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North Africa

North Africa

A Moroccan proverb says: Mâ kainsh el-kalâm cala ettacâm, "Where there is food, there is no talking." Indeed, as a sign of respect for the food that God has provided and the host or hostess has served, North Africans consider it impolite to converse while eating. The food itself, however, does not remain silent. Food talks. Meals convey messages. Perhaps more than anything else in North African cultural praxis, food habits constitute a rich language through which the region's history is told, social distinctions are expressed, religious feasts are celebrated, and seasonal changes and transformations in the life cycle are marked.

Historical Influences

The history of North Africa comes to the fore in both particular ingredients and dishes that are shared by most Maghrebi as well as in regional differentiation between specific dishes and ingredients. Influences from the Roman presence (200 B.C.E.300 C.E.) can, for instance, be recognized throughout the region as wheat is the basis for the two main staple foods, bread and couscous, a steamed grain of crushed wheat or coarse flour. Islamization in the seventh century can, of course, be recognized in the prohibition of pork or wine, although flourishing vineyards can be found throughout North Africa. Arab influences that accompanied early Islamization, such as the consumption of rice, native east African vegetables such okra and mlûkhîa Jew's mellow (Corchorus olitorius ) and the use of fliyu and mint in meat and vegetable dishes, are more pronounced in east Algeria and Tunisia than in regions further removed from the Levant, such as western Algeria and Morocco. All three countries have adopted the Arab preservation technique of drying meat, called gedîd, in which salt and spices are rubbed into the meat, which is then left to dry in the sun.

Morocco is the only North African country that was not occupied by the Ottoman Empire during its presence in the region (1500s1700s). Correspondingly, dolmas, stuffed vine leaves, like Turkish and Syrian puff pastries such as baklava and brîk, are commonly prepared in formerly Ottoman Algeria and Tunisia, but do not feature in Moroccan cuisine. On the other hand, Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan cookery alike have been heavily influenced by the introduction of crops from the New World such as tomatoes, courgettes, sweet peppers and potatoes. These foods were introduced to North Africa before they were introduced to central Europe. Potatoes, however, never became as popular in North Africa as they would become in Europe.

Food habits in all three North African countries discussed here have been influenced by French occupation. In Algeria, the French occupation lasted the longest (1830 to 1962). Not in the least because of the influx of a large number of French settlers, all spheres of life were influenced by it, including Algerian cuisine. Tunisia was occupied in 1881 and largely shared the same fate, at least in the cities. By the time Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, the French occupational policy had changed. Fewer settlers were moved in, and more attention was paid to the preservation of "traditional culture." In terms of food habits, these different policies can be recognized in Morocco's being the only Magrebian country where most people still eat homemade round breads rather than bakery bought baguettes. Most city dwellers in Morocco, however, like those in Algeria and Tunisia, nowadays drink café-au-lait for breakfast. Indeed, examination of the three daily meals that are consumed throughout the Maghrebthe ftûr or breakfast, the ghrdâ' or midday meal, and the cashâ' or evening mealbrings to light more variations between rural and urban areas than between countries. The distinction between rural and urban food habits corresponds, albeit not exclusively, with the distinction between the poor and those who fare better economically. On the whole, for example, less meat is consumed in the countryside than in the cities, and the same is true for milk and butter. Also, in the cities, fast food chains are becoming increasingly popular and when guests come for dinner, there are always a few bottles of cola and other carbonated soft drinks on the table.

Daily Meals

In the cities breakfast usually consists of a café-au-lait with bread and butter or jam, sometimes with La Vache Qui Rit, wedges of processed cheese that seem to have conquered much of the developing world. The Moroccan city of Fès is famous for its harsha, an unleavened very thick and crusty flatbread made of crushed wheat and arachide or olive oil, preferably eaten with fresh cheese. Because the flatbread remains tasty for a long time, it is popular with travelers. Because it is filling, peasants are also fond of it. If leavened bread is eaten for breakfast in rural areas, it is more likely to be served with olive oil than with butter, and it is eaten with tea more often than with coffee. Heavy agricultural work demands a substantial meal, however, so that assîda or bsissa, water-based porridges of semolina or grilled barley flour, are more common rural breakfasts. Yesterday's leftovers of couscous or soup may, of course, do just as well.

Lunch. Lunch consists of a hot meal, which in Morocco is the most important meal of the day, while in Algeria and Tunisia the dishes that are served for lunch or dinner are interchangeable. Among the urban elite, especially in Algerian towns, lunch may consist of dishes from the French cuisine, such as fried meat, french fries, and salads. In Morocco and Tunisia, most people prefer to eat either a tajîne (tagine), a stew, also called marqa, or a couscous. Marqas tend to be more popular than couscous, especially in urban areas. Nowadays, marqas are almost invariably prepared in pressure cookers, but most people agree that they taste much better when prepared in a tajîne, the traditional cone-shaped earthenware pots that gave this kind of dish its name.

