As Edward Said reminds us in his essay Reflections on Exile, when considering the reality of exile, we should “set aside Joyce and Nabokov”, and think instead of the bare lives of unaccountable masses spending their years struggling to access basic necessities, and in miserable loneliness. Those who Giorgio Agamben describes as victims of “biopolitics”, and to whom food constitutes merely a means of survival. The ability to wallow in sentimentality, as I will inevitably do here, is a privilege the overwhelming majority of those exiled from their homelands do not enjoy. This disclaimer seems especially pertinent given the current state of affairs of my homeland. As I write, from a safe distance, of ‘eseeda and ‘ousbaan, Libya remains in the midst of a seemingly endless civil war, with thousands dead, tens of thousands homeless, and hundreds of thousands internally displaced. The Libya which exists on these pages however is neither war torn or fragmented. What you will read here is my attempt to perpetuate what Said describes as an “imaginative geography and history”, to reconstitute part of my identity and heritage, to use the written word to help me fashion a homeland from a distance. As Mahmoud Darwish writes in his book In the Presence of Absence: “The homeland was born in exile”. Torn from the nourishment of extended family and traditions, we attempt to redeem the irredeemable absence. We forge a revised and idealised home in exile. Such home relies on, in part, the essential pleasures of food.
It is November 1966. In the preceding weeks there took place numerous ‘azoomaat, or feasts at my grandparents’ home in the al-Hadba al-Khadra district of Tripoli. Large groups of men, my grandfather among them, huddled on the floor in dar al ‘arabeeya, on one occasion eating ftaat, a thin, unleavened bread, with sh’ayreeya and glaya, a thick vermicelli soup with small cutlets of lamb, liver and kidney. On another occasion they eat ‘haraymee, a spiced, garlic and lemon fish stew, and tbahij, a vegetarian side dish of concentrically arranged, thin slices of aubergine, courgette and potato.
But on this particular day, a special ‘azooma is awaited. Final preparations are being made for the upcoming International Tripoli Fair which will take place between February 28th and March 20th 1967. Government ministers, members of the fair’s organising committee, and representatives of exhibiting companies are gathered at the home of my grandfather, the fair’s director general. My grandmother is in the kitchen, mostly cooking, but also directing kitchen staff and waiters hired specially for the occasion. The dining table is set with her handmade, hemstitched, embroidered cotton napkins, and the family’s fanciest dinnerware. The main dish is ruz mkhalit, rice spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, mixed with sultanas, slivered almonds, diced lamb liver, kidney, and topped with lh’am mh’amer, or roasted lamb. Accompanying this is bamya, an aromatic tomato and garlic stew, with okra and lamb cutlets, spiced with chilli and turmeric. Side dishes consist of embatten, fried wedges of potatoes with a herb and mince meat filling, bureek el-warqa, hand rolled pastry stuffed with mince meat, and cheese and parsley, and ‘ousbaan, sheep intestine stuffed with thinly diced lamb, liver, onion, parsley, mint and tomato, and spiced with cinnamon. This is washed down with my grandmother’s homemade lemonade, freshly squeezed blood orange, and qamar al-deen, a sweet, thick, Levantine drink made with sun dried apricot paste. For dessert, my grandmother serves emb’halbeey, rice pudding, zmaala, honey drenched, nut filled pastry swirls, and her famous crostata, an Italian sweet pie she fills with her homemade jam. These sweet dishes are served with thick, sweet Libyan coffee flavoured with cardamom and orange blossom, and green tea with mint. Only after the feast is consumed, can the business of fair preparations begin.
It is May 1996. We are approaching the end of the month of Ramadan. My mother is stretching unleavened dough into paper thin sheets over the dining table in our small kitchen, trying to pull it as thinly as possible without it tearing. She then stuffs thin dough strips with spiced mince meat and folds them into perfect triangles, which are then oven roasted. The result is a light, flakey, and flavoursome pastry, bureek el-warqa, the perfect accompaniment to the heavier main dishes. She alternates the filling, sometimes using cheese and spinach, and occasionally tuna. On the stove is a large pan of sharba, a tomato based parsley and mint soup, with pieces of lamb spiced with paprika, cinnamon, and turmeric; a daily staple during Ramadan in most Libyan households. The eldest of us is ten, the youngest just a year old. We are all too young to fast the fairly long spring days, but we look forward to the evening iftaar meal around the dinner table with our parents. For thirty days during the month of Ramadan my mother alternates between several main dishes, ruz mkhalit, couscousy emse’y, Libyan couscous topped with a onion sauce, and ristat burma with gdeed, homemade pasta in a tomato and onion sauce with dried meat. These will be accompanied by various side dishes, bureek el-warqa, bureek makhtoofa, pastry fried with eggs, sfi’ha, the Arab equivalent of the Turkish pide or lahmacua, embatten, and dolma, vine leaves or vegetables with a spiced mince meat and rice filling.
