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A Taste of Libya—in Prison

Amateur chef Rafram Chaddad discovered the wonders of Libyan cuisine in an unlikely place: behind bars

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Chraime: fish poached in a spicy red tomato sauce. (Main image by Rafram Chaddad; recipe image by Daniella Cheslow)
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Qaddafi’s Captive

When Israeli artist Rafram Chaddad visited Libya to document its once-thriving Jewish community, he was accused of espionage and put in jail. Now free, he tells of his five months in captivity.

Israeli artist and amateur chef Rafram Chaddad sneaked into Libya in 2010 to document the abandoned synagogues and cemeteries of the country’s vanished Jewish community. Ten days into his trip, he was captured and accused of spying for Israel; he withstood five grueling months in Libyan prison before being released. This January, Chaddad published a book about his misadventure, Rafram’s Guide to Libyan Jail. His irreverent writing documents the horrors of the Libyan prison system and the torture he endured in captivity.

But, more surprisingly, it also documents something else: the wonders of Libyan cuisine. While Chaddad remained imprisoned, he paid careful attention to some of the local dishes he was served. And now in his book, alongside his tale of physical abuse and political intrigue, he offers readers a taste of Libya, complete with detailed commentary on what he ate and pictures of the dishes he recreated at home.

***

Born on the island of Djerba just off Tunisia, Chaddad—now 36 and living in Jaffa—still has a strong connection to his Arabic roots. When we met in his apartment, he wore a floor-length cotton robe he bought in Egypt, and he shuffled through the kitchen in brown leather slippers he had made as replicas of his grandfather’s Tunisian shoes. He served thick Arabic coffee from East Jerusalem and licorice-flavored cookies from Jaffa.

Although he moved to Israel at age 2, Chaddad kept his Tunisian passport. In his Jerusalem childhood home, he spoke Arabic. Chaddad studied math and photography in Jerusalem and worked as an artist in Italy, Germany, Spain, and England after graduating. While living in Europe in 2004, he made his first trip back to Tunisia, where he sampled his aunt’s signature chraime, fish simmered in a red sauce made of tomato paste and paprika. He gobbled savory street food like fricassee, a sandwich of egg, tuna, harissa, and potatoes stuffed into a fried bun. He made his homeland a frequent destination after that, even running culinary tours to Tunisia after he moved back to Israel in 2008; although he never had culinary training, he has long been an avid amateur cook.

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.”

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marjorie says:

What a story. Brava.

In a word, WOW!

haleyyael says:

Great one. Hope his book will be translated into English. And looking for a good chraime recipe.

Powerful. It also makes me remember the look of bewilderment on the face of my late (much older, for pre-WWII while I was born 10 years after) half-brother when he realized I get terrible hives from basic foods.
“You’d never survive the war,” he said.
That’s exactly what my parents were thinking when they would let me eat everything that triggered my allergies.
Refusing to eat what was offered instead of asking the guards about their mothers’ cooking might have triggered an allergic reaction in the guards in response to Chaddad, I’m sure.

In Maroc is Shorba.

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A Taste of Libya—in Prison

Amateur chef Rafram Chaddad discovered the wonders of Libyan cuisine in an unlikely place: behind bars