The sauce that forms the basis of a marqa or tajîne varies per region. In Morocco, saffron is traditionally used to color the basic sauce yellow. Nowadays, saffron is nearly always replaced by artificial yellow coloring powder, which is much cheaper but lacks taste. To make a marqa, chopped onions and garlic cloves are fried in arachide oil into which the (artificial) saffron is stirred. Next, fresh chopped coriander and parsley are added, then salt or "knurr," that is, stock tablets (the brand name has become the generic name) together with spices such as black pepper, paprika, cumin, and sometimes ginger and/or cinnamon. A famous mixed spice is râs el-hânut, "the master of the shop," which should consist of twenty spices, among which powdered rose buds and lavender, and, as tourists are meant to believe, the aphrodisiac "Spanish fly." Râs el-hânut is classified as a "hot" spice. Consequently, it is almost exclusively used in winter. Other "hot" spices such as black pepper, ginger, and paprika, are also used more liberally in winter than in summer, when mild spices like cumin and cinnamon are used more. After spices have been added, peeled and chopped tomatoes are put in, together with meat. Last of all, water is added, after which the sauce is left to simmer until the meat is tender.

Only very little water is added to the tajîne. The earthenware pot is placed on a charcoal burner, and it takes hours for the meat and vegetables to cook in their own juices. In Tunisia, tomatoes and harîssa, a chili paste, form the basis for the sauce so that the marqa is red rather than yellow. Otherwise, much the same spices are used, although cumin may be replaced with caraway. In Algeria, in regions closer to Morocco, the basic sauce is yellow, while in regions closer to Tunisia it tends to be red. Marqas are eaten with bread. In most Moroccan families, the housewife or one of her servants prepares the dough for the bread, which is then brought to the ferrân, the public oven, where it is preferably baked shortly before lunch, so that the bread is still slightly warm when lunch is served. Tunisian and Algerian women often reheat the bakery-bought bread before serving it.

Bread and couscous are never eaten together. While in urban areas marqas are prepared more often than couscous, in rural areas it is the other way around. Unlike other dishes that are associated with the countryside, however, a good couscous is considered a festive meal by urban and rural dwellers alike. Most Maghrebi eat it for Friday lunch, Friday being the most blessed day of the week. It is also a favorite dish for weddings and other big dinner parties, not in the least because it is easy to prepare in great quantities. A Friday or party couscous tends to contain more meat and a larger variety of vegetables than those eaten during the other days of the week. Meat is quite expensive in North Africa, and especially in the countryside, both daily marqas and different kinds of couscous consist largely of vegetables and pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, and white beans. In coastal areas, fish, mostly deep fried, is also included.

In general, pulse-based dishes are associated with poverty. Bisâra, for instance, a very thick sauce of cooked dried and peeled broad beans to which lots of garlic, olive oil and cumin is added, is a much loved dish, especially in winter. Yet one would not dream of serving it to guests. The same goes for usbân, a Tunisian couscous with offal, the cheapest "meat" there is. Instead of these cheapalbeit deliciousmeals, guests should be served dishes that consist mostly of meat, such as the originally Ottoman l-hamm el-hlû, cinnamon-and ginger-spiced veal, served with prunes and fried almonds, or dajâj zîtûn, chicken with green olives, salt lemon preserve, hardboiled eggs, and, again, fried almonds. Throughout the Maghreb, bstîla, originally from Fès, has also become a favorite dish to serve guests. It is savory pie made of flaky pastry filled with pigeon or chicken that is sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar before serving. The latter ingredients are also used to top off sweet couscouses that are served for dessert.

Tea and evening meal. As was mentioned before, in Algeria and Tunisia the dishes that are served for lunch or dinner are interchangeable. These meals are eaten around six or seven o'clock. In Morocco, the cashâ' tends to be eaten somewhere between eight and nine o'clock. This allows women to visit each other in the afternoon and have tea together, which is followed by coffee just before they go home. The green tea that is flavored with fresh mint and much sugar and may be served with elghraif, flaky pastries fried in a pan and served with honey or castor sugar, or with beghrîr, leavened pancakes served with honey, butter or olive oil, or sfinj, fritters. Although men also occasionally eat sweet pastries, throughout the Maghreb they are typically associated with women.

Because the evening meal is served rather late in Morocco, women who stay at home have tea with bread or harsha before they prepare dinner. Except when there are guests, dinner in Moroccan cities is light, consisting of soup, small meatballs in a tomato sauce, or milk-based porridges of rice, semolina, or pasta. In rural areas where those who work on the land have not been able to come home for lunch, dinner is the main meal and more substantial.

