Now is the turn of Libya with One Sister sharing her experience.
First off, let me clarify two things: 1) Ramadan is different from region to region within the country and from family to family, and 2) I was not born or raised by a Libyan family, I am married to a Libyan and lived in Libya for nearly a decade, and this is what I have seen and experienced in this capacity, so apologies in advance if this doesn’t reflect your own lived experience of celebrating Ramadan in this country.
As you probably already know, Libya is mostly a desert country, so you’ll find that many of the most traditional and dearest of foods cater to this situation. Being a majority Muslim country of the more traditional leanings, it’s a deeply familiar affair, often split along gender lines. I will try to cover as much as possible, but please be advised that I am not familiar with all the variations to this theme.
Ramadan preparations begin weeks before the month starts, sometimes with interior and/or exterior painting of the house, fixing all that needs to be fixed (leaks, cracks, etc.) replenishing cooking supplies (including pots, pans, dishes, and food both freezable and dryable), and cleaning, the rest sort of comes along. All women I know spend a minimum of three hours prior to mughrib in the kitchen preparing for iftar. This means that the shopping needs to be done either in the morning, or around duhr time, to allow sufficient prep time. While the ladies are busy toiling in the kitchen, boys and men often get busy with either playing soccer tournaments (often organized precisely to keep their minds off food between Asr and Mughrib, and give their moms/wives/sisters time and space to prepare their delicious iftar meals), or watching soccer games on tv, an activity that they often also enjoy after Tarawih prayers, to maintain good company and socialize in this close-knit community. Women also have their chance to sit and relax, and during Ramadan there are a number of conservative, seerah inspired musalsalat (soap operas) that are aired specifically for Ramadan, this is a very popular pass-time, though by no means the only way in which Libyan women choose to spend their free time on Ramadan nights.
In the last decades there has been a resurgence of religious consciousness, and both men and women spend more of their day reading and memorizing Qur’an, rather than playing sports or cooking. Many women have started setting apart only as much time as is available between Asr and Mughrib, and no more than that to preparing meals, choosing to spend the rest of their time in more spiritual pursuits. Along with this, has also come a desire for more women to attend tarawih prayers (which a couple of generations ago was almost exclusively attended by men), which means they need to be able to clear the eating area, wash dishes and clean the kitchen in time for salat al Isha. In order to be able to do this, they have to minimize the number of dishes, and possibly get some help, which men are increasingly willing to give.
In our family I am fortunate to have a husband who isn’t enamored of food, and is cognizant of my health and desire to participate more fully in the spiritual aspects of this blessed month, so I am able to dedicate no more than two hours prior to mughrib to preparing iftar. We also pray tarawih at home, since we have young kids, though when we lived near my in-laws things worked a bit differently. Here’s how we spent Ramadan with our in-laws: every day at least one of us (daughters and daughters in law) sent a minimum of one dish, but preferably a salty dish and a sweet one to our parents/parents in law. At least once a week one of the sons would eat iftar with their parents (having seven sons, this meant that each day of the week would be covered by one of them), with or without their wives and kids. On those days the respective wife would prepare the bulk of the iftar for the entire household, and either break her fast with them, or take some of the food home to break her fast with some or all of her kids (depending on a variety of considerations). Often my husband would break his fast with our two oldest sons at his parents’ house (with laban and dates) and then come home to eat the meal, other times it would be the other way around, and in that case I’d set a side a dish for him to share with his parents, unless it was my official day to prepare the iftar, in which case I’d do like all my sisters in law, and take care of the whole iftar. My mother in law always wanted to have at least one dish made by her, so she’d be in the kitchen with us making rice, or soup, or mbattan (her three favorite things to make), which she would prepare especially for my father in law.
