People gather around a giant couscous prepared by Libyan chefs on the site of the ancient Roman theatre of Sabratha, about 70 km west of the capital Tripoli, ,on March 10, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Sabratha: Dozens of Libyan chefs are busy preparing a couscous platter the size of a large inflatable swimming pool as they seek international recognition for their country’s beloved dish.

“It’s part of our identity, our culture, our heritage and we’re proud of it,” said spectator Ahlam Fakhri, watching the four-metre (13-foot) diameter semolina dish take shape.

Couscous is an everyday staple in Libya and across North Africa’s Maghreb region. 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.

But it is more readily identified with Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, which in 2020 jointly inscribed the dish on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

Conflict-scarred Libya missed out as the country remains mired in political crisis, with two rival camps claiming to be the country’s legitimate government.

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

In a bid to showcase Libya’s beloved couscous, the chefs held their giant cooking event this month at the site of the ancient Roman theatre of Sabratha, some 70 kilometres west along the Mediterranean coast from the capital Tripoli.

Libyan chef Monira Zwait, prepares a coucous in the kitchen of her restaurant in Tripoli, on March 8, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

The recipe combined 2,400 kilogrammes of semolina, mutton, pumpkin and “bossla” - caramelised onions cooked in clarified butter that are the signature touch to a Libyan couscous.

‘Heritage not protected’

Families gathered happily for the event, which was guarded by police, while young people filmed the scene with their phones.

In hefty stainless steel pots, the cooks stirred the semolina, reddened by tomato juice, and heaped cooked ingredients onto platters.

“I haven’t slept all night,” said one of kitchen assistant, taking a short break on a garden chair with a tired smile on his face.

Fakhri was delighted to see Libyans come together for a day in a country that endured more than a decade of chaos following the 2011 overthrow and death of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

“I come from a village known for its couscous, which you can smell from far away,” said Fakhri, a well-travelled doctor from Tripoli.

“The whole of the Maghreb is renowned for its couscous, which distinguishes us from the Arab east”.

Ali Messaoud Al Ftimi, who organised the giant couscous, said he hosts similar events each year at different historical sites to send “a message to parliament” that Libya should have its couscous recognised too.

A group of traditional musicians perform around a giant couscous prepared by Libyan chefs on the site of the ancient Roman theatre of Sabratha, about 70 km west of the capital Tripoli, ,on March 10, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Ftimi, who heads an association aiming to encourage tourism and preserve Libya’s heritage, told AFP the efforts come from “a popular impulse” and he hopes lawmakers will ratify the international UN convention “in the near future”.

“Adhering to this convention will not only preserve couscous,” the 54-year-old said. “Libya is rich in culture and heritage and this heritage is not protected”.

‘More than a dish’

UNESCO 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”.

In Tripoli, chef Monira Zwait said she hopes authorities will achieve the goal.

The 43-year-old runs a restaurant and prides herself for pastry creations inspired by current trends on social media.

But she said cooking couscous is a tradition that requires strict adherence to age-old recipes, which she called a “red line”.

Wearing a white chef’s uniform embroidered with golden trim, she prepares couscous as her mother taught her - with a pinch of salt, a little chilli powder and a touch of cinnamon for a sweet aftertaste.

“Couscous is not just a dish that we eat,” Zwait said. “It is the mirror of a civilisation and a knowledge transmitted from generation to generation”.