Meals for Special Occasions: Ramadan

During the month called Ramadan, between dawn and sunset, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual contacts. After sunset, all this is allowed again. Ramadan is as much a month of feasting as of fasting. Indeed, many people gain weight during the fasting month. Some people save money for months in order to eat meat and luxury foods during the Ramadan nights. Much like Christmas meals in Western countries, Ramadan meals are family dinners. More often than not, friends or neighbors are invited to join in as well. Some only pop in for the sunset meal, others stay until the last meal that is served an hour before dawn. Sharing extends to strangers: every day towards sunset, people bring soup and couscous to the mosque for the poor and homeless.

Ramadan breakfast. Like most Muslims in the world, North Africans follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed (570632), who used to break the fast by eating a date and drinking a sip of water or milk. They then perform the sunset prayers, after which the ftûr is served. In Morocco, harîra, nutritious tomato soup with meat, chickpeas and lentils, has become the national dish for breaking the fast. Besides harîra, what should also always be present on the breakfast table are shebbakiyyât, also known as grioush, deep-fried pastries with anise and cinnamon, which are dipped in honey or caramel when still hot and are then sprinkled with sesame seeds. Beghrîr, pancakes, are another favorite, as are hard-boiled eggs and olives. After having eaten two or three bowls of harîra, coffee with much more milk than usual is drunk.

Algerians and Tunisians also have soup for a Ramadan breakfast, but do not share the Moroccan habit of eating sweet pastries with soup. They prefer to eat large quantities of cakes and sweets with the coffee that is served later in the evening. To digest breakfast, many North African city dwellers go out to attend the open air performances and other special Ramadan festivities that are organized in town, buying orange juice, buttermilk, roasted sunflower seeds, peanuts, or chickpeas from street vendors as they stroll along.

Ramadan evening meals. Tunisians and Algerians combine the Ramadan breakfast and the evening meal. They eat a date and a bowl of soup before performing the evening prayers, after which they return for the evening meal, which in all three countries should always contain a fair amount of meat during Ramadan. L-hamm el-hlû (sweet veal with prunes) is a favorite Ramadan dish in Algeria, while in Tunisia keftajî, a stew with meatballs or a well-filled marqa (stew) may be served. Tunisians may also eat parched fish for a Ramadan dinner. This is frowned upon by Algerians and Moroccans: fish is easily digestible and leaves you thirsty, two qualities that are not very helpful during the fast. Ramadan dinners are served with more side dishes (eggs, olives, salads) than during other months of the year, and a larger variety of fruits appear on the table for dessert.

A typically Moroccan tradition occurs on the fifteenth night of Ramadan. That night, every family wants to eat a home-slaughtered chicken or rabbit, which gives this special dinner a connotation of a sacrificial meal. No similar tradition exists in either Algeria or Tunisia. What all three countries do share is the tradition on the twenty-seventh of Ramadan to visit the graveyard, clean the graves of relatives and have prayers said for them. On the way to and from the graveyard, children in the street and poor people who have gathered at the gates of the graveyards are given sadaqa, alms consisting of dates, figs and sweet bread.

Meals at night during Ramadan. People who have guests stay awake until the shûr, the last meal before dawn, in the meantime enjoying lots of coffee and pastries such as baklava, brîk (sweet puff pastries) and sefûf, ground and grilled sugared cereals and nuts. In the old quarters of towns, those who go to sleep are awakened for the shûr by musicians going through the streets. Most people have a light shûr : French toast, a milk-based assîda (porridge), or a mesfûf, (sweet couscous). In rural areas, however, the shûr may consist of a more substantial meal.

The feast meal. The last few days of Ramadan, women are very busy preparing cookies, cakes and pastries for the cîd es-saghrîr, the feast that ends the fasting month. In rural areas, nearly every one makes kacak, hard biscuit rings with anise and fennel seeds. In general, towns-women make a greater variety of cakes, cookies and pastries. In Algeria, women in Constantine are the most famous cookie makers, to be followed by those of Algiers and Blida. These cities used to have large Jewish communities, and Muslim women are said to have learned the art of cookie baking from Jewish women. Particularly popular for the concluding feast of Ramadan are maqrûd, date-or almond-filled fried cookies made from semolina, and qnîdelet, marzipan cigars. In Morocco, Fès is famous for its good pastries, such as the kacab el-ghrazâl, "gazelle horns," horn-shaped pies filled with almond paste.

In Morocco, many people find it important that the first meal that is eaten on the feast that ends Ramadan should be a white porridge. The color white symbolizes the purity that one has attained by fasting a whole month. The rest of the day is spent paying visits and receiving guests. In every house that they visit, people are served coffee or tea with lots of cookies and pastries. Not surprisingly, many people do not eat dinner on the first day of the feast concluding the fasting month.

