Despite the menus, Couscous Is not a Moroccan invention

by Carmen Johns* | The wind and the sand


PUSL.- As in many good mystery stories, the detective wonders who first started the rumor, in this case, of the Moroccan couscous, as it usually is described on restaurant menus.  Where exactly the first couscous was made is surely lost in the mists of culinary history.  Today, to the best of my knowledge, couscous is legitimately identified as a traditional dish or a regional staple from the Arab-speaking countries of NW Africa – the Maghreb, and surely beyond.  Whether served in Algeria, or Tunisia, and Western Sahara for that matter, or further East, it is pretty much the same in all its varieties.  Families tend to eat couscous every Friday (no, I don’t know why).

This cultural appropriation, as some would call it, also seems to extend to other, apparently non-related issues.  Recently something popped up, in the social media, a story mentioned the “Moroccaness” of Western Sahara.  I am not sure I spelled it correctly, since invented words follow no particular rules or linguistic conventions.  It is true that language is not an abstract notion: language has a life of its own and gives birth to new words all the time.  However, in the same way (but in reverse) that some things are said to be “more equal than others”, some invented words are less legitimate than others.

This “Moroccaness” word supports, one can infer, Morocco’s illegitimate claim to the territory of Western Sahara.  Apparently, it is an effort or attempt attempts to describe the Territory’s “intrinsic” nature, its deepest desires, its most intimate aspirations, or perhaps even its Moroccan soul.  Who knows.  One thing is not – cannot be – in dispute:  according to International Law and perhaps in particular the International Court of Justice through its 1976 advisory opinion on the question, states that Morocco cannot claim “territorial sovereignty” – the words come from the ICJ – over Western Sahara.  This large territory on the western coast of Africa, situated between Morocco and Mauritania (it can be found on most maps) was never part of Morocco.  Never. Not even after the invasion.

The idea, however, was part of that old dream, The Greater Morocco.  It seems useless to recall just where this idea of the “greater Morocco’ began… and ended.   But it is actually quite useful to recall that anything labeled “greater”, when referring to a nation’s territorial claims, tends to begin beyond its own borders.  Where such claims end is a different matter.  The concept was coined, if I am not much mistaken, shortly after Morocco, a French protectorate at the time, began life as an independent State.  Anyone would perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the newborn country and its citizens were already finding the nation’s natural borders too restrictive.  Whatever.

Interestingly, it has been said, I seem to recall, that the only remnant of that grand old idea is precisely the territory of Western Sahara, which Morocco invaded years ago and to which it now refers internally as its “southern provinces.” And southern resources, one imagines. Recently, on social media one expert stated the rather incongruous view that Morocco has, or perhaps deserves, to claim Western Sahara (not just the part it occupies but, it would seem, the whole Territory) as its own.  The reason given is the sum total of the roads, official buildings, traffic lights presumably, the ample fishing and mining facilities and other infrastructure built (and enjoyed?) by Morocco in its “southern provinces”, none requested by the native population.  Hence the intrinsic Moroccaness?

All this does beg a brief comment, best said in Morocco’s second language for full comprehension (no invented words here): On ne s’achète pas un pays en construisant des trottoirs…  You can’t buy a country by building sidewalks.


CJ   June 2020

*Carmen Johns – Independent consultant on Western Sahara