In Libya, sheep heads are a side dish

“So, I read about a specialty – bazin. Can I get that anywhere?”

I was in Tripoli, Libya, where we were running a video workshop with kids from around the country. The logistics for each workshop were different, and for this one, the organizer enlisted a rotating crew of work colleagues to serve as translators. I liked this set up, because it meant that we got to know a group of local young men and women during our time there.

That day, during a break, I was talking to Nabeel, who was built like a bodyguard but whose face welcomed you with a smile.


First stage of bazin, with lamb.

“You know bazin?” he asked, surprised.

I explained that I was pretty obsessed with food, and for each trip, even before learning about the politics of a place, I would research the food. Food, of course, is such a part of a places’s culture. And this way I would know what to expect during the trip and what specialties I might want to try to find.

“Well, that’s one of those home-cooked dishes,” Nabeel continued, explaining that it was something that was cooked by hand, and consumed communally. “Most restaurants won’t serve it because you eat with your hands and you only want to do that with people you trust.”

Our conversation shifted to other topics, most of which revolved around the revolution and the current state of affairs in the counry. It was January 2013. Gaddafi had been killed a little over a year earlier, but it still felt fresh, especially after 40+ years of his rule. There wasn’t a plan yet for the country, but the young people with us had hope that this next stage would be better than the one they had been under their entire lives before now.

A few nights later, we held our final screening and were celebrating with the kids and translators outside on the street. Ahmed approached me.

“So, do you still want to try bazin?”

His mom had offered to make it for our team (maybe inspired by this random American’s interest in trying it?). I couldn’t believe my good fortune, but I was also not surprised. The people that I met there were so friendly, generous and open, I’m sure partly because an American in Tripoli was so unusual.

We made plans to gather our team and the translators for a dinner in a few days.

When the night came, our driver Abdul picked us up and drove us out of downtown, stopping to pick up Arabic sweets from the best place in town. We drove for a while, on very dark roads, and it seemed like we were not quite sure where we were going.

An hour later, we finally arrived at a compound with a few dark shops and a one-room out-building with only three walls. In the middle of the room was a long table covered by a plastic tablecloth, stocked with bottles of Fanta and Coke.

At one end of the table was a large bowl with a lid, wrapped up in a towel.

Nabeel explains that the space belonged to the butcher shop on the premises and they had very generously allowed him to use it. “You need a big space, since it’s communal, and we couldn’t fit all these people in our house.” We pulled up plastic chairs and poured the sodas around.

“Before we have the bazin, the butcher provided some side dishes for us.”

In Tripoli, most restaurants serve you a few small complimentary snacks at the start of your meal – usually olives and a spicy mixture of mashed pumpkin, olive oil and spices. So I’m thinking the side dishes will probably be olives, maybe some salad, and a dip or two.

In comes a man carrying various plates, setting them down in front of us.
Plates of stewed liver, lamb sausages, and blood sausage.

And two plates of sheep heads.

Entact sheep heads, roasted whole, and staring up at us from the plates.


Roasted sheep heads.

Side dishes. I love their interpretation of side dishes.

These guys have no idea that I love head meat. I flash a look of joy and dig my fingers into the head, as there are no utensils.

First the cheek. Then the brain (not such a fan…it’s a texture thing). And then the tongue. Oh so good. How satisfying is it to dig your hands into a sheep head, pulling out chunks of slow-roasted, savory meat?

The translators are pretty impressed. “You’re Libyan” they exclaim. I’m not sure if they’re impressed because I’m eating the head, because I dug in with fingers, because I’m American, or because I’m a woman. I’m guessing a little bit of everything.

We eat, sharing conversation, talking about the cultural norms for men and women. Women aren’t supposed to laugh out loud. Someone tells us that if a cousin is driving with his sister and she’s laughing at something, he makes her roll the windows up. We talk about curfews, gender expectations, and politics. They share the impressions they have of Americans and Europeans (my colleagues are Dutch) and if they are different now. We tell them what people back home perceive about Libya.

Then, it’s time for the main attraction –the bazin.

Ahmed brings the bowl down from the other end of the table.

He removes the towel, revealing a grey-hued dome of sdough, with a moat around it. The dough is made of barley flour, cooked with water, stirred, and pounded into stiff dough (think a very thick polenta or fufu) and formed into a dome. In the “moat” are fist-sized hunks of lamb.

Nabeel explains that first we eat the lamb. So we all dig in, pulling off pieces of tender meat. Once we’ve had enough, he brings over a pot and takes of the lid. The smell of a spices, garlic and tomatoes escapes. Everyone leans back, to avoid the steam while he pours its contents over the dome, submerging it to the edge of the bowl. In the sauce are chunks of potato, carrot, and hard-boiled eggs.

“Now, with your fingers, you break off pieces of dough, dip it into the sauce and mash it together until it absorbs the sauce.” He explains this is why you don’t eat it with people you don’t trust, because you’re smushing all the food up with your germs.

Libya_eatingEveryone digs in, breaking off the dough, combining it with the sauce and bits of the vegetables and eggs. It’s delicious, and not quite like anything I’ve had before. The flavors are similar to a tagine, but the components all manage to maintain their separate tastes. It’s clearly a labor of love. *

One by one, my friends (new and old) have their fill, but I’m not quite done yet. I keep going back for more, partly because it’s so delicious, but also the experience warrants it. I won’t ever have one like this again – we’ve been “adopted” by these young men, trusted with their opinions, and fed by their mothers. It’s an evening for sharing cultures, in a time and place where the concept of freedom of expression is just beginning to filter through the people.

We relax around the table, leisurely talking, passing around the sweets.. The shop owner has brought in a round of special Libyan tea, brewed strong and sweet with while roasted almonds mixed in. Nabeel has saved half the box of sweets for his mom. “She’ll love these,” he says, with a warm smile. It’s the least we could do.

*After looking up recipes for bazin to try to recreate it at home, I realize the other reason this isn’t served in restaurants. It’s incredibly time consuming (like many traditional recipes), involving sitting on the floor with a pot between your legs, stirring with both arms for a long time to get the right texture.


The end of the bazin.

– Karen Cirillo

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