Can North Africa unite over couscous?

Couscous is a source of pride as well as regional division.
Thursday 15/02/2018
A Moroccan chef prepares a traditional couscous dish in a restaurant in the capital Rabat, on February 9. (AFP)
Shared heritage. A Moroccan chef prepares a traditional couscous dish in a restaurant in the capital Rabat, on February 9. (AFP)

PARIS - Could a plate of couscous warm relations between wary North African countries? A drive to win coveted UNESCO status for the dish could at least get them talking around the same table.

The hearty meal is a bone of contention among countries that haven’t always got along. Who makes it the best? Given that the fluffy semolina can be topped with everything from fish in Tunisia to camel meat in Libya, what truly makes couscous, couscous?

As with the “hummus wars” that have long roiled the Middle East and West Africa’s furious debate over who makes the best jollof rice, couscous is a source of pride as well as regional division.

However, the countries of North Africa may put their differences aside with a bid to have the couscous added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The list showcases the world’s most precious cultural treasures and sometimes includes UNESCO funding to countries struggling to protect their traditions.

There are few details on the North African couscous bid but Slimane Hachi, director of Algeria’s prehistoric research centre, said it would unite Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and Mali.

It will not be the first time UNESCO status has been mooted for couscous — in 2016 Algeria announced a solo bid to win protected status for the dish, sparking outrage in Morocco, where many feel they hold an equal claim to it — but this time working together could prove the secret ingredient.

Even the question of who introduced the basic ingredients to the region is hotly debated, with some crediting the Romans and others saying Arabs brought it in from the east.

French food historian Patrick Rambourg said the Berbers, an ethnic group across North Africa, were likely the first to rustle up a couscous “long before the countries of the Maghreb that we know today existed,” he said.

Algerian Berber women prepare couscous in the village of Ait el-Kecem, east of Algiers, on January 11. (AFP)

Another food historian, Lucie Bolens, described couscous pots found in Algeria dating to the reign of King Massinissa 2,200 years ago. Considered a Berber forefather, Massinissa united what is now northern Algeria with parts of Tunisia and Libya into the ancient kingdom of Numidia.

Rambourg argued the region should celebrate its shared heritage rather than fretting over who has the best claim to couscous. “Its origins are a complicated subject, a slippery slope and is it really that important?” he asked. “For all the countries in the Maghreb, couscous is a part of their identity.”

The countries involved must come to a common position if they are to mount a successful UNESCO bid, he warned. “They’d have to show the historic permanency of the dish or its preparation, showing it’s a part of daily life for all the groups constituting a people or a nation and that it’s part of their identity,” Rambourg said

They should probably downplay the huge diversity between couscous dishes served across the region, he advised.

Kader Abderrahim, a French researcher at the Institute for European Perspective and Security, said neighbouring rivals Algeria and Morocco might struggle to work together.

“There are such entrenched positions on both sides that it’s very complicated to find areas of agreement, including on a subject that might seem harmless,” he said. “There is so much antagonism that has been built up for 50 years and that has got a lot worse, especially in recent months.”

Algiers and Rabat have eyed each other jealously since the 1960s when Algeria’s post-independence authorities refused to shift borders set out under French colonial rule, leaving some areas disputed.

Abderrahim said it was a paradox that the Maghreb “has not succeeded in integrating as a region,” despite “a common culture, a shared history, the same language and religious tradition.”

The Maghreb should be “stronger than Europe, which is divided by language and history,” he said.

Fatema Hal, an anthropologist and Paris restaurateur who was born in Morocco, said UNESCO’s couscous recognition would be a positive step for the region.

“If couscous can help bring them together, all the better,” she said, “but rather than putting all our energy into trying to get a label, we should be doing what’s necessary to preserve our cuisine.”

Promoting the region’s cuisine at its cookery schools, which tend to focus on international cuisine, would be a good start, she said.

(Agence France-Presse)