What’s for dinner in Libya?
Here’s what dinner is like in Libya.
You and three or four other people sit on the floor around a large metal basin about two feet in diameter. It’s full of rice, couscous, or pasta flavored with spices or sauce, often tomato-based. Mixed in with the rice might be chick peas, cauliflower, slices of bell pepper, tomato, onion, etc. On top of the rice are large chunks of meat on the bone – usually lamb (at least in the homes that can afford it, I imagine). A bowl of salad (lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, all chopped) sits on the side, in a dressing of lemon juice and salt. There might also be green chilies or long green onions to nibble on while eating. Hareesa (red chili paste) is a common condiment.
Each person gets a spoon. And then you tuck in. If there are four people, it works nicely, because each person eats from one quadrant of the bowl. If there are four pieces of meat, each person gets one. You eat all the meat, fat, and tendon off the bone. If the back end of the spoon is thin enough, it comes in handy for getting the marrow out of the bone.
After the meal, you have sweet tea (often green tea) or Arabian coffee, served in small glasses (the size of shot glasses), maybe with some sweets or cookies. You also might have laban – a fermented dairy drink found all over the Arab world, and in some form or another across much of Eurasia, basically thin yogurt – as a digestif. If you’re in a farmhouse, as I have sometimes been, the laban is fresh. And you sit around on cushions, chat, and watch the latest news from Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya on the TV that is always on in the main living/dining room.
“Is it only since the revolution began that everyone has been watching satellite news nonstop at home?” I once asked. “No,” I was told, “Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya is always on, revolution or no revolution.”
Who cooks and does the dishes? My understanding is that it’s almost always those women who live in the house. In the families I have visited, women and men eat separately – when there are guests or extended-family members present, anyway. And since each home may have 15-30 people living it, comprising three or even four nuclear families, there are very often extended-family members present. Being alone at home is not common in Libya.
This may be different among less “traditional” families, especially in Tripoli. (I’m not a fan of the word “traditional” – in this case, muhafizeen ‘ala al-taqalid wa-l-‘adat is a little better.) But when I’ve been present, the adult men and teenage boys have sat and eaten in the main living room, and the women and small children have eaten “inside” (juwwe), in that part of the home that is private and not accessible to guests. I have wanted to speak with women at the homes I’ve visited, but I haven’t found occasion to do so conveniently without imposing on the families hosting me.
Last night, though, I had dinner with some rebel fighters in New Brega, who invited us to stay in the homes they are sleeping in while they fight. We’d just shown up out of the blue, but they insisted on sharing their dinner with us. There were definitely no women around. In driving around this zone, which is full of rebel fighters and their supporters and not much else, I hadn’t seen a woman for hundreds of miles.
This little oil town is normally inhabited by petroleum engineers and oil technicians who work in the fields and refineries nearby. Compared to Ajdabiyah, with its rutted, unpaved streets, it’s neatly kept, with well-paved streets, painted curbs, and even landscaping. But the town is now deserted, except for those rebels given use of some of the houses by sympathetic owners who have evacuated with their families. Some of the homes bear bullet holes, even on the inside, where Qaddafi’s forces shot them up.
While watching Al Arabiya and talking about the meeting of foreign ministers that is to take place in London seeking a diplomatic end to the conflict, we ate lamb with peppers and penne (or, as all pasta is called here, makaroon – macaroni). (I went to sleep before a speech that Barack Obama was to give on Libya, but all the fighters stayed up to watch it.) “This is the consummate Libyan meal,” said one of the fighters. (The rebel fighters I have seen, by the way, are all men, ranging in age from their teens (including one 13-year-old) to 60. But I understand that a few of the Revolutionary Committee members fighting with Qaddafi’s forces in the cities are women.)
“Who cooked?” I asked.
It was pretty good.