Jul 242018

Today is carnaval d’Aoussou, an annual festival in Sousse in Tunisia. It primarily involves a parade of symbolic chariots, fanfares, and folk groups from Tunisia and elsewhere, and takes place near the beach of Boujaafar, on the eve of the beginning of ‘Awussu (the word designating the heat wave of the month of August according to the Berber calendar). It purportedly derives from the Roman feast of Neptunalia celebrating the god of the seas, Neptune, in the Roman province of Africa. Like all speculations of this sort about modern customs, I have my doubts. There is almost zero primary evidence to connect the two festivals. In the modern era, prior to the Tunisian revolution, the festival was used for political propaganda.

The Neptunalia was an obscure two-day festival in honor of Neptune as god of waters, celebrated in Rome in the heat and drought of summer, probably 23rd July (Varro, De lingua Latina vi.19). It was one of the dies comitiales, when committees of citizens could vote on civil or criminal matters. In the ancient calendar this day is marked as Nept. ludi et feriae, or Nept. ludi. Respecting the ceremonies of this festival almost nothing is known, except that the people used to build huts of branches and foliage, in which they probably feasted, drank, and amused themselves with games (Horace Odes iii.28.1, &c.; Tertullian De Spectaculis (“On Celebrations”). I labored translating Horace’s Odes for A-level Latin, and generally disliked his poetry. As you can see from this Ode concerning the Neptunalia, it is riddled with obscure references:

Neptune’s feast-day! what should a man
Think of doing first? Lyde mine, be bold,
Broach the treasured Caecuban,
And batter Wisdom in her own stronghold.
Now the full noon has passed,
Yet, certainly, you are sure swift Time has stopped,
Reluctant as you are to pull
Old Bibulus’ wine-jar from its sleepy vault.
I will take my turn and sing
Neptune and Nereus’ train with locks of green;
You shall warble to the string
Latona and her Cynthia’s arrowy sheen.
Hers our latest song, who sways
Cnidos and Cyclads, and to Paphos goes
With her swans, on holy days;
Night too shall claim the homage that music owes.

Any more enlightened? Drink and sing all day seems to be the main message. Other sources imply that the Neptunalia was a time of general festivity in the heat of summer, that did not entail the usual Roman constraints on the social mixing of men and women. Neptune was not an especially important god in ancient Rome. Only one temple was dedicated to him. In North Africa things may have been different, and the Neptunalia may have been more significant because of the blistering July and August heat. Nonetheless, there is no reason to see the carnaval d’Aoussou as a direct descendant. Like European customs of similarly obscure origins, my surmise is that it began in the 19th or 20th centuries, with a tip of the hat to old Roman customs.

For Tunisian cuisine we have to focus on Harissa (Arabic: هريسة‎ harīsa, from Maghrebi Arabic). Harissa has been called the national spice of Tunisia, although it is found across the Maghrebi region. It is a hot chile pepper paste, the main ingredients of which are roasted red peppers, Baklouti (بقلوطي) pepper, serrano peppers, and other hot chiles, spices and herbs such as garlic paste, coriander seed, saffron, rose, or caraway, as well as some vegetable or olive oil for preservation. Chiles were probably introduced to Tunisia during the Spanish occupation between 1535 and 1574. Recipes for harissa vary according to the household and region. Variations can include the addition of cumin, red bell peppers, lemon juice. Ingredients can also include fermented onions, garlic, peppers or tomato paste. Prepared harissa is sold in jars, cans, bottles, tubes, or plastic bags, but home made is generally superior. In Tunisia, harissa is used as an ingredient in a meat (poultry, beef, goat or lamb) or fish stew with vegetables, and as a flavoring for couscous. It is also used for lablabi, a chickpea soup usually eaten for breakfast. Tunisia is the biggest exporter of prepared harissa. In 2006, the Tunisian production of harissa was 22,000 tonnes.

Here’s a video which gives some ideas at the end concerning how to eat harissa plain. The written recipe with ingredient amounts is here: https://www.harissahouse.com

Jun 082014


On this date in 632 Muhammad, founding Islamic prophet, died in Medina. The circumstances surrounding his death are confusing and there is some debate about them depending on how you read the sources. The main source is the hadith Ṣaḥīḥ di al-Bukhārī (صحيح البخاري‎), one of the Kutub al-Sittah (six major hadith collections) of Sunni Islam. These prophetic traditions, or hadith, were collected by the Persian Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari, after being transmitted orally for 200 years. Sunni Muslims view this as one of the three most trusted collections of hadith along with Sahih Muslim and Muwatta Imam Malik. In some circles it is considered the most authentic book after the Quran. The Arabic word sahih translates as “authentic” or “correct.” I’ve done my best to distill out the essence of these traditions into a brief and, I hope, coherent narrative.

