From Fasoulia Sandwiches to Fashionable Lattes
For those of you who are familiar with Benghazi’s delicious cuisine, you can move on to the post.
But for those who are less fortunate, a quick explanation: fasoulia also called tabeekhat fasouila is a lima bean stew usually cooked with lamb or beef.
The more hardcore Benghazinos cook it with kaware3 tendons, or with karsha sheep stomach lining (I promise it it more appetizing than it sounds). More popularly, fasoulia is also eaten in sandwiches, and served as a late breakfast/early lunch meal, especially for students.
Interestingly enough – and since everything in Libya is political – even the unassuming fasoulia has been at the center of controversy. After the civil war in Tripoli began, many West Libyans joked that their morning croissant would be replaced by fasoulia sandwiches (I mean, it’s not that weird).
East Libyans, indignant at the jibe against their beloved breakfast food, pushed back.
While intended as a joke, the remark also had a more subtle meaning, implying that East Libyans were less cultured since they ate such traditional things, rather than more Western-style food like croissants (in my parent’s generation, an affluent and well-groomed person was called a ‘pancake’ ). However, the politics and colonization of Libyan food and class division is the subject of another conversation.
When my family moved back to Libya in 2003, the international community had just lifted a decade-long period of sanctions off of the country. The sanctions – which included travel and finance restrictions – had completely paralyzed the country and impoverished its residents.
Libya’s dependence on oil and imports at the expense of its agricultural and industrial sector had finally come back to haunt it; people had money but nothing to spend it on.
One of my professors described life under sanctions as “living in black and white”. The only thing people could buy were basic food and clothing items from the ‘jam3eeyat’, essentially state-run stores that sold subsidized food and other items – usually in bulk, because they’d only open a few times a month.
My mom often recounted the frustration of living this way; “You purchased whatever they brought in, no matter what it was, because you would never know when they’d sell that item again.
If they brought in shoes, we’d buy three pairs in different sizes, in case you grew out of your shoes before the next batch came in. Of course they didn’t always have your shoe size, which created another set of problems.”
These stores only sold staples of Libyan cuisine such as tomato paste, pasta, oil and sugar; things like fruit were a luxury that was rare to find.
Because the quality of the products were so bad, Libyans who could afford to would leave the country just to buy necessities like furniture or clothing, always by car or sea since international travel was banned. Women learned how to sew in order to clothe their families.
There were a handful of stores that imported more ‘luxury’ items primarily aimed at expats.
A friend of mine told me that visiting one of those stores was a special occasion (in Benghazi this was in the Da3waa Islamiya building), because they could buy something indulgent like Kinder Chocolate Eggs.
It was almost impossible to open a business in those kinds of conditions. So when Libya was re-connected to the rest of the world in 2003, local economic activity had to start up again from scratch.
I was a teenager back then, and I had no idea about any of this. All I knew was that I hated living in Libya, because there was nothing to do. No malls to hang out at, no sports clubs to join, and most notably, no restaurants to eat out at.
All there really was were shawarma stands and the popular local eateries.
You had the small coffee shops in the downtown that were implicitly only for men, but these were cramped and dark holes-in-the-wall filled with cigarette smoke and cantankerous elderly men who spent their days drinking espressos and playing cards.