Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Tisha b'Av, Tunisian style
Famous scene from Titus's arch in Rome, showing Romans carrying off booty from the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem
Today's fast of Av marks the mourning of the destruction of the Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. It is the climax of three weeks when no meat is eaten, or anything new undertaken. Dr Victor Hayoun recalls this season in Tunisia, known as 'Agein': garlic warded off non-existent scorpions, and delicious vegetarian dishes followed a surfeit of Merguez sausage.
We commonly used to call this period in Tunisian Jewish-Arab dialect, "agein" or "Ayamet El-TKAL" [literally "heavy days"], as our parents referred to them.
These days were fraught with fear and prohibitions. We knew it was in memory of a serious event, or even a loss, because we did not eat meat. These are austere days, full of restraint: no celebrations, excessive joy, haircuts, new clothes or anything else new, no undertaking new projects or signing new contracts, no new initatives. In fact, we stopped growing and treaded water. It was our way to mark mourning the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.
That was not all - there were dietary restrictions. We did not eat meat, chicken, except for Shabbat. We had the right to eat fish in all its forms: fresh, canned: tuna / sardine / anchovy, dried fish (Bou-Zmeimar) and bottarga (for wealthy people who could afford it). There was fried fish cooked in spicy sauce (H'raiimé) or cooked in vegetable couscous to fish with fish balls, fried and baked. We had a great selection. A range of possibilities for fish to "fill" the absence of meat and chicken.
But the Tunisian Jew is still a "kifeur". He does everything to take pleasure in all circumstances and more importantly, at the table. There are no holds barred. If he found a way to eat rice over Pesach it is really nothing for him to eat meat, or a derivative, during the days preceding the fast days preceding the 9 Av. So he becomes a major consumer of Merguez during the first 8 days of the month of Av (not Shabbat of course). In our childhood, our mother, God rest her soul, prepared the Merguez before the month of Av, she dried it on a clothes line and then cooked us Chakchouka with merguez, mloukhia with merguez, beans "Bsal-or-Loubia" with merguez and many other dishes with merguez.
From these fish dishes and dried meats, we proceed to add "Falsou" dishes.
( "Falso" in Italian means "false"). These are actually "fake" foods because the "real" dishes were with meat, chicken or fish. In fact, those dishes that did not contain meat chicken or fish, were equally delicious - pasta, cooked vegetables, couscous or (more rarely) rice.
"Agein" always falls in summer, in July or August. During this period, when we lived in Tunisia, we were always at La Goulette (coastal resort outside Tunis - ed). It was hot and we often slept on the floor to enjoy the freshness of the ground. Our bed was very often made of or covered with the underside of a sheepskin sheet which provided some freshness but had the distinction of never quite covering us. We always had our feet on the ever so cool ground.
On the evening of 8 Av, the day before the 9th of Av, the fast had already started: we lay on the ground. That's when our mother had the soles of our feet brushed with garlic. She told us that it was to ward off scorpions: they came in the evening of "agein" to sting. It is true that we never saw any scorpions, but it was a way to ward off evil, as many misfortunes and disasters happened during this austere period. For example we did not go to the beach, so as not to have fun but also out of fear of drowning.
There were two specific dishes on 9 Av, before and after fasting. On the eve, we ate "Falsou" couscous, without meat or chicken or fish with vegetable broth. The predominant orange color came from squash and carrots. That night, Mum put a poached egg in the broth and chickpeas. Others have the custom to eat a hardboiled egg per person. This was also a sign of mourning, because the mourners begin their period of mourning eating a hardboiled egg and black olives.
Read article in full (Google translate)
Read original article in French
Something light for Tisha B'Av