Libyan Stories from the novel “Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table”

18 July, 2022,
Red Cas­tle Muse­um, Tripoli, Libya, — 2019 (pho­to cour­tesy Sana Dahlafi).

 

Exclu­sive excerpts from the nov­el Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, pub­lished in Ara­bic by Rashm and Meskliani in 2021.

 

Mohammed al-Naas

Trans­lat­ed by Rana Asfour

(1)

So, let’s start from the begin­ning. I am Milad Al-Osta. I’m told I resem­ble Cheb Khaled, when he used to be thin. I am the only male among my sis­ters. I was born at noon, in one of the alleys that over­look Cathe­dral Square, where I spent my entire child­hood, scrap­ing my knees on its asphalt­ed streets. On Sun­days, on our way to school, I’d observe the Roman con­gre­ga­tion make their way into the cathe­dral whose front yard would lat­er bear wit­ness to the bud­ding days of my first love. In Al Dahra, I ate the tasti­est sand­wich­es, played foot­ball, and raced my mates to the Cor­niche to watch the waves crash with­in a short dis­tance from our homes. That was in the late Six­ties, before the winds of change came call­ing and a year, to be exact, before our Broth­er and Leader mount­ed his horse to free our coun­try from agents, trai­tors, and for­eign bases — just like they taught us in school.

The orig­i­nal cov­er of Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table.

In Al Dahra, I ate the tasti­est sand­wich­es, played foot­ball, and raced my mates to the Cor­niche to watch the waves crash with­in a short dis­tance from our homes. That was in the late Six­ties, before the winds of change came call­ing and a year, to be exact, before our Broth­er and Leader mount­ed his horse to free our coun­try from agents, trai­tors, and for­eign bases — just like they taught us in school. In Al Dahra, I com­plet­ed my pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion, whole-heart­ed­ly belt­ed out the nation­al anthem in the school­yard, and went out on stu­dent march­es in cel­e­bra­tion of the first Jamahiriya while rail­ing against Amree­ka and the Zion­ist Move­ment. At four­teen, my par­ents and uncle decid­ed to return to Bir Hus­sein, my grandfather’s home vil­lage, after they inher­it­ed vast fer­tile land, ide­al for agri­cul­ture, build­ing a home, and set­ting up a bak­ery — a fresh start in the same vil­lage I used to vis­it with my father to buy ricot­ta cheese, ma’soura, olives, and dates from his rel­a­tives. My father set up his kosha until the state’s exten­sion plans for the gov­ern­ment build­ing next door includ­ed seiz­ing his bakery.

I was four years old when I began to play with my baby sis­ter. At five, I tried to make friends at school and with­in the neigh­bor­hood, which is where I became friends with Assad­eq, Zainab’s broth­er, before we part­ed ways over pet­ty triv­i­al­i­ties. When I was six years old, I began to sit in the com­pa­ny of my three old­er sis­ters. I was eight when I began to help my father at the bak­ery. As soon as I turned fif­teen, in addi­tion to my chores that includ­ed clean­ing the place and car­ry­ing the sacks of flour, he added the task of knead­ing the dough in prepa­ra­tion for my first batch of Muhawara, one of the eas­i­est tra­di­tion­al breads to make. I was six­teen when my true love affair with bread began. It was right after my father let me in on the secret of his trade, the one he’d picked up from his Ital­ian men­tor, Sig­nore Lui­gi Paintierri.When I was 18, my father died of lung can­cer, and he now rests in heav­en­ly peace next to my grand­fa­ther as well as the Prophet and his companions.

