Italy and France in the Fezzan | اطاليا و فرنسا في الفزان

A PhD thesis concerning the transition in the Fezzan from colonial rule by the Italians to the immediate post-colonial administration by the French has recently been completed.

Palmieri, Tomasso. Étude comparative de l’administration militaire de l’Italie et de la France au Fezzan libyen. Un cas de modèle colonial en continuité (1930-1951). Ph.D. dissertation Aix-Marseille Université / Università di Pisa (2015). [PDF, in French]

Abstract: The goal of the present research is to analyze the structural development of a brief colonial presence. Beginning from a comparative historical study, it describes the process of installation, creation, and governance of a double European colonial administration: that of fascist Italy and of France, in the Fezzan region of the southwestern Libyan desert. We show, in a longue durée perspective, how the urgency of controlling the Sahara’s extensive spaces deteremines, from the Empire’s perspective, the strategic necessity of creating a colonial macro-region to be directed solely by the military. The kernel of this thesis analyzes both the manner in which the structures of these administrations were conceived and put in place by European militaries and their real impact on the region’s social fabric. Finally, by way of conclusion we evoke elements of rupture and continuity throughout the two experiences and the consequences of colonial administrative actions in terms of independent Libya’s identity formation.

A few verses by Ahmad Rafig al-Mahdawi

The ‘national poet’ of Libya, Ahmad Rafig al-Mahdawi (احمد رفيق المهدوي), wrote a poem entitled أنا ساكت “I am silent” during the de-colonization of Libya and the struggle for nationhood. A few verses from it have been going around Libya social media, since they are as applicable to the situation today as they were sixty-odd years ago. Such is great poetry, I suppose. Here are the verses and my attempt at a somewhat literal translation:

قلبي يحدّثني بان ممثلا     خلف الستائرللحقائق يمسخُ

اما الذي هو في الحقيقة واقع     وطن يباع و امة تتفسّخُ

ماذا اقول و ما تراني قائلا     انا ساكت لكن قلبي يصرخُ

ابكي على شعبٍ يسيّر امره     متزعّمون و جاهلون و افرخُ

My heart tells me that behind the curtains, an actor distorts truths,

But the reality is this: a country is sold and a nation broken apart.

What is there to say? I am silent, but my heart cries out;

I weep for a people whom false leaders, the ignorant, and the bastards guide about.

Complaints from Libya at the Turn of the 20th Century

With apologies for a series of posts of articles that are not easily accessible, though worth reading if you have access, I present the following:

Henning Sievert, “Intermediaries and Local Knowledge in a Changing Political Environment: Complaints from Libya at the Turn of the 20th Century”. Die Welt des Islams 54, 3-4 (2014), pp. 322–362. [Online behind paywall]

Abstract: As historiography on Ottoman Tripolitania and Benghazi focuses mainly on the Italian invasion and on the Sanūsiyya and pays little attention to Ottoman records, studies on political practice and change in that period are rare. However, the special circumstances of that remote and sparsely populated part of the empire enable us to focus on the role of intermediaries and complaints within the imperial framework. Complaints and related correspondence were crucial in the negotiation of order, both from the government’s and from the subjects’ point of view. With the 19th-century reforms, new notions of order emerged, and old notions were modified. The new mode of politics did not, however, consist of immutable prescriptions but could acquire new layers of meaning in a process of translation into the vernacular politics of the Libyan provinces and vice versa. Imperial notions of order were thus read and utilised in various ways. The key interpreters and translators in this process were intermediaries between imperial, provincial and local levels. This contribution suggests to study political communication within the imperial framework by focusing on these intermediaries.

Shakīb Arslān’s Libyan Dilemma

The essay “Shakīb Arslān’s Libyan Dilemma: Pro-fascism through anti-colonialism in La Nation Arabe” by Jakob Krais on the Ottoman administrator Shakīb Arslān’s writings about the Italian colonization of Libya is available online as part of the online publication Rethinking Totalitarianism and its Arab Readings. Proceedings of the Conference “European Totalitarianism in the Mirrors of Contemporary Arab Thought”, Beirut, October 6-8, 2010. Here is the introduction:

“Shakīb Arslān is considered one of the Arab world ‘s most important anti-colonial propagandists of the inter-war period. At the same time, he belongs to the few activists from the Middle East who actually tried to gain support from the fascist powers in the years preceding World War II. Apart from al-Ḥājj Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, the mufti of Jerusalem, with whom he collaborated, and the Iraqi Arab nationalist Rashīd ʿAlī al-Kaylānī, Arslān perhaps came closest to proclaiming unequivocal sympathy towards Italy and Germany. In this essay I will examine his views of Mussolini ‘s regime as expressed in the French-language journal La Nation Arabe which Arslān published in Geneva from 1930 to 1938. Italy represents a particularly interesting case insofar as it could be seen as an ally against the colonialist western powers Britain and France in the Middle East, but was itself an imperialist regime that ruled an Arab country, Libya. I will shed light on how Arslān dealt with this dilemma in his articles. Although a comprehensive account of Arslān ‘s assessment of fascism certainly would have to include other works of this prolific writer, as well as his correspondence with politicians in Europe and the Islamic world, here I shall concentrate on La Nation Arabe where he publicized his views for a larger audience, both western and Muslim. It is possible to distinguish two phases in his journalistic writings on Italy and Libya, one critical from 1930 to 1933 and one conciliatory, stretching from 1933 up to 1938.”

Read the rest of the piece here.

