Bennani’s house: the couscous habous library
Bennani restored the tradition of couscous habous following the death of his mother. At first he would bring a huge plate of couscous to the nearby mosque, but later offer it to visitors to the house. From now on, couscous dinners take place every Wednesday during academic periods. “I reintroduced couscous to create a friendly atmosphere [weekly event] to complement the other activities of Beit el Bennani, ”he explained. Aside from running the library, Bennani has always had an open door policy for cultural activities like open-air projections of documentaries, films and photographs, where “young people come to watch sitting on carpets in the courtyard”.
All are welcome, he says, and he has had visitors from as far away as the United States and Japan, although most of his couscous diners are cash-strapped students from the more regions. poor people of Tunisia. “These are the new poor,” he explained. “They come from the disadvantaged region of the interior, not from the capital. Bennani’s weekly couscous dinners not only fill their bellies, but also feed their spirits. Students make friends and discuss ideas, while Bennani indulges in his greatest love – sharing knowledge of his latest archival discoveries.
Inside the labyrinthine streets of the medina, Bennani showed me the sales spaces he rents to support the habous, rue des Bibliothèques, a cobbled street shaded from the harsh summer sun by a leaf roof of dried palm. The street once lined with booksellers is now mostly filled with jewelers, watchmakers and knickknacks.
We then walked to the large central market in Tunis, where he buys the vegetables for his couscous. He introduced me to his favorite sellers, making jokes with everyone who stopped to say hello. At a stall he showed me the beloved bright green peppers in Tunisian cuisine. He explained that onion, carrot, pumpkin and potato are staple vegetables in Tunisian couscous, but others like white and purple zucchini and turnips are used when they are in season.