My mother and I in the garden of our Tripoli home, circa 1995.
Libya is the land of insatiable hunger.
Our dishes differ in many ways, but their foundation is more or less similar: roots, history and love. You can taste the North African sunshine and clean groundwater on the vegetables. The multitude of spices is strange to foreign tongues, but equally as savoured. Our meat, whether tender or dry, sponges up the aromatic sauces it accompanies. All this, and more.
How could you ever know satisfaction?
I was a hungry child. My white brick, one floor Tripoli home knew two smells: the nearby saltwater of the Mediterranean, and whatever was cooking in our kitchen. When the scent of food filled the air, I would always run to the kitchen to tug at my Moroccan maid Zubaida’s dress and ask her what she was making. As I grew up, I tugged less and instead peeked my head through the kitchen doorway. I needn’t ask anymore, Zubaida simply replied. Over the years spent in our household, she excelled at Libyan cuisine, having developed skills that would put the finest Libyan cooks to shame.
But there was one dish that never needed guessing.
Occasionally, I would walk down our home’s corridor and catch a glimpse of a blue tablecloth laid out on the living room floor. A foreigner would be puzzled at the sight of a piece of fabric placed where a coffee table should be. Libyans, however, almost instinctively know what’s for lunch.
As the hours progress, a tray of drinks and a large round metal platter appear on the cloth. The edges of the platter are decorated with small bowls of harissa, green peppers and halved lemons. The middle is left blank for the oncoming pièce de résistance. My mother and Zubaida would call everyone around the house to announce the food’s ready. After washing our hands, my sisters and I would rush into the living room and excitedly sit on the tablecloth with our legs crossed, scattered around the metal platter. Mama was always there before everyone. My father emerges from his office and finds his place among the mayhem. My elderly great-aunt Khadija, who lived with us, limps towards the platter with Zubaida’s help. Her legs ached for decades, but she preferred to live with the pain rather than undergo surgery. Despite her crippling agony, she has never declined to eat bazeen as per Libyan tradition. After everyone finds their place around the platter, Zubaida walks into the living room with our food.
Bazeen is no more a dish than it is an edible landscape. In a large deep plate placed in the middle of the platter, a mountain of barley dough with a light depression on top is surrounded by halved boiled potatoes, large tender chunks of beef and hard boiled eggs. It is accompanied by a deep saucepan filled with the classic Libyan sauce, a rich blend of Mediterranean spices mixed in tomato paste. As my mother pours it onto the dough’s basin with a ladle, the mountain becomes a volcano as the seasoned lava gushes out of the cavity and paints its surroundings below with various shades of red and orange. The sauce cloaks the barley mountain and its surrounding flora and fauna like dawn would color any scenery. One shouldn’t be so arrogant as to claim they can taste sunrise. But Libyans consumed their own humble, homemade surrogate. I was accustomed to eating what artists painted.
We feast. Libyan tradition states one is to grab some dough with their right hand, knead the piece with their fingers so as to sponge as much sauce as possible and soften it for easier chewing before eating it. You can also grab the hard-boiled eggs, halved potatoes or chunks of meat and either break them into smaller pieces with your hand, or eat them whole. Squeezing lemon juice adds more zest, and spice enthusiasts can either pour harissa on their side of the plate or take a bite out of a hot pepper with a mouth full of dough so as to chew both simultaneously.
Bazeen etiquette 101: everyone has to keep to their own side. My mother would scold my sisters and I for having bad manners whenever our hands roamed into someone else’s territory. My great-aunt Khadija was the least selfish eater: she would always give us knead dough, meat, potato or egg from her side of the plate. But she would also stick almost her entire hand in her mouth to lick the sauce off. Libyans don’t correct their elders’ manners, so we just stuck to declining her offers. Young children, on the other hand, can’t really eat bazeen. They can’t knead, keep to their section or finish the food on their side of the plate. In a nutshell, they took up too much space for nothing. When she was a child, my second younger sister Miriam ate from a separate plate prepared by Zubaida, complete with a small hill of dough accompanied by a proportionate serving of sauce and sides. She’d sit to the side of the cloth, outside of the circle of grown ups hunched over the communal plate. When Miriam grew older and was able to eat with us, my youngest sister Rund joined the family. Rund was a little fancier: she would sit on the living room couches and ate on a small table, her head high above the floor dwellers. Being the older two, my first younger sister Yasmine and myself never had to deal with exclusion from the bazeen plate. There was always room for us.
Little by little, the bazeen congregation got smaller. The Libyan revolution saw my sisters and I moving to Canada on our own to continue school in 2012. My mother eventually joined us, as her activism landed her in hot water with the Gaddafi regime. She eventually returned to Libya after the dictatorship was overthrown, but ended up in self-exile yet again in 2015 due to militias targeting her after murdering many of her activist friends. Zubaida flew back to Morocco a few months after we left due to Libya’s descent into war. My great-aunt Khadija, a pillar of Libyan tradition, a survivor of the Italian colonization and the Second World War, an iron-jawed woman of incomparable strength, died in 2014. My father is currently the only one to live in our white beachside Hay Alandalus home. And you can’t eat bazeen by yourself.
My sisters and I are all grown up now. I reside in New York City, while Yasmine is pursuing her studies in Montreal. My mother lives in Ottawa with Miriam and Rund. She’s got her hands full with both. Who has the time to make bazeen anymore? Countries that aren’t Libya don’t have the proper ingredients. Even then, it would feel strange to eat it outside of our Tripolitanian home. Bazeen can’t be consumed without a fully Libyan atmosphere.
But is that atmosphere even present in Libya anymore?
Yet Libya remains the land of insatiable hunger.
Our aggressors differ in many ways, but their foundation is more or less similar: violence, corruption and hatred. You can taste the opportunism and greed in the politicians. The ongoing bloodshed is strange to stable populations, but equally as disturbing. Militias, whether political or Islamist, pile up bodies and instigate chaos wherever they go.
How could they ever know satisfaction?
And just like that, the aromatic dawn of bazeen has fallen to dusk.
This edited version was posted in agreement with the author from her blog page on Medium. Read more articles by Danya Hajjaji and visit her website danyahajjaji.com