Violence and the politics of prestige: the fascist turn in colonial Libya

A recently published article on the colonial period in Libya and the dynamics of fascist policies is the following, unfortunately behind a paywall. The abstract is below.

Eileen Ryan, “Violence and the politics of prestige: the fascist turn in colonial Libya.” Modern Italy 20/2 (2015), pp. 123-135.

“In 1922–1923, Fascist Party leaders hoped to define a sharp break from previous approaches to colonial rule and imperial expansion in Italy’s Libyan territories. Mussolini’s nomination of Luigi Federzoni, a leading figure of the Italian Nationalist Association, as the Minister of Colonies at the end of 1922 signalled a new era in Italian colonial administration focused on aggressive expansion and the institution of what was known as a ‘politics of prestige’. This definition of a fascist style of colonial rule appealed to the enthusiasm for violence among blackshirt militias and early fascist supporters in the Libyan territories. This definition of a fascist style of colonial rule, however, inspired immediate reaction from both colonial officials, with stakes in maintaining a measure of continuity and stability, and from those within the nascent Fascist Party who wanted to promote an alternative model of fascism in the colonies. This article examines contests to define fascism and fascist colonial rule in the Libyan territories through the employment of voluntary militias, the competing voices of Fascist Party outposts, and various programmes for the development of a colonial culture.”


A Libyan publication on the Tebu

d8bad984d8a7d981Another important community in Libya, which we mention on this blog for the first time, are the Tebu, who live mainly in southern Libya. Essentially nothing, as is repeated here all too often, has been published about the Tebu of Libya in Western scholarship [1]. Nevertheless, the Tebu have come increasingly into the news as a result of conflicts in southern Libya. Also, given the restrictive language and minority-related policies of the regime and subsequent turmoil, little in Arabic was produced in Libya, either.

Happily an Arabic book about the Tebu in Libya has appeared recently (as Lameen informs me),  The Book of the Tebu by ‘Abd al-Mun‘im al-Maḥjūb. I haven’t found a copy yet, so can’t vouch for it, but draw attention to it here as it is a good sign that Libyan scholars and publishers are devoting resources to the study of communities such as the Tebu. Here is part of its introduction:

إن هذا الكتاب يساهم في إعادة ترتيب فصول وأولويات التاريخ الثقافي للصحراء الكبرى، من خلال التعريف بالتبو ودراسة لغتهم واستقصاء تاريخهم المجهول وعرض بعض الأنماط الفولكلوريّة التي تختزل كيانهم الاجتماعي، كما يهدف إلى تجريد هذه الموضوعات من طابع الحداثة الذي يغلب عليها في الآراء والانطباعات السائدة الآن، وذلك بإعادة اقتراح إحداثياتها التأسيسيّة وموضَعتها من جديد ضمن سياقاتها التاريخية وتراتيبها الكرونولوجية، وهو الأمر الذي تنطبق ضرورته على تاريخ الأقوام المجاورة أيضاً”. ينقسم الكتاب إلى ثلاثة فصول على النحو التالي: الفصل الأول يعرّف بالتبو في محيطهم الجغرافي والديموغرافي والإثني، ويقرأ أصولهم ممّا توفّر من إشارات نادرة تركها المؤرخون القدامى. الفصل الثاني: يتناول التكوين الاجتماعي والتقسيم الطبقي والأعرافهم والتقاليد والطقوس والممارسات الاجتماعية والفنون الفولكلوريّة والمهارات في استخدام عناصر البيئة الصحراوية لصنع الأدوات والمستعملات اليومية. الفصل الثالث: يتناول لغة التبو وإشكاليتي تدوينها وتصنيفها، وبحث فرضيات نشأتها الأولى، مذيلاً بمسرد لغوي مقارن، وبعض تعابيرهم الشفوية. كما يجد القارئ في نهاية هذا الكتاب ملحقاً بمختارات ممّا كتبه الرحّالة الذين مرّوا بالتبو ودوّنوا عنهم ما شاهدوه عياناً أو لاحظوه استنتاجاً، وذلك من خلال نماذج تختزل مثيلاتها من كتابات القرن الثامن عشر والقرن التاسع عشر وأوائل القرن العشرين

 1. The only published study that I could find after extended searching was racial science drivel about Tebu living in Kufra which I won’t dignify with a reference here.

Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy

A topic of renewed relevance amidst increasing partisanship, resurfacing of old loyalties, and neo-colonial interests by Western nations is treated in this contribution by Libyan historian Ali Ahmida to a special issue on North African revolutions: “Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy.” Journal of the Middle East and Africa 3 (2012), 70–81.

The abstract is as follows:

This article analyzes the 2011 revolution in Libya by focusing on three elements: the Qaddafi regime’s failure to address the question of political reform and its subsequent alienation of important elite groups within the country; the impact of demography, urbaniza- tion, and global social media on the progress of the revolution; and the success of an enterprising revolutionary leadership within Libya that was able to obtain critical diplomatic and military sup- port from the United Nations, the Arab League, and NATO. The main thesis of this article is that the regime’s inability to make serious political reforms appropriate to changes occurring in the economy, education, and society eventually led to conflict between a dynamic social structure and a rigid political system that was unable to meet the demands and grievances of new social forces, especially unemployed youth. The gap between the Libyan youth and the ruling elite undermined the gains achieved by the regime during the 1970s and eventually led to the formation of an alie- nated revolutionary coalition. Had Muammar Qaddafi responded with openness to the calls for reform and not overreacted to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the urban elite in Libya might have been placated and the violent rebellion might have been avoided.