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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.

The guards brought him a surprising amount and variety of food, and he understood he was finally seeing what Libya had to offer. One guard gave him a tray of rice and said it was maakleh sha’abiyeh—common food. Chaddad writes: “The rice was still hot and it is much tastier like that. Like the couscous, there too was rice cooked in a red, spicy sauce. On top they sometimes put onions and chickpeas. Simple and good.”

In Chaddad’s remaining months in prison—the Israeli government negotiated his release through back-channel negotiations, with the help of Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff—he paid close attention to Libyan food. He savored apples imported from Italy and chewed his way through rubbery camel meat whose texture was only slightly masked by a heavy load of cinnamon. A big part of the prison diet was sorba, a thick tomato stew with meat and pasta. Chaddad had nothing to write with, so he went over the details in his head during his hours of isolation, trying to remember the recipes so he could put them in his book once he was set free.

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By the time Chaddad got back to Israel, he had lost 30 pounds, his legs had gone weak, and he was pale for lack of sun. But he quickly picked up his life where he left off and cooked his prison food for friends. His good friend Adam Horowitz, a restaurant owner, invited him to make sorba on a guest cook night in Tel Aviv’s Taxidermy eatery. “It was very good,” Horowitz said. “It’s a rich soup, with a lot of fat. It’s very spicy.”

Chaddad put his experiences, culinary and otherwise, into his book, which is out in Hebrew, published by Am Oved; Chaddad said he and his publisher are exploring translation options. For now he is promoting the book at launch parties. One Saturday in February, Chaddad held court at a bar on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Israeli authors read excerpts of the book aloud, and musicians played interludes. Horowitz moderated.

For Jews of Libyan heritage, Chaddad’s story evokes their home-cooking. David Gerbi, a Jewish Italian who left Libya at age 12 and now lives in Italy, said he recognized many of the dishes Rafram writes about. “You had the bread, and then chraime, and then chicken soup,” he said of his Friday night dinners. “Then you’d have mafroum with couscous, then red and green beans, one with tomatoes and one with spinach.”

Gerbi is best known for his visit to Tripoli in 2011, when he tried to repair the city’s crumbling synagogue. He left under threats from Muslim extremists. Gerbi said that when he was back in Libya, despite the hard times of the revolution that ousted Qaddafi in 2011, he saw many of the same foods he remembered from his mother’s table.

“It’s a feeling of at home,” he said. “You eat the same as at home, and here you see your food on the street.”

For Chaddad, food was about something more than nostalgia or comfort. It was the thing that helped him survive his time in prison. “I couldn’t believe I could tolerate torture,” he said. “I have passion for life; I think that’s what saved me.”

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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

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