The Maghreb

The Maghreb: The Jewel of North Africa

Anita Schecter

Along the northwest coast of Africa, west of Egypt, lies the region known as the Maghreb, sometimes referred to as the Barbary Coast. It is an area that has been dominated by Arabs since the 8th century. Before the formation of the modern nation states in the region in the 20th century, the Maghreb was defined as the smaller territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlas mountains. Today, the Maghreb includes the countries of Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mauritania and it is home to about one percent of the world’s population. The majority of the population living in the Maghreb region consider themselves Arab, but there are also a large number of non-Arabs, such as the Berbers, who call the Maghreb their home.

Language and Culture in the Maghreb

Arabic is the primary language in the Maghreb region. To aid in business and commerce, however, some countries also speak French, Italian, and English. Due to the fact that the Maghreb is, to some extent, isolated from the rest of the African continent by the Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert, the people who have settled in the northern parts of the region have a history of commercial and cultural relationships with the countries of the Mediterranean. Those include southern Europe and Western Asia. In fact, those relationships go back as far as the first millennium B.C. with the Phoenician colony of Carthage. Then in the 19th century, areas of the Maghreb were colonized by France, Spain, and even Italy, which had lasting effects on the region and continues to create cultural ties. For instance, today more than two and a half million Maghrebi immigrants live in France (mainly from Algeria and Morocco) and there are over three million French citizens of Maghrebi origin.

The Maghreb is an overwhelmingly Muslim area with only the slightest percentage of the population being of the Christian or Jewish faiths. But historically, the region has hosted members of each of these faiths, mainly as a result of conquering empires and subsequent conversion. In the second century, the Romans had converted much of the region to Christianity. The dominance of Christianity ended with the Arab invasions which brought Islam to the Maghreb in the seventh century.  The Maghreb was also, at one time, home to a significant Jewish population called the Maghrebim. These Jewish communities pre-dated the conversion of the region to Islam, and a small number of Jewish communities still exist in the area.

In terms of political systems for the countries of the Magheb, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia all have presidents, while Morocco has a king. Libya has no formal title for its leader. In 1989, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria formed the Maghreb Union which was meant to promote cooperation and economic integration between the nations. But the union was short-lived and is now frozen. Tensions arose, particularly between Algeria and Morocco, and those conflicts hindered the success of the union’s goals.

Geography of the Maghreb

The Maghreb is divided into several climate regions with the Mediterranean climate region to the north and the more arid, Sahara region to the south. The Maghreb's variations in temperature, rainfall and elevation means many distinct communities of plants and animals exist in the region.

Food in the Maghreb

While the countries of the Maghreb region share many cultural traditions, once of the most evident is their shared culinary history. Staple foods include seafood, goat, lamb, beef, dates, olives, vegetables and a wide array of fruit. These nations also share the tagine, which is both a piece of cookware and a style of cooking. Because of the geography of the region the Maghreb has been, throughout history, closely associated with the Mediterranean world. The spices and flavors associated with Italy and Spain, such as cumin, ginger, paprika, cinnamon, saffron, parsley and coriander, have filtered into the Maghreb cuisine, pairing with the foods that are native to the coastline of the region. Though the region shares these culinary traditions, each country still retains its own unique taste and style.

The most common staple is the use of couscous as opposed to white rice, which is more popular is eastern Arabic cultures. Couscous is a dish of small steamed balls made of wheat semolina. Often cooked in a tagine, it can be served inside a stew or as a starchy side dish. And just as with rice, it can be made into a pilaf and flavored with broth, vegetables, nuts and dried fruits.