Thursday, February 28, 2013

What I miss most about Libyan jail is the food

 Chraime: fish poached in a spicy tomato sauce - a typical Libyan-Jewish dish (Photo: Daniella Cheslow)

Fantasising about  food and collecting his prison guards' recipes helped Israeli-Tunisian artist and chef Rafram Chaddad keep his sanity during his five months in a Libyan jail.  He has now published a book in Hebrew about his 2010 ordeal, Rafram's guide to Libyan jail. Extraordinary article in the Tablet:

In 2010, Chaddad got a request from Pedazur Benattia, who runs the Or Shalom center for Libyan heritage in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Benattia asked Chaddad to fly to Libya on his Tunisian passport—Israel and Libya have no diplomatic relations, and travel between the two is forbidden—and take pictures of the Jewish synagogues and cemeteries.

Libya was once home to as many as 37,000 Jews whose community dated to ancient Roman times; they fled from anti-Semitic laws and anti-Jewish violence starting in the 1940s, and today there are no Jews left in Libya. Chaddad packed a bag full of cameras and traveled to Tunisia, leaving his Israeli passport with relatives. From there he flew into Tripoli with a list of Jewish destinations around the country.

In his first two days in the Libyan capital, Chaddad walked the streets and munched on the local offerings. Not all of it was memorable: For instance, he saw a vendor selling mafroum—known in Israel as a potato sliced in two, stuffed with meat, and then fried. “I get excited and ask for one mafroum, and he takes out a roll, splits it, spreads a red harissa, opens a sort of heated metal container and takes out ground meat cooked in a reddish sauce. He sticks it in a roll and serves it to me. Not tasty,” Chaddad writes in his book. “Disappointed, I ask for a roll with chicken liver. He throws a few livers and chopped onion onto the grill, fries them, and puts it all in a bun. This is better already. I take a little container of water out of the fridge, like those they hand out on a plane, pay two dinars and I’m not hungry anymore.”

He passed banners of Muammar Qaddafi cascading down the sides of buildings in downtown Tripoli and mused that he could take better pictures of him. He asked young Libyans where to find women and liquor and was invariably disappointed on both counts. And in each city—Tripoli, Benghazi, Yefren—Chaddad started his search for Jewish sites by seeking old Libyan men who remembered their neighborhoods 60 years prior, when Jews were a healthy part of every major Libyan city. In Tripoli, one shopkeeper guided him down a twisting alley to a courtyard where Chaddad saw, amid ruins, a stone pair of Ten Commandments and an arching dome. The gates to the synagogue were closed, and Chaddad walked to the back of the building, climbed up a crumbling staircase, and clambered through a hole in the wall to reach the second floor. “I photograph every corner in the synagogue and in its cracked dome,” he writes. “The walls are cold and smell of an evocative mildew. A smell of cleanliness untouched by man for a long time. I want to touch them and to feel the last people who leaned on them.”

In his book, which was published last month in Israel, Chaddad writes as if he was a curious food-tourist, looking for the hole-in-the wall eateries: When he finally stumbled upon a fish restaurant dishing delicious chraime, he rushed into the kitchen to thank the chef. In Tripoli, the hotel concierge asked him for English lessons, and Chaddad agreed in exchange for
a trip to the man’s mother’s house for a taste of shakshuka—eggs poached over tomato sauce.
But soon after Chaddad completed his mission and visited every destination Benattia gave him, Libyan police rapped on his hotel room door, confiscated his Tunisian passport, and took him to be interrogated. “I was tied up and beaten with wood, iron and electricity, and I was asked lots questions,” he told me. “They asked me if I was a spy for Israel … I said yes, but I didn’t know anything, I didn’t even know who is in charge of army in Israel.”

Once Chaddad revealed he was an Israeli, the beatings got worse. After a month, though, the torture stopped and he was moved to solitary confinement, where he waited for his release. He had given his sister’s email address to another prisoner who’d been released, and he hoped that his family had gotten the message and was working on getting him out.

Chaddad kept his sanity by walking around his cell for exercise, playing chess with a board and pieces he made, taking fantasy walks through cities he loved, and thinking about women. To break his isolation, Chaddad tore the cardboard tops of his foil food trays into Hebrew letters, and he arranged the letters into words on the prison floor, imagining his parents could receive his messages. For conversation, he approached the guards through what he figured was the most innocent topic. “I asked them about shakshuka, chraime, all sorts of food that is connected to Jewish tradition,” he said. “And I asked them about the food in their mothers’ houses, their favorite food, how to cook it, and what ingredients. If you talk about their food, it opens them.”

Read article in full

170 Days in Gaddafi's Dungeon: Harif event with Rafram Chaddad on 13 March in London. Details here

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