Saturday, September 01, 2012

How to Amaze and Amuse Your Hosts

On Wednesday morning, the Ambassador called me and asked, "Do you have anything going on this afternoon?"  When questions like that come from your boss, the answer is usually no.  So a few hours later he and I loaded up and drove two hours south of Tripoli to the mountain town of Gharyan.  A friend of the Ambassador invited him to the opening ceremony of a political party's local branch office, so off we went.  Part of the celebrations included lunch in a khosh hafr, a traditional underground house found in many Amazigh (Berber) communities of North Africa.  (You're probably more familiar with these types of houses from the Star Wars movies, as Luke Skywalker's home in the first movie was filmed in one of these communities in Tunisia.)  Gharyan is one of the larger towns in Libya's western mountains, on the main road from Tripoli to the Amazigh towns in the mountains.  It has a beautiful view of the coastal plains, overlooking some of western Libya's most fertile fields.  (Yes, there is agriculture in Libya - it's not entirely a desert country.)

A khosh hafr is built about twenty or thirty feet below ground level, with open-air courtyards that provide natural light and air circulation to the rooms that are cut into the bedrock and that open off the courtyards.  Being underground, the rooms are much cooler than the ambient air in the summer, and they stay pretty warm and insulated during the Libyan mountains' cold winters.  Our hosts welcomed us into one of these rooms for conversation and laughter before lunch - many of the people knew our Ambassador from his time in Benghazi during the revolution or from his previous tour in Libya, back in the old days.  When lunch arrived, we were given two choices - we could have couscous, the staple dish of North Africa that we'd eat with a spoon, or bazeen, a traditional Libyan Amazigh dish.  Our host told the servers in Arabic, "Our guests will have the couscous, please," but the Ambassador stepped in and said, "Hold on, I'd love to have some bazeen!"  Not to be outdone, I said, "I'll have the bazeen too!"  The servers and our hosts all turned to us with jaws dropped.  "But - but - you have to eat it with your hand!"  "Only Libyans like bazeen!"  "It's messy!"

Let's step back and think about this for a second.  Here I am, the only woman in an underground home, sitting around barefoot (no shoes on the carpets!) with my Ambassador and fifteen Libyan politicians and activists, and I've just signed up to eat something that I can't identify from a plate shared with my boss and an unknown number of others.  NOTHING could possibly go wrong.

Bazeen, it turns out, is barley dough that's served with braised lamb first and then tomato stew.  To eat it properly, you take your (right!) hand and eat the lamb, then you hack off a chunk of the dough in the middle of the bowl, then mash it against the side of the bowl for 5-10 minutes to soften it up and to make sure it soaks up enough of the soup.  Then you squeeze lemon or lime juice over the softened dough, take a bite of a spicy pepper, and chow down on the soupy dough.  It was a lot of work, but it was pretty tasty - and definitely worth the looks of hilarity and shock that we provoked in our lunch companions.

The Ambassador's a lefty, so he was operating at something of a disadvantage in his dough-mashing.  This was made worse by the fact that by accident my lime flew out of my hand - hey, my hand was covered with stew juice - and knocked over his drink all over his bare feet.  (I haven't been here three months yet, and I've already sealed my fate in my annual review.)  Better yet, the political party posted photos of us eating bazeen on Facebook, which resulted in some of my contacts on Twitter asking me last night, "Hey, isn't that you eating bazeen?"  This photo is currently bouncing around Libyan social networks, getting over 350 comments and 400 reblogs off the Embassy Facebook page alone.  Most of the comments are pretty positive - lots of laughter and surprise that the Ambassador is eating bazeen.

Cultural diplomacy at its finest, y'all.  Now I need to find a similarly messy American dish to make for Libyans!

13 comments:

  1. Amazing, everyone should be so adventurous, and the Bazeen sounds delicious! I'm glad you discussed the khosh hafr. Very interesting. That concept should be applied over here in places like Phoenix. I was always perplexed as to why no one had a basement in that city when it would be SO perfect. I still have a little piece of property in downtown Phoenix that I've been dreaming of building a crazy vaulted masonry semi-submerged structure on. Maybe it could be something like a khosh hafr if only the city would allow it. Anyhow, great post hannah!!

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  2. Well done! What a great moment to be a part of!

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  3. Hearing more news from your area. Praying for your safety as well as all Embassy/Consulate family there. So hard to hear about the Ambassador, especially after reading your post above and seeing the photo.

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  4. Hi Hannah, I hope you are safe. My heart goes out to you and the rest of the staff there. Truly heartbreaking what has happened.

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  5. I've been thinking of you since news of an American death broke last night-- I had just read this post a few days ago and thought to myself, "Gee, sounds like a good guy to work for." We're all thinking about you guys over here in the mothership...

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  6. This will be a wonderful memory of AMB Stevens and how he was such a great man to work for. You're lucky to have known him...even if the time was far too short.

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  7. So very, very sorry for your loss. Hope you remain safe for however long you remain in the area.

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  8. I am a frequent reader of your blog and read this post and thought "what an awesome guy." I am praying and hoping you are safe.

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  9. Thinking of you and hoping you are okay. Hang in there. These are rough days, and there will be plenty more ahead, but everything you wrote before is still true.

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  10. Hannah, I do know what you're going through and I'm sorry you have to go through it. You and all the others in Tripoli are in my thoughts.

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