A taste of diplomacy: Couscous added to Unesco list after Algeria and Morocco agreement

The United Nations has added couscous to its intangible cultural heritage list in a symbolic, but minor, diplomatic breakthrough for archrivals Morocco and Algeria.

Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, states that continue to be embroiled in major conflicts, came together to highlight their shared history of the traditional Berber food by submitting a request to the global body.

Couscous joins Spain’s Wine Horses, Singapore’s hawker culture and the UAE’s traditional irrigation systems on this year’s list, which aims to recognise and protect the world’s most treasured cultural practices.

In previous years Unesco has celebrated Irish harping, Syrian shadow play, dry stone walling and Belgium beer culture and said that the joint application for couscous was a diplomatic breakthrough as well as an important addition.

“This joint registration is a strong sign of cultural recognition and it is also a real diplomatic success, on a subject that is so important and symbolic for the peoples of this entire region and far beyond,” Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of Unesco said.

“This consensus shows that cultural heritage can be both personal and exceptional, and transcend borders.”

Couscous, beloved in households across the world, is an ancient food that according to Unesco has been eaten since at least the Middle Ages and is Berber in origin.

Although it looks like a grain, couscous technically counts as a pasta and is most commonly made from durum wheat or barley that is coarsely ground often using millstones, rolled in small balls, and mixed with water and steamed.

Bland in taste on its own it is accompanied by different stews, often meat based, aromatic and spicy.

North African neighbours Morocco and Algeria have been embroiled in multiple wars since their independence more than fifty years ago.

Algeria recently rejected a decision by US President Donald Trump to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara as part of a regional diplomatic deal. Algeria backs the Polisario Front movement there which has for decades has fought Morocco for the independence of Western Sahara.

They appeared to, momentarily, bury the hatchet in the couscous application.

“Couscous, present at every social or cultural event, is at once ordinary and special,” the four country’s joint presentation said.

“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.”


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