The Feast of Immolation

On the tenth day of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca two months after Ramadan, all pilgrims sacrifice a ram to commemorate how Ibrahîm (Abraham) slaughtered a ram as a last-minute substitute for the son he was willing to sacrifice as an act of obedience towards God. It is recommended by Islamic law that those Muslims elsewhere in the world who can afford it also sacrifice a ram. Voluntary fasting is recommended the day before the ritual sacrifice. Some people fast until the first meat of the sacrificed ram is served later in the day. Only men are allowed to slaughter. Female household heads call in a butcher. After the slaughtering, the rest of the day women are busy processing the meat.

Much local symbolism is attached to the various parts of the sacrificial ram. Mothers, for example, dip a finger in the blood that flows from the cut throat to mark the forehead of their children so as to ward off the evil eye. The sheepskin not only makes a perfect prayer mat, but is also thought to relieve the pain of a woman in labor who lies down on it. Of particular importance is the liver, the organ that is considered the seat of compassion. Barbecued liver is the first meat that is consumed on the day of the sacrifice. Women see to it carefully that there is a skewer for every member of the family. When someone does not make it on time for the barbecue, his or her skewer will be kept apart for them. Sharing the liver with all family members expresses and fortifies the family bond. The pieces of liver on the skewers given to girls are wrapped in the fat tissue that covered the heart of the ram, as this is believed to enhance finding a husband with a good heart.

Nowadays, pieces of meat that are not distributed among the poor can be stored in refrigerators and freezers, but the tradition of making gedîd, dried meat, has not disappeared. Slices of meat are put in a spicy marinate overnight. The next day, pieces of paunch are filled with the marinated chunks and then tied into bundles that are left to dry in the sun for several days. When a woman has difficulty getting pregnant, her friends may organize a lunch party for her by collecting two balls of gedîd from each woman who will attend, which are then served in a couscous. The chances that the honorary guest gets pregnant are thought to have improved after this ritual lunch. A tradition in Marrakesh (Morocco) is to dry the tail of the ram to save it until the Ashûra, the celebration of the New Year.

The Ashûra or Islamic New Year

Exactly one month after the Feast of Immolation, the Ashûrâ is celebrated on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year. Traditionally this is the day on which the religious duty of performing zakât, the legal almsgiving, is performed. Ashûra concludes a transitional period of ten days between the old and new year. During this period, some people observe fasting. In Marrakesh, the fast is concluded by having a couscous with the preserved tail of the sacrificial ram, which thus comes to symbolize the farewell to the past year. In Tunisia, on the ninth day of Muharram people tend to eat chicken with very thin noodles, while on the tenth they prepare a couscous or marqa with mutton. In Algeria, dinner on the tenth of Muharram should be sweet, and often contains raisins, prunes and cinnamon. In Morocco, Ashûra is not linked to any special meal, but what is shared with the other countries is that women prepare or buy krishlât or fakîya, mix of raisins, figs, nuts, and dime-sized cookies. Krishlât is eaten at home and distributed among children in the neighborhood.

Despite the influence of the former French occupation, New Year celebrations according to the Christian calendar do not, as yet, receive much attention. An exception must be made for Tunisia, where people eat mlûkhîa or other dishes from spinach-like plants on New Year's Eve. Green is the color that symbolizes Islam. The green color of the New Year's Eve dish also symbolizes the hope for a "green," that is, prosperous, year.

The Mûlûd or Birthday of the Prophet

On the twelfth day of the third month of the Islamic calendar, the mûlûd or birth of the Prophet Muhammad is commemorated. Every country has its own special dish on this occasion. In Tunisia and Morocco, most families have assîda for breakfast, a semolina porridge prepared with milk and sweetened with honey. Poorer people and those in the countryside keep it simple, while people in the cities and those who are better off may add raisins and orange blossom water to the porridge. In Algeria, people in the east are known for eating sfinj, fritters, for breakfast, while qatawarmi, chicken with turnip and chickpeas, is eaten for dinner across the country. In Morocco chicken or beef with prunes and almonds is a favorite dish on the Prophet's birthday.

Life Cycle Rites

Birth. While in North African cuisine both hot and mild spices are used, the two should not be mixed. According to Tunisians, the combination of hot and sweet spices is thought to cause diarrhea, just as fish with milk is thought to cause skin diseases and tea with buttermilk stomach aches. In all three countries, dishes prepared for special occasions related to life cycle rites tend to be mild and sweet. Cinnamon, raisins, prunes, and nuts are recurring ingredients. On the occasion of a birth, for example, an Algerian new mother is offered semolina porridge with honey. In Morocco the mother is offered sefûf, ground and grilled cereals and nuts, flavored with sugar, anise, and fennel. Sefûf is considered to help her regain her strength and to pass it on to her baby through her breast milk. According to a Moroccan tradition, when the baby is a girl, a cock should be slaughtered for the first meal that the mother eats after having given birth, the cock symbolizing the future husband of the girl. If the baby is a boy, a hen is slaughtered for this dish. On the seventh day after birth, the day on which the baby is given its name, different kinds of pancakes such as ghraif and beghrîr are prepared for breakfast. In families that can afford it, a sheep is sacrificed to thank God. It is prepared for the guests who attend the name-giving party.

