Couscous traditions have been passed down through women since 200 BCE in North West Africa. Here, in light of the custom being added to UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list, Leila Gamaz discusses why Algerian women should have the choice whether to enjoy and pass this tradition on to the next generation.
Couscous is at the centre of life in the Maghreb (North West Africa), eaten both as a simple meal of the everyday and as an elaborate feast for celebrations. So integral is its role that some refer to it simply as ta’am (food). In December 2020, the customs associated with it in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia were added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In a speech marking the occasion Malika Bendaouda, Algeria’s Culture Minister, announced, “The woman who does not know how to prepare couscous is a threat to her family”.
Couscous traditions have been passed down through women since 200 BCE. In Algeria, it’s part of rituals from the Anzar – a festival to induce rain, to the Tassentit – a celebration to welcome the first fruits in spring. A mound of pearly couscous grains forms the base for seafood, almonds and cinnamon, or camel meat depending on the occasion and country. In my family we eat it with seasonal vegetables in winter, or fermented milk and fresh peas in the summer. Meat is reserved for guests and celebrations; merguez sausages spiced with harissa and cumin, lamb and chicken.
I think of Fridays in Algeria – Al Jumeah, the day of congregation, when couscous is eaten in most households. My Uncle walks the few paces to the mosque opposite our house, and recites the Adhan (call to prayer). Conversation is interrupted and a flurry of activity brings the meal together. Plastic tables are pushed together in the courtyard and laid with terracotta bowls of couscous. We roll the mixture together in our right palms to form a perfect ball.
When the grains are made by hand, preparation towards the dish begins months before. In the heat of August, my aunts spend a week hand-rolling enough couscous to see them through the winter months. Sitting on the ground with aluminium bowls between their legs, they rub semolina in their hands, lifting it above their heads and letting it fall back into the bowl. They flick water and oil over the mixture to bind it, and then shake it through a tambourine-shaped sieve to separate the couscous from the semolina. This is repeated until every grain has formed fluffy balls and then they are laid out to dry in the sun. Each part of the process is accompanied by a song, asking for ‘baraka’ – abundance.
The UNESCO listing has acknowledged and documented this richness – timely when parts of the tradition are beginning to fade. War, poverty, and the aftermath of more than a century of French colonial rule over Algeria also contribute towards this. In a recent French poll, people voted couscous as their third favourite national dish, so it feels particularly important that the origin story isn’t lost, especially when so much of Algeria’s history is still under the jurisdiction of France. They hold the official records of the occupation, including many stolen maps and artifacts that predate the French. The adoption of couscous could be viewed as a positive step for relations between the Maghrebi and French population. However, it comes with terms: they want the food, but not the religion or the people themselves.
Modernisation and globalisation are also changing habits; my cousins don’t know how to roll the grains. Yet who can blame them? It doesn’t move them closer towards their goal of living and working in Europe – like many young Algerians they want to escape low pay and poor working conditions. Left economically depressed and in debt after gaining independence, Algeria has struggled to create a stable economy and is suspicious of international trade. This, combined with a corrupt government that has clung to power since independence has led to weekly protests across Algeria since 2019. Although the ill 82 year-old President Bouteflika stepped down as a result, his power was given to his former Prime Minister which many consider to be a continuation of the old system, and therefore protests continue. So my cousins buy the mass-produced couscous grains, and I learn to hand-roll them during one of my visits.
Following her announcement, Malika stated she is no expert in preparing couscous and that her comments were taken out of context – though it’s hard to see how they would ever be appropriate. They may not represent the nuance of her thinking, but they are certainly revealing. Who is she referring to when as a woman herself she is exempt from her own moral standpoint? Her statement comes from a position of luxury and choice, a position I share. I also want to see this heritage preserved, but Malika’s comments made me question my own motivations.
Growing up physically distanced from Algeria, I cling to these traditions. My family also want to hear about my life in England, though I’m able to move freely between both worlds whilst they’re not (growing numbers of young Algerians are risking their lives on boat journeys to Europe). In some ways my archiving of these traditions is a way of reconciling losses I feel in my own modern life – a disconnection from nature, craft, and tradition – but I can’t expect my family’s lives to exist in stasis, especially when I represent a life that’s inaccessible to them.
The UNESCO application was also made by a set of people with their own motivations. It’s not simply about celebrating the glories of couscous or the women who preserve the tradition; it’s also about existing political dynamics. Relations between Morocco and Algeria have been tense for a long time, and have played out in long-standing public feuds between senior officials about the origins of couscous. In 2016, Algeria announced that they would submit a solo application to UNESCO, drawing outrage from Morocco. So in some ways the joint application indicates progress in relations, though as Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, it’s “not about to solve long standing regional disputes”. It seems unlikely that the application would have been accepted if Algeria had submitted it alone given the tensions that exist. Of course, the dish also predates these borders anyway and was made throughout the Maghreb, though the earliest evidence of it has been found in what is now Algeria. Perhaps the application is more symbolic of a truce between the countries, an acceptance that they had to come together to be granted the listing.
Ghazi Gherairi, Tunisia’s ambassador to the UNESCO application, stated that couscous plays an “essential role in the Maghreb’s patriarchal society”. This, combined with Malika’s comments, removes the agency of the women that the application is dependent on, and reinforces the idea of Arab women as voiceless and oppressed. It has life beyond this narrow social role – it is women who carry the traditions and continue to evolve the dish and its meaning. During the Algerian War of Independence, women – including my grandmother – risked their lives to feed freedom fighters couscous during the night. There is a thriving micro-economy of cottage industries run by women, from making clothes to rolling couscous – my aunt sold so much last year she was able to, ironically, buy a new kitchen. In the Kabyle region where traditions remain strong, La Maison Lahlou employs 300 women to roll couscous sold commercially. I also witnessed the joy and fun that can be involved in rolling the grains together – my aunt described it as a ‘festival’.
On the Amazigh New Year (Yennayer) I honoured my family through making couscous, hiding an almond inside the grains as is customary. I didn’t, however, roll the grains myself. Many women in Algeria also choose not to. The UNESCO listing is positive but it risks presenting a cultural hierarchy in which any new development is considered lesser, or even, as Malika suggested, transgressive. Can we preserve these traditions without preserving the patriarchy? Women have been making and adapting couscous for thousands of years – let each of them dictate its future.
About Leila Gamaz
Leila Gamaz is an Algerian-English writer exploring untold stories, ritual, and sisterhood. You can read some of her work at Azeema magazine, Shado magazine & Dardishi zine. See more of Leila’s work via her website and Instagram
Feature image is courtesy of the author, Leila Gamaz, and features her grandmother preparing couscous.