UNESCO’s Inscription of Couscous Traditions, an Example of International Cultural Cooperation

The knowledge, know-how and practices related to the production and consumption of couscous” have just been inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This new inscription recognizes the exceptional value of couscous and the knowledge, practices and know-how that surround it. It also embodies the cultural cooperation between 4 countries that share this heritage – Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. This inscription bears witness to the special efforts made by UNESCO to encourage multinational inscriptions in order to bring peoples and cultures closer together.

How heritage brings people together

The registration of “Knowledge, know-how and practices related to the production and consumption of couscous” is the result of a joint application by Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. This joint inscription of a shared heritage illustrates the extent to which intangible cultural heritage can be a subject on which States meet and cooperate. This is, moreover, the meaning of UNESCO’s action: building bridges between peoples, bringing them closer together through the practices and knowledge they have in common.

This joint registration is a great achievement. It 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. This consensus shows that cultural heritage can be both personal and exceptional, and transcend borders.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO

The history of this dish of Berber origin, is not merely very ancient – as couscous has been eaten since at least the Middle Ages – but also complex and very varied.

While it is difficult to be definitive about its history – debates between specialists have been part of the preparations for the application – everyone agreed on the truth of couscous:

“The best couscous is my mother’s”.

The spirit of couscous is the expression of life in community

Because couscous is a dish that marks the lives of the people of these four countries, and far beyond: there is not a wedding, a party or a family reunion without couscous. It is therefore both a dish of the ordinary and the exceptional, associated with both joys and sorrows, eaten both at home and outside, in the “zaouïas” for example (traditional places of worship) or even outdoors on the occasion of offerings and exchanges of gifts.

Women and men, young and old, sedentary and nomadic, from the rural or urban world, not forgetting of course the diaspora, couscous accompanies entire populations from birth to death. This is why couscous cannot be summed up only in the emblematic dishes that make it up: couscous is much more than a dish, it is a moment, memories, traditions, know-how, gestures that are passed on from generation to generation.

There are as many recipes for couscous as there are families, and an infinite variety of nuances between regions, with the composition changing according to ecosystems, depending on whether one is on the plains, in the mountains, in oases, near the coast or on islands – making couscous a true mirror dish of the societies where it is cooked.

Beyond a dish: a chain of knowledge, know-how and traditions

The preparation of the couscous seed is indeed ceremonial and traditionally follows a number of steps: the semolina is first ground using millstones or mills (which were once part of household furniture, operated by hand with a rod); it is then rolled, according to tradition, by the hands of women in earthenware, wooden, basketry and, more recently, metal bowls to obtain calibrated grains using wooden sieves, whose mesh was made of gut or basketry and now metal wire.

Couscous is thus a sum of know-how, in which women play a fundamental role, not only in its preparation and consumption, but also in the conservation of the symbolic value systems associated with couscous; it is also a question of craft skills and gestures: artisans who make the utensils related to couscous, farmers who produce the cereals, millers who transform them into semolina, traders and, more recently, hotel owners, a whole social fabric is involved.

Nowadays, as in the past, “rolling couscous” and its multiple preparations constitutes a plurality of knowledge and know-how that is transmitted orally, through observation and imitation, and must therefore be preserved.

A special focus on transnational registrations

The inscription of “knowledge, know-how and practices related to the production and consumption of couscous” is one of the 16 multinational candidatures submitted to the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Committee in 2020.

UNESCO would like to commend all the countries that have joined together to speak with one voice in support of the inscription of traditions, crafts, social practices and know-how on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

They bear witness to the circulation of cultures across borders:

  • Traditional weaving of Al Sadu (Saudi Arabia – Kuwait)
  • Art of miniature (Azerbaijan – Iran – Turkey – Uzbekistan)
  • Ong Chun/Wangchuan/Wangkang ceremony, rituals and related practices for maintaining the sustainable connection between man and the ocean (China and Malaysia)
  • Camel racing, a social practice and a festive heritage associated with camels (United Arab Emirates – Oman)
  • Musical art of horn players, an instrumental technique linked to singing, breath control, vibrato, resonance of place and conviviality (France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Italy)
  • Pantun (Indonesia – Malaysia)
  • Pilgrimage to the St. Thaddeus Apostle Monastery (Iran and Armenia)
  • Crafting and playing the Oud (Iran and Syria)
  • Ceremony of Mehrgan (Iran and Tajikistan)
  • Traditional intelligence and strategy game: Togyzqumalaq, Toguz Korgool, Mangala/Göçürme (Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan, Turkey)
  • Art of crafting and playing Mbira/Sansi, the finger-plucking traditional musical instrument in Malawi and Zimbabwe (Malawi and Zimbabwe)
  • Tree beekeeping culture (Poland – Belarus)
  • Craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics (Switzerland, France)

Regardless of the Committee’s decisions and whether or not to inscribe these nominations on the lists, UNESCO encourages multinational files and has developed an information-sharing and cooperation mechanism for this purpose.

All information on the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee is available here in English, French and Spanish.

/Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.