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