Fork the System is Al Jazeera’s home for all things food. From Syria to Uganda, Bangladesh to Colombia, we look at how food makes us, a forkful at a time, generation after generation.
Our childhood summers in my dad’s Benghazi still bring a twinge of nostalgia when I think of them, waves of warmth and fondness wash over me at unexpected times as a smell or a taste unlocks a buried memory. The smell of fresh mint, the warmth of the sun on a particularly sunny day, the sound of the sea rushing at the shore. Or the sight of my father tucking into a dish I recreated out of fond memories and longing, smiling as he regales us with stories of his own childhood.
As soon as school broke up for the summer, me, my parents and my younger brother Haitham would head out on the two-hour drive to Heathrow Airport. Inevitably running late and having forgotten something, we would rush down the motorway at breakneck speed, my dad’s driving getting increasingly erratic as the clock ticked closer to departure time, my English mum berating him with her eyes. “We’re not in Libya yet!” she’d tease, transporting us all to the lawless roads of Benghazi and the incessant beeping that sounded in every corner of the city, as constant and pervasive as birdsong.
As we got closer to Heathrow and watched the giant planes fly overhead, my belly would bubble with a combination of travel anxiety and the exhilarating prospect of the next six weeks. I could feel the welcoming gush of heat that would hit us as we stepped off the plane. I could taste the cooking of my most beloved auntie, Amayma Aziza, my father’s eldest sister.
The sweet, cinnamon-scented caramelised onions that would adorn the top of the macarona imbawkha I knew she would make for our arrival – steamed angel-hair pasta glistening under onions, chickpeas and stewed meat – were already on my tongue. I could already see my uncles and aunties and more cousins than I could count gathered waiting – our annual arrival breathing life into a house that had grown quiet since my ijdayda’s (grandmother) passing.
So as a pallid summer settled over England, and some of my friends looked forward to holidays in Spain and Portugal and France, we would cheerfully board a plane so rickety everyone would clap with relief when it landed, to spend our summers in my dad’s homeland, Libya.
We’d spend these plane journeys playing the games my mum had packed and chomping on English snacks that we’d say goodbye to for the summer like Hula Hoops and Cheese Strings, while my mum read magazines and my dad pretended to sleep to hide the panic rising in him.
While I excitedly planned what I’d tell my favourite cousin Daisy (nobody is quite sure how that nickname came about) or the games I’d play with Noosa and Amira, my dad would fret about the experience of getting through the airport. Although he never voiced this, the beads of sweat on his forehead belied his inner worries and the bond we’ve always shared, which allowed me to feel his emotions like my own, told my child’s mind something was wrong.
I couldn’t understand it, but I knew it had something to do with the man immortalised in gigantic pictures that adorned every wall in the airport, in shops and even homes. The man with leathery skin and beady black eyes who seemed to stare into your soul. The man me and my brother were under strict orders to never mention or ask about and to absolutely-under-no-circumstances mock, even though his ghoulish features and garish outfits tickled our childhood curiosities.
Having made a home in Britain and married an English woman, my dad faced scrutiny at the airport, like many others in his position. Though we lived an uneventful life in a small town, barely meeting other Libyans save one or two family friends, there was an assumption that all Libyans in Western lands were conspiring against Gadaffi. At the airport, he was asked deliberately disarming and patronising questions by staff wielding guns and obnoxious smirks; boys a quarter of his age who could sentence a man to rot in prison if there was so much as a whiff of suspicion or a conversation turned sour. My dad endured these interactions with uncharacteristic compliance and only relaxed once we were safely in his brother Ami Ali’s car, the air conditioning drying the anxious beads of sweat on his forehead.
Then we’d arrive at Amayma Aziza’s house to a flurry of embraces and kisses and comments about how much we’d grown – Libyan aunties never hold back from telling you you’ve grown fat, something my English upbringing never really prepared me for and my chubby 12-year-old self somewhat dreaded. There would be tears and gentle jokes about how we must have forgotten them because we didn’t call enough, or how my Arabic, which was usually on hiatus for the winter months, sounded even more ajnabi, foreign, than last year.
Then daily life would commence and we would simply slot in for the next month and a half.
