At last winter is at an end in Libya and the sun is high in the sky. This marks the start of Jalamah, the season for removing the sheep’s fleece, its protection against the bitter cold of the winter months. It is a time of year eagerly awaited by sheep farmers.
The Jalamah season usually begins in late April and continues through most of May, with sheep farmers keen to remove their sheep’s wool once the weather has become warmer.
The Jalamah has several practical benefits, as it helps sheep cope in hot weather and gain more weight. In addition to this, the season has become an annual ritual that highlights a fascinating part of the local culture, and as such now attracts many visitors to enjoy its delights.
In the early hours of the morning, men rush to set up their tents to shelter themselves from the spring heat and dusty winds that blow over Libya once winter ends.
Not all of those tents are for rest and relaxation, as some are reserved for the sheep whose wool needs to be cropped by volunteers called raghata, the Libyan term for sheep shearers.
As the sheep await their turn to be shorn of their heavy coats, they are brought into neighbouring corrals surrounded by barbed wire to prevent them from escaping. The sheep owner then distributes the necessary tools, most importantly the large steel scissors made by local smiths.
Not all raghatas are equal, with the more powerful ones tasked with catching and lifting the sheep from the corral and placing them in front of a colleague for shearing, using some technicalities that go far beyond their muscle strength. At this moment, a poet stands up to recite a few verses highly praising the skill and sleight of hand with the scissors to quickly remove the fleece.
As the shearing begins, white smoke can be seen coming from an isolated tent as a delicious smell infuses the surroundings. Inside this tent, a chef and his assistant stand near a large aluminium cooking pot to prepare breakfast and lunch for the crowd. A sheep owner has slaughtered a lamb in the morning and cut it into large chops.
Having worked for several hours, participants sit on the floor in circles for breakfast where they eat qalaya, meaning the fried internal organs of the lamb: its heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas are special delicacies.
When everyone has finished, a man walks among the crowd serving cups of red and green tea flavoured with peppermint. It is noticeable that those taking part show a great interest in tea-sipping after they have finished their fried offal.
After a short break, a fierce competition begins between participants in both sheep shearing and in reciting improvised verses.
Poets never miss the opportunity to allude symbolically to stories of their love life, whilst others recite verses about the beloved they never met.
Politics and governance are never far away on this occasion, as sheep become a metaphor for the people, with the shepherd as ruler. If the ruler is unfair, then he is referred to as the wolf. To draw an example, one of the poets in the 1980s recited a verse figuratively wishing that someone could emerge from among the Libyan people to hunt down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and assassinate him.
When the shearers are exhausted and hungry, one of the poets yells out for food, to which someone in the cooking tent reacts by saying “Four .. four,” meaning that participants are allowed to enter the tent in groups of four to have their rice with lamb chops, served in big pots.