In terms of foods, there are three main traditional foods that are consumed preferably around Ramadan: 1) bsisa (a dry powder made of a variety of beans and lentils, spices and sometimes sugar and nuts), which is nutrition dense and easily prepared by mixing it with olive oil to make a thick paste, which in turn is used to either dip or stuff dates for iftar; 2) zummita (another dry powder made of roasted and finely ground barley and sweet spices such as fennel and cinnamon), which is mixed with a bit of water to make a fluffy and crumbly mixture that resembles apple crumble, or with more water to turn it into a ball, on which either butter or olive oil and a sweet syrup such as date syrup or honey are poured. This is usually a quick way to make a nutritious and satisfying suhoor in the matter of seconds; 3) aseeda (a wheat flour meal prepared by kneading the flour in a large pot of boiling water with a bit of oil and salt and turning it into a large ball of dough) which is also served in a volcano shape with either olive oil or butter and a sweet syrupy liquid (honey or date syrup). Other than these three very traditional meals, which are reserved for just after or just before the fast, the main meal comprises Libyan soup (made with thinly diced pieces of meat, chick peas, orzo pasta (or bird tongues), parsley, a dousing of dry mint, thinly chopped onions, and tomato paste, plus the necessary spices of bzar, hot pepper and salt. Accompanying the soup come usually three, sometimes more finger-foods, or appetizers, such as small pizzas, boureek (a thin dough stuffed with either mashed potatoes or ground meat, herbs, eggs, and spices, and fried), mbattan (slices of potatoes stuffed with a ground meat, herb and spice mix, breaded and fried), tajeen (an egg-dense quiche-type dish without a crust, which is baked and then served in neat cubes), or dolmas (or brak, which is Swiss-chard stuffed with rice, ground meat, onions, garlic, spices, herbs, and tomato paste, steamed). Most people are satisfied with this, and will come back to them either after tarawih prayers (as they are easily preserved and warmed up), or at suhoor time. Other families will have this meal right after mughrib, and come back from tarawih to eat a full meal of couscous, makroona, or ruz, with all the accompanying salads, sometimes in order to be able to sleep through suhoor. It is my impression that this latter tendency is on the decline, and certainly isn’t subscribed to by most families.
It is not uncommon for sisters, brothers and siblings in law to invite each other for iftar at least once, and it is expected that if you are invited, you should attend, and if you attend, you should reciprocate the gesture. On these occasions the hosts go all out and prepare the soup, the appetizers and the large meal with salads, and will then give all the left overs to the guest to eat for their suhoor. Obviously, if you accept, you will have to return the favor in kind.
For tarawih prayers, the mosques will organize to have at least one mosque where the Iman will go through surahs in small increments, to allow for the elderly and those with health or time constraints to complete eight rakas and go home, while others will complete surahs in the traditional way in order to finish the Qur’an by the end of Ramadan.
If you would like to try your hands at any of the foods that appear in this piece, I highly recommend the following blogs, where you can find recipes for all the dishes I mention.
This is a relic from the very beginnings of the internet, and hasn’t been updated, but the recipes are the ones I relied on as a young bride of an expatriate Libyan, so although they lack visuals, they’re solid!
In the last ten days of Ramadan many men do i3tikaf (where they spend all night at the mosque praying, returning home only after fajr). In our extended family, my father in law, some of my brothers in law, and a couple of the older kids (almost in their twenties) would do i3tikaf at least in the last three days of Ramadan. The rest of the family normally joined all together at the family house (that’s what we call my parents in law’s house) to eat iftar all together, and spend the night socializing on the 27th of Ramadan. Because this is a night in which prayer should be foremost in our minds, we would normally pray tarawih together (women in the family room, and men at the mosque), while the kids played all around the house.
The last week of Ramadan is often reserved to shopping for Eid clothes, and shops will remain open 24 hours/day to cater to late shoppers. Although prices tend to get higher during this month, people still go out and buy at least one new outfit, preferably two or three, to be able to wear a different one on each day of Eid. Traditionally the first day of Eid is reserved to visiting the husband’s family, the second day the wives go and spend the day with their families with the kids, and the third day is reserved for traveling to the outer towns to visit extended family and friends. On each day kids don each outfit they purchased for the occasion, and spend the whole day playing with their cousins and eating the sweet treats that their moms and aunts have spent days preparing in order to share with family and friends on these special days.
It is sunna to go to the mosque on foot taking one route and returning using a different route, to be able to come across different people and wish them happy Eid, as well as ask them for forgiveness for any wrongdoing. It is traditional in Libya to do this and be as thorough as possible with apologies and greetings, whether you have seen the person during Ramadan or not. I do believe this is a great practice, that thankfully Libyans take to heart.
I hope you have enjoyed this little summary of Ramadan activities in Libya, as it’s not a culture that is widely discussed, being very private and tightly family oriented. May Allah make this Eid a peaceful one for all of us, and countries in turmoil especially, and may we all be able to reap the benefits of this blessed month and the enjoyment of its celebrations, whichever ones we observe.
One Sister is a veteran convert to Islam with a diverse background, who enjoys sharing her and her sisters’ experiences on her blog www.cafecaterpillar.blog, where she attempts to build bridges, cross them, and help others get across.