Couscous, Aflaj and camel races listed as intangible world heritage

Made to highlight intangible heritage, the list helps demonstrate the diversity of cultural heritage.
Thursday 17/12/2020
Algerian women prepare couscous in the village of Ait el-Kecem, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of the capital Algiers. (AFP)
Algerian women prepare couscous in the village of Ait el-Kecem, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of the capital Algiers. (AFP)

PARIS--Three key elements of Arab heritage, namely couscous, Aflaj (a system of irrigation) and camel races joined the UN list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage on Wednesday.

The United Arab Emirates submitted the listing of Aflaj, a system of water channels used for farm irrigation in Al Ain, to the UNESCO and together with the Sultanate of Oman, also requested the registration of camel races as intangible world heritage.

The request to include couscous, a much-loved grain staple in North Africa, was submitted by Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania.

UAE leads efforts to safeguard intangible heritage

To date, the UAE has successfully registered 11 cultural activities and traditions on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity through joint national, regional and international submissions, strengthening the country’s position as an active member in the committee.

Made to highlight intangible heritage, the list helps demonstrate the diversity of cultural heritage and raise awareness about its importance, while also ensuring recognition of the national traditions and emphasising societies’ expertise.

The first of the latest inclusions on the list, Aflaj, highlights the significance, knowledge and skills relating to the construction and maintenance of the UAE’s traditional irrigation network system, which aimed to ensure a fair distribution of water.

The second inclusion, camel races, focuses on the art of racing, viewed as a festive social practice embodying Arab heritage.

“The inclusion of Aflaj and Camel Races on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is a great achievement that reinforces our country’s position as an incubator of rich heritage and national pride,” said Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.

Jockeys race during in al-Ain on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. (AFP)
Jockeys race during in al-Ain on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

“DCT Abu Dhabi is honoured to support the great efforts behind these campaigns, as part of our extensive work to preserve the cultural traditions and practices of the Emirate and the UAE as a whole,” he added.

Saood Abdulaziz Al Hosani, acting undersecretary of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, said, “Abu Dhabi’s incomparable appeal as a destination is backed by a wide array of traditional cultural practices that enrich our lives.”

“Our precious intangible heritage is an essential element of our appeal for both our visitors and residents alike. Including Aflaj and Camel Races in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List is a shared achievement that we cherish on a national and human level,” he added.

The UAE has led many joint submissions, including falconry submissions with the participation of 24 countries worldwide, the date palm submission that saw the participation of 14 Arab countries, as well as submissions for Al-Ayyala, Al-Razfa, Al-Taghrooda, Sadu and Al-Azi.

Aligning with a national strategy to preserve the country’s heritage and safeguard culture for future generations, the UAE is working to include Arabic calligraphy, camel footwear, and Harees in the next edition of the UNESCO Representative List.

Couscous, the beloved grain staple

Couscous, the dish of Berber origin beloved across the Arab Maghreb region and beyond, united on Wednesday three countries, namely Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania, that may have their differences, but their common love of the grain staple runs deep.

“Couscous, present at every social or cultural event, is at once ordinary and special,” their joint presentation argued.

“Ordinary because of the frequency of its use in a family setting, and special because of the unifying and propitiatory role it plays at convivial community occasions at which food is shared.”

Bland by itself, couscous is served with meat or fish, spicey stews, chickpeas and vegetables in a mouth-watering variety of dishes.

Moroccan restaurant owner Hicham Hazzoum was among the couscous connoisseurs who applauded UNESCO’s honour.

“I think we are the only Arab countries to have a high regard for this dish,” he said. “It is impossible not to eat it every Friday.

Across the region, couscous — also known as Seksu, Kusksi and Kseksu — is as elementary as rice or noodles are to Asian cuisine, the staple without which no meal is complete.

Arabic dictionaries have documented “Kuskusi” since the 19th century, though it is known to be far older.

The regional pride in couscous found full expression in the countries’ joint nomination for the “knowledge, know-how and practices pertaining to the production and consumption of couscous.”

“Women and men, young and old, sedentary and nomadic, from rural or urban communities or from immigrant backgrounds all identify with this element,” it gushed.

“The ethos of couscous is the expression of community life.”

Tunisian chef Taieb Bouhadra said his country took pride in its different types of couscous.

“There are many varieties, almost every house has its own grain,” said the owner of El Ali restaurant, in the old city of Tunis.

An Aflaj water infrastructure in Al Ain. (Twitter)
An Aflaj water infrastructure in Al Ain. (Twitter)

Couscous is prepared from wheat or barley, and sometimes from maize, millet or sorghum, which is ground into semolina.

This is rolled into pellets which are sieved and later soaked and repeatedly steamed.

“Women, in particular, play a fundamental role in the preparation and consumption of the dish, and in practising and preserving the related symbolic value systems,” said the paper.

The girls learn not only the techniques, but also “the songs, gestures, characteristic oral expressions and ritual organisation” that go along with the process.

Algerian chef Rabah Ourrad said about making his couscous dishes: “I didn’t learn this in a cooking school. It’s decades of observing the mother, the sisters and all North African women who are experts in this.”

In an often fractious region, there were hopes the joint bid would strengthen a sense of common identity.

Ourrad passionately argued that couscous could serve as the region’s great unifier.

Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia all have their particular styles, he said, but adding, “We are all the same people, and the couscous is Maghrebi, the couscous is ours.”