A Poem about being photographed in 1890s Tripoli

The earliest work on a Libyan Arabic variety was written by Hans Stumme (1864-1936), a diligent German linguist who studied a number of language varieties in northern Africa. In his Märchen und Gedichte aus der Stadt Tripolis in Nordafrika (Folktales and Poems from the city of Tripoli in North Africa, 1898), he describes the speakers he interviewed for his research and relates an interesting detail.

Arriving in Tripoli in 1897, Stumme was put in touch with a certain Sidi Brahim bin Ali al-Tikbāli, who he describes as a 45-year old inhabitant of the old city and a skilled poet. Sidi Brahim became Stumme’s main interlocutor for his study of the Tripoli dialect and provided the majority of the texts Stumme transcribed in his book (10 khurrafas and 7 poems). A second speaker, whom Stumme praises as a “walking dictionary”, was a 15-year old black Libyan named Mhemmed bin Jum’a Breñgāli. Besides being Stumme’s guide around the city and general explainer-of-things, Mhemmed provided 3 additional poems which Stumme transcribed. A third person, a Tunisian named Hmed al-Susi who apparently lived in Tripoli, helped translate when Stumme’s knowledge of Tunisian Arabic didn’t suffice to be clearly understood by his Tripolitanian interlocutors.

Stumme’s transcription of Sidi Brahim’s poem

At some point, Stumme decided to go have himself and these three locals photographed. This was such an occasion that Sidi Brahim al-Tikbali composed a poem about it, which Stumme transcribed, translated into German, and published in his book. It is somewhat of a meta-text, breaking the “fourth wall” between researcher and interlocutors (native speakers) that so many linguistic studies maintain. Here is the text and my translation:

السنيور يكثّر خيره   صوّرني في وسط التصويرة
صوّرني انا واحمد   وهو ع الكرسي قعد
ومعنا ولد صغير اسود   حتى هو في التصويرة
صوّرني ثلاثة من ناس  في صالة بحذا الاقواس
نحن ما اعطيناش خلاص   وهو اللي يدفع في الليرة
يدفع في الليرة المعلومة   الام ان جابته مرحومة
كثّر خيره سنيور شتومة   يبّي يرفعني تفكيرة
رفعها باش يتفكّرني   يطلّع من جيبه يخزرني
انا بعد ربي يصبّرني   مانلقاش واحد غيره
مانلقاش واحد زيّه   ولا ثم في الكومبانيّة
يعطي في الليرة الذهبيّة   تاجر ناسه دار كبيرة

“Signore, many thanks to him / had me photographed / photographed me and Hmed / and he sitting upon the chair / and with us the black youth / also in the photograph / three people took the photograph / in a shop next to the arches / we didn’t give payment / he’s the one who pays in liras / he pays in lira currency / may God bless the mother who bore him / many thanks to Signore Stumme / he wants to bring a memento of me / bring it to remember me / when he pulls it from his pocket he’ll look upon me / may God give me patience / I’ll not find someone besides him / I’ll not find someone like him / not in this society (compagnia) / he gives gold liras / a merchant whose people are successful”

Where did Stumme have the photograph taken, I wonder? Where would one go to get a proper photograph taken in precolonial Libya? While I haven’t been able to figure out who ran photography studios in late 19th-century Tripoli, I know of at least one: the studio of the Maltese photographer Salvatore Lorenzo Cassar (1855-1928). Although Cassar is known more for his turn-of-the-century photos of Malta, he seems to have begun working as a photographer in Tripoli, and at least one photograph of Cassar’s from his time there survives (it popped up for sale on ebay earlier this year, but I didn’t buy it). The photo of an unknown Ottoman official, with the Cassar’s information on the reverse in Italian and Turkish (فوطوغرافجي صالبو قصار).


Perhaps it was the very studio that Hans Stumme, Sidi Brahim, Mhemmed, and Hmed sat in for their photo in 1897. But unfortunately, its whereabouts, if it has even survived until now, are unknown. