Algeria – Morocco : Is cultural heritage the new battleground?

By Fadwa Islah

Posted on Wednesday, 17 November 2021 17:24
Algerian and Moroccan flags fly over the Djenane El-Mufti residence in Algiers, during the historic visit of Saadeddine El Othmani, the Kingdom's foreign affairs minister, to Algeria on 24 January 2012. RYAD KRAMDI/AFP

The renewed political tensions between Rabat and Algiers have rekindled the dispute over the historical origin of certain elements of the two countries’ shared cultural heritage. These include Tarik Ibn Ziyad, Ibn Khaldoun, couscous, gnawa music, malhoun and the kaftan.

Diplomatic warfare can quickly escalate into cultural warfare, as evidenced by comments from Algerian and Moroccan internet users. In parallel to the escalating tensions between their respective countries, they have been clashing for several months, on social media, over the origins of certain shared cultural elements, including couscous, tajine, the kaftan and gnawa. Everything is up for debate, even the nationality of certain historical figures, such as Tarik Ibn Ziyad and Ibn Khaldun.

“We see several movements flourishing on the web that have made this appropriation of different cultural aspects their business, focusing solely on the fetishist dimension,” says political scientist Rachid Achachi.

On the Moroccan side, there are the Moors, who regularly publish articles on their site devoted to the history of the Kingdom’s heritage, whether tangible or intangible, and who have a large audience, especially on social media.

On the Algerian side, although no group is nearly as popular as the Moors, there are many Internet users whose posts almost systematically revolve around defending Algerian identity, which they claim is under attack from its western neighbour.

Attempts at recovery

“Morocco has stolen all of Algeria’s heritage: the kaftan, couscous, tajines… All this has neo-colonialist political aims. We are two different peoples. We have our history, our heritage. Please do not steal it from us,” wrote “The Pearl of Algiers” on Twitter.

Translation: The Algerian Patriots channel is back, Al Hamdoulilah.

A message to the Moors: We’re back with a bang. Believe me, you’ll be crying your eyes out.


 You can always count on me! 🇩🇿❤️

The proliferation of this type of content in recent months suggests that attempts are being made to resolve identity issues. “It goes without saying that true identity lies neither in couscous nor in the kaftan, but in the structuring values of a people’s imagination,” says Achachi.

“In Algeria’s case, although it is maintaining a high level of diplomatic and martial tension, it is also seeking a new front, this time cultural. This shows how the country has exhausted all the mechanisms at its disposal: closing its borders, breaking off diplomatic relations and not renewing the pipeline that supplied Spain. All that is left is cultural and identity fetishism to feed a national novel in need of grandeur and to excite the people’s nationalist ardour,” says the researcher.

Nabil Mouline, a historian, political scientist, researcher at the CNRS and professor at Sciences-Po and EHESS, shares this point of view. “The rise in tensions between Rabat and Algiers over the past few months has pushed the Algerian authorities to resort to a new weapon: symbols,” he says. “The lack of historical depth that characterises the process of national construction, coupled with an absence of tradition, has led this country’s leaders to want to (re)invent them in order to fill this need, even if it means taking liberties with historical facts, claiming exclusive paternity of certain shared cultural goods or simply appropriating part of its western neighbour’s intangible heritage.”

Identity operation

Ultimately, this identity operation is very banal, especially when we take into account various experiences of this type throughout the world, which are based on several factors, the most important of which are designating prestigious (mythical) ancestors and consecrating certain aspects of mass culture such as gastronomy and costumes.

“Thanks to their ontological dimension, certain historical figures can be instrumentalised to demonstrate the nation-state’s antiquity and greatness, even though it has only been established recently. Thus, figures as emblematic as Ziyad (7th-8th century), Ibn Battouta (d. 1375-76) and Khaldun (d. 1406) have become Algerian…, but these claims do not stand up to historical scrutiny,” says the author of “Le Califat: Histoire Politique de l’Islam” (ed. Flammarion).

This makes even less sense as the notion of nationality is a modern phenomenon, born in Europe and disseminated to the four corners of the world through capitalism and colonialism, according to the researchers. “Its use for previous periods is anachronistic,” says Mouline. Therefore, the desire to attribute a “nationality” to these figures means employing a very contemporary and subjective reading of history, which is only politically beneficial.

Heritage is not dead, rigidified in museums, but in permanent evolution, which can embrace the zeitgeist and become contemporary, without betraying itself.

“Figures such as Ziyad must be freed from the logic of the nation-state, which did not exist at the time. Ziyad is neither Moroccan nor Algerian,” says Achachi. “He was a general in an Umayyad army, who could possibly be described as Maghrebi, if we consider the Maghreb in terms of a civilisational sphere. Of course, territorially and geographically, the starting point was Morocco, but I won’t allow myself to fall into the anachronistic reasoning that consists of attributing a Moroccan or Algerian identity to him.”

Even if one were to disregard this methodological premise, which all historians point to, the question of Ziyad’s origins remains problematic.

Unclear origins

“Tarik ibn Ziyad’s origins are very uncertain (Arab, Amazigh or other), and little is known about his background. A client of the Maghreb’s Umayyad governor, he was appointed head of Tingitane (northern Morocco) after 705. From there, he undertook to conquer Andalusia in 711. Disgraced, Tarik was recalled to the East around 714, where he was lost forever. This character’s only link with what is now known as Algeria was his passage through Tlemcen, which was part of Tingitania’s sphere of influence at the time and only mentioned in one source. Whatever his lineage, this mysterious figure was above all an officer at the service of the Damascus caliphate, and therefore of a foreign power, if we decide to opt for modern language,” says Mouline.

As far as Battouta is concerned, things seem much clearer. Born in Tangier in 1304, he set out to discover the main regions of the known world at the age of 21. After 28 years of exploring, the most famous Muslim globetrotter of all time returned to his homeland where he wrote his travel report and served as a judge until his death in 1375-6. “Only two components can link this character to present-day Algeria: he passed through this territory on his way to and from the East and it was annexed by the Merinid Empire during this period,” says Mouline.

Ibn Khaldun, unclassifiable homo islamicus

As for Khaldun, he is also part of a transregional dimension, just like Ziyad. Born into a family from present-day Yemen and established successively in Seville, Ceuta and Tunis, the famous sociologist was born in the latter city in 1332. Due to the region’s chronic instability during this period, he led an itinerant existence. “Ibn Khaldun spent about 24 years in present-day Tunis, 12 years in Fez, three years in Granada, 10 years in various parts of present-day northern Algeria, 24 years in Egypt and the Orient. This makes him a sort of unclassifiable homo islamicus,” says Mouline.

As a result, even though many of these characters are part of Muslim collective memory and even universal history, they are difficult to “Algerianise.” While Battouta’s origins, career and production are part of a “Moroccan” environment, Ziyad and Khaldun belong to a wider dynamic.

On the other hand, as far as intangible heritage is concerned, such as know-how, costumes, music and gastronomy, scientists agree that we can refer to this as cultural syncretism. This is despite the fact that, for example, neo-nationalists from both countries were outraged when the four Maghreb countries submitted a joint application to Unesco to have couscous added to its list of world intangible heritage.

“Culture and intangible heritage, unlike these figures who are impossible to place, is less problematic because it embraces reality and the place where it is deployed. From my point of view, couscous cannot be confined within the borders of a country. You have to think in terms of a cultural and civilisational sphere,” says Achachi. “In Europe, for example, several countries partake in the tradition of wine and cheese. We don’t have to start a rivalry, it can be a common culture.”

Cultural syncretism

The same goes for Gnaoui music and the kaftan, which cannot be limited to a single country. “It is ridiculous to want to ‘classify’, ‘ethnicise’ or nationalise things such as the kaftan or the gnawa. They are the fruit of a cultural syncretism, a historical construction fed by different tributaries,” says Achachi.

However, the researcher has not ruled out the idea of a Moroccan anchor, even if something like the kaftan may belong to both cultures. “Just like what we see in Sufism, for example, with the Tariqa Boutchichiya. Even though Sufism is present in many eastern countries and the Maghreb, the boutchichiya is a Moroccan way of thinking about Sufism,” says Achachi.

Therefore, when it comes to Gnaoui music, if its origin can indeed be thought of in civilisational terms, then the historical form it has taken can be analysed in national terms. It has adaptations and a distinctiveness specific to the Kingdom. “One could quite easily speak of Tagnawite in the Moroccan way, as opposed to Tagnawite in the Algerian or other way, since Gnawa music can be found as far away as Egypt, Libya, etc,” he says.

Translation: Some are capable of building space stations and pushing the limits of knowledge. Others are responsible for the creation of couscous and burnous…

Mazalna b3ad

Moroccan, not Maghrebian, clothing.


The fact remains that, just like they did with gnawa and the kaftan, the Moroccans have carried out a vast feat of modernisation, of bringing up to date, but also of enhancing the value of certain cultural assets. “Geography probably has something to do with it,” says Achachi. “Morocco is at the crossroads of North Africa and the Western world, a strategic position open to different cultural and civilisational windows, which makes it more inclined to be in a modernising and opening-up mode than other more isolated countries. Heritage is not dead, rigidified in museums, but in permanent evolution, which can embrace the zeitgeist and become contemporary, without betraying itself.”

The authorities are increasingly adopting this logic. “The Kingdom has, for some years, been pursuing a ‘Made in Morocco’ strategy, which will become the cornerstone of Moroccan economic policy. This undoubtedly explains the current approach of the ministry of culture, which is marked by a desire to establish a cultural heritage and legacy, to preserve know-how, in order to benefit from it economically,” says Achachi, a famous polemicist, who hosts the Luxe Radio mornings.

Mehdi Bensaid, Morocco’s new culture minister, readily admits that he made this issue one of his top priorities as soon as he took office under the Akhannouch government. “It is, first of all, a desire to recognise our heritage, both tangible and intangible, by establishing a sort of national label for our know-how. This is accompanied by legal mechanisms so that our heritage is recognised, both nationally and internationally (such as at Unesco, for example), as well as digitalising all this knowledge so that it can be accessible to the greatest number of people,” says the young minister.

However, Bensaid denies any desire to counter any foreign offensive. “It is not a question of ‘racifying’ culture, but of highlighting this Moroccan history and know-how, in the same way as there is recognised French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese know-how. The aim of preserving culture is not to close ourselves off from others, to turn in on ourselves, but [to] the contrary, to get to know our history better so that we can move forward, and this work must be done independently of any political vicissitudes,” says the minister. However, on social media, the line between historic preservation and blind nationalism is sometimes very thin.

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