Omar al-Mukhtar, the leader of the Libyan resistance to the Italian colonial forces was executed in Sullug outside of Benghazi by the Italians on this day 89 years ago— September 16, 1931—after having finally been captured a few days before. Below is the photograph from the time of his detention prior to execution that has now become iconic.
By the early 1930s the Libyan resistance, although increasingly unable to hold back the Italian advances, had become known around the Arab world and Omar al-Mukhtar had become a symbol of resistance to colonialism in the Middle East more generally. His execution prompted the famous Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi (1868-1932), the “Prince of Poets” (أمير الشعراء) to write an elegy (رثاء) in his honor, written not long before Shawqi himself passed away in Cairo. (A clear recitation is here for those who’d prefer to listen to it being read aloud.)
رَكَزوا رُفاتَكَ في الرِمالِ لِواءَ يَستَنهِضُ الوادي صَباحَ مَساءَ
يا وَيحَهُم نَصَبوا مَناراً مِن دَمٍ توحي إِلى جيلِ الغَدِ البَغضاءَ
ما ضَرَّ لَو جَعَلوا العَلاقَةَ في غَدٍ بَينَ الشُعوبِ مَوَدَّةً وَإِخاءَ
جُرحٌ يَصيحُ عَلى المَدى وَضَحِيَّةٌ تَتَلَمَّسُ الحُرِّيَةَ الحَمراءَ
يا أَيُّها السَيفُ المُجَرَّدُ بِالفَلا يَكسو السُيوفَ عَلى الزَمانِ مَضاءَ
تِلكَ الصَحاري غِمدُ كُلِّ مُهَنَّدٍ أَبلى فَأَحسَنَ في العَدُوِّ بَلاءَ
وَقُبورُ مَوتى مِن شَبابِ أُمَيَّةٍ وَكُهولِهِم لَم يَبرَحوا أَحياءَ
لَو لاذَ بِالجَوزاءِ مِنهُم مَعقِلٌ دَخَلوا عَلى أَبراجِها الجَوزاءَ
فَتَحوا الشَمالَ سُهولَهُ وَجِبالَهُ وَتَوَغَّلوا فَاِستَعمَروا الخَضراءَ
وَبَنَوا حَضارَتَهُم فَطاوَلَ رُكنُها دارَ السَلامِ وَجِلَّقَ الشَمّاءَ
خُيِّرتَ فَاِختَرتَ المَبيتَ عَلى الطَوى لَم تَبنِ جاهاً أَو تَلُمَّ ثَراءَ
إِنَّ البُطولَةَ أَن تَموتَ مِن الظَما لَيسَ البُطولَةُ أَن تَعُبَّ الماءَ
إِفريقيا مَهدُ الأُسودِ وَلَحدُها ضَجَّت عَلَيكَ أَراجِلاً وَنِساءَ
وَالمُسلِمونَ عَلى اِختِلافِ دِيارِهِم لا يَملُكونَ مَعَ المُصابِ عَزاءَ
وَالجاهِلِيَّةُ مِن وَراءِ قُبورِهِم يَبكونَ زيدَ الخَيلِ وَالفَلحاءَ
في ذِمَّةِ اللَهِ الكَريمِ وَحِفظِهِ جَسَدٌ بِبُرقَةَ وُسِّدَ الصَحراءَ
لَم تُبقِ مِنهُ رَحى الوَقائِعِ أَعظُماً تَبلى وَلَم تُبقِ الرِماحُ دِماءَ
كَرُفاتِ نَسرٍ أَو بَقِيَّةِ ضَيغَمٍ باتا وَراءَ السافِياتِ هَباءَ
بَطَلُ البَداوَةِ لَم يَكُن يَغزو عَلى تَنَكٍ وَلَم يَكُ يَركَبُ الأَجواءَ
لَكِن أَخو خَيلٍ حَمى صَهَواتِها وَأَدارَ مِن أَعرافِها الهَيجاءَ
لَبّى قَضاءَ الأَرضِ أَمسِ بِمُهجَةٍ لَم تَخشَ إِلّا لِلسَماءِ قَضاءَ
وافاهُ مَرفوعَ الجَبينِ كَأَنَّهُ سُقراطُ جَرَّ إِلى القُضاةِ رِداءَ
شَيخٌ تَمالَكَ سِنَّهُ لَم يَنفَجِر كَالطِفلِ مِن خَوفِ العِقابِ بُكاءَ
وَأَخو أُمورٍ عاشَ في سَرّائِها فَتَغَيَّرَت فَتَوَقَّعَ الضَرّاءَ
الأُسدُ تَزأَرُ في الحَديدِ وَلَن تَرى في السِجنِ ضِرغاماً بَكى اِستِخذاءَ
وَأَتى الأَسيرُ يَجُرُّ ثِقلَ حَديدِهِ أَسَدٌ يُجَرِّرُ حَيَّةً رَقطاءَ
عَضَّت بِساقَيهِ القُيودُ فَلَم يَنُؤ وَمَشَت بِهَيكَلِهِ السُنونَ فَناءَ
تِسعونَ لَو رَكِبَت مَناكِبَ شاهِقٍ لَتَرَجَّلَت هَضَباتُهُ إِعياءَ
خَفِيَت عَنِ القاضي وَفاتَ نَصيبُها مِن رِفقِ جُندٍ قادَةً نُبَلاءَ
وَالسُنُّ تَعصِفُ كُلَّ قَلبِ مُهَذَّبٍ عَرَفَ الجُدودَ وَأَدرَكَ الآباءَ
دَفَعوا إِلى الجَلّادِ أَغلَبَ ماجِداً يَأسو الجِراحَ وَيُعَتِقُ الأُسَراءَ
وَيُشاطِرُ الأَقرانَ ذُخرَ سِلاحِهِ وَيَصُفُّ حَولَ خِوانِهِ الأَعداءَ
وَتَخَيَّروا الحَبلَ المَهينَ مَنِيَّةً لِلَّيثِ يَلفِظُ حَولَهُ الحَوباءَ
حَرَموا المَماتَ عَلى الصَوارِمِ وَالقَنا مَن كانَ يُعطي الطَعنَةَ النَجلاءَ
إِنّي رَأَيتُ يَدَ الحَضارَةِ أولِعَت بِالحَقِّ هَدماً تارَةً وَبِناءَ
شَرَعَت حُقوقَ الناسِ في أَوطانِهِم إِلّا أُباةَ الضَيمِ وَالضُعَفاءَ
يا أَيُّها الشَعبُ القَريبُ أَسامِعٌ فَأَصوغُ في عُمَرَ الشَهيدِ رِثاءَ
أَم أَلجَمَت فاكَ الخُطوبُ وَحَرَّمَت أُذنَيكَ حينَ تُخاطَبُ الإِصغاءَ
ذَهَبَ الزَعيمُ وَأَنتَ باقٍ خالِدٌ فَاِنقُد رِجالَكَ وَاِختَرِ الزُعَماءَ
وَأَرِح شُيوخَكَ مِن تَكاليفِ الوَغى وَاِحمِل عَلى فِتيانِكَ الأَعباءَ
Already in the decade following Omar al-Mukhtar’s execution this poem was translated and published in English by none other than the famed anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) whose fieldwork in Libya in the early 1940s had resulted in his book The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949). In that work, he praises the figure of Omar al-Mukhtar as “a simple man, religious, courageous, contemptuous of worldly honours and success, and with singular tenacity and powers of physical endurance.” Evans-Pritchard’s translation of Ahmad Shawqi’s elegy for the slain leader was published in 1949, the same year as his book on the Sanusiya, in The Arab World, a journal published in London by the Anglo-Arab Association (on which I can find no information) between 1947 and 1978. Evans-Pritchard’s contribution, entitled “Translation of an Elegy by Ahmad Shauqi Bey on the occasion of the Execution of Sidi ‘Umar al-Mukhtar al-Minifi” is below:
