For those of you who are familiar with Benghazi’s delicious cuisine, you can move on to the post. But for those who are less fortunate, a quick explanation: fasoulia (فصوليا) also called tabeekhat fasouila (طبيخة فصوليا) is a lima bean stew usually cooked with lamb or beef. The more hardcore Benghazinos cook it with kaware3 (فصوليا بالكوارع) tendons, or with karsha (فصوليا بالكرشة) sheep stomach lining (I promise it it more appetizing than it sounds). More popularly, fasoulia is also eaten in sandwiches, and served as a late breakfast/early lunch meal, especially for students.
Interestingly enough – and since everything in Libya is political – even the unassuming fasoulia has been at the center of controversy. After the civil war in Tripoli began, many West Libyans joked that their morning croissant would be replaced by fasoulia sandwiches (I mean, it’s not *that* weird). East Libyans, indignant at the jibe against their beloved breakfast food, pushed back. While intended as a joke, the remark also had a more subtle meaning, implying that East Libyans were less cultured since they ate such traditional things, rather than more Western-style food like croissants (in my parent’s generation, an affluent and well-groomed person was called a ‘pancake’ (بونكيك)). However, the politics and colonization of Libyan food and class division is the subject of another conversation.
When my family moved back to Libya in 2003, the international community had just lifted a decade-long period of sanctions off of the country. The sanctions – which included travel and finance restrictions – had completely paralyzed the country and impoverished its residents. Libya’s dependence on oil and imports at the expense of its agricultural and industrial sector had finally come back to haunt it; people had money but nothing to spend it on.
One of my professors described life under sanctions as “living in black and white”. The only thing people could buy were basic food and clothing items from the ‘jam3eeyat’ (الجمعيات الاستهلاكية), essentially state-run stores that sold subsidized food and other items – usually in bulk, because they’d only open a few times a month. My mom often recounted the frustration of living this way; “You purchased whatever they brought in, no matter what it was, because you would never know when they’d sell that item again. If they brought in shoes, we’d buy three pairs in different sizes, in case you grew out of your shoes before the next batch came in. Of course they didn’t always have your shoe size, which created another set of problems.” These stores only sold staples of Libyan cuisine such as tomato paste, pasta, oil and sugar; things like fruit were a luxury that was rare to find.
Because the quality of the products were so bad, Libyans who could afford to would leave the country just to buy necessities like furniture or clothing, always by car or sea since international travel was banned. Women learned how to sew in order to clothe their families. There were a handful of stores that imported more ‘luxury’ items primarily aimed at expats. A friend of mine told me that visiting one of those stores was a special occasion (in Benghazi this was in the Da3waa Islamiya building), because they could buy something indulgent like Kinder Chocolate Eggs. It was almost impossible to open a business in those kinds of conditions. So when Libya was re-connected to the rest of the world in 2003, local economic activity had to start up again from scratch.
I was a teenager back then, and I had no idea about any of this. All I knew was that I hated living in Libya, because there was nothing to do. No malls to hang out at, no sports clubs to join, and most notably, no restaurants to eat out at. All there really was were shawarma stands and the popular local eateries. You had the small coffee shops in the downtown that were implicitly only for men, but these were cramped and dark holes-in-the-wall filled with cigarette smoke and cantankerous elderly men who spent their days drinking espressos and playing cards.
The local eateries were places where you ordered a sandwich at the counter and ate it in your car, whether you were going to work or coming back from school. A handful had some tables where you could “dine in”. The most famous of these (some are still around):
- Bulifa (بوليفه), who made their signature ground beef and egg sandwiches
- Ahmaida Fasoulia (حميده فصولية) who made – you guessed it – Fasouliya sandwiches,
- Hameed Betati (حميد بتاتي) (I’m not going to translate this nickname for you) who cooked up a variety of flatulence-inducing foods such as ful emdashash and haraimi
- Abdulghafar (عبد الغفار) who’s specialty was tuna sandwiches with boiled eggs
- Buthara3 (بوذراع) known for cooking more traditional Libyan foods such as couscous
(If you’re interested in a more comprehensive list of old Benghazi restaurants, check out this great article by Abdulsalam Zughbi here: حكايات بنغازية… مطاعم بنغازي زمان)
There were places strongly tied to an older Benghazi from the 50s and 60s, and managed to survive through the sanctions. They welcomed all people and catered to the working class. However, for a snobby double-shafra teen like me who wanted onion rings and five different flavours of Coca Cola, they lacked any appeal.
