Maghreb countries in North Africa want couscous to be protected by Unesco – Quartz Africa


After years of diplomatic deadlock over terrorism, resources and territory, the countries of North Africa are hoping that a dish can finally be put on the same table: couscous.

A group of experts from the Maghreb region met to work on a joint campaign to have couscous recognized by Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The small balls of wheat or cereal rolled and crushed is usually steamed and is the staple food for many in North Africa, and a ready-made version can be found in most grocery stores around the world.

The researchers hope that the “transculturality” of the dish will lead to a closer cultural link between Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, according to reports. Researchers found utensils used to make couscous in the tomb of the Berber ruler of the 3rd century King Massinissa, who brought together what is now Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.

The history of couscous is already disputed. Many believe that it was first made by the Berber or Amazigh communities as early as the 7th century, who lived and moved across North Africa before Arab migration to the region. Traces of couscous prepared and sold have also been found in West Africa and have also been eaten by the Moors in Spain. There are also ancient poems found in the Levant that mention couscous and in the Middle East today a version of couscous is known as “mughrabiyya.

Recognition by Unesco “a means of strengthening strong links between peoples [in the Maghreb], in a way that allows them to respond to the same traditions with the same culinary expressions ”, noted Ouiza Gallèze, researcher at the Algerian National Center for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology.

Last year, Unesco recognized the “Art of Napolition ‘pizzaiuolo’” as intangible cultural heritage. The pizza makers in Naples wanted the dough to turn and bake in a wood-fired oven recognized as a unique cultural practice, in part to protect one of the world’s favorite dishes from the type of appropriation that sees pineapple as a pizza topping.

Encouraged by the new status of pizza, French President Emmanuel Macron has join the call for similar recognition for the baguette in order to “preserve its excellence and our craftsmanship,” he said earlier in January. The Unesco list already includes a wide range of cultural intangibles such as dikopelo folk music from Botswana and Konjic wood carving techniques from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A steaming bowl of couscous is unlikely to solve all the divisions in a sometimes unstable region, but a shared cultural identity could help diplomacy. But, if the campaign for heritage status turns out to be something like today’s Algeria and Morocco quarrel over folk music like rai, couscous will not be enough.

About Wesley V. Finley

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