Marriage. According to a Moroccan custom, the last meal that a mother of a Moroccan bride prepares before her daughter leaves her parental home to join her husband should be a dish that was "stirred with no spoon," lest her husband should prove to be an easily agitated and restless man. Meanwhile, the guests at the groom's house are offered chicken with lemon preserve, almonds and hard-boiled eggs, which symbolize fertility. In Algeria, guests are served shtetha, "the dancing (chicken)," a name referring both to the dancing of the guests and to the movements of the chicken in the pot as is simmers in its sauce of tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, and red pepper. Often, the parents of the groom slaughter a ram or calf on behalf of the bride to serve to the wedding guests. In all North African countries the bride and groom offer each other dates and milk before they withdraw to a room to consummate the marriage. Like eggs, dates and milk symbolize fertility. For Algerians, an additional explanation is that in this way, the partners eat each other's "salt," thus becoming part of each other. On the morning after the marriage ceremony, the parents of a Moroccan bride traditionally send the newlyweds a rice porridge and bûzelûf, a boiled head of sheep. The whiteness of the porridge symbolizes the purity of the bride while the head expresses the wish that she uses her head in running her household. On the seventh day after the wedding, the family of the bride comes to visit her and are offered fritters (sfinj ) and porridge (assîda ) sweetened with honey.

Mourning. In the house where someone has died, traditionally no fire should be lit to prepare food for three days. Those who come to express their condolences bring along food for the bereaved, usually a very simple couscous and hard-boiled eggs. Besides fertility, eggs also symbolize death and mourning, particularly egg shells, which break easily. On the fortieth day after the funeral, a ram is slaughtered and its meat prepared for those who gather to recite the Qur'an on behalf of the deceased. The same ceremony is repeated a year after the death.

Jewish Food Habits

For a long time, there have been Jewish communities in North Africa. Some, such as the Algerian Bahusi have lived there since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago. Others settled there after their expulsion from Spain after the Reconquista (1492). After independence in the 1960s, the majority of Jews emigrated to Israel, but all North African countries continue to have Jewish minorities.

There are only a few respects in which food habits of North African Jews differ from those of Muslims in the region, and these all pertain to religious prescriptions. Kosher cooking requires that meat and dairy products should not be mixed and that different cooking utensils should be used for each. Like most Muslims, Jews use oil to fry their meat, but unlike Muslims, they will never add smen, salted clarified butter. Also, when Jewish women make bread, traditionally they always throw a small piece of the dough in the fire, symbolizing the setting apart of a portion of their meals for the poor.

Furthermore, special meals are associated with particular moments in the religious calendar. On occasion of the Hebrew New Year, for example, as is the case among Algerian Muslims on the tenth of Muharram, sugar replaces salt, and sweet dishes with raisins and prunes predominate. Moroccan Jews prepare a dish with seven vegetables and a sheep's head, symbolizing merit and good fortune. During the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the fast on the tenth day of the new year, many families eat chicken, since for each family member a chicken should be sacrificed on occasion of the New Year to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice. Women also prepare "Yom Kippur bread," with almonds. To break the fast on the evening of Yom Kippur the table is set with cakes. The day after Yom Kippur, at midday Moroccan Jews eat chicken with olives, followed by beranîya, fried and sweetened eggplants sprinkled with sesame seeds and cinnamon.

Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, which begins five days after Yom Kippur, lasts seven days. On the first day, Jewish women in Morocco prepare a couscous. Throughout the week of the Sukkoth holiday, women serve better meals than usual. In Algeria, chicken is again a favorite, being followed by lots of fruit for dessert. On the occasion of Hanukkah, the festival of light, during which the rededication of the Temple in 165 commemorated, women make their famous qnîdelet, marzipan cigars, and maqrûd, date-or almond-filled fried semolina cookies, as well as the same kind of pancakes, fritters, and puff pastries that have been mentioned above for Islamic celebrations. Tu-Bishvat, the festival of trees, is celebrated by Moroccan Jews by eating fifteen different kinds of (dry) fruits. Purim, the feast commemorating the deliverance of the Jews by Esther from a massacre, is even more a feast of pastries, and kilos of them are exchanged between women and distributed among children and the poor.

For Pesach, when the Exodus from Egypt is commemorated, the ritual meal should at least consist of a salad with marûr, a bitter herb, referring to the bitter life under Egyptian rule; a glass of salt water, representing the tears and sweat shed; and eggs cooked hard in ashes, a symbol of the destruction of the Temple. In Algeria, Jews eat a lamb's leg on this occasion. The lamb symbolizes the beginning of a new life, and its leg, God's "extended arm" with which the Egyptians were hit when the ten plagues fell upon them. The lamb's leg also commemorates the fact that each Jewish family in Egypt was asked to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on the door-posts of their houses so that these could be identified as those that were to be saved. Last of all, matzos, biscuits representing unleavened bread that was eaten during the journey through the desert are eaten, as are fresh, green vegetables, also representing a new beginning. On the evening of Mimuna, the last night of the Passover festival, many people only eat milk products, but some families place fish on the table as a symbol of fertility.