In the days following, my mother will begin Eid preparations. She will recreate more recipes passed down from my grandmother. It is often during these times she will take, from a dust covered folder in our kitchen, her bundle of recipes, recorded in her own writing on small, food stained bits of paper, as she stood watching my grandmother prepare sweet dishes for Eid and other celebrations in the late 1970s in Tripoli. Trays of perfectly shaped diamond baklawa, ‘jaybaat, honey soaked, nut filled pastry triangles, ma’mool, buttery date filled cookies, ma’grood, date filled semolina cookies, and ‘raynaat, crescent shaped, almond filled cookies, were among the sweet dishes that covered an entire dining table, and signalled that Eid al-Fitr had arrived.
The pungent aromas’ of my grandmother’s kitchen of cinnamon and cardamom, fresh parsley and mint, the hypnotising trays of baklawa and ‘jaybaat, transplanted many decades and thousands of miles from a sprawling and busy home in Tripoli, to a small, quiet kitchen in a grey, cast northern English town, held the promise of a long and romantic journey, of reconciliation, of returning home once again.
Food in exile serves more than to simply satisfy our bodies’ nutritious demands. It is, as Rüdiger Kunow suggests, “consumed as emotional sustenance”. For a family that is displaced, the stability of a day punctuated by prayers and meals is a grounding and steadying force. But food also provides an antidote to the disorientating loss of the exilic condition, evoking memories of a culture and loved ones left behind, and momentarily transporting you to the ever elusive homeland. Besides sustaining the bittersweet longing for home, and arousing a sense of belonging, Wenying Xu suggests that food is a “bloodline” which keeps alive the exile’s ethnic identity. Identifying with a culture, and actively participating in its traditions while exiled from your homeland does not occur instantaneously or by accident. As Elliot Singer explains: “enculturation is a process of becoming”, and perpetuating our culinary heritage in the diaspora is one way of preserving an integral aspect of our traditions and culture.
Behind culinary heritage is a “deep structure of meaning” encoded with cultural messages, according to Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, who suggest culinary traditions serve also as linguistic systems, similar to spoken language. Perhaps this is why the loss of culinary heritage is as painful as the loss of one’s mother tongue. Yelena Moskovich suggests that despite paths to relearning a first language, the loss of which is aptly named “language attrition”, through courses or reimersion, the grieving is not for the language itself. It is, she writes: “for the person who has lost it, for their sadness, embarrassment, nostalgia, and fright”. I propose that the inability to negotiate traditional culinary expectations is as acutely anguishing. This is perhaps more true for an unmarried woman reconciling with her homeland or heritage after a long absence. And yet, we find ourselves compelled by a tenderness for a life that is lost, by the fear of never being able to reclaim it, and by an obligation to remember and perpetuate the culinary traditions of our foremothers.
Migration in search of safety, or for better economic and educational prospects for your family is by no means a voluntary choice. Wenying Xu describes it as “colonialism’s devastation of the spirit, the land, the cultures, and the histories” of our countries that has “offered more despair than hope, more suffering than well being, and more abuse than power”. But living away from one’s homeland, from family, friends, community, language, culture, and traditions, even if it results from a conscious decision is a painful and devastating experience. Our identity is defined by our role and place in society. Losing that results not only in an insurmountable grief, but as Zdzisław Najder notes, causes us to be less certain of ourselves and our position and value in society. It is our memories of home that provide an unparalleled force that centres and frames our lives. Eva Hoffman suggests that “we are nothing more – or less – than an embodied memory of our heritage”, and these memories are not only “passed onto us, but are us”.
I have realised, as I look upon my grandmother’s hand stitched cotton napkins, her lace doilies, and her silver candelabrum which now adorn my bookshelves, the memories I have of her and of my family’s culinary traditions are not my own. To craft my own story, I have had to rely heavily on my mother’s memories. The only two memories that I have of Libya as a young girl relate to food but neither is particularly noteworthy. I do wonder if these precarious memories would have endured the passage of time had food not been a component in them. I remember sitting around a dining table in the middle of a large, light flooded kitchen. My aunt was stood by a stove, over which she was boiling fresh milk. My mother was sat besides me encouraging me to drink the creamy, lumpy beverage. I was dissuaded by my elder brother who had convinced me the lumps were pieces of cow meat. My second memory is less vivid. I am visiting a lady in a small pantry-style room requesting ‘wast’, or the white, fluffy insides of baguettes. I remember her warning me, perhaps to deter me from visiting her again and destroying her bread, that too much ‘wast’ will make me fat. As I said, neither particularly noteworthy.
This essay began as a personal homage to my grandmother. It was a way of writing her into existence in the English language, and was born of the guilt I feel for the distance between us. A distance that has resulted not only from her passing years before my birth, but also from my failure to preserve her culinary legacy. Her memory, and our culinary heritage has been preserved for over three decades in exile by my mother. My mother, who like countless Libyan women uprooted from their homes and families and communities, crossed oceans and continents to support their husbands in grey and barren lands. This essay is a homage to these women too, who from their cold and lonely kitchens lovingly created nourishing meals for their families, tutored their children in Arabic and algebra, consoled their homesick compatriots, completed postgraduate degrees, started businesses, but perhaps most incredibly of all, through their pain, and from the rhythms of distance and deprivation, forged a home for their families in exile.