Seeing Algeria through curiosity: An interview with Nassim Herkat
by Lydia Lasfer
Despite the stormy Montreal weather that morning, during a two-hour-long interview with Nassim Herkat, the sense of entrapment one can easily feel under an opaque sky was overpowered by discussion of clear coastal waters, mountain planes, and Saharan Oasis’s containing the reminiscences of ancient civilisations.
Nassim is an Algerian, born and raised in Saint-Denis, Paris, who now spends his time living between Nice and Algiers. In 2017, he created ‘Kabtihkayti’, whose name stems from the Algerian Arabic phrase ‘my bag, my story’. His main aim in creating the project was to break stereotypes that those from developing nations and modest financial backgrounds cannot travel and explore the world. Throughout our conversation, I found it fascinating to get a glimpse of the deep connection he has to Algeria. It became clear very early on that he possesses such a strong sense of identity many second-generation immigrants, including myself, struggle to grapple with throughout our lives. His hunger for knowledge, discoveries, and travelling appeared evident, despite having already visited over 54 countries and unpacking their complex histories. Alongside his expeditions and continuously adding to Kabtihkayti, he is a marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years’ experience in the field.
Nour Magazine: You mention that ever since you were younger you’ve always been driven by curiosity and that’s partly why you began Kabtihkayti, was there any specific moment in your life that made you recognise travelling and discovering new places around the world was something you wanted to do for a living?
Nassim Herkat: Indeed! I have been very lucky to have an incredibly supportive family, and when I was a teenager I wanted to go to Florence (Italy) with some friends. My parents were completely supportive and encouraging during the process of applying for loans and going through the administrative procedure, which alongside the trip itself made me crave travelling and discovering new locations.
NM: Is Algerian ancient history something that’s always been an interest of yours or did it only become something you were more curious about after creating Kabtihkayti?
NH: From a very young age I’ve always been interested in Algerian ancient history. I was born and raised in Saint-Denis, Paris, where anything you would learn about Algeria in the French education system was related to the war of independence (1962), and even in Algeria you aren’t taught about the history of your own country. In my room, I would have my own collection of maps, photographs and would read many books that made me so curious about the history of many different regions. The project (Kabtihykati) is only five years old, so I’d been travelling to different places not only in Algeria but around the world much earlier than what you see on the blog and my social media.
NM: With the size of your following, do you feel any form of responsibility to represent Algeria for those who maybe have negative perceptions from the media or haven’t heard of the country before?
NH: Not necessarily. Because Algeria is arguably one of the most culturally diverse countries in the Arab world, being surrounded by that environment from a young age has helped me, in a sense, view the world without borders. I created the project to inspire people to be curious and have a deeper understanding of the history and culture of the country, which is why I am now pursuing a master’s degree and, hopefully afterwards a PhD, in Culture and Heritage. I want my platform to be a place where people come for further information when already curious as opposed to using my content to form an opinion of Algeria and change perspectives.
NM: I notice that every one of your posts on your blog and social media can be read in both English and French, why do you think it’s important to use multiple languages to communicate with your audience?
NH: Definitely. Language plays such an important role in Algeria’s cultural landscape, so I think it’s important to communicate that aspect of the country through the content I put online. For English in particular, using the language is something that has attracted many people from the younger generation not only to my page but to social media as a whole. It’s considered the world’s international language and many Algerian youth are using it to a larger extent now compared to French. As both an Anglophone and Francophone myself, I think it’s important to communicate the information I’m providing in various different languages.
NM: Do you think being from such a culturally diverse country has influenced the way in which you connect with the other destinations you travel to in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region?
NH: One of the beauties about MENA is how diverse it is, not only with respect to its landscape but also the people and its culture. I’ve travelled to Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and others in the region, after which it becomes easy to recognise how similar we all are despite geographical distance. Our region would be an even better place if we were more united.
NM: What destination in your home country do you feel most attached to?
NH: I’ve recently been debating about this with my friends and it’s so hard to pick just one place or region in the country! But having said that, I would have to say the Sahara holds a special place in my heart. There’s something so captivating about crossing the Tell Atlas Mountains and reaching the desert to discover the sub-cultures of each Oasis and appreciating the many different lifestyles and histories in the region.
NM: How has your relationship and connection to Algeria changed since you began discovering all her four corners?
NH: My connection with the county has definitely deepened and become much stronger since I began travelling. I’m from Algiers, and despite the city being a good amalgamation of the whole country’s history, it only provides a snapshot. Visiting different areas makes you feel like you belong, and with the amount of knowledge I have and places I’ve discovered, no one would ever be able to tell me I’m not Algerian enough. If someone reached out to me and said they want to travel around the country, I would be able to draw a map and provide them with a detailed itinerary meeting their specific needs and requirements.
NM: When abroad, what is it you find yourself missing most about Algeria?
NH: Where to begin! In a sense, Algeria can be considered my HQ, it’s the place where I truly feel at home and where I belong, because despite being born and raised in Paris I would come to Algeria very often growing up. Whenever I leave, I miss how friendly and sociable people are. Whenever I’m in France, I feel like a passenger, as though I’m just an individual citizen, whereas in Algeria I feel part of a community. I will never forget when the protests began in 2019 against the ex-president and his government, the feeling of unity we all had in Algiers and to see everyone come out across the country is something that will stay with me forever.
NM: What impact do you think yourself and people like Melissa Titri and Slimane Meddour are having on the Algerian tourism industry?
NH: Although I don’t have any specific statistics on the issue, I think it is obvious we are having a huge impact. We’ve opened up Pandora’s box in regional tourism, as some of the places we discover many Algerians wouldn’t have ever visited or known about without our platforms. So many Algerians are now feeling more interconnected than ever, which is such a big change from what we were used to growing up during the dark years (les années noirs) when the country’s unity felt very unstable. A real turning point for this was the documentary “L’Algérie vue du ciel” (Algeria from the sky) in 2015 by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, which was the first real insight into the country really engaging and interesting the Western world, paving the way for us as social media creators to reach a wide audience.
NM: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to travel to Algeria for the first time?
NH: Know exactly where you want to go and plan an itinerary. Research the history of the area, appreciate its landscape and know what exactly it is you want to see whilst there to make the most of your time.
NM: Is there any country in the MENA region on your bucket list you have yet to discover? What sights would you see whilst there?
NH: Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Iran as they all have such rich histories and were once homes to some of the world’s most influential empires. Unfortunately, with the current political situation in each country it would be very difficult to achieve my goal of visiting, but we’ll see what the future holds.
NM: What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learnt from your adventures?
NH: The more you travel and the more information you know, the more you realise you don’t know, and the more you accept how almost insignificant a single individual can be compared to our interconnected world as a whole.
NM: Where do you see Kabtihkayti going in the future?
NH: I see Kabtihkayti becoming a digital information platform where curious people come to learn and discover more about the world around them. In the long future, I would love to create a school that focuses on teaching culture and heritage to its pupils. To me, it’s all about information. If I wanted, I could create a travel agency and earn money that way, but the only intention behind that is to generate money, whereas my focus is sharing knowledge with as many people as possible.
All pictures credit to Nassim Herkat’s Instagram page (NASSIM HERKAT ♾ #KABTIHKAYTI (@nassim_herkat) • Instagram photos and videos)