Seven weeks after Pesach, Shevuoth is celebrated. According to some this was originally an agrarian festival, but later became linked to the commemoration of the covenant of Mount Sinai. On this occasion in Morocco, "Angel's Hair," a pasta sprinkled with cinnamon and surrounded by meat or chicken, is traditionally served.

On the Sabbath, all work must cease, and no fire should be lit. Therefore, women make enough bread on Fridays for two days and prepare the fish or chicken that will be eaten on the Sabbath. A special Sabbath dish in Morocco is skhîna, consisting of eggs, potatoes, rice, chickpeas and meat. Traditionally, skhîna was prepared in earthenware casseroles that were hermetically sealed and cooked overnight in the public oven or in the still glowing ashes of the fire used to heat the public bath. This way, it was still warm when eaten for lunch on Saturday. Nowadays, most women prepare skhîna at home.

The meals on the Sabbath tend to be better than on other days of the week, often consisting of the same dishes that Muslims eat on Fridays. The festive meals that are served on occasions that mark the life cycle also tend to be the same as those of Muslims, such as the "dancing chicken" for marriages. Indeed, North African Jewish and Muslim cuisines overlap widely, as do the meanings of foodstuffs and ingredients used. For both Jews and Muslims, salt is purifying, bread contains baraka, God's blessing, dates symbolize fertility, eggs both fertility and mourning, green vegetables represent the wish for a new year of abundance, and pulses are associated with poverty.

See also Fasting and Abstinence: Islam; Islam; Judaism; Middle East; Ramadan.


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Marjo Buitelaar

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North Africa


The three dynastic successors to the empire of the Almohads in North Africa (Maghrib)the Hafsids of Tunis, the Zayyanids of Tlemcen, and the Marinids/Wattasids of Fezcontinued to experience internal political and economic fragmentation in the fifteenth century as a result of the decline of their established trade routes and the extension of the Reconquista to Muslim North Africa. The Treaty of Alcaçovas of 1479 recognized the exclusive rights of Portugal over the Atlantic coast of Morocco and its hinterland as far as Fez and of Castile over the Mediterranean coastline from Melilla to Tunis. Portuguese and Castilian efforts to dominate the Maghrib and its commerce intensified after the fall of Granada in 1492 and culminated with the establishment of a number of naval bases on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. The "African Crusade" provoked a powerful military response from the rising Ottoman Empire, which further threatened the survival of Maghribi polities already in the midst of profound social transformations.

The eclipse of Almohad power in the late thirteenth century unsettled the traditional solidarities between state and society in Andalusia and the Maghrib and mobilized a religious resurgence that challenged local governing elites. As the Almohad state deteriorated politically and economically, provincial Sufi notables and confraternities assumed essential sociopolitical functions in order to meet the needs of their communities and organize the defense of the collapsing Muslim frontier. The history of the Maghrib from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries was thus dominated by the regional confrontations between Europeans, Ottomans, and local Muslim dynasties and impressed by the varying degrees of contest and accommodation between the rulers of the post-Almohad states and fractious Sufiled forces.


The Portuguese offensive concentrated on the Atlantic Straits and coastline of Morocco, and by 1495, six maritime enclaves (fronteiras) had been established in the realm of the Wattasids. The attacks aggravated the dire economic condition of the Wattasid regime, and the latter invariably submitted to tributary arrangements with the fronteiras. Local Sufi leaders condemned the manner in which the war against the Christians was being waged. They exhorted their followers to transfer their allegiance from the Wattasid sultan to revered descendants of the Prophet (sharifs) who, by virtue of their saintly lineage and moral rectitude, were more certain to conduct a successful war against Portugal. Between 1515 and 1537, the domestic balance of power shifted irreversibly in favor of the Saadi sharifs as their coalition scored a succession of military victories against the Portuguese and the Wattasids. By 1554 the Saadis had captured the Wattasid seat of Fez and reduced the Portuguese presence to the garrisons of el-Ksar as-Saghir, Tangiers, Asila, and Ceuta.