Libya, especially Benghazi, wasn’t a tourist destination, so part of our summers was spent trying to construct a holiday in a place that doesn’t have what Western minds think constitutes a holiday. I realise now that my dad was stuck between balancing my Libyan family’s strong values of hospitality, which meant we absolutely must eat at a relative’s house every day, with his wife and children’s ideas of a holiday being spent eating in restaurants, seeing sights and sunbathing. So we would do both – a relative’s house for lunch and a nighttime trip to the zoo. A day at the beach with all our cousins followed by dinner at Pizza House.
Food runs like a thread through my most beloved memories of those childhood summers. If food is a metaphor for a society, then Libyan hospitality is exemplified in the overflowing trays, multiple hands eating from communal plates, pushing rice and pasta and meat away from themselves and towards each other.
The real fun would begin when my parents returned to England after two weeks and left us in the care of our Libyan family. At first, being in a different country to our parents was scary but, as an adult, I am grateful for the memories and the person this made me. In England, we weren’t even allowed to play in the street without my parents watching from the window, and I could forget sleeping over at my friends’ houses. But here we were suddenly, lawlessly drifting from one loving auntie to another for a month, every night a sleepover with tens of cousins-turned-friends. That was the stuff of children’s dreams.
Although my cousins ranged from fully-fledged adults to newborn babies, there were about 12 of us who were a similar age and we were inseparable. We would all stay at Amayma Aziza’s house for weeks on end, some of the cousins seeing their own parents only in passing, as Amayma Aziza willingly took on the responsibility of caring for a ragtag bunch of kids who were no strangers to scaling the walls of her house like spiders or leaving her bathroom a soaking mess.
We would pass the days playing in the courtyard that surrounded her house, laughing and chattering – mine and my brother’s broken Arabic patched together with charades and mimes and some English my cousins had garnered through American films on MBC. After lunch, we would crouch around the tiny television my elder cousin had in his room to watch Mexican or Turkish dramas dubbed in Arabic or take turns playing pirated games like Pepsi Man on his Playstation One.
Bedtime was at least 5am and usually arrived after late-night special missions for food as we tiptoed into Amayma Aziza’s kitchen, trying not to wake her as we attempted to fry eggs or make macarona, our small puzzled minds trying to remember what we had seen our aunties and mothers do. We quizzed each other: Do you add oil before or after the egg? What spices go in macarona? How long do you cook it for?
Then we’d eat together from one big dish outside in the still of the night as though mimicking adults, and wash everything up, trying to cover our tracks. Looking back, Amayma Aziza must have noticed the eggs were running low or the pasta had been used up, that there were pans she hadn’t used drying out in the sun, but she never mentioned it and we thought the secret remained ours. But, in the mornings, I remember watching her mop up the drops of oil or spilled spices we had missed in our excitement with a knowing, tender smile.
Whole days were spent at the beach, playing in a heat that thickened the air like syrup and turned our skin golden, splashing in crystalline water and burying each other in hot sand. Older cousins-turned-chaperones trying to make sure our wild youthful spirits didn’t get us into hideous accidents, worrying how they’d explain to our parents – their aunts and uncles – that they had lost us at sea. Though we came back in one piece, these trips weren’t without drama – the most memorable being the time my younger cousin sliced his knee on a tuna can someone had dumped in the sea.
Food weaves through the snapshots of us running out of the sea, dripping, to devour tuna and tomato sandwichaat (sandwiches) assembled by parents and oldest cousins in conveyor-belt fashion, encrusted with sand by the time they reached our eager hands. Sticky orange fizzy drinks turned warm in the sun were slurped greedily down our parched throats. And later, as the sun began to set, macarona would bubble on a portable stove, tended over by my aunties against an incandescent horizon in the distance. Amayma Aziza, in charge, stirred and dropped some of the thick, spiced tomatoey tabikha sauce onto the back of her hand to taste for salt, for spice. Dabbing a bit on Amayma Mabrooka’s hand to taste. One exchanged look and, wordlessly, they agree: It needs more salt. And when it is ready, we all eat it from the same massive dish: children and adults, cousins and aunties together, our toes sinking into the sand as we are prompted to “koolu, koolu”, Eat up, eat up.
