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Giant cook-up to encourage international recognition for Libyan couscous

Giant couscous at the ancient Roman theatre of Sabratha, west of the capital Tripoli   -  
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Dozens of Libyan chefs held a giant cooking event at the ancient Roman theatre of Sabratha outside Tripoli earlier this month, in a bid to showcase their country’s beloved couscous.

They want the government to seek international recognition for the dish which is a staple for families in the North African nation.

Originally a Berber speciality, it is made with hand-rolled semolina flour that is steamed and cooked, then served with a range of ingredients depending on region and individual tastes.

On a platter the size of a large inflatable swimming pool, the chefs combined 2,400 kilogrammes of semolina with mutton, pumpkin, and the caramelised onions that are the signature touch of Libyan couscous.

National pride

Families gathered happily for the event, which was guarded by police, with many expressing their pride in the dish which is part of their cultural identity.

"I'm from a village called Arad which is famous for its couscous, which you can smell from metres, or even a kilometre away, with its spices, cloves, and blossom water,” said spectator Ahlam Fakhri, who is a physician from Tripoli.

“For us, couscous is an essential dish. It’s the same for the entire North African region. It distinguishes us from the Arab east. It's part of our identity, our heritage, and we're proud of it."

While Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, in 2020 jointly inscribed the dish on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage, conflict-scarred Libya missed out.

Its couscous tradition has not been recognised by the body as Libya is yet to ratify the UN's cultural heritage convention.

The organiser of the couscous cook-up, Ali Messaoud al-Ftimi, heads an association aiming to encourage tourism and preserve Libya's heritage.

He said he hosts similar events each year at different historical sites to send "a message to parliament" to ratify the UN convention so that Libya can have its couscous recognised too.

"Such a convention would preserve our culture, not only the couscous but all our heritage. Libya is rich in heritage and culture. So, we’re afraid that it will be stolen little by little, because we don't have an agreement to protect it,” he said.

More than a dish

Monira Zwait runs a restaurant in Tripoli and, like many other chefs, she hopes that couscous will achieve the UNESCO heritage status.

She prepares the dish as her mother taught her -- with a pinch of salt, a little chilli powder and a touch of cinnamon for a sweet aftertaste – a special recipe that she follows to the letter.

"Couscous is a mirror that reflects peoples' civilisations and the skills passed on from one generation to another. The dish reflects the identity of society in a very deep way that is rooted in history. It was passed on from grandmothers to mothers to daughters," she said.

As the country remains mired in political crisis, with two rival camps claiming to be the legitimate government, the event’s organisers are hoping that they will get the message that Libya should have its couscous recognised too.

UNESCO has said there is no barrier to Libya ratifying the convention on cultural heritage and subsequently adding its name to its couscous file, "because a designation doesn't mean ownership or exclusivity to a country".

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