The bak­ery wit­nessed many polit­i­cal and social changes in the coun­try. Dur­ing the for­ties and fifties, most of Sig­nore Luigi’s cus­tomers were Ital­ians, Eng­lish, and Mal­tese who came in for their west­ern-style bread: baguettes that required var­ied and sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­niques and took tedious hours to make, sliced bread, Sicil­ian sesame loaves, and of course the brioche. I used to lis­ten to the leg­endary tales told about The San­abel Bak­ery and how the peo­ple of Al Dahra, Casa Langues, and Munic­i­pal­i­ty and Bin Ashour streets had nev­er expe­ri­enced any­thing tasti­er. My father appren­ticed with the Sig­nore until he was able to crack the code on fla­vor, para­mount in this sta­ple food grac­ing the tables of all Libyans. Sig­nore Lui­gi held our peo­ple in def­er­en­tial regard, loved them and sought them out to work along­side him. My father used to describe him as a “Sicil­ian from Arab roots,” but I’ve nev­er real­ly under­stood Ital­ians’ rela­tion­ship with our peo­ple. At the time, bread was a mark of dis­par­i­ty between the class­es of soci­ety. Only Ital­ians and a few wealthy high-soci­ety Libyans bought the fan­cy breads, and by pure coin­ci­dence, it turns out that one of the sons of this class, the Madame’s grand­fa­ther, used to buy his bread from my father’s bak­ery. As for the rest of the peo­ple, they ate Muhawara and Tan­nour, loaves bought at the tra­di­tion­al bread market.

In the six­ties, with the boom that accom­pa­nied the dis­cov­ery of oil, Libyans began to love West­ern-style breads, and as the num­bers of edu­cat­ed, wealthy, self-styl­ized Ital­ians, and for­mer sol­diers, who were able to buy these breads on a dai­ly basis grew stronger, their teeth, on the oth­er hand, only grew weak­er, soft­en­ing so they could no longer with­stand the coarse Bedouin Tan­nour loaves they’d for­mer­ly ripped through. In the sev­en­ties, the Sig­nore returned to Sici­ly, leav­ing my father in charge of the bak­ery. Ini­tial­ly, my father told us that the Sig­nore had only left the place in his care until the time when he’d return to run it him­self. But with the pass­ing years, my father took own­er­ship of the bak­ery, although, once, in a moment of anger, my cousin Al-Absi told me that my father had, in fact, stolen it. I’d heard that before, though, from Assad­eq, Zainab’s broth­er. My father con­tin­ued to hire Libyan labor­ers and encour­aged them to learn how to make all kinds of breads, that is until our Broth­er and Leader decid­ed that peo­ple should be part­ners in all busi­ness­es. My father, heed­ing the advice of my shrewd uncle, has­tened to fire his work­ers before they turned on him. By then, the bak­ery was severe­ly under­staffed, with my uncle and myself the only two work­ing along­side my father, although he’d occa­sion­al­ly call on the assis­tance of a few fam­i­ly mem­bers scat­tered about Bir Hus­sein and the entire area of Bir Al-Osta Milad — it is said my great grand­fa­ther used to own the entire region until the Ital­ians robbed him of his land and turned it into farms that pro­duced almonds, grapes and olives. My uncle then came up with the idea of employ­ing Tunisian and Alger­ian work­ers, who, by law, own noth­ing in the country.


Libya’s Censored Novelist, Mohammed al-Naas, Revealed


With the new arrivals, the qual­i­ty of the bread declined, and The San­abel Bak­ery was reduced to the likes of all the oth­er bak­eries in the city. Peo­ple turned their backs on the French baguette and the sesame bread, which were ardu­ous to pre­pare and bake, and thus were duly pricey. Besides, the Leader ren­dered uni­form the price of bread through­out the coun­try, and The San­abel Bak­ery went from a refined “Patis­se­ria arti­sanali,” as my father used to call it, to an unre­mark­able one for the com­mon masses.

