The inhabitants of the small oasis of Tawargha (تورغاء) outside of Misrata have suffered a great deal as a result of recent conflicts in Libya. The majority of Tawarghans are people often referred to in Libyan society as “black Libyans”, in order to draw attention to their sub-Saharan African ancestry (I prefer the term “Libyans”, since they are Libyans like everyone else). Unfortunately, most people make little effort to understand them or their history.
This being the case, I thought it important to share an article written about Tawargha fifty years ago by the linguist Umberto Paradisi, known mainly for his work on Libyan Berber. He also apparently noticed that many Tawarghans were Black (about 4600 of a population of 5100 in 1936, apparently), and wrote an article for the popular magazine Le Vie del Mondo about it (he also wrote popular articles for this magazine about Tripoli, Ghadames, and other places in Libya). That this particular social situation was the case fifty years ago, and goes back even long before the colonial period, further shows that the recent forced displacement of Tawarghans by local militias is based on scapegoating and racism—they have been a part of society for as long as the concept of ‘Libya’ has existed. The reason for the unique demographic of Tawargha goes back to an unfortunate, but inescapable, part of Libyan history: the slave trade. This much is implied by the pejorative term shushan (plural shawāshna) used in the article, and even sometimes now, to refer to the Tawarghans and other Libyans ultimately descended from enslaved people. We need to understand these histories and work to rectify, rather than repeat, them.
Here is a scan of the article (in Italian), entitled “I sudanesi di Tauórga” and published in Le Vie del Mondo (February 1956). It uses the dated and inaccurate way of referring to Black people in Arab societies as “Sudanese”, though this is unsurprising given the era and the colonial venue it was published in. It also has several photographs showing various aspects of life in Tawargha such as date cultivation and textile making.