They planted your body in the sand as a standard
Which rouses the wadi by day and by night.
Curses be on them who have built a blood-lighted beacon
To guide to vengeance the generations of tomorrow.
How would it have harmed them if they had made future ties
Between nations those of friendship and brotherhood?
It is a wound which shrieks for ever and a victim
Who gropes blindly for blood-stained freedom.
You, O sword unsheathed and raised in the wilderness,
Which gives sharpness for ever to the swords of the Arabs,
Whose Bedouin deserts have been the scabbard of every sword
Which has been well tried against the enemy,
And are the graves of the young Umayyad braves,
And their fathers, who live in memory and in God.
If a fortress were to be removed to the refuge of the Gemini
They would take by storm the strongholds of the stars;
For they conquered the north, its plains and its mountains
And swung round into green Tunisia and overran it.
There they built up a civilisation, and the pillars thereof were equal
To Baghdad and Grand Damascus.
You could choose, and you chose to pass your night fasting;
You did not seek to rule nor to store up riches.
Heroism is to die from thirst,
It is not to drink greedily.
Africa, the cradle of lions and their grave,
Its men and women made a great lamentation;
And Muslims of every race and country
Could find no consolation in this tragedy.
The Arabians of old from their graves
Lament the loss of Zaid al-Khail and ‘Antar.
In the hands of the Gracious and His keeping
Be the dead body pillowed by the sands of Barqa,
The grinding-stones of battle have left in it no bones
To crumble, and the lances no blood to flow.
Left brittle in a veil of moving dust.
This hero of Bedouin ways did not raid
In tanks or in the air,
But “the brother of horses” has guarded their backs
And from their manes has directed the fight.
Yesterday he yielded to the destiny of God’s will a soul
Which has never yielded except to Heaven’s decrees
And he met it with head unbowed,
As Socrates advancing to his judges, trailing his robe;
An old man who overcame the weakness of age and did not burst,
Like a child in fear of punishment, into tears
Brother of circumstances in which he had lived securely
They changed, and he had expected evil days.
Caged lions roar and you will never find
A mean-spirited lion whimpering in captivity.
The captive came dragging the weight of his chains,
As a lion, sore wounded and encoiled, trails the spotted serpent.
The chains had bitten into his flesh, but he did not show an overburdened spirit;
And the years had sapped his body of its strength.
Had seventy mounted on the shoulders of a high mountain
Its plateaux would have fallen from weariness.
Those seventy years were hidden from the judge?
The gentle soldiers and noble commanders did not see them?
Old age draws sympathy from hearts of gallant men
Who know their ancestry and the manners of their fathers.
They brought to the hangman the glorious, the lion¬hearted,
The salve of wounds and the freer of captives,
Who shared treasured arms with his comrades
And sat his enemies down to meat;
And they have chosen the despised rope to be the instrument of his fate,
For the lion to breathe out his soul by it;
They deprived him of death by swords and lances,
He who used, the foremost, to strike with them.
I saw that the hand of civilization loved
Sometimes to pull down justice, sometimes to build it,
That it made laws for its citizens
Save those who refused to submit to injustice, and the weak.
O you kinsmen, are you hearing?
That I may fashion my elegy for ‘Umar the Martyr
Or have disasters curbed your mouth and prevented
Your ears from hearing what is spoken to them?
The chieftain has gone, but you are immortal.
Sift then your men, choose your chiefs,
Relieve your old men from the burden of battle
And place it on your young men.