With the Saadis, prophetic descent became a pillar of political legitimacy in Morocco. Henceforth, the authority of Moroccan sovereigns was confirmed by investing their political practices with symbols and rituals of divine grace (baraka). The Saadi claim to sharifian descent was contested by the Ottoman Empire. Firmly established in Egypt after 1517, the Ottomans' continuing expansion in the western Mediterranean carried them to the Moroccan border by 1545. The Ottoman threat remained a determining factor in Saadi politics for the rest of the century. Encircled by Ottomans, Spaniards, and Portuguese, Morocco grew isolated from the larger Muslim world, and its rulers survived by playing off their regional rivals, often allying themselves with the Christian powers against the Ottomans. The divisive politics of the Saadis culminated in August 1578, when the Ottomans defeated the Saadi caliph and his Portuguese allies in the Battle of the Three Kings. However, the confrontation also eliminated the Ottoman contender to the Saadi throne, thereby providing al-Mansur, the new sovereign, with respite to consolidate his authority and reduce his dependence on any regional power.

Al-Mansur modernized his army and, in 1591, launched a military expedition targeting the salt and gold mines of Songhay. With the influx of Sudanese gold, al-Mansur promoted commercial and diplomatic ties with Europe, joining briefly with England in a compact against Spanish interests in the western Mediterranean. Finally, he established alliances of patronage and service with "tribal" confederations in order to extend the reach of his central administration (al-makhzan) to the remoter provinces (alsiba). His death in 1603 marked a turning point in the history of Morocco as internecine battles fragmented the country into several contending entities. Still, the political commitment to sacred authority remained steadfast, and in 1631, a realignment of provincial Sufi forces carried another sharifian family to power. The Alawi sharifs reunited Morocco between 1659 and 1677, and under Mawlay Ismail (ruled 16721727) further reduced the influence of Portugal and Spain by developing diplomatic and commercial relations with Italy, France, Holland, and England. At the death of Ismail, the generals of his self-perpetuating army of slaves seized power, and much of provincial Morocco broke away from government control anew. The Alawi rulers regained political autonomy from the slave generals by 1757, largely as a result of their sustained efforts to reform the tax system, reestablish commercial contacts with Europe, and conscript "native" elements into the army. The unrelenting opposition of provincial Morocco to the centralizing tendencies of the state after 1727 would provide the main thrust of anticolonial resistances in the nineteenth century and would contribute to the colonial division of Morocco after 1912 into "useful" makhzan and "unruly" siba.


The Habsburgs began their military offensive in the central Maghrib in 1505 with the capture of Mers al-Kabir, followed by Oran, Bougie, and Tripoli (15091510). Algiers agreed to pay tribute to the Spaniards, who built a presidio (el Peñón) on the largest of the four islets outlining the city's harbor. In 1516, the notables of Algiers solicited the succor of the privateer brothers Aruj and Khayr al-Din. Khayr al-Din Barbarossa took control of the city in 1519 and swore allegiance to the Ottoman sultan, who named him regent (Beylerbey) of North Africa, and sent him a military contingent of two thousand artillerymen and four thousand janissaries. With the reinforcements, Barbarossa consolidated his hold over the surrounding territories and towns, defeated a Habsburg counteroffensive, razed the Peñón in 1529, and established Algiers as his base for naval operations in the Mediterranean. By the time he was promoted to admiral-in-chief of the Ottoman navy in 1533, Barbarossa had erected the primary institutions that governed the regency until the French conquest of 1830.

Given the paucity of resources in the middle Maghrib, the political and economic viability of the Regency of Algiers depended on the Ottoman capital for the continued renewal of its administrative personnel and military contingent, and on external sources of revenue (namely, maritime trade, piracy, and privateering) for the replenishment of its state coffers. Sociopolitical stability was thus tied to the activities of two military institutions: the corps of janissaries that was committed to the defense of the Sultan's territorial possessions, but was also central to the tax-collecting operations of the local government, and the corporation of the captains of the fleet that protected Algerian commerce and merchant ships, and raided European harbors and vessels in search of captives and spoils. The janissary corps was a highly restricted ethnic military caste that safeguarded its privileges through the executive council (diwan). By 1556, the corps and council constituted the most cohesive political institution in the regency. Yet the overall economic welfare of Algiers hinged upon the continued success of the privateer captains in ensuring the inflow of supplementary revenue and capital. The ability of the regent to remunerate his janissaries and exercise authority depended on the effectiveness of the privateer captains in pouring wealth and plunder into the local economy.

The janissaries exercised direct control over the city and environs of Algiers, and delegated the administration of the provinces to governors (beys) who were instructed to maintain order and collect taxes in their districts (beyliks) with the help of local Sufi and tribal notables. The central administration rarely extended beyond the district governorates and was regularly checked at the boundaries by pastoral and seminomadic communities that did not submit to Ottoman sovereignty. By relying heavily on native intermediaries and clients, the provincial administration gradually acquired an "Algerian" character. Beys intermarried locally and founded hereditary Turco-Algerian dynasties. In 1586, Istanbul started appointing its own governors (pashas) to Algiers in an unsuccessful attempt to curtail the growing political autonomy of the diwan. In 1659, the janissaries secured the consent of the imperial government in selecting their commanding officer (agha) as head of state. With the aghas, the political power of the janissaries reached its apogee, but its success coincided with the repeated inability of the state to remunerate its troops due to the growing importance of European navies and mercantile concessions in the Mediterranean.