We passed evenings perched on rickety plastic chairs, sipping tiny glasses of sweet mint tea like mini old people against the backdrop of chirping crickets and gossiping neighbours. All the cousins sleeping together on fraash futons spread on the floor in a big room, laughing and chatting until daylight would break through the window slats and the adhan calling the faithful to dawn prayers would echo outside – or until Amayma Aziza’s warm reprimand would come from the other room, telling us to go to sleep.
Food also made 10 of us sit in one car with the doors flung open onto the still-black Corniche as we bit into shawarma, hot, fragrant fat dripping down our arms. Paper-thin bread embraced garlicky shawarma or bright green taamiyah, Libyan felafel made with herby fava bean paste, so delicious the whole thing would be consumed in three bites before a replacement, delightfully hot and greasy, would be passed back through multiple hands from the front of the car. We would lick our fingers as we watched the tall trees, trunks painted half white, sway in the soft salty breeze and chat about the next wedding or the neighbour’s plan to renovate their kitchen or how so-and-so is going to Tunisia for medical treatment.
In other memories, we sit among hundreds of women made up till they are unrecognisable, at the wedding of someone I don’t know. Around me, hair is swishing, hips swaying and eyelashes batting in all the right directions to impress potential mothers-in-law and I pretend not to watch them as I eat my way through sticky rice bejewelled with plump sultanas and cashews, picking out the pieces of rubbery liver with precision, putting them on one of my elder cousin’s plates. “Ya Engliziya” – you Brit – they say, nudging me – You’ll never marry a Libyan man if you won’t cook him liver – lovingly mocking my taste buds that to this day will never quite adapt to the taste of offal.
Fish on a Friday, bought from Souq al-Hoot (the fish market) by Ami Ali who arrives at Amayma Aziza’s after Jumaah prayer, dressed in his grand badla Arabiya – embroidered waistcoat and small red hat. The fish is barbecued outside- whichever cousins are there taking on the mantle, crouching over the low barbecue in their flip-flops, eyes squinting in the smoke. It’s then eaten off the bone, the charred skin split open and the flesh plucked out expertly, devoured alongside Friday’s tradition of cousscoussoo with spicy msayer – a quick pickled relish – drizzled on top.
For a couple of years in a row, Ramadan punctuated our summers, inverting our days and nights. Days spent dozing through the sweltering hours in rooms without air conditioning in the way only children with no responsibilities can. And then, in the night, we’d come alive.
As the sun traced its path to setting and maghrib time approached, and as the men and boys slept, the women would hustle and bustle in the kitchen like a finely-tuned orchestra. It was customary for everyone to gather at one auntie’s house to break the fast together – and the simple though expansive rooms of Amayma Aziza’s home, as well as her warm and hospitable nature, made hers a favourite. As the sun sank slowly lower in the sky, the frying and chopping and stuffing and mixing and stirring and bubbling went on.
A crackly old radio in the corner was sometimes on, playing verses of the Quran and live-streamed sermons from sheikhs around the city. Other times banter, joking and laughter would ensue – and the odd good-natured disagreement sparked by the tempers of famously fiery Libyan women and a day of fasting in the heat. If the rice had been overcooked, the herbs not chopped enough or the meat underseasoned, Amayma Aziza would rescue it with her hands that must have possessed a little magic.
And as the aunties took charge of the important things, me and my cousins would do the easy things. “Taali”, come, one of my aunties would say. Come and blanch these almonds. Come and hollow out these peppers, come and roll these braak (stuffed grape leaves). Looking back now, I know my presence in the kitchen was treated with a little more enthusiasm than the other girls as my aunties watched, relieved that I was, despite having an English mother, capable of chopping a vegetable and would not be condemned to living off sandwiches, as all Europeans did in their minds.
Now, I wish I paid more attention to those times in the kitchen, soaking up the enchanting intimate world of a Libyan woman’s kitchen. I wish I had watched how much coriander was added to the tajeen and how much turmeric to the tabikha. How long they cook the meat before adding the tomatoes, and the exact filling of the crisp buraik pastries, bursting with cheese or meat. But I was a child and me and my cousins were focused on what we’d eat and watch and play with later, what clothes we would wear on Eid or whose wedding we would go to next.
