Culinary Lessons from a Libyan Prison

August, 08 2013

A year after he was arrested in Libya on charges of espionage and incarcerated for five months, Rafael Rafram Chaddad savors his freedom by sautéing a pile of sliced onions, browning chunks of lamb, dumping grated tomatoes on top and scattering handfuls of fiery Libyan spices into a pot—the makings of a stew he was served in prison. Released last August, the Israeli chef and photographer is cooking one of the meals of his affliction late into the night in a friend’s apartment in Jaffa.

The Tunisian-born Chaddad, 35, traveled to Libya in 2010 at the behest of the Or Shalom Center, which is dedicated to preserving the heritage of Libya’s vanished 2,500-year-old Jewish community. When Or Shalom founder Pedazur Benattia asked Chaddad to photograph Jewish cemeteries and synagogues to document the community that once numbered nearly 40,000, he needed little convincing. Chaddad was curious about Libya’s Jewish history and as a foodie, he says, he wanted to eat. “Mostly I wanted to see the place of Jewish food there,” says Chaddad, who is fluent in Arabic.

Once in Libya, he made a beeline for Obaya, a restaurant in Tripoli’s Old City, to taste a spicy red fish stew calledchraime, a popular national dish. Chaddad noticed a sign at Obaya that referred to chraime as an ancient Jewish food. “It’s interesting to see this in a place like Libya when there are no Jews there,” he says, “To see this in a rustic restaurant, where you sit on the floor and eat soup, it’s very strange.”

For ten days, Chaddad rode taxis between Tripoli and Benghazi, the two coastal cities where Jews once lived, snapping photographs and tasting as much as he could. In one home, he tried green shakshuka, made of eggs poached over green tomatoes and onions, flavored with paprika, ginger, licorice and cumin, then fried in goat fat.

On the last day of Chaddad’s trip, two men in long raincoats knocked on his Tripoli hotel room door, collected his baggage and drove him to prison. Chaddad was locked in a tiny room with a reeking, rat-eaten mattress. For a month he was tortured: He says prison guards electrocuted him with a car battery, forced him to stand for days on end and beat him with a lead pipe while interrogating him about whether he was a Mossad agent. Then Chaddad was held in solitary confinement for four months until he was released, thanks to a back-channel deal between Libya and Israel.

The arrest was actually not unusual, says Benattia. Of five Or Shalom emissaries to Libya, Chaddad was the third to be apprehended, although the others were released within days. Benattia says that Chaddad will not be the last Israeli Or Shalom sends to document Jewish Libyan history, especially since Chaddad’s photographs and three of his four cameras were confiscated. “We can’t go there to visit, so we want to at least bring the sights to our community and to preserve it for the future,” Benattia says. “In a few years it won’t be there.”

Chaddad was also unable to bring back the culinary souvenirs he collected, such as blue salt from Timbuktu and a Libyan cookbook. His only memento from his trip is a plastic bag filled with items he made in prison out of food cartons: a chessboard, a calendar and Hebrew letters he arranged on the floor to send mental letters to his family.

Perhaps more importantly, he brought back his new knowledge of Libyan Jewish cooking. One of his prison guards grew up in Tripoli’s Jewish Quarter, and he remembered eating his neighbor’s food. “He would stand there [in prison] and describe shakshuka, chraime and mafrum,” Chaddad says. Mafrum is a potato stuffed with ground meat, dredged in flour, deep-fried and simmered in a tomato stew.

Chaddad’s fascination with the cultures and foods of the Mediterranean is not new. Known to his friends as something of a “Bohemian gypsy,” Chaddad doesn’t believe in borders and considers himself a citizen of the Mediterranean. When he was two, his parents moved from Djerba, an island off the Tunisian coast, to Jerusalem. After completing his mandatory service in the military, Chaddad studied photography, then traveled across Europe, earning a name for himself as an installation artist with work shown in the Venice Biennale.

In 2004, while vacationing in Italy, he returned to Tunisia for the first time. “It was always a fantasy to return,” he says. “I have a lot of family there. And for me to come and see the grave of my grandparents, see their house, see everything—it was powerful.” Since then he’s been to Tunisia many times, enjoying summers slightly cooler than Israel’s, coordinating food tours and working as an artist. “I’ve decided this will be my mélange,” Chaddad says. “I’ll live mostly in Yaffo, and a small part of the year in Tunisia.”

Chaddad is collecting and recreating the recipes he has picked up to share with fellow Israelis. He is writing a memoir of his months in Libya, which will include the recipes for chraime, shakshuka and mafrum, as well as others, including Libyan pasta with spicy red sauce, dill and Egyptian fava beans and a string bean soup.

And he’s cooking too, and not just in friends’ apartments. Chaddad, who once served chestnut risotto to the Crown Prince of Liechtenstein, has been a guest chef in several Israeli restaurants where he has offered samplings of his prison cuisine. This summer he plans to open a Syrian-inspired shawarma restaurant called Hafez in Tel Aviv, named for the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and inspired by the Aleppan method of preparing meat. The restaurant will serve hunks of lamb marinated in pistachios and pomegranate concentrate, stacked on a giant skewer, grilled over open coals and rolled into paper-thin flatbread with arugula, roasted tomatoes and hot pepper.

Chaddad’s days of wandering through forbidden parts of the Arab world and tasting the cuisine as a “local” are probably over: Since his imprisonment in Libya, he can no longer travel below the radar. “I’m disappointed,” he says. “It’s like they closed a door. I know that for nearly all Israelis that’s a given situation.”

Click here for Rafael Chaddad’s Chraime Recipe

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