My cousins, who sensed my misery, tried to cheer me up by taking me to a restaurant that they claimed was “exactly like Pizza Hut”. This ended up being El-Kokh (الكوخ) which literally translates to ‘The Hut’. It’s a small pizza place in Majouri that makes small wood-fire pizzas. The white-tiled walls and small standing tables had their own charm, but it was no Pizza Hut. I didn’t like the taste, probably because I wasn’t used to fast food that was actually made from fresh ingredients and not insanely processed. (Ironically, El-Kokh is now my favorite pizza place in Benghazi).
Another cousin’s attempt to help us acclimate involved ordering burgers from a restaurant called The Penguin (البطريق) in Furusia (you know, the place behind the sbe5a). Now, the Penguin was a shift for Benghazi, because unlike the other traditional eateries, they served food in a ‘Western-style’ way; by which I mean, you could get fries and a drink with your burger, and everything was wrapped in foil monogrammed with the restaurant’s logo (as opposed to wrapped in a newspaper at one of the sandwich places). The Penguin was one of the first restaurants in Benghazi that actually marketed itself (sadly, they’ve closed down now, and a crappy shisha bar has replaced it).
As Libya began to recover from the effect of sanctions, Western-style cafes and restaurants began to pop up in the two largest cities. This also led to the creation of ‘family-only’ spaces in cafes, which meant, for the first time, women could eat outside in a restaurant. Dewan, Damashki, Pizza House and multiple other restaurants opened during this time, offering Benghazi citizens a choice of Syrian, Western, Turkish and other types of food. Going out to eat went from a luxury to a weekly occurrence for many middle class families. Instead of a generic coffee from a kiosk, you could sit in a cafe and order a latte or cappuccino with a piece of cheesecake, flavours and textures that were new for Libyans who had never really traveled abroad. After the revolution, these spaces tripled and quadrupled, particularly with the rise and development of “shopping streets” such as Venecia, Dubai St and Pepsi St (named after the Pepsi factory that used to be located there). As they became more popular, the taboo around eating out eventually disappeared.
Opening a cafe or restaurant is one of the most lucrative business ideas in Benghazi today, and increasingly in smaller Libyan towns. A friend who visited El-Marj recently told me that five new cafes had opened up in the past year. Libyan culture is slowly moving out of the house and into cafes, a change that is also affecting the way Libyan houses are designed. Where once people demanded an 80-square-meter guest sitting room (often two, one per gender), this is no longer the case. Events that were once traditionally held in homes are now being organized in cafes, including birthday parties, engagement ceremonies and baby showers. Sitting rooms have been reduced to small spaces that are rarely used.
These restaurants have come a long way from their predecessors; most of them now invest in architects to design a place that is atmospheric, they hire graphic designers to come up with attractive logos and colour schemes, and they offer a wide range of options that easily compete with cafes in other parts of the world. 20 years ago, a Kinder Surprise Egg was considered the height of opulence for a Libyan kid; today, you can get three types of Kinder cheesecakes and milkshakes in just one cafe. The customer base is also changing; a group on Facebook called ‘Benghazi Restaurant & Cafe Recommendations’ was set up for patrons to provide reviews of their experiences, with the number of members well over 70,000 people. Most restaurants and cafes now offer delivery services, and competition has been increasing.
However, the flip side is that cafes and restaurants are also becoming heavily politicized spaces. A girls-only party held last year in Casa Cafe in Benghazi was raided by police after it was reported for being ‘indecent’; the case was ultimately dropped since no one had actually, you know, broken the law. The year before, a new year’s party was raided at an all-men cafe by Salafist-oriented patrols for being “against the customs of the country” because it featured live music; in 2012 a bomb was thrown at a cafe in Hadayek because it was a known dating spot for same-sex couples. The cafe has become a space of intergenerational and religious tensions, a symbol of the transformational shift in Libyan society and, most importantly, a demand for a peaceful way of life. In Tripoli, frequenting cafes even during the height of the conflict has become an anti-war ‘non-movement’; taking a stand against the violence by continuing to live their everyday lives and refusing to acknowledge the chaos.
The fasoulia sandwich, meanwhile, is no longer fashionable. Indeed, you can argue that it was never fashionable to begin with. It is a symbol of sustenance and tradition, of a time when Libyans tried to keep themselves from the brink of collapse as a state. You can still get one from Ahmaida Fasoulia’s kiosk downtown, and transport yourself to a much simpler time in the city’s history. But we’ve also moved on as a city, and the latte has inadvertently become a symbol of women’s increasing visibility in public life. These spaces are of course not as inclusive, but considering where we were 10, 20, even 30 years ago, the trajectory that we’re on could change that. As long as they continue to be successful business practices, the fashionable latte is here to stay.