Islamic tradition states that in 620, Muhammad experienced the Isra and Mi’raj, a miraculous journey said to have occurred with the angel Gabriel in one night. In the beginning of the journey, the Isra, he is said to have travelled from Mecca on a winged steed (Buraq) to “the farthest mosque” (in Arabic: masjid al-aqsa), which Muslims usually identify with the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Later, during the Mi’raj, Muhammad is said to have toured heaven and hell, and spoken with earlier prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Ibn Ishaq, author of the first biography of Muhammad, presents the event as a spiritual experience; later historians, like Al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir, present it as a physical journey.


In June 622, warned of a plot to assassinate him, Muhammad secretly slipped out of Mecca, where he had been living, and moved his followers to Medina, 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Mecca. This event is known as the Hijra and is celebrated annually on the first day of the Muslim year. Subsequently Muhammad fought a series of wars, first with Mecca, and then with a number of Arab groups in order to unify all Arabs and to create a single Islamic polity in Arabia. One of the most famous battles was the battle of Khaybar (629), a heavily fortified oasis occupied by Jews.

Muhammad conquered the town with considerable bloodshed. In the aftermath of the battle the hadith record that a Jewish woman Zeynab bint Al-Harith, whose male relatives had all been killed attempted to poison Muhammad to avenge her slain relatives. She poisoned a piece of lamb that she cooked for Muhammad and his companion, putting an especially heavy dose of poison into the shoulder, Muhammad’s favorite part of lamb. The attempt on Muhammad’s life failed, by some accounts because he spat out the meat, feeling that it was poisoned, while his companion ate the meat and died. However, it is also reported that Muhammad believed it was this poisoning that eventually killed him. Sahih Bukhari and Ibn Sa’d record the following in relation to the incident:

Narrated Anas bin Malik: A Jewess brought a poisoned (cooked) sheep for the Prophet who ate from it. She was brought to the Prophet and he was asked, “Shall we kill her?” He said, “No.” I continued to see the effect of the poison on the palate of the mouth of Allah’s Apostle .

Narrated ‘Aisha: The Prophet in his ailment in which he died, used to say, “O ‘Aisha! I still feel the pain caused by the food I ate at Khaibar, and at this time, I feel as if my aorta is being cut from that poison.”

The apostle of Allah sent for Zaynab and said to her, “What induced you to do what you have done?” She replied, “You have done to my people what you have done. You have killed my father, my uncle and my husband, so I said to myself, “If you are a prophet, the foreleg will inform you; and others have said, “If you are a king we will get rid of you.”

In 632, at the end of the tenth year after migration to Medina, Muhammad completed his first truly Islamic pilgrimage, thereby teaching his followers the rites of the annual Great Pilgrimage, known as Hajj. After completing the pilgrimage, Muhammad delivered a famous speech, known as The Farewell Sermon, at Mount Arafat east of Mecca. In this sermon, Muhammad advised his followers not to follow certain pre-Islamic customs. According to Sunni tafsir (interpretations), the following Quranic verse was delivered during this event: “Today I have perfected your religion, and completed my favors for you and chosen Islam as a religion for you” (Quran 5:3). According to Shia tafsir, it refers to the appointment of Ali ibn Abi Talib at the pond of Khumm as Muhammad’s successor, this occurring a few days later when Muslims were returning from Mecca to Medina.


The following snippets from the hadith describe Muhammad’s last days. Like the Quran, the hadith tend to be fragments rather than continuous narrative in the conventional Western sense:

Narrated ‘Aisha: that during his fatal ailment, Allah’s Apostle, used to ask his wives, “Where shall I stay tomorrow? Where shall I stay tomorrow?” He was looking forward to Aisha’s turn. So all his wives allowed him to stay where he wished.

He came out with the help of two men and his legs were dragging on the ground. He was between Al-Abbas and another man [Ali Ibn Abi Talib].

Then he [Muhammad] ordered them to do three things. He said, “Turn the pagans out of the ‘Arabian Peninsula; respect and give gifts to the foreign delegations as you have seen me dealing with them.”

Narrated ‘Aisha and Ibn ‘Abbas: On his death-bed Allah’s Apostle put a sheet over his-face and when he felt hot, he would remove it from his face. When in that state (of putting and removing the sheet) he said, “May Allah’s Curse be on the Jews and the Christians for they build places of worship at the graves of their prophets.” (By that) he intended to warn (the Muslim) from what they (i.e. Jews and Christians) had done.

