I started the We Are Food blog to satisfy an unrelenting need to identify with my Libyan roots. I wanted to understand what being Libyan meant; to define the Libyan identity. Part of our cultural heritage was lost through globalization and a desperate need to modernize ourselves; to be en vogue and up to date with the rest of the world. But a larger part has been, and still is being, deliberately destroyed out of political or religious motivations. This eradication has been amplified in the post-Gaddafi Arab Spring era, where the conflict has been fueled by political, religious, racial and tribal differences. As we wait for our Arab Spring to bloom, the circle of life rolls on.
Today marks the Vernal Equinox or the first day of spring in the Northern hemisphere. People in many regions of the earth celebrate the renewal of life today and in the days to come. It is an ancient pagan tradition that can be traced back to the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Germanics and Celts. In the Arab-world, Mother’s Day is celebrated tomorrow, on the 21st of March, to honor the women who gave us life. In Libya we also celebrate our children (Children’s Day) along with those who bore them, to continue the cycle of life. The egg is a symbol of fertility, and can be found on the tables of people celebrating Easter (Christian), Nowrooz(Persian) or Sham El-naseem (Egyptian) this month.
Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in the geographic heart of Libya, the Jufra region (comprising of the cities of Houn, Weddan, Sokna, Zela, and Fugha), families welcome the coming of the spring with festivities which start on the last day of February, and continue well into March. This region is also the heart of the date palm industry in Libya, producing the finest dates and weaved palm leaf handicrafts. The people of the Jufra region are of Berber origins, but have largely become Arabized (Arabized Berbers) after the Islamic conquests of Libya.
I was surprised because despite the fact that I have lived in Libya for the past 25 years I had never heard of the Spring Festival. This beautiful welcoming of the spring is a community building practice, where bread is broken together, and the beginning of the new farming season is announced, with wishes for a bountiful harvest which is the livelihood of these oasis tribes. So why has this tradition been hidden from the rest of us for so long?
Over the weekend the city of Sokna hosted the third annual “Welcoming of the Spring” festival under the slogan “Let’s Reconcile to Co-Exist”. This strong statement addresses the intolerance and marginalization of minorities since the Gaddafi era. The culture of these people have been systematically suppressed by political and religious leaders, and many aspects have only been preserved by carrying out these practices in secret. The aim of the Sokna festival is to revive old traditions and to build bridges within the community. It is also an outreach program to other communities that are unaware of a way of life different from their own.
To welcome the spring, young girls dress in colorful traditional wear with ornate jewellery and move in a procession, singing and offering sweet brioche like bread known locally as Ka’ak Alrabea كعك الربيع or “spring ring”. These rings are baked in large quantities by the elder women of the community for everyone to share. It is a bread enriched with eggs, sugar and sheep’s fat or olive oil, using staples that are used sparingly in the unproductive winter months. Also on offer are dates and undyed white eggs decorated with geometric hand drawn patterns. These white eggs are carried in palm weaved baskets and offered to family and friends, wishing them plentiful “white days” to come.
In the largely Amazigh Berber region of the Nafusa mountain (Western Libya) and in parts of Algeria and Morocco, a similar Spring Welcoming is held called Tafsut or Tafsuit meaning “the beginning of the farming year”. Although considered a minority, the Berbers are the original inhabitants of Libya, settling here long before Arabs, Jews and Muslims. Much of their diet and traditions have been preserved to this day.
I have come to understand that the Libyan identity is not confined to one single image. Rather it is multi-cultural and as diverse as our history. To start this new spring Let Us Reconcile and Co-Exist.