Then as the adhan for maghrib rang out, we’d all gather around the table in the kitchen and glasses of milk flavoured with almond syrup would be guzzled in one go and dates melted into treacle on hungry tongues. In those moments, mine and my brother’s foreignness was pronounced as my brother broke his fast on a strawberry milkshake and a chunk of chocolate, while I ate dates but turned down the haleeb bil-lawz.
Then the feasting would end as quickly as it began and the night would stretch out before us. Prayers at home for the women and at the mosque for the men followed by sleep for the older generation and a world of bustling streets emblazoned with lights and lanterns for us, ice cream shops with their doors flung open invitingly and burgers and pizza devoured at the side of the road. Shops, cafes and restaurants open till daybreak – a sharp contrast to the 5pm hibernation we were used to back home.
There was only one Eid that coincided with our summer visits, and it was spent in a sleepy post-Ramadan daze, visiting relatives’ homes and eating sweet things dripping in syrup and delightfully crispy fried goods. Aseeda for breakfast, straight after the boys’ return from Eid prayer. The doughy mound surrounded by a moat of thick, sweet syrup, demolished by eager hands as the takbir still sounded softly outside – Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar la illaha illa Allah, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar wa lillaahi al-hamd – and the dizzying display of sweets. Neat diamonds of almond-studded basbousa and date-stuffed magroudh and shop-bought baklawa, with near-luminous green pistachios on top, swimming in syrupy goodness.
Mounds of ghraiba that melt in the mouth as soon as they touch your tongue, made the day before in steaming hot kitchens. Experienced hands mixed the ghee, flour and sugar and shaped the tiny balls, leaving the decoration – an almond on top – for small hands in training. A job that Amayma Aziza would have assigned to me the day before.
Sweets would be served to Eid guests with rounds of qahwa Arabiya, the earthy pungent smell of the coffee intoxicating to my small nose, tempting my immature taste buds. And as the night went on, more sweets would emerge, this time served with sugary mint tea poured from way up high so it whipped into a thick minty-sweet froth in the tiny glass cup.
For six weeks every year, I felt like I belonged – intoxicated by the languid pace of life and embraced by the heady heat. But I belonged in the way a child belongs anywhere, because games don’t require words and days splashing in the sea don’t need language. While I was there, it felt like everything, but this was only one part of my life. A short stint of my year. A time so brief that in the midst of a grey British winter those summers felt like a dream.
As a child, I found the relationship between the two halves of myself fairly easy to reconcile. They existed within me separate from one another – distanced by thousands of miles of land and sea. Looking back, I think I felt English when I was here and Libyan when I was there.
I vividly remember a classmate in primary school saying “Your dad has rabies because he’s from Africa,” because he was the only brown face at the playground gates. I was outraged on behalf of my beloved father, but I curiously didn’t see it as an attack on my own identity or race. Now, as an adult – a visibly-Muslim woman racialised everywhere I go – this strikes me as strange and intriguing at once.
A state like Britain makes your foreignness known to you. And eventually, as I got older those two sides of me had to meet, had to grapple with one another, fight for space in one body. Being half-and-half is sometimes described as having the best of both worlds but for me, it was like being marooned between two cultures, two versions of myself. Neither fully welcomed me, nor did I fully belong in either. Both undermined my claim to the other.
Just as I was entering my teenage years and struggling to understand who I was and what my identity meant, the Arab Spring began. Waves of revolution spread across the region and I watched anxiously on the television as I saw dictators whose atrocities I had heard about from my father topple one after the other. Even as a child, I knew Gaddafi hanged protesters in sports stadiums and broadcast it on live television during Ramadan. I knew he was the man my cousins, hauntingly, were taught to call “Baba Muammar” in school, relaying this to me with a too-emphatic certainty, one eye on the open window nearby.
The Arab Spring gave me a route into Libyanness like never before. I spent hours glued to my Twitter feed, watching developments unfold as revolutionary forces fought to depose Gaddafi. I pinned Libya’s new flag to my hijab and spoke to my teachers about the events with pride, as though I was there. But before long, instability took over the power vacuum, erupting into civil war. And our summers in Libya came to an end.