On the 8th of June, 632 Aisha, his third and favorite wife, watched Muhammad finally die, slumped on her bosom.

Narrated Aisha: In front of him there was a jug or a tin, (The sub-narrator, ‘Umar is in doubt as to which was right) containing water. He started dipping his hand in the water and rubbing his face with it, he said, “None has the right to be worshipped except Allah. Death has its agonies.” He then lifted his hands (towards the sky) and started saying, “With the highest companion,” till he expired and his hand dropped down.

‘Aisha added: He died on the day of my usual turn at my house. Allah took him unto Him while his head was between my chest and my neck and his saliva was mixed with my saliva.

The funeral is described thus:

Ali ibn Abi ?alib, the fourth Rightly-guided Caliph of Islam (and also Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin) and some others took charge of washing Muhammad, but unlike others, he was washed with his clothes remaining on his body.

By Allah, we did not know whether we should take off the clothes of the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) as we took off the clothes of our dead, or wash him while his clothes were on him. When they (the people) differed among themselves, Allah cast slumber over them until every one of them had put his chin on his chest.

Then a speaker spoke from a side of the house, and they did not know who he was: Wash the Prophet (peace be upon him) while his clothes are on him. So they stood round the Prophet (peace be upon him) and washed him while he had his shirt on him. They poured water on his shirt, and rubbed him with his shirt and not with their hands…

Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu’minin: Aisha used to say: If I had known beforehand about my affair what I found out later, none would have washed him except his wives.

Narrated Abdullah ibn Abbas: The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) was shrouded in three garments made in Najran: two garments and one shirt in which he died.


Finally, after a delay, he was buried quietly in the house in which he died, near what is now the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. During the reign of the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I, the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (the Mosque of the Prophet) was expanded to include the site of Muhammad’s tomb. The Green Dome above the tomb was built by the Mamluk sultan Al Mansur Qalawun in the 13th century, although the green color was added in the 16th century, under the reign of Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Among tombs adjacent to that of Muhammad are those of his companions (Sahabah), the first two Muslim caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar, and an empty one that Muslims believe awaits Jesus. When bin Saud took Medina in 1805, Muhammad’s tomb was stripped of its gold and jewel ornaments. Adherents to Wahhabism, bin Saud’s followers, destroyed nearly every tomb dome in Medina in order to prevent their veneration, and the one of Muhammad is said to have narrowly escaped. Similar events took place in 1925 when the Saudi militias retook—and this time managed to keep—the city. In the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, burial is to take place in unmarked graves. Although frowned upon by the Saudis, many pilgrims continue to practice a ziyarat—a ritual visit—to the tomb. Even though banned by the Saudis, the first photos from inside of the tomb of Muhammad and his daughter’s (Fatemeh) house were published in October 2012 demonstrating a very simple construction, decorated in green.

Muhammad united the tribes of Arabia into a single Arab Muslim religious polity in the last years of his life. With Muhammad’s death, disagreement broke out over who his successor would be. Umar ibn al-Khattab, a prominent companion of Muhammad, nominated Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s friend and collaborator. With additional support Abu Bakr was confirmed as the first caliph. This choice was disputed by some of Muhammad’s companions, who held that Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, had been designated the successor by Muhammad at Ghadir Khumm. This dispute led to the rift between Sunni and Shia, Sunni following the succession of Abu Bakr, and Shia, the succession of Abi Talib. Current estimates vary, but Sunni represent the great majority of Muslims: anywhere from 75% to 90%.

The hadith report various dishes that Muhammad enjoyed. One of them was Haris (also Harees or Harisa). Haris is a thick soup of whole wheat grains and lamb with spices still known throughout the Arabic world. This is not to be confused with Harissa, a north African fiery paste of hot peppers and spices. It is usually made with wheat but can also be made with barley




500g lamb leg steak, cubed
200g haris (whole wheat) soaked overnight in water
500ml water
50g clarified butter
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp roast cumin seeds
ground sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste


Place the lamb, soaked wheat, and 500ml water in a pan. Bring to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Skim-off any froth or fat that rises to the surface during this time.

Take off the heat and allow to cool a little. Then transfer to a food processor and render to a smooth paste.

Transfer to a warmed serving bowl and set aside.

Meanwhile, combine the clarified butter, cinnamon and cumin in a pan. Season to taste and allow to heat through. Pour the mixture over the lamb and wheat and serve immediately with flatbread.