Along the northwest coast of Africa west of Egypt lays the region of Maghreb, an area dominated by Arabs since the 8th century. Before the formation of the modern nation states in the region in the 20th century, Maghreb was defined as the smaller territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlas mountains. Today, Maghreb consists of Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mauritania and 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 Maghreb their home.
Language and Culture in the Maghreb
The language of the Maghreb region is primarily Arabic. To aid in business and commerce, however, some countries also speak French, Italian, and English. As 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 including 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.
Today the primary religion of the Maghreb is overwhelmingly Muslim, with only the slightest percentage of the population being those of the Christian or Jewish faith.
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 was 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.
The political systems of the countries of the Magheb are also similar. 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, particularly between Algeria and Morocco, arose once again and those conflicts hindered the success of the union’s goals.
Food in the Maghreb
While the countries of the Maghreb region share many cultural traditions, once of the most evident is their shared culinary culture.
Among these shared traditions is the use of couscous as a staple food as opposed to the use of white rice, which is popular is eastern Arabic cultures. Additionally, these nations share the tagine, which is both a piece of cookware and a style of cooking. Because of the geography of the region Maghreb has been, throughout history, closely associated with the Mediterranean world. Spices and flavors from Italy and Spain have filtered into Maghreb cuisine, pairing with the vegetables, meats and seafood native to the coastline region. Though the region shares these culinary traditions, each country still retains its own unique taste and style.