The subordination of political considerations to the economic predicament of Algiers culminated in 1671 when the janissary corps transferred executive power to the admiral of the fleet and conferred upon him the title of dey. The deys attempted to enforce more balanced policies of fiscal extraction, and attained a modicum of equilibrium between 1710 and 1750 by exploiting Tunisian resources and commerce, and reducing the size of the janissary contingent and the corporation of captains. Still, deteriorating relations with European states and a series of inadequate agricultural harvests and fatal epidemics after 1787 deepened the structural imbalances in the political economy. Unprecedented encroachments by official tax collectors were met in the impoverished provinces with Sufi-led insurgencies that paralyzed their levying operations and forced the dey to develop alternative sources of political support. A fundamental realignment in the urban politics of the regency was effected in 1817 when Dey Ali Khodja broke free from the hold of the janissaries and transferred the public treasury to the citadel (al-qasbah) of Algiers. After the defeat of the janissaries, the reign of Husayn Dey (18181830) heralded the emergence of social and political structures that reflected the more equitable distribution of power between Algiers and the provinces. The decade preceding the French conquest in 1830 was thus marked by a gradual "de-Turkification" of the administration, driven by the ascendance of the native-born Turco-Algerians, and by the greater avenues of participation for provincial notables.


Unlike Morocco or Algeria, Hafsid Tunis could rely on its productive urban agricultural economy, lucrative commerce with Europe, and competent rulers to weather the political crises of the post-Almohad period. In 1510, Spain began to control Hafsid trade from its enclaves in Bougie and Tripoli. For the next half-century, Tunis remained at the center of the strategic struggle between Habsburgs and Ottomans for hegemony in the western Mediterranean. When the Ottomans finally dislodged the Spaniards from Tunis in 1574, they organized their new possession along the same lines as the regency of Algiers: a central authority in Tunis headed by an appointed pasha, assisted by beys in the provinces, and supported by a corps of janissaries under the command of deys. Senior military officers formed a diwan that acted as executive council. Yet the janissary contingent in Tunis did not grow overly dependent on privateering and continued to derive its main income from agricultural surpluses and international trade. Despite its incorporation into the Ottoman realm, Tunisia preserved its traditional institutions, and local notables remained involved in administrative decision making.

In 15901591, the janissaries reacted to the "nativization" of the administration and forced the pasha to recognize their dey as chief executive. This, however, did not impede or restrict the access of provincial beys to local resources, and they continued to recruit and employ Tunisian elements in their administration and army. Sufi and mainstream religious establishments also resisted bureaucratic centralization and united with the beys. Gradually, there emerged a Turco-Tunisian dynasty of beys that was widely regarded as "native" to Tunisia. The devolution of power to the provinces was confirmed in 1612 when the Ottoman sultan recognized Murad Bey as pasha, and granted him the right to transmit the title to his descendants. In 1671, the Muradids deposed the dey and transferred their seat to Tunis. They were themselves overthrown in 1702, following a military coup that reinstated temporarily the office of dey. The restored regime soon collapsed in defeat at the hands of invading Algerian troops. In the provinces, resistance to the Algerians was led by a coalition of Sufi elements and the remnants of the Turco-Tunisian notability. Husayn ibn Ali repelled the invaders and invested Tunis in 1705, thereby instating a dynasty that would rule Tunisia until 1957. Political stability under the Husaynids generated economic prosperity, and commercial treaties were concluded with France, England, Spain, Holland, and Austria. After 1784, however, Tunisia was again weakened by military incursions from Algeria and, more importantly, by a considerable deterioration of its terms of trade with Europe, a process that would reorient its economy in the next century toward cash-crop exports and dependence on European markets.

See also Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Ottoman Empire ; Spain .


Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1987.

Boyer, Pierre. "Introduction à une histoire intérieure de la Régence d'Alger." Revue Historique 235, no. 2, (1966): 297316.

Devisse, Jean. "Routes de commerce et échanges en Afrique Occidentale en relation avec la Méditerranée." Revue d'Histoire Économique et Sociale 50 (1972): 4273, 357397.

Julien, Charles-André. Histoire de l'Afrique du Nord: Des origines à 1830. Paris, 1994.

Laroui, Abdallah. The History of the Maghrib: An Interpretive Essay. Princeton, 1977.

Lévi-Provençal, Évariste. Les historiens des Chorfa. Paris, 1922.

Terrasse, Henri. Histoire du Maroc des origines à l'établissement du protectorat français. Casablanca, 1975.

Valensi, Lucette. On the Eve of Colonialism: North Africa before the French Conquest. New York, 1977. Translation of Le Maghreb avant la prise d'Alger, 17901830, 1969.

O. W. Abi-Mershed

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"North Africa." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

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