Similarities & Differences between the Levant and North African Regions
By: Joyce Behrens/Arab America Contributing Writer
There are different regions that make up the Arab world. The Levant region is east of the Mediterranean Sea and includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. The North African region is south of the Mediterranean Sea and is comprised of ten countries. Despite the scatteredness of the Arab world, these regions are similar. Whether it involves cultural customs, or how they welcome guests into their home. These two regions have common ground. However, their differences range from Arabic dialect to delicious cuisine. Check out the unique similarities and contrasts between the two regions.
Arab people are known to be socially oriented. Regardless if it’s the Levant or the North African region, hospitality is an important aspect of Arab culture. Your reputation reflects on how you welcome your guests—friends, family, and even strangers—into your home, and how you act as a host. The way you present yourself to others, as well as the atmosphere in your home, shows your character. Generosity is a crucial term to come out of this comparison. Both regions, when they have people come into their homes, the host makes sure their guests are enjoying their time. Whether it’s offering shay (tea), or something to eat, the host wants to make sure guests leave with a positive outlook on their time and experience with you.
Both regions express the same customs when interacting with people. It doesn’t matter if it is a regular outing or an important holiday. Behavioral aspects and gestures have the same guidelines throughout the Arab world. For example, when you meet with family for a holiday, especially for Eid al-Fitr, it’s important to bring gifts for your loved ones. Gifts can range from flowers to dates to new clothing. The purpose is to show kindness to others as well as celebrate that everyone is together. Another example of a cultural custom is eye contact, especially when speaking with others. Otherwise, it’s a sign of disrespect.
Food is a representation of culture. On the other hand, when it comes to desserts, it’s a different story. Each region has its own desserts. The main contrast is the attention to detail and ingredient use. In the Levant region, their desserts are packed with flavor and technique. For example, knafeh is a signature dessert that originated in Syria. A layer of crisped, semolina dough on top, with akkawi cheese on the bottom layer. Rosewater syrup is drizzled on top as the finishing touches of the dessert. In addition, the syrup provides more sweetness to the creation. Another dessert that originated from the Levant region is Ma’amoul. These are date filled, shortbread cookies. Other fillings include walnuts and pistachios. Now, these cookies are similar to a North African pastry, but definitely not the same.
In terms of North African desserts, they are not as elaborate in terms of baking, but still delicious. The thought process of how to create traditional desserts differs between regions of the Arab world. Meskouta, which is an orange and yogurt cake, originated in Morocco. Sometimes, saffron is incorporated, along with a little powdered sugar top. In the Maghreb area, oranges play a significant role in the North African food scene, even as a popular ingredient in desserts. Unlike knafeh, meskouta is meant to be simple like most North African desserts. Another dessert contrast to make is makroud and ma’amoul. Makrouds are cookies filled with dates, originally from Algeria. However, makroud are fried cookies, whereas ma’amoul are baked cookies.
The Arab World has several different conversational dialects. Each region has its own tone and influences that recreated the Arabic language. In other words, past history and neighboring territories had a long-lasting effect on the Arabic dialect from each region. To put this into context, from the Levant perspective, this region is multilingual. For instance, the main languages of the Levant region are Arabic, French, and English. From 1923 to 1946, France occupied part of the Levant region. The dialect is a mixture of cultures built into their Arabic language.
When we look at Arabic from the North African region, the tone has different sounds from each country. Although the concept of cultures impacting their language is there, it’s not the same influences. Four languages have influenced Egyptian Arabic; they are Turkish, Italian, French, and Greek. As we move towards the Maghreb region, their dialect has a strong emphasis on their Berber heritage, with aspects of French and Spanish.
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