A Taste of Libya—in Prison
Amateur chef Rafram Chaddad discovered the wonders of Libyan cuisine in an unlikely place: behind bars
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.”
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.
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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