I was bereft. Cut off from the family I adored, the place I loved – in my formative years, right when I needed it most. I was envious of the everyday occurrences – the weddings and graduations and even the mundanities of daily life. As the years passed by without visiting, I felt that side of my identity wither and begin to die. The odd “like” on a Facebook post is no replacement for hours spent chatting into the night, laughing until your belly cramps. Crackly phone calls in my dwindling Arabic are not enough to retain bonds that once felt unbreakable. As summer after summer passed, it felt sacrilegious to be spending those six weeks here, in the midst of the drizzle, instead of there, embraced in a sunny haze.
I so longed to be immersed again in the clattering of pans and the incessant beeping and the effervescent sound of gossip, laughter, and love. As the years trickled by, the cousins I knew as children graduated from university and got married. The aunties I knew as youthful grew old and loved ones who were once brimming with vitality began to pass away. The painful realisation that I may never go back warped into grief for the years lost – the memories pregnant with hope that should have been, the new versions of the people I love who I’ve never got to meet.
I’m not sure how it happened. I didn’t wake up one day and decide. Maybe it came about from a passing pang of nostalgia or those moments when a phantom taste erupts on your tongue as you crave something buried deep in your memory. Or perhaps it was one of those days where the weight of homesickness weighed so visibly on my father that it was like I could see his heart being tugged from his body, fluttering across the Mediterranean whilst his body remained in our grey Midlands town. However it happened, I began cooking Libyan food as a way to reconnect with that dormant part of myself and reclaim it as an identity that I had every right to embrace. Even if I was only half-Libyan. Even if I hadn’t visited in many years.
At home, there were a few Libyan foods that we did eat regularly. My English mother was no stranger to a quick weekday macarona or filfil mahshi (stuffed peppers) on the weekend as a treat, my brother’s favourite. And when we were little, whenever we’d have couscous, my dad would lift us up and shake us, loosening all the tiny specks that we had dropped over ourselves as my mum hoovered up the rainfall underneath. But I craved the things that I hadn’t had in years – the dishes not adapted to English taste buds.
As I stood in my kitchen, pouring and stirring, frying and stuffing, tasting and remembering, I was transported to the kitchens of my amaymas. I could feel the soft rap on the back of my hand as I was shown the correct way to chop herbs to get them the right size, or the subtle movement of eyebrows to show how much salt was needed. I could feel a plump arm guiding me to come and stuff the peppers or a hot spoon in my mouth, offering me a taste.
As I tried to recreate long-faded flavours and waning scents from years ago, it was like my black-and-white English kitchen erupted into colour before my eyes. Amayma Noriya on the floor peeling almonds, someone at the sink washing intestines to stuff for osbaan. Amayma Aisha next to her, cutting vegetables with the knife to her thumb – no need for a chopping board. Amayma Aziza at the stove, face leaning into the steam rising from pans big enough to feed fifty – secretly checking the flavourings added by Amayma Mabrooka as her back was turned. Amayma Antisar reaching up, grabbing a spice kept in an old glass jar housed on a wonky shelf that her elder sisters can no longer reach with ease.
The more I cooked, the more I felt secure in my identity. For the first time, I felt confident in my heritage. Cooking Libyan food became a way for me to explore that side of me on my own terms. I could search things online and, though I felt a little pang myself at having to search recipes that I felt I should know by heart, nobody needed to know. I could pass myself off as authentic. I could experiment, make mistakes and nobody was to know. A little too much cumin, oh I forgot the pinch of cinnamon, not enough spice. It’s not easy recreating the recipes of amaymas whose only unit of measurement is shwaya (a little).
Cooking became a safe space for me to navigate my Libyanness. Nobody could tell me that my Arabic was spoken with the wrong accent or I didn’t look Libyan enough. Pots and pans can’t accuse me of being too English, too Westernised. The food spoke for itself, and it transported me to the place I longed to be.
