

          If that is so, then why only Algerians decided to not evolve? (unless it’s my Nif making me think we’re unique.)

          They haven’t made a conscious decision not to. They simply sniffed too much Nif and ended up getting too high on the stuff.

          And why does education not seem to have an effect here? I mean this lion’s roaring as you call it can be seen with (almost) every Algerian man. Is it some sort of genetic Mindset?

          But education should have an effect, in fact it is the only way to reset values. However education only works in the sense that it should allow individuals to explore concepts and analyze them. If education fails to empower people to do this, it won’t have any effect and societal pressures and traditions will take and keep the upper hand.

          Algerian society has still not arrived at a stage where rationality/ reason is high up in the values scale and this will only happen when education achieves its primary goal (intellectual autonomization of individuals).

        • PS: another way of capitalizing on this Nif (a more pragmatic way I guess) is to try and exploit it in order to mobilize Algerians around nation-building projects.

          It could be interesting to brain-storm on how that could be achieved, because the Nif is only fired up when some outside injustice or ‘hogra’ is perceived…

      • Because zidane’s act was justified by nif itself (his mother was insulted), and chaouchi’s act was justified by frustration of losing.

  2. loooool (in the Nif scale, hogra comes second.)
    “Nif scale”
    Sorry but all that reminds me another saying : “ezlet wa etfar3een”

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  4. Reading this was honestly painful, like all Algerians I’ve regarded Nif as my pride, but to be smacked right in the face with this article and realize that it’s not so great after all and that it’s actually keeping us from evolving was really hard, I guess I ve sort of always known but never actually admitted it. The “inferiority complex” part was really harsh though, I mean it’s been 50 years since our independence when will it go away?

    • Your comment pushed me to re-read the post. The way we understand and “practise” our nif may indeed be violent and destructive, but I do cling to the concept and the values behind it and believe that, eventually, it will become a positive power pushing us in the right way.

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  6. This was a super interesting read and very well written. I’m an American living in Algeria, and I was wondering about the “nif.” Do you have any idea why the nose in particular was chosen as a symbol of honor?

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