To discover Tripoli’s breakfast of champions, you must find your way through arcaded streets of crumbling colonial Italian architecture in the heart of the Libyan capital until you reach an unassuming doorway framed by blue geometrically patterned tiles. This is Haj Fathi, a hole-in-the-wall place that has been feeding Tripolitanians since 1970.
Most likely, you will have to wait. The line at Haj Fathi often stretches out the door and down the street. In among the regulars lining up alongside you will see an off-duty militiaman or two from the myriad armed groups that sprang up in Tripoli after Moammar Gadhafi was toppled in 2011. These militiamen still control the city.
At one point, back in the heady days of early 2012, when so much seemed possible in post-Gadhafi Libya, those waiting in line at Haj Fathi included foreign diplomats. In June that year, photographs of then–U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in an open-necked shirt chatting with staff as he ordered at the counter went viral on Libyan social media. Three months later, he was dead, killed in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya’s second city, Benghazi. The optimism that many Libyans previously professed about their country’s future never quite returned.
I spent months in Libya in 2011, reporting on the uprising that brought Gadhafi’s 42-year-old regime to an end. I returned to live in Tripoli three years later, renting a room from a Libyan family whose apartment was just a short walk from Haj Fathi. Looking back, I often refer to 2014 as the year of the great unraveling, a year when Libya tipped into a bitter conflict that divided the country in ways that are still felt today.
But in between attempted coups and militia battles that year, one thing remained constant: breakfast at Haj Fathi. The house specialty is what is known to Libyans as baryoosh, a pastry that looks like a croissant but tastes sweet like brioche, hence the Arabized name. So famous is Tripoli for its baryoosh that during the 2011 uprising, fighters from other cities, who claimed to have liberated the capital, derided their local counterparts as thuwar baryoosh, or “brioche revolutionaries.”
In 2013 demonstrators calling for the militias to withdraw waved the crescent-shaped pastry in the air while chanting, ‘What’s wrong with baryoosh?’
Tripolitanians would later turn that slur into a symbol of protest against the armed groups that went to the city to oust Gadhafi and then refused to leave. In 2013 demonstrators calling for the militias to withdraw waved the crescent-shaped pastry in the air while chanting, “What’s wrong with baryoosh?”
At Haj Fathi’s—considered by many Tripolitanians to sell the best baryoosh in the capital—the most popular breakfast is baryoosh drenched with Libyan honey, topped with crushed almonds and served with a fresh fruit frappé or date juice. With a nus-nus (a shot of espresso dashed with milk) to go, Haj Fathi’s customers leave fortified for whatever the day may bring. Some mornings that might mean dodging a militia flare-up on the streets.
Some of my most vivid memories of Libya are bound up with food: eating tuna sandwiches laced with spicy harissa paste with rebel fighters on the front line in 2011 and savoring the delicious Amazigh (or Berber) dishes cooked by members of the family I lived with in Tripoli. They used peppery olive oil from their groves in the mountains west of the capital and much-prized terfas, or desert truffles, when in season. I remember swapping recipes with a Libyan friend who set up a blog so the world could know more about Libyan cuisine—enjoying the movable feast that was a picnic dinner at the beach during the hot summer months, when daylong power shortages drove many from stifling homes, and celebrating weddings with delicate sweets and glasses of rozata, a syrupy drink made with almonds.
Libyan friends often joke that their national cuisine is unlikely to ever win any culinary prizes, but taken together, the country’s most loved recipes say much about its history. There’s bazeen, a communal savory dish made from barley flour that originated with the indigenous, non-Arab Berbers; shakshouka, a hearty breakfast of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce that many trace back to Libya’s Jewish population; and the numerous variations on macarona (pasta), that nod to Italy’s colonization of the country in the early 20th century. The Italian legacy also most likely explains the Libyan obsession with pizza, gelato, and excellent coffee. In downtown Tripoli you can find a silky espresso as good as any in Rome. The colonnaded streets, dazzling white in the sun, of this part of the city are one of the reasons Libyans visiting the Italian capital for the first time often remark that it reminds them of their own.
One of Libya’s many paradoxes is that Tripoli, despite enduring militia clashes at regular intervals (in August this year, fighting between armed groups resulted in at least 120 people dead, most of them civilians), sees several new restaurant or café openings every week. Libyans are being introduced to new flavors and ways of cooking. But for me, a breakfast baryoosh from Haj Fathi washed down with a nus-nus will always be the taste of Tripoli.