I got to see my father’s eyes light up as he ate food that reminded him of my ijdayda’s. I got to share my dishes with my non-Libyan friends and family, offering up my culture and childhood memories in food form. My Somali friends or my Pakistani in-laws or my English grandparents could slurp on a spoonful of sherba (soup) or take a bite of braak and be transported to the backyard of my amayma’s house, eating on a mat on the floor as the sun fades in the distance, the scent of frying onions and bukhoor (incense) mingling in the air around us.
One of the first things I made for my dad was fassoulia – white kidney beans in a thick tomato sauce and stewed lamb. Half googled-half garnered through taste and memory, I managed to recreate a dish that somewhat resembled the one we both loved but that my mum and brother, with their more western palates, weren’t fans of. And as we ate it under a grey British sky, my dad transported me through stories to the thin winding streets of the Selmani district where he grew up. Where houses were packed in close like overgrown teeth fighting for space and washing lines zig-zagged between them like floss, doubling up as canopies masking the scorching midday sun. Where children ran squealing through the lines of open front doors as though each house belonged to them, knowing they’d be fed by anyone’s mother in whichever house they happened to find themselves at lunchtime. And the street food seller who my dad and his mischievous friends nicknamed Ahmayda Fassoulia in their youth, who wandered down these tightly-woven streets, calling out for people to buy his fassoulia, stuffed into small fresh baguettes.
Even now, when Ramadan comes, I become particularly nostalgic for the years I fasted in Libya. It awakens something in me – out come the kiskaas steamers and plates of couscoussoo are formed, bowls of sherba and trays of mahshi appear. We break our fast on dates and crispy cheese-stuffed buraik, punctuate our meal with sweet mint tea and crumbling ghraiba.
This year, I felt compelled to make braak after coming across vine leaves in a Turkish supermarket. As my husband and I mix spiced mince and rice with our hands, stuff it into the open leaves and intricately roll it into tiny cylindrical parcels ready to steam, I tell him my memories of doing this with my beloved Amayma Aziza, a story he welcomes despite having heard my memories of Libya countless times.
Amayma Aziza’s house is surrounded by grapevines that trail along trellises, providing the dual benefit of masking the sun and providing an abundance of sweet, plump grapes that are enjoyed by the entire street. With a vigour she will sadly come to no longer possess, she climbs onto a precarious-looking plastic chair and plucks the leaves, dropping them into a shallow plastic bucket ready to be washed, blanched and stuffed. Armed with her catch, in the kitchen, she mixes handfuls of chopped parsley and coriander with diced onion and tomato. In a flurry, pinches and spoonfuls of spices are added – cumin, coriander, turmeric… a pause, a tiny pinch of cinnamon. Tomato puree is spooned out from a huge can and oil glugs into the bowl.
Rolling up her sleeves and tying her scarf behind her head, she kneads the ingredients into the meat. With a click of her fingers and eyes darting to the bucket behind me, she gestures for me to pick up the rice and pour some into the bowl. On tiptoes, I do so, and it crunches under her fingertips as she mixes. With her chin, she nuzzles my head and the lines around her eyes crinkle into a smile. Side by side, a homey silence settles between us as we sit on the floor bending over a huge silver tray and stuff and roll the braak, stacking them into the kiskaas for steaming. My mind is too rapt with anticipation of the feast we will eat to realise what a special memory I am living at the moment.
As my husband and I make the braak ready for iftar, our baby son babbles in the background. He is too young yet for food but soon he will be leaving behind my milk and traversing the world of delectables. His own Libyan heritage is even less than mine, watered down to only a quarter. I don’t yet know what he will see his own cultural identity as but I hope that he feels less stranded by it than I.
I don’t know when he may get to visit the place that beheld the magic of my childhood. But I know that he will know of Libya, and he will know it through food. I will place before him batata imbutna and mahshi, couscoussoo and tajeen, baklawa and ghraiba. And as he devours it he’ll taste the vibrancy of a Benghazi street and the hospitality of the country’s people. He’ll feel the way the hot air greets you as you step off the plane and the way balmy evenings trickle into still nights. Food captures memories, it fossilises emotions like air bubbles in amber. Through my Libyan food, I hope he gets a hint of my childhood summers there. And through it, he’ll know a little of himself and where he comes from too.