‘Shmattes’ in Tunisia

By the end of the second week before D-Day, the balcony and the kitchen were among the last outposts for a piece of bread or a cookie.

tunisia pessah 311 (photo credit: Beit Hatfutsot)
tunisia pessah 311
(photo credit: Beit Hatfutsot)
A true Tunisian Seder starts well before Pessah – about two or three days before, at the latest. After Purim, a respectable Tunisian mother (mine in this case) would announce to the family that hametz would no longer be allowed in the living room or bedrooms.
These admonitions were often followed by a remark about how “Mrs. So-and-So has already koshered her entire house,” which was invariably followed by a deep sigh.
By the end of the second week before D-Day, the balcony and the kitchen were among the last outposts for a piece of bread or a cookie, though suspicious eyes would still follow your every move until the last crumbs were duly collected into a small plastic bag and thrown into the garbage.
Along with the narrowing of the hametz zones in the house, and the Pessah cleaning verging on neurosis, a prodigious number of “kosher for Pessah” products started filling the kitchen, the hallway and eventually even spilling into the living room. No limits were imposed on the preparations for the freedom festival. The highlight, at least in my early childhood, was the three-day immersion of all the glass utensils in large tin basins scattered throughout the house.
At the Seder itself, every family member and guest had at least one or two pillows to prop up their backs or place under their arms, in order to feel fully reclined, enabling us to lean far to the left as we drank the cups of wine.
The preparation of the Seder plate was entrusted solely to my father – we children were only entitled to stand at a respectful distance and quietly follow the various steps: a real leg of lamb was used for the zeroa, each guest had a boiled egg, the haroset was homemade, the salt water was as salty as can be, to ensure nobody would forget for a moment that we were still in exile.
After checking for hametz, we would commemorate the Exodus: standing on our feet, wrapped in various shmattes resembling Beduin robes, each one of us holding a baton (usually a broomstick), we would eat roasted meat in memory of the Pessah offering that our ancestors ate the night before their departure from Egypt.
Since only the men had sufficient knowledge of Hebrew, my father used to read first in Hebrew, then translate the Haggada into a Judeo-Arabic dialect for my grandparents and finally into French for the children, which made the affair quite protracted. A break came after the first cup of wine: the Haggada reading stopped and we all prepared ourselves for the first treat – special herb meatballs, accompanied by a series of salads.
After the second cup was poured, the children were sent for a tour of the Holy Land. Wrapped in blankets reminiscent of our ancestors’ biblical robes, holding sacks on our backs, we were sent to another room for at least five minutes, and were expected to return with wonderful stories about the Land of Israel.
The desert and mountains, Lake Kinneret and Jerusalem were all jumbled together in our accounts, but the general description sounded magnificent. No critics were permitted; we were explicitly instructed to bring only good news from the Holy land.
Then came the dinner, which included msuki (a dish of fresh vegetables cooked in a spicy sauce with lamb meat and intestines stuffed with meat, spices and coriander), followed by another dish known as fad (a very spicy stew of organ meat such as heart, lung, liver, gizzards, etc.).
There was a ritual in which someone would sigh and say, “What a pity we cannot taste the sauce with some bread,” a remark met by my mother’s hushing: “We don’t mention bread on Pessah!” The matza back in Tunisia was quite different from the matza commonly found in Israel. It was round, hard and very difficult to chew and digest. The table sagged under an array of dozens of salads, each made based on one of the vegetables in season. Until we had lived in Israel for many years, the fish was always a spicy Tunisian fish called hraime.
The end of the main portion of the Seder was indicated by the singingof “Had Gadya,” first in Aramaic, then in Arabic and finally in French.Once the table was cleared, my father would open his Bible and sing, tohimself and for those of us who could still keep our eyes open, theSong of Songs.
At the end of the week, when Pessah came to a close, we had twotraditions: Back in Tunisia, our Arab neighbors would show up, bringingus fresh bread, specially baked for us, and my mother would place greenleaves on the lamps in every room, while the other family members wouldalso place one leaf in their hair, as a sign of the onset of spring.