My sto­ry with the bak­ery kicked off when my father fought with the jan­i­tor after he demand­ed a raise in his week­ly wages. My father beat him up and told him that he hard­ly deserved what he was get­ting in the first place because as far as he was con­cerned, the bak­ery could hard­ly be con­sid­ered clean. In the sum­mer, I worked full-time and dur­ing school days my father would assign me chores either before school start­ed or after it end­ed. Dai­ly and unaid­ed, I would sweep then wash the floors, clean the sur­faces, and on occa­sion help in clean­ing the ovens. I gleaned clean­ing tips and tricks from my sis­ters. My father nev­er missed a chance to slap me or raise his voice at me when­ev­er I missed clean­ing any bits of flaky dough that had dropped and splat­tered on the floors and sur­faces. Some­times he’d kick me out, but then he’d call me back and make it up to me with an offer­ing of a hot loaf stuffed with fried eggs or tuna, which he’d pre­pare him­self. My father was ner­vous, hot-tem­pered, and didn’t like peo­ple, in stark con­trast to the gen­tle­ness with which he approached his dough, han­dling it with the utmost ten­der­ness. I now recall an inci­dent that hap­pened on the dawn of a hot summer’s day, the sun bare­ly risen, and the sweat already cours­ing down my face. I’d been busy mop­ping the place before I stood beside him to watch as he read­ied the first batch of dough that would go into the oven that day. I observed not only his use of a sharp razor blade to add the fin­ish­ing touch­es to the loaves, but also how utter­ly focused and immersed he was in brand­ing each one with his own trade­mark sig­na­ture. He then took note of my curios­i­ty, how entranced I was by the gleams of the sharp blade. He pulled me towards him until my body fold­ed neat­ly into the side of his big bulk, and he said:

—Look! These mark­ings are a baker’s sig­na­ture. Each bak­er should have one.
—Is that your signature?
—No, of course not, it’s a cogent signature.
—Cogent?
—Yes, a nod to my Ital­ian novi­tiate, you won’t find these mark­ings on any bread, any­where else in the entire city.
—I didn’t know that.
—Of course you don’t. You’re only a child. Now here, take it.
—The razor blade? It might cut me.
—If you’re going to hold it and trem­ble like a girl, then it’s def­i­nite­ly going to cut you. Come, slide the blade, gen­tly, cut a slight­ly arched line along the length of the loaf, just like the one you saw me do.
—What if I ruin it?
—So what if you do? You think these sav­ages will notice the dif­fer­ence? They’re igno­rant fools who know noth­ing about bread.—I’m ready.

That was my first true mem­o­ry with bread. The feel of the dough was as gen­tle to the touch as can­dy paste, the implant­ed blade slid­ing through with the ease of a fin­ger scrawl­ing some­thing through fine sand. It was pre­cise­ly at that moment that my hatred towards dough trans­formed into a love for it and a desire to learn more about it. But the best part of this mem­o­ry is what my father said to me: “Some­day, you’ll be the one who makes the bread.” But then it struck my father that the sit­u­a­tion had turned inti­mate, so he cast a quick glance around the bak­ery and yelled in my face: “How come you’re still not done with the clean­ing, you imbe­cile child? Hur­ry up and get back to work.”


(2)

What? Have I lost the thread to the sto­ry again? I apol­o­gize. But what else can I do? I spent the best days of my life in that bak­ery, and every time I think about it, I dwell on recap­tur­ing every detail, unaware of the pas­sage of time. Maybe the Madame told you about some of them because I remem­ber I told her every­thing in the days we con­versed at her house while I taught her how to make bread and sweets before we’d have tea and I’d pro­ceed to let her in on every­thing I knew about the secret lives of bak­eries. I’ve nev­er found any­one as pas­sion­ate about bread as the Madame, the total oppo­site of Zainab, who nev­er real­ly enjoyed my sto­ries about the bak­ery and my father; our con­ver­sa­tions cen­tered on dis­cussing her work­place or oth­er peo­ple, like when we’d spec­u­late on what our neigh­bor had done to anger her hus­band, who raised his voice in their gar­den like a ghoul’s, but I don’t recall us ever talk­ing about me for any extend­ed peri­od of time. She was the cen­ter, and my life revolved around her.

As I men­tioned, after my phone call with Al-Absi, I tried to get away from my thoughts, divert­ing them instead to bread, con­tem­plat­ing size, smell, and tex­ture.  I’ve always suc­ceed­ed in run­ning away from things: in my youth it was from my cousin’s shed, then school, the mil­i­tary acad­e­my, and lat­er myself. How­ev­er, that after­noon, run­ning away was prov­ing futile. Al-Absi’s words sim­ply fol­lowed me around, per­vad­ing every chore I under­took; whether it was wash­ing the dish­es, vig­or­ous­ly scrub­bing the tray or han­dling the glass­es, his words hov­ered close by while I tried swat­ting them away like flies, only for them to return as I washed the bowl of dough, and again as I left it to dry on the mar­ble sur­face. When the wash­ing failed to dis­tract me, I orga­nized the clothes I’d col­lect­ed from the clothes­line, and with the exper­tise of a retail work­er, I fold­ed and refold­ed my under­wear, doing the same with Zainab’s lin­gerie, but before I was about to place a flower-adorned, pink slip trimmed with lace on the floor to fold in half, a new thought assault­ed my mind: what if she had want­ed to wear this par­tic­u­lar piece? Ter­ri­fied of the answer, I raced to hap­haz­ard­ly arrange the rest of the clothes, the need to escape more press­ing than ever, but the phone con­ver­sa­tion between us had me cor­nered even as I neat­ly placed Zainab’s clothes in their place in the clos­et from which I thought I detect­ed the waft­ing scent of a man’s cologne; it could eas­i­ly have been mine, and yet I’d long lost all rec­ol­lec­tion of my own per­fume, instead inhal­ing the scent of my obses­sion after I’d thrown the bot­tle in the trash when I was done with it.

—Milad, wait. There’s some­thing impor­tant I need to talk to you about. It con­cerns you.

What a night that was. Al-Absi’s shed is nes­tled under the shade of a blessed fig tree that stretch­es back to the time of my grandfather’s first moth­er, before my great-grand­fa­ther divorced her to mar­ry anoth­er woman. The land it stood on had passed to my uncle, Mohammed, along with a dilap­i­dat­ed old house he tore down for a more lav­ish and mod­ern one. Each night, Al-Absi would invite dif­fer­ent folk from the neigh­bor­hood to join him in his shed, so that I rarely encoun­tered the same face twice. Al-Absi had an attrac­tive comedic char­ac­ter that appealed to the younger gen­er­a­tion, and he was not only aware of all the news of the neigh­bor­hood, but also knew the name of every liv­ing soul that inhab­it­ed it, from its youngest kid to its old­est geezer, includ­ing its birds and trees. He was the neigh­bor­hood star. Though many had their doubts about his san­i­ty, I don’t think I’ve ever encoun­tered a mind san­er than his. He nev­er worked a day in his life: a rebel against the laws of soci­ety that required him to work. I can say that, oth­er than the few times I saw him man the bakery’s cash reg­is­ter, he’d nev­er once picked up a shov­el, a mop, or any kind of tool, so that if ever he came up against any man­u­al labour, he always made sure to shove it my way. He did pick up occa­sion­al odd “jobs” to make ends meet, but even those he con­sid­ered as noth­ing more than pass­ing inter­ludes. He was sat­is­fied with a salary he received from the Press Foun­da­tion, which he would vis­it once a month or not at all for sev­er­al months, where he was sup­pos­ed­ly employed in the admin­is­tra­tive depart­ment despite the fact that he was nei­ther a jour­nal­ist nor in pos­ses­sion of a high school diploma.

Al-Absi was smart. I always wished I could be like him. He knew how to out­play the sys­tem to get what he want­ed. That night, I found two of Absi’s “totems” in atten­dance — Absi liked to label his friends with monikers bor­rowed from the Age of Igno­rance, like totem, Hubal, and Abu Jahl, among oth­ers. Although I was con­sid­ered one of his “dear­est” friends, it had been a month since I’d attend­ed one of these soirees, but my unusu­al attrac­tion to his world brought me back, yearn­ing to spend the evening in his com­pa­ny. Absi spent the whole night drink­ing Bookha, which he’d dis­tilled the week before, spin­ning tales of myths and leg­ends. He was always find­ing ways to embar­rass me by reveal­ing per­son­al anec­dotes that had tak­en place between the two of us, all of which invari­ably end­ed with his say­ing I swear to God, cousin, you are a wimp!, to which I would smile, light up a local “Sport” cig­a­rette, and take anoth­er sip of my Bookha, or else I’d get up to pre­pare a dish of mac­a­roni for the assem­bled crowd. On this night, Absi had abrupt­ly and angri­ly called it an ear­ly night for his two “friends” and kicked them out. The two had been dis­cussing the plot of a movie in which Absi’s cousin, who had fled the vil­lage a long time ago, and was now con­sid­ered one of the best writ­ers and direc­tors in the coun­try, had crit­i­cized the neigh­bor­hood, call­ing out its folk by name. I knew that, if any­thing, Absi held noth­ing but insane admi­ra­tion for his cousin and so I had my doubts as to his rea­sons when he stood up and drunk­en­ly rant­ed at them to leave, his pil­low rain­ing down on them as he chased them out, all while still man­ag­ing to hold on to his lit cig­a­rette. All night, I’d been watch­ing him plot a way to be rid of them, from show­er­ing them with a tor­rent of insults, to let­ting them know they were no longer wel­come to drink, eat, smoke, or play cards at his expense. And so they’d left, know­ing full well they’d all return the fol­low­ing night to do it all again. As I got ready to leave, assum­ing I, too, was being kicked out, he called out to me.

—What do you want Absi? Do you need more cigarettes?
—Of course I do, but first cousin, I want you to lend me your ears and lis­ten clear­ly to what I have to tell you. Come sit beside me. More Bookha?
—No, thanks. I’m done for the night.
—One glass, as usu­al, nev­er anoth­er. I admire your restraint, cousin. Only one of the many things I admire about you. Your con­tent­ment, kind­ness, easy­go­ing nature, and your cig­a­rettes. That’s not to say that there aren’t things I don’t like about you, or, actu­al­ly, that the peo­ple of this neigh­bor­hood don’t like about you, in fact if you ask me, I’d ven­ture to say that most peo­ple in this coun­try wouldn’t like either, espe­cial­ly that you’ve become the joke they trade amongst each oth­er to laugh at.
—A joke? I don’t understand.
—Yes, you totem. A joke. More than once I’ve tried to keep this from you to pro­tect your feel­ings, but your fame has rock­et­ed. Once, as your niece, Hana­di, was walk­ing to col­lege dressed in a pair of pants, I actu­al­ly heard some­one say: A fam­i­ly whose uncle is Milad.
—A fam­i­ly whose uncle is Milad? What does that even mean?
—It means peo­ple here see you as a cuck­old. I know your sis­ter is doing her utmost to raise her chil­dren alone, but where’s your author­i­ty Milad? You are now in the posi­tion of her father. You are the head of the family.
—My niece? She’s respectable. She walks in the street with eyes cast to the ground.
—That’s true, but she dress­es in pants, goes to uni­ver­si­ty and is enrolled in the Depart­ment of Arts and Media. It’s a depart­ment filled with fall­en women and tramps. I wor­ry that some bas­tards may take advan­tage of her, don’t you?
—Yes, but I trust her and so does her mother.
—You see? That’s why I want­ed to be hon­est with you, cousin. Hajj Mukhtar, May God Have Mer­cy on His Soul, would be deeply dis­pleased if he were alive to wit­ness the state his fam­i­ly is in today. My father tried to rea­son with your sis­ter, Sabah, this morn­ing but she threw him out of the house, can you imag­ine? Who does that to an old man?
—It’s unimag­in­able, and I told her, that no mat­ter what, he was still her uncle, and it wasn’t right for her to raise her voice in front of him, even if he had been wrong.
—Yes, my father may have over­stepped but he wasn’t wrong. Milad, open your mind, clear that hay from your barn, and set aside your stu­pid­i­ty and focus. We are one fam­i­ly. Any affront to one of its mem­bers is an affront to the entire fam­i­ly name.
—And the bak­ery? I said, my face crim­son with anger.
—What about the bakery?
—Your father stole it from me. I said and walked out.

This was the first time that Al-Absi had had opened up to me. It was a painful con­fronta­tion after which I decid­ed that I would nev­er return to his shed for as long as I lived.

Did you go back?

Argh, I’ve for­got­ten, let’s go back to the beginning.

 

Arab literatureArabicLibyan fiction

Mohammed Al-Naas is a Libyan writer, freelance journalist and fiction writer who is interested in alternative Libyan stories. He writes about gender roles, freedom of speech, social norms, cinema and other marginalized aspects of life in Libya. His novel Bread on Uncle Milad's Table won the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Rana Asfour is a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at BookFabulous.com and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.