Colonial Couscous

Friday, January 7, 2011: 3:10 PM
Room 111 (Hynes Convention Center)
Ramzi Rouighi , University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Starting in the 1870s, two developments in colonial Algeria led to a gradual but total remaking of the agricultural sector. First, French settlers acquired large expanses of fertile lands thanks to a policy of expropriation and settlement. While many did not become wealthy farmers, some were successful in building large estates and gaining social and political prominence as a result. Many of the wealthier settlers imported the latest techniques and machinery and spearheaded a modernization of agricultural production. Building on scientific and technological developments in France and elsewhere, these leaders decided what to produce, where, and for what markets and in the process remade the agricultural map. Notably, French colonists brought about the intensification of wheat production in Algeria and its integration into the emergent international market led by a few monopolistic conglomerates.

These processes echoed the discourse on the civilizing mission that France undertook in Algeria. As Diana Davis has shown, the representation of Algeria as a modern version of the ancient granary of Rome associated the nomad Arabs with desertification and the threat to civilization (Davis 2007). In this paper, I argue that the greater availability of wheat on the Algerian market led to its gradual transformation as a staple, which characterized and identified the natives. Clearly the archetypal food in this regard, couscous came to define Algerians and in fact all North Africans. To support this argument, I utilize pre-colonial (mostly Arabic) and colonial sources (mostly French), literary and documentary, to establish the intensification of wheat production, the transformation of discourse, and the importance of couscous to anti-colonial Algerian nationalists. 

See more of: Wheat Markets, Wheat Politics?
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