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Couscous’ Origin Stories and Race
In December 2020, UNESCO granted Intangible Cultural Heritage status to couscous following Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia’s joint application. They collectively made the case for a uniquely North African Berber origin for the dish, although Libya, not a signatory of the 2003 Convention, could not be included. Highlighting the central place of couscous in the life of Maghrebi families, they reclaimed ownership of this now global commodity. This display of unity around a shared dish was short-lived. Culinary diplomacy’s tenuous ties were tested when regional tensions between Morocco and Algeria flared up following the 2020 recognition by the United States of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, in exchange for Moroccan normalization of relations with Israel, which also happens to claim couscous as one of its iconic foods. On August 24, 2021, Algeria, a long-time supporter of the Sahrawi Polisario Front’s independence struggle against Morocco, officially severed ties with the latter. In a retaliatory move, in November 2021, the Moroccan culture minister, Mehdi Bensaid, requested a “label” that would allow Moroccan couscous to be inscribed separately on the UNESCO list. I argue that these ongoing tensions further obscured that Sub-Saharan iterations of couscous made from millet, sorgho, cassava, fonio, corn, rice, and yam, from Senegal to Niger, were excluded from UNESCO’s recognition. This erasure results from competing historical narratives about couscous’ origins as well as disagreements between historians whose nationality plays no small part. It also reproduces French colonial racial hierarchies and geographical divides between Berber and Arabs, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, white Arabs and black Africans, and reinforces the Maghreb’s alleged whiteness and its rejection of its own “South” and its “Africanity,” while overlooking the history of servitude across the Sahara and the contributions of enslaved female cooks to Maghrebi cuisines.
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