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Being beldi

the value and prospects of the Rif terroir
Être beldi: la valeur et les perspectives du terroir du Rif
Joana Lucas


Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Chefchaouen (Morocco) in 2017 and 2018, this text seeks to reflect on the impacts of the classification of the “Mediterranean Diet” (UNESCO 2010) on the territory. To this end, it will be important not to lose sight of the characteristics of this region – namely its geographical isolation – but also of the role and weight of national agricultural policies and their contemporary repercussions. The text also intends to discuss how the belonging to a global world can be operated discontinuously, and how, due to the lack of correspondence between the official language of heritage and local practices, namely regarding food consumption, heritage terminologies and concepts are subverted and appropriated by the inhabitants of Chefchaouen.

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  • 1 The classification of the Mediterranean Diet as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity has had (...)

1Chefchaouen, a small town in northern Morocco, not far from the Mediterranean coast and bordered by the Rif mountain system, has over the past decades - like so many other rural territories in the country - been the scene of various social, economic and agricultural transformations. Nevertheless, in a movement of institutional legitimacy, its “ancestral characteristics” (UNESCO 2010) carried considerable weight in its selection as the Moroccan representative for the "Mediterranean Diet", classified in 2010 by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity1.

  • 2 In Morocco, kif is the local name used to designate cannabis. Cannabis was cultivated in Morocco fr (...)
  • 3 On migratory movements from rural to urban contexts in Morocco, see, for example: Crawford (2008).

2Its geographical situation, as well as the characteristics of its territory - a mountainous region where subsistence farming prevails, small agricultural plots and predominance of indigenous species - has made the area vulnerable to the pressure of more profitable crops, such as kif (Mouna 2010)2. In addition to this economic pressure, other issues such as the mismatch between national and local agricultural policies, the depopulation of rural areas3 or the isolation of mountain populations, have contributed to the transformation of agricultural and food practices in the region.

3As of 2010, the institutional promotion of a "Mediterranean Diet" model transformed into heritage, taking the biodiversity of the territory as a baseline, as well as the specificity of its food practices, was the trigger for the reconfiguration of not only the way these populations perceive their lifestyle – as healthy and in harmony with nature - but also created a new value and a new commodity on a local scale: food and autochthonous agricultural products become synonymous with tradition, sustainability and good food practices.

4It is in such a context that the movement around the qualities of agricultural products and regional food traditions is beginning to produce its key players: not only in the sector of local associations - from 2010 onwards especially focused on promoting the "Mediterranean Diet" - but also, and in particular, among the more "informal" sectors of society, such as local restaurant owners, agricultural producers, food vendors or even consumers, who see a highly desirable and unique model of healthy living in the region's agricultural supply, which has been gaining ground and validity, as we shall see, through the conception of beldi.

5Throughout this paper we will account not only for the discourses and practices of specific people who comprise the food landscape of the region, but also for the way in which the beldi adjective has been gaining ground locally when it comes to food practices and consumptions, opposing with a seemingly pervasive idea of "Mediterranean Diet".

6Therefore, we will not discuss here local strategies for institutionally promoting a food heritage that is globally validated by UNESCO, as we are instead particularly interested in examining the more microscopic and non-institutional dimensions that arise in this territory, since this exercise - of adaptation, transformation, appropriation and subversion of an authenticated heritage (although vague and diffuse) - is carried out by local inhabitants of Chefchaouen, by mobilizing their differentiated expectations, agencies and knowledges.

7Consequently, this text will focus more on the specificity of the economic and ecological landscape of the region of Chefchaouen, than on the heritage classification process of the "Mediterranean Diet" itself, despite recognizing its relevance to the understanding of the symbolic (and less symbolic) dimensions related to the processes, actors and dynamics of this heritage classification, considering the neoliberal use of culture as a resource (Bortolotto 2017), in Chefchaouen and in other places alike.

  • 4 Chiara Bortolotto (2017) writes about the classification of the “French Gastronomic Meal” (2010) by (...)
  • 5 Morocco has a very diversified tourist offer, comprising the imperial cities (Fez, Meknes, Rabat, M (...)

8If, as Bortolotto (2017) mentions for the French case4, both local actors and national policies can benefit from a food heritage classification, this is undoubtedly the case of Chefchaouen which, in the Moroccan tourist context - marked by the abundance of different types of offer5 - the weight of the economic repercussions associated with a heritage classification (or derived from it) cannot be overlooked as a potential tourist attraction in the national landscape.

9Despite the weight and procedural formalisms of an institution like UNESCO, this text seeks to demonstrate and reflect on the way in which heritage - and the discourses that generate it - can be plastic and moldable at a local dimension and at the scale of ordinary people. In Chefchaouen the form of crafting value (and belonging, as we shall see) is associated with the multi-valences of the concept of beldi, emptying an eventual heritage discourse associated with the “Mediterranean Diet”.

  • 6 The fieldwork was funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) through the postdoctora (...)
  • 7 Fieldwork was carried out in June and July 2017 then October and November 2018. However, due to con (...)

10But not obliterating that the heritage classification of the “Mediterranean Diet” was the motto for carrying out the fieldwork that will be called upon for discussion here, it is important to mention that this text stems from ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Chefchaouen in 2017 and 20186, during which I conducted several interviews with people involved in food production, sales and consumer circuits, as well as participant observation in markets and restaurants7. In it, I will cross ethnographic material with an anthropological approach to the transformations that have taken place over the last decades in the region of Chefchaouen. The focus will be, nonetheless, on those that are related to transformations in foodscapes and the practices arising therefrom, without losing sight, however, of the implications that - in a dialectic and fluid way - are imposed from global phenomena and/or discourses, and above all those emanating from the new heritage regime (Bendix et al. 2012), and that have as much impact in Chefchaouen as on other places in the world.

11The text will begin by characterizing agricultural policies in Morocco and will then proceed to a historical approach of agricultural and food practices in the Chefchaouen region, as well as in local markets and food circuits. Afterwards, the text will focus on two ethnographic vignettes, which will seek to illustrate different local perspectives on food consumption and practices, placing emphasis on the polysemy and the scope of the concept of beldi, a central question in the argument of this text.

12In it, IGraf will argue that the local populations neither opposing nor resisting the classification of the "Mediterranean Diet", end up appropriating this classification on a local scale, subverting it and clothing it in other garments, more operational and better dominated by the practices, acquaintances and bodily knowledge of the people of Chefchaouen.

13Nevertheless, this text intends to emphasize regional asymmetries in access to the global food economy in Morocco, remembering that unlike other case studies in urban contexts (Newcomb 2017; Graf 2016 and 2018) food globalization does not reach everywhere evenly (not even simultaneously). The insistence on placing Chefchaouen geographically in the Moroccan rural universe serves to remind us that there are places (in Morocco as in the world) where people “have never been global” - paraphrasing Latour (1991) - notwithstanding some glimpses provided and made possible by the new (and old) technologies. In Chefchaouen, and contrary to what Newcomb (2017) refers in relation to Fez, the "Mediterranean Diet" as a food regime did not end, considering that food practices and consumptions in Chefchaouen were not (yet?) replaced by fast food and prepared meals.

14In Chefchaouen, as in Graf’s (2018) approach to the practices and consumption of bread and cereals in Morocco, the colonial distinction between “Maroc utile” and “Maroc inutile” remains significant and operational. Chefchaouen, despite having become part of the global heritage cartography (via the “Mediterranean Diet” classification) continues, for all intents and purposes, to be part of the “Maroc inutile”, located in a mountainous region with little useful area for investment in agriculture on a scale other than family or self-subsistence. Here, the designation of the colonial period remains operative, no longer in the language used, but trough national agricultural policies and their logics.

  • 8 All names in this paper are pseudonyms in compliance with the “General Data Protection Regulation” (...)

15To illustrate this and other viewpoints present in this text, we will bring forth Mehdi and Zineb8, two inhabitants of Chefchaouen, and the way in which, from different perspectives, strategies and places, they both seek to support (and benefit from) local agricultural products and the food practices resulting therefrom, converging, however, in the way they perceive their value to the outside world.

  • 9 Throughout this text we will consider the idea of authenticity taking its imminently constructed na (...)

16Mehdi is the owner of one of the most famous local restaurants, and also an active supporter and promoter of the “ancestral” food practices of the region, as well as of the recovery of products and recipes that have meanwhile fallen into disuse or are considered remnants of a past of food scarcity and deprivation. The social recognition that comes from his activity, allows him to enjoy the aura of a local benefactor, while his restaurant is recognized as the most “authentic”9 of Chefchaouen, thus capitalizing on the preference of national and international tourists, drawn precisely by this glimpse of a Rif terroir.

  • 10 Term that generally designates a traditional market or periodic fair in North Africa and in Arab co (...)

17Zineb is a Chefchaouen inhabitant who sees the rehabilitation of the souk10 as an enormous benefit for the city's consumers, as well as a way for the emancipation of local producers (essentially women) who travel there twice a week to sell their agricultural surplus, which, coming mostly from subsistence farming production, are perceived as being ecological and sustainable, thus ensuring the features - so appreciated and valued by Zineb - of beldi.

18Here, Zineb's food activism translates into the way she views her weekly shopping at the souk, and the way she believes she is contributing to the economic emancipation of the women who sell their agricultural produce there. Both - Mehdi and Zineb - generate discourses and mobilize practices concerning the food "traditions" of the region, activating different values - authenticity or wholesomeness - but converging on an understanding of the fragility of local biodiversity and the need to preserve it.

Farming, commercializing and consuming: food and agricultural strategies in Morocco

19Before starting a discussion about eating habits and practices in Morocco it seems important to understand - albeit briefly - what are the most significant transformations in the domain of agricultural policies in Morocco in the last decades. Thus, this section will serve, in general terms, to carry out an overview of the Moroccan internal policies related to agricultural practices, drawing attention - nevertheless - to the tremendous heterogeneity of the Moroccan territory, as well as its geographical features, and more concretely, to the specificities of the Moroccan Rif territory, whose configuration ultimately determines the absence of agricultural policies adapted to this region.

  • 11 And that determined the colonial division between “Maroc utile” and “Maroc inutile”, a definition p (...)
  • 12 Morocco was under the French protectorate between 1912 and 1956.

20The transformation of agricultural practices in Morocco, and more specifically in the Rif region, is not a recent process. If in Morocco, a territory with heterogeneous landscapes11, modern agriculture only developed categorically on the flat parcels along the Atlantic coast, it would be accurate to say that the traditional agriculture that was practiced in the rest of the country has been gradually deteriorating (Holden 2009). The French colonial presence12 and its agricultural policies, demographic pressure and lack of government investment are pointed out as the main factors of this decline (Swearingen 1987). But, if we take into account the specific characteristics of the Moroccan Rif territory, we will easily understand that even the colonial policies – in the attempt, for example, to turn Morocco into the granary of France (Swearingen 1987) – had no relevant impact there, not even to transform the traditional subsistence agriculture that is still practiced in the region.

21The narrative that, negatively evaluating the traditional agriculture that was practiced in Morocco – small plots of land, subsistence practices, pastoralism (Davis 2006) – opens the door to neoliberal policies in the country and to the appropriation by the State and the private sector of collective lands, in a process of annihilation of the commons, so emblematic of the changes in the relationship with nature during the heyday of classical liberalism and the rise of the global economy (Davis 2006:100).

  • 13 On cereal production in Morocco see Graf (2018).
  • 14 In 1986, Morocco was the second country in the world in terms of orange exports. In 2019 it was in (...)

22In fact, the Rif territory, due to its geographical characteristics, was neither the object of the French colonial policies of mass production of cereals13, nor of the one that followed in the Moroccan national territory, the production of fruit trees (essentially citrus fruits) and vegetables for export14: “(...) from the ashes of Morocco's wheat policy, a new agricultural policy gradually emerged during the 1930's. Based on irrigation, it was oriented toward the export of citrus and early vegetables. This policy has essentially continued intact to the present.” (Swearingen 1987: 360)

23Nevertheless, the effects of globalization - although apparently less palpable than French colonialism - began to make themselves felt early in this territory, not so much because of its impacts on food practices and consumptions but, above all, because of the tourist flows that the democratization of travel has brought there: these tourist flows, like other less legal but equally exogenous flows, gradually transformed the Rif into the country's main planting kif production area, almost a local monoculture, highly profitable, and responsible, to a large extent, for the abandonment of other less profitable agricultural practices and crops (Mouna 2010).

Figure 1: Cannabis cultivation across the Rif

Figure 1: Cannabis cultivation across the Rif
  • 15 Morocco Cannabis Survey (2003) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 200315

  • 16 On the migration of populations from the Rif to Europe see, for example: Dahraoui (2014).

24The geographical enclave and the situation of abandonment to which the populations of the Rif were historically and economically subjected, meant that from the 1960s onwards they were faced with two different options: migration to European countries16, or commitment to clandestine activities such as the kif culture and its transformation (Mouna 2010). The second choice led, for many who were once engaged in agriculture, to come into contact with the world market of cannabis.

  • 17 Vegetation of bushy shrubs, in the Mediterranean regions.

25The Rif is, in fact, a mountainous territory which is difficult to access, in which agricultural activity is practiced only on the slopes and valleys. Consequently, and in order to expand the space for agricultural cultivation, Rif farmers cleared the forest and the maquis17, which ended up accelerating the erosive dynamics of the subsoil (Mouna 2010:13).

  • 18 Réseau des Villes Euromed, < > (consulted on June 18, 2021).
  • 19 Le Maroc en chiffres. Haut-Commissariat au Plan, Rabat, 2015.

26However, and despite the ostracism to which it was voted, the Rif is essentially a territory in which agriculture still represents an important sector of economic activity, with 183 hectares cultivated in the Chefchaouen area (EUROMED 2014)18, in a locality recognized for its strong agro-pastoral component, and in which the rural population represents around 87.5% of the total (2014 census)19. In fact, the terrain's rugged landscape considerably reduces the useful agricultural areas, so that the agriculture practiced is essentially traditional subsistence agriculture, employing around 85% of the region's active population.

27In this agricultural system characterized by the existence of small properties (90% of agricultural properties will have an area of less than 5 hectares) the practice of polycultures prevails, as well as the predominant culture of local varieties and the maintenance of marginal crops and traditional practices of conservation of the biodiversity, in a production system that seeks to integrate crops with forest species and pastures. Thus, we can find in the region a diversity of crops with at least six cereal varieties, eight legume varieties and fifteen fruit varieties (Ater and Hmimsa 2008). However, the olive tree represents the main crop in the region, occupying 77% of the arboreal surface.

  • 20 Phylloxera, a pest that vehemently attacked the production of grapes and their derivatives in the r (...)

28Both the challenging characteristics of the territory and the pressure to which it has been subject over the last decades - namely the pressure for the profitable and resilient production of cannabis, that has led in many cases to the abandonment of traditional cultures like vine20, figs, almonds and olives – have produced considerable changes in the food habits and food consumptions of local populations. Abandonment and lack of investment in agricultural property – among those who resisted to the predomination of the cannabis monoculture – contributed to the success of the large/medium-sized souks in the region of Chefchaouen.

  • 21 The “Advanced Status”, which follows the Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation Agreement and the European (...)
  • 22 “The European Union today approved the 2011 Annual Action Program for Morocco. This new support wil (...)

29In 2008, the European Union celebrates, with Morocco, the adoption of the Advanced Status21, and it was from the signing of this agreement that an appeal to eradicate cannabis crops was observed in the Chefchaouen region. In another document, signed in 2011 between the European Union and Morocco, there is a very specific mention of funding for “equality and rural development in the country”, which precisely refers to a considerable investment in the northern region22.

30But the logics to which these policies are subject are, like everything else, constantly changing. After the neoliberal order, a new heritage order has arrived, precisely attributing value to what is local, ancestral and traditional, which translates, in Chefchaouen and its surrounding territory, into an appreciation of subsistence agricultural practices, which are inserted in this particular geography and until recently condemned to oblivion.

31Throughout these processes of inversion of values, we also perceive how the policies and agreements that follow them are, not infrequently, strategic and situational. Considering that Morocco is an important ally (and supplier) of the European Union and knowing the country's ambitions to strengthen this relationship at other levels, it is interesting to note that after the agreement signed in 2008 between the EU and Morocco, which aims precisely at requalifying the most vulnerable territories to external pressures (as kif and cannabis), Morocco is the only non-European country that came to integrate the “Mediterranean Diet” application to UNESCO.

Souks and commodities: Chefchaouen and its markets

  • 23 Known as the period of “Aam El Boun”, the drastic rationing of food products between 1940 and 1947. (...)
  • 24 Traditionally held on Mondays and Fridays, from the 1950s onwards it is held on Mondays and Thursda (...)

32As we have seen, the affirmation of Morocco as a large, abundant and self-sufficient agricultural production territory is an idea that can hardly be applied to the mountainous region of the Rif. The poor production of cereals in the territory meant that they rarely reach local markets, as they never constituted a surplus of production that could be dispensed. Agricultural practices that date back to periods of scarcity and hunger – like the one between 1940 and 194723 – are based on commercial exchanges between local farmers, and it is from the 1950s onward that the Chefchaouen souk undergoes considerable changes24.

33In fact, in recent decades, and taking into account the rarefaction of local agricultural production, and the demise and subsequent end of the Chefchaouen Souk, local inhabitants had, until recently, two main locations for their food supply, both composed of non-producer wholesalers: a central market in Dmoumen, which is open all week long and offers fish, meat and vegetables, and a weekly market - Souk Al Amal - in which all types of products were sold, both local and from other parts of the country (Diagnostic Agro-Paysager de la Ceinture Verte de Chefchaouen 2014). Local production ceased, for some time, to be perceived as an advantage or as something “good”. “Good” was having access to what was produced elsewhere.

  • 25 On the impact of the emergence of large shopping centers in places where a traditional food trade p (...)

34Nevertheless, globalization, although tentacular, does not reach everywhere in the same manner: Chefchaouen remains, in the Moroccan national cartography and on the world map, an isolated place, an enclave in the Rif mountains, picturesque enough that justifies a tourist visit, but not, for example, the installation of a medium/large commercial area: Chefchaouen does not have, until the present day, any supermarket, like many other cities in Morocco25:

35“In Morocco, the rise of hyper/supermarkets is still limited to the rich or middle-class neighborhoods of Casablanca, and the other large cities, Rabat, Marrakesh, Fez, Agadir, and Tangiers, where consumers are more aware of international trends, possess higher disposable incomes, and have automobiles to access large warehouse-size stores. Middle- and upper-middle-income shoppers are drawn to these larger stores, especially if they provide imported and specialty items, previously only available at small specialty shops or acquired when traveling abroad.” (Codron et al. 2004 : 592).

36The consumption of food from “outside” was, taking into account all that has been described, always practiced in Chefchaouen. Products such as sugar and fish, or cereals and oranges that came from the south of the country, were part of local food practices depending, comprehensibly, on local inhabitants’ economic possibilities or even the scarcity and abundance of these products in the national context. The progressive extinction of the Chefchaouen souk - either because there was no surplus production to be sold to third parties, or because commercial exchanges were no longer interesting from the perspective of food self-sufficiency, or even because, invariably, everyone produced substantially the same things - led to the dynamization of other markets, not dependent on local agricultural production, which ended up finding receptiveness in the local context.

37Considering that it is an almost ineffective exercise to locate the origin of this souk in time, we assume that, in the good manner of nostalgias of the past, one can say “since always”, Chefchaouen's souk is described by Troin (1976) as not very relevant in the geographical context of the Rif, being medium-sized, with a considerable presence of farmers, held twice a week. On the commercial importance of the Chefchaouen souk in the regional context of the Rif, Troin (1976) is peremptory in stating its diminished relevance:

38In the heart of the peninsula, the high country Jbala constitutes a very repulsive backbone. A landlocked area, with limited production, served by very poor souks, it hardly participates in regional commercial life. (…) Products intended for sale are transported at the cost of long journeys to these peripheral souks and this reinforces the “receiving” role of Beni Aross, Ksar el Kebir or Chefchaouen. We will note how this mountainous void merge in the South-East to the Rhzaoua area (south of Beni Derkoul) thus isolating Chefchaouen from the country of Ouezzane”. (Troin 1976 : 366)

39However, and despite its limited influence in the regional context, the Chefchaouen souk fulfilled its role as a place of commercial exchanges and as a producer of sociability, effectively constituting itself as a place of transmission and communication.

40The importance of the souk as a central place of product circulation and creation of conviviality and networks in Moroccan society is addressed by Clifford Geertz (1979) from his study of the market economy in the Sefrou souk, describing the souks as central institutions in the Middle East and North Africa, and as: “(...) a distinctive system of social relations centering around the production and consumption of goods and services (in this particular kind of economy), and it deserves analysis as such.” (Geertz 1979:124).

41Despite its limited importance in the regional context, the Chefchaouen souk ended up establishing itself as a privileged place for exchanges in the city, even because, given its geographical situation, the possibilities for food supply out of town were not very obvious. Having been established as the place par excellence for commercial exchanges in the locality, the Chefchaouen souk – now promoted as Souk Beldi – is one of the places that best reflects the impacts and consequences of globalization in this territory.

42Globalization may have contributed to the ending of the Chefchaouen souk in its “ancestral” molds, but it was also globalization – via UNESCO – that brought the souk back to Chefchaouen. In 2012, and in an attempt to legitimize and embody the rhetoric of connecting local populations with the territory and its agricultural diversity, the municipality of Chefchaouen relaunches the local souk, creating incentives for the presence of producers to be effective, and in particular that of women as intermediaries of this direct liaison between consumers and agricultural production, creating however a new and more appealing label: that of Souk Beldi.

43The requalification – or reactivation – of Souk Beldi comes concomitantly and into line with two distinct phenomena, but which easily feed each other: 1) a growing and widespread valorization of organic, healthy and locally produced food products, perceived as inherently “good”; 2) the inclusion of Chefchaouen in the transnational application of the “Mediterranean Diet” which, after its validation by UNESCO, implies and requires mechanisms of local and national visibility.

  • 26 Utah Al Hammam Square is currently a meeting place for tourists who move through the town, containi (...)

44This reactivation was, however, covered by some changes compared to the “traditional” model of the souk: 1) it did not take place in the central square (Utah Al Hammam), but in its pre-1950 location, closer to the accesses to the medina and in small alleys26; 2) there was a feminization of the market, encouraging women to be the protagonists of sales and commercial transactions, contrary to what was previously observed (Merlo and Alami s.d.).

45Legitimizing the food practices and the way of life that gave them form and content, essentially through heritage validation acquired via UNESCO, the beldi indication, when applied to Chefchaouen's souk, intends to convey a very clear message: beyond the connection to the local territory – and here we mean the agricultural terroir itself - which is one of the readings that the word beldi may have, in its classic opposition to roumi (Rachik 1997), one of the most expressive contemporary uses of the word beldi refers precisely to an immediate valorization of what it is locally produced as something inherently good and healthy. Indeed, one of the most expressive contemporary uses of the word beldi is precisely the one that converts it synonymous with biological and, accordingly, biological as synonymous with healthy.

46The contemporary obsession with healthy eating is, most likely, a phenomenon that, being global, is not yet socially transversal, manifesting itself in different social and geographical contexts. The so common association of healthy food with traditional eating practices or with the rural world (in the exhausted idealizations of the countryside) can be quickly transformed as a tool for praising territories (and their inhabitants) as representatives of “good food practices”, perceiving in the promotion of rural food (which could be translated to beldi in Morocco) the assertion of their own rural identity as something positive, with value.

47The word bled from which the word beldi derives, is used here in the sense of terroir, highlighting the ability of a region to produce its own resources. Accordingly, “(…) the beldi label does not go without the roumi label; for a product to qualify as roumi, it must have a beldi counterpart, and vice-versa” (Simenel 2010). However, some products, although originating outside Morocco and having been introduced into the domestic sphere in the past, do not bear the roumi label; this is the case of salt, sugar and tea, and many other products highly valued within the local culture.

  • 27 According to Graf (2018) “Depending on where you came from and where and who you are in the present (...)

48The beldi/roumi couple puts therefore in opposition two products classified in the same family but which differ by their mode of production and distribution: beldi relates to the food production of the terroir which falls within the domestic sphere, whereas roumi applies to products grown intensively or industrially and which are integrated into a global trading network (Graf 2016, 2018; Simenel 2010)27.

49The valorization of an idea of rural idyll, inverts the values attributed to the countryside and the city, classifying the practices – especially the food practices – linked to the countryside, the territory and the proximity we maintain with it, placing emphasis on the idea of short circuits, into something inherently good. This notion of good is, in its most expressive use, something that suggests, in contemporary societies, the idea of healthy, good for health, and is, eventually, the engine of all approaches to an idea of rural idyll: the countryside, the terroir, and the food produced there will help us to have a healthy life which, in turn, transforms our bodies into healthy bodies.

A toolbox for heritage: Zineb and Mehdi in Chefchaouen

50In the next section I will present, through two ethnographic vignettes, the perspectives of two inhabitants of Chefchaouen - Zineb and Mehdi - on food practices and consumptions, from their inherently different places in the social geography of the territory.

51While, from the discourses mobilized by Zineb, we obtain a closer perspective of the performances structured around food consumption and, in her case, verbalizing a concern with healthy eating and the importance of a connection to a specific terroir - obtaining through the combination of both the label of beldi - Mehdi will lead us to a more commodified perspective of food practices, thinking of them as a merchandise that can be consumed by others, anchoring them to an idea of tradition and authenticity, insisting on their heritage value, which would guarantee them the beldi marker.

52As we will see, neither in one nor the other’s discourse is there any attempt to associate local food practices and consumptions with an idea of a "Mediterranean Diet", despite both being familiar with this heritage classification and its anchoring in the Chefchaouen territory. This section will give us a glimpse of how the transformation of food practices into heritage is subverted and appropriated by local actors, who, recognizing heritage as a value, transport this value and transfer it to the idea of beldi.

Zineb and the Souk Beldi

53The morning dawned on a cold Thursday after a night of heavy rain, and it was Souk Beldi's day. I had arranged to accompany Zineb to the market, as the next day – Friday – would be dedicated to preparing the couscous at her house. We agreed to meet between 10:30AM and 11AM at the entrance to Bab El Ain and, while I was waiting for Zineb, I watched the women who, dressed in the traditional Rif clothes: the straw hat (chechiya), the wool belt (kourziya) and a cloth skirt (medil) (Figure 2), were getting installed in places still to be occupied along the small alleys that depart from Bab El Ain.

54When Zineb arrived, it was already after 11AM, she was flushed and carrying a large cardboard bag in which she carried a dozen small green lemons. Afterwards, and for about twenty minutes, I accompanied her to do her shopping. I was surprised by the speed and aggressiveness with which she did it - I could not tell whether it was a performance originated by my presence, or by her need to assert her status of belonging to a local elite and, consequently, of distance regarding rural populations.

Figure 2: Souk Beldi, Chefchaouen

Figure 2: Souk Beldi, Chefchaouen

Source: Author's photo, July 2017

55For twenty minutes that's how it went: Zineb would approach the sellers and very quickly asking the price of this or that product, when not satisfied with the answer, she turned her back and continued on. When she finally found something that she liked - for the relation between price and quality, I imagine - she would buy large quantities of that product. She told me at one point that many of the women who sell at the Souk Beldi are middlemen and not producers. These intermediaries are called samsar (or samsara in the case of women) and we can understand who they are based on the prices they ask for the merchandise. A samsar will always ask for more money than a producer.

56Zineb, not being originally from Chefchaouen, and having been mobilized there as a high-grade staff in government functions, seems to perceive in the beldi category one of the great advantages of her life in Chefchaouen, a kind of counterpoint to the geographic isolation to which she is subjected, coming from a large Moroccan city, whose cosmopolitanism contrasts with the rural dimension of Chefchaouen. Here, direct contact with agricultural producers, and the shortening of circuits from producer to final consumer, are perceived as constituting a healthy and good way of life, something that Zineb would not have access to in her hometown.

  • 28 As is corroborated by the study conducted by Jazi (2014) which refers precisely to the association (...)

57Far from constituting an ambition of a rural idyll or a “return to the countryside”, the added value of the life she has here is placed, precisely, in the food practices and consumptions that daily life in Chefchaouen allows her, namely in relation to products to which she has access, and which she classifies as organic, using the category of beldi as an equivalent to organic, and organic equivalent to healthy28.

58Despite the apparent distance that she insists on keeping from the women who sell at Souk Beldi, Zineb incorporates the discourse of healthy living and healthy food consumption that comes from the possibility of sharing food staples with these women, that is: eating the same food that they eat, not exactly in the same way, but what is produced by them, in their small agricultural lands.

59Here, the great advantage that is perceived by Zineb in relation to the food consumption that originates from Souk Beldi, has precisely to do with its organic dimension and its intrinsic qualities as “natural” and “good” diets, without chemicals and other harmful effects of “mass produced” food. However, the emphasis is not placed on short circuits – perceived nowadays as examples of “good” food consumption practices – not so much on the possibility of empowering women from local communities, or even on a supposed idea of a food tradition combined with a discourse that mobilizes the authenticity of local food practices and knowledge, but rather, and fundamentally, in the possibility of accessing a healthy diet.

60One of the advantages of beldi food consumption, associated recurrently with organic agriculture, in Chefchaouen via Souk Beldi is, without a doubt, the price of the products. If, as mentioned by Jazi (2014), one of the main obstacles in the consumption of biological products for Moroccan consumers is their price (Jazi 2014 : 217), in Souk Beldi this obstacle appears nuanced, since all products that are found there are beldi - therefore, organic - lacking labels or tags that distinguish them from the others in the context of other commercial surfaces. For Zineb, this is also one of the great advantages of local food consumption: being able to buy organic products at low prices.

61As Graf (2016) mentions about how the absence of labels and certifications of origin are superfluous for women who, being from different geographical origins within the Moroccan context, mobilize a bodily knowledge to distinguish what is beldi from what is not beldi, concomitantly accentuating the volatile and situational dimension of this concept, the same happens with Zineb's performance at Souk Beldi: everything there is beldi and, as such, nothing needs certification, as everything originates from that territory.

62Most likely, contrary to her experience of food supply in the big city where she comes from, here the origin of foodstuffs is far from being contested or even questioned: the Rif terroir. As Trubek (2008) states: “place matters”.

Mehdi and the Restaurant “Baraka”

63A few days after being installed in Chefchaouen, and after taking a brief inventory of the restaurants existing in town, I could see that few deviated from the more conventional repertoire associated with Moroccan cuisine, reifying the idea of national dishes which, although contested (Hubert 2000) is, however, operative, especially when it comes to an offer especially aimed at the tourism sector.

64The idea of a strongly typified and transversal Moroccan gastronomy, in which there is little or no space for regional nuances and local recreations, is, in the sphere of the most widespread restaurant sector, the standard of the national offer, which, even when wishing this diversity, it is difficult to escape from.

65Therefore, it was without great surprise that, after several requests for “Chefchaouen” food, I was repeatedly referred to the same restaurants that appear in tourist guides and that invariably offer the same repertoire: couscous, tajine and grilled meats. One day, after visiting a “local products” store where I started a conversation with the seller about the specificities of food produced in Chefchaouen, the existence of the Restaurant “Baraka” came into conversation for the first time, as a true bastion of local cuisine, frequented by locals and a real synonymous of “authenticity”.

66That same day I went for the first time to have lunch at “Baraka”. The restaurant was full: lots of Japanese tourists, lots of Moroccans – mainly men, alone - the occasional table with couples of French or American tourists. I quickly realized who the owner was: Mehdi walked from table to table, talking to customers, paying special attention to the small groups of Japanese tourists who were accompanied by local guides. I introduced myself and told Mehdi that I would like to arrange a conversation with him about the restaurant and his perceptions of the existence of a specific Chefchaouen cuisine. We scheduled a conversation for that same afternoon, upstairs in the restaurant.

67I went to see Mehdi during the break between lunch and dinner, and throughout the conversation, which lasted a good couple of hours, we were repeatedly interrupted by restaurant employees or suppliers who came to give him food to taste or bring a pot of honey, jam, fruit preserves. Mehdi turned out to be an extraordinary public-relations, not only for his restaurant, but for an entire idea of assertiveness related to ​​local food practices in the Chefchaouen region. This is, in fact, his activism: to promote local cuisine that, in his opinion, is composed only of indigenous products and ancestral ways of making.

68For Mehdi, the legitimization of these ancestral practices linked to food and the management of food resources was made, precisely, through the classification of the “Mediterranean Diet”, which is, in his opinion, a label like any other, considering that what matters is the valuation and recognition of a food identity that, he claims, unequivocally exists in the region. This “food identity” involves, for example, the wise management of natural resources, namely in relation to the seasonality of the products and knowledge of their multiple uses, recycling them and using food as a whole, not rejecting leaves, stems or roots.

69In Mehdi’s words, this whole idea of seasonality and its importance has always been present among Chefchaouen inhabitants. He mentions, for example, the flower season (roses and orange blossoms) in relation to which he has memories of women distilling the flowers of these plants to make various procedures in the kitchen. He basically insists on the idea of pre-existing knowledge and know-how concerning food preparation, that were capitalized by the rhetoric of heritagization.

70In addition to validating a very specific knowledge linked to food as something “ancestral” and “distinctive”, Mehdi goes even further by referring to the existence of a specific taste or palate of local inhabitants – linked to food consumption – that would be the result of a unique confluence of diverse cultural heritages: Andalusian, Berber and Arab. This naturalization (see geneticization) of taste/palate as something intrinsic to local inhabitants is something transversal in Mehdi's discourse, and which ultimately ends up legitimizing the whole idea of a pre-existing food identity or food heritage, which would sustain – eventually – its translation into something classifiable or deserving heritage classification.

71In this regard, the restaurant he manages, and which he likes to refer to as the “only one that represents the culinary traditions and practices of the region”, has this activist dimension, of promoting local cuisine but, above all, of giving (re)birth to an idea of secretive food practices – in the sense of not being mainstream or touristic – that Mehdi has somehow rescued, giving voice (and employment) to its representatives and spreaders.

  • 29 Mehdi, meanwhile, has gathered a series of recipes that he presents as a repertoire of his restaura (...)

72For Mehdi, the value of being beldi is far distant from that experienced by Zineb. In his restaurant - to which the adjective beldi is always added29 - the idea of beldi involves placing value on the region's traditional food practices, what he does, militantly mobilizing this discourse together with a food repertoire, as a kind of agent for the preservation and dissemination of ancestral food practices in the “age of fast food”. Here, the beldi label, being clearly linked to an idea of terroir, is anchored in the heritage dimension of food, and in the possibility of transmitting and preserving the memories and food practices that it allows.

73Being beldi, in the eyes of Mehdi, is a kind of extension of an idea of tradition and authenticity, which finds in the language of heritage and in the new heritage regime an added legitimacy. It should be noted that, in the recently published book, in the Restaurant “Baraka” or in the discourse he mobilizes for his restaurant's customers, there cannot be found any reference to the “Mediterranean Diet”, to UNESCO, or even to the inclusion of Chefchaouen in this official and “authorized” heritage cartography.

74Here, the value is not placed in the intangible cultural heritage ensured by UNESCO, but in an idea of a geneticized heritage, previously existing, but which is not translatable through an idea of “Mediterranean Diet”, but rather, and above all, that finds echo and resonance in an idea of terroir.

Final remarks

75In Morocco, as in so many other places in the global world, the language of heritage has contaminated discourses and perceptions about pre-existing elements, whether tangible or intangible. However, and what this text intends to illustrate, is that despite this contamination - and the way in which it so often makes us rethink our awareness about what we eat, the places where we live in, the commodities we use - it also leaves room for further readings and understandings about what these values are, or, better said, about how we best think and produce discourses about them.

76The territory of the Moroccan Rif, in which Chefchaouen is located, serves here as an example of a historically neglected place, which has been the focus of different policies depending on the interests mobilized in distinctive historical periods, and had to be managed according to colonial, neoliberal or heritage regimes. A place marked by isolation and hunger - which undoubtedly cemented its identity - now sees its food practices and the knowledge associated with them being recognized and valued by the world. Mehdi and Zineb are just two examples of how the plasticity of these inscriptions reveals itself: each one gives them the meaning that best suits their understanding of the place of this territory – and themselves - in the global world.

77Having arrived here, there are three matters that need to be systematized: 1) the first has to do with the way in which the creation of heritage can be translated, recreated or subverted in the concrete plan of people's lives; 2) the second has to do with the anchoring of a place in the world (Chefchaouen) forgotten and marginalized by national policies and which, incorporating an idea of exogenous heritage - or the essentialist construction of a Mediterranean belonging as a pretext, even for food praxis, as Herzfeld (2006) would say - starts to occupy another place in the world via the heritage regime; and, finally, 3) how the use of the local lexicon, through the concept of beldi, can be mobilized in different ways, situationally and relationally.

78This text also seeks to contribute to the discussion that heritage construction processes can be subverted and locally appropriated, serving interests and purposes that are beyond the control of institutional holders of heritage rhetoric. In Chefchaouen we are witnessing an obliteration of the concept - whatever it may be - of the “Mediterranean Diet”, to give space and place to an appreciation of local food practices through the concept of beldi. In turn, the concept of beldi, whose multivocality can be gauged through, for example, in the works of Graf (2016, 2018), shows us how it translates, even in its ambivalence, a connection to the territory that is real and finds expression in food and what food represents to different people: “identity”, “tradition”, “authenticity”, and immersion in the territory.

79Ultimately, the choice here to give voice to Zineb and Mehdi and not to other interlocutors – possibly more engaged with an institutional dimension of heritage and the “Mediterranean Diet” – clearly serves two purposes: the first is to contribute to the studies on the effects of heritage classifications (namely those carried out by UNESCO) and understand how, as it happens in Chefchaouen, an appropriation of the heritage lexicon is operated, by common people, subverting the official heritage lexicon from its translation into operative language that “makes sense” locally. Clearly, the mediterraneanization (cf. Herzfeld 2006) of local food practices is something that is clearly far from the way the inhabitants of Chefchaouen think about their food, although – if analyzed from a nutrition perspective – it fits a scientific definition of “Mediterranean Diet” (Nestle 1995).

80The second purpose is to understand that, if the Mediterranean is indeed “a distant place” in terms of belonging and recognition of an identity, rurality and geographical isolation are very present elements among the inhabitants of Chefchaouen, who mobilize – in a polyphony of voices and discourses – the language that values and gives meaning to this rurality and this territorial belonging, of which food is one of the most tangible elements: the idea of beldi.

81Finally, this text also seeks to emphasize that food globalization has several speeds. Chefchaouen, despite being permeable to some global economies - such as the economy of kif, or the economy of heritage - remains an isolated place in the mountains of the Moroccan Rif, where tourists arrive but not supermarkets. Therefore, from subversion to appropriation, from UNESCO to the souk, from the restaurant to the domestic kitchen, food practices and consumptions are being thought, mobilized and lived according to the situation of this place on the periphery of the global world.

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1 The classification of the Mediterranean Diet as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity has had, to date, two distinct moments: the first in 2010, following a transnational application submitted by Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco; and the second in 2013, a request for a re-inscription, after the inclusion of three other countries in this candidacy: Portugal, Cyprus and Croatia. Within the scope of this application, each country had to indicate its representative city of the "Mediterranean Diet" on a national scale. Thus, Morocco designated Chefchaouen; Spain designated Soria; Portugal designated Tavira; Greece designated Koroni; Italy designated Cilento; Croatia designated Kvar and Brac; and Cyprus designated Agros.

2 In Morocco, kif is the local name used to designate cannabis. Cannabis was cultivated in Morocco from the 7th century on, when Arab immigrants arrived in the Rif region in the north of the country. Cannabis cultivation remained sporadic at the end of the 19th century, mainly for self-consumption, although part of the production was sold in other parts of the kingdom (El Omari and Toufiq 2008).

3 On migratory movements from rural to urban contexts in Morocco, see, for example: Crawford (2008).

4 Chiara Bortolotto (2017) writes about the classification of the “French Gastronomic Meal” (2010) by UNESCO, and the backstage processes that lead to this heritage classification.

5 Morocco has a very diversified tourist offer, comprising the imperial cities (Fez, Meknes, Rabat, Marrakesh), desert tourism, beach tourism and nature tourism.

6 The fieldwork was funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) through the postdoctoral fellowship SFRH/BPD/108311/2015.

7 Fieldwork was carried out in June and July 2017 then October and November 2018. However, due to constraints related to the pandemic crisis, it has been impossible to return to the ethnographic field. During the 2017 and 2018 stays, institutional and non-institutional contacts were made, interviews with tourists and the local population, as well as frequent visits to the souk and local restaurants. The fieldwork focused on the practices and food consumption of local populations, and on the perceptions of tourists in relation to their gastronomic expectations and the supply of local food products. With the local institutions, an attempt was made to identify and map policies related to food and the promotion of the "Mediterranean Diet".

8 All names in this paper are pseudonyms in compliance with the “General Data Protection Regulation” (GDPR) of the European Union (

9 Throughout this text we will consider the idea of authenticity taking its imminently constructed nature, following Handler (2001) when expressing that the authenticity of phenomena is never an objectively determinable matter of fact, being always socially constructed and, as such, subject to change. We will also take Bendix's (1997) awareness that authenticity can be transformed into a commodity.

10 Term that generally designates a traditional market or periodic fair in North Africa and in Arab countries but is also used to designate commercial areas of a city in these regions.

11 And that determined the colonial division between “Maroc utile” and “Maroc inutile”, a definition popularized by Hubert Lyautey, a French colonial administrator in Morocco between 1912 and 1925, who considered the Fez-Casablanca-Marrakech triangle to be “Maroc utile” and the rest of the territory where traditional agricultural production methods prevailed to be the “Maroc inutile”. On the distinction “Maroc utile” versus “Maroc inutile” see also Ait Hamza (2012).

12 Morocco was under the French protectorate between 1912 and 1956.

13 On cereal production in Morocco see Graf (2018).

14 In 1986, Morocco was the second country in the world in terms of orange exports. In 2019 it was in 11th place, in a list headed by Spain.

15 Morocco Cannabis Survey (2003) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

16 On the migration of populations from the Rif to Europe see, for example: Dahraoui (2014).

17 Vegetation of bushy shrubs, in the Mediterranean regions.

18 Réseau des Villes Euromed, < > (consulted on June 18, 2021).

19 Le Maroc en chiffres. Haut-Commissariat au Plan, Rabat, 2015.

20 Phylloxera, a pest that vehemently attacked the production of grapes and their derivatives in the region of Chefchaouen, is also one of the main factors responsible for the decrease in production, as well as for the extinction of some varieties. The phylloxera epidemic in the 1970s decimated a considerable part of the region's vineyards, which were gradually replaced by other less fragile crops.

21 The “Advanced Status”, which follows the Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation Agreement and the European Neighborhood Policy signed in 2000 between the European Union and Morocco, is an agreement that allows preferential customs duties in exports to Europe from Morocco.

22 “The European Union today approved the 2011 Annual Action Program for Morocco. This new support will notably benefit the populations living in the rural region of Al Hoceima (EUR 19 million) in Northern Morocco, characterized by its isolation, socio-economic backwardness in relation to the rest of the country and the presence of cannabis cultivation. The program will contribute to improving the living conditions and income of the population, through actions of decentralization and local development, job creation and social and environmental development.” And yet “(...) the program will support the participatory process of local planning, the carrying out of investments in small social infrastructure and the viability of social structures, the increase in rural families' incomes through investments and technical support in the areas of agriculture, artisanal fishing, crafts and rural tourism. In this context, the program will place special emphasis on the economic integration of young people and women. (17 August 2011) (accessed 7 June 2021). Despite this announced investment, planned for Al Hoceima (a city in northern Morocco, along the Mediterranean coast), the town was the stage for the Hirak Rif movement between October 2016 and June 2017, which led to the arrest of more than 200 people. Hirak, as a protest movement, focuses on demands for more employment opportunities, as well as the demand for social infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools, having been considered a late and geographically circumscribed Arab Spring in Moroccan territory.

23 Known as the period of “Aam El Boun”, the drastic rationing of food products between 1940 and 1947. “After the defeat of France in 1940 during the Second World War, France drew on the resources of its colonies, including Morocco, the Vichy government undertakes rationing, done on an ethnic basis favoring the French to the detriment of the Jews and then the Muslims”.

24 Traditionally held on Mondays and Fridays, from the 1950s onwards it is held on Mondays and Thursdays, also changing location: from the "Bab Souk" area it starts to be held - also from the 1950s - in the central square of the town: Utta Al Hammam square.

25 On the impact of the emergence of large shopping centers in places where a traditional food trade prevailed in Morocco, see, for example: Newcomb (2017).

26 Utah Al Hammam Square is currently a meeting place for tourists who move through the town, containing numerous terraces, cafes and restaurants.

27 According to Graf (2018) “Depending on where you came from and where and who you are in the present, the meaning of beldi thus ranges from ‘local or regional’ to ‘hand- and homemade’ (Graf 2016b) and contains within it a nostalgic longing for a rural Morocco that perhaps never really existed” (Graf 2018:237).

28 As is corroborated by the study conducted by Jazi (2014) which refers precisely to the association made by Moroccan consumers between biological and beldi.

29 Mehdi, meanwhile, has gathered a series of recipes that he presents as a repertoire of his restaurant, in an author's publication - exclusively with digital edition - that I recently received by email. In this publication, he refers to his restaurant as beldi: “Recipes from the Restaurant Beldi "Baraka"” (pp.2). To ensure anonymity, this source will not be referenced.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Cannabis cultivation across the Rif
Credits Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 200315
File image/jpeg, 146k
Title Figure 2: Souk Beldi, Chefchaouen
Credits Source: Author's photo, July 2017
File image/jpeg, 188k
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Electronic reference

Joana Lucas, Being beldiAnthropology of food [Online], 17 | 2023, Online since , connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Joana Lucas

Anthropologist, Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia (CRIA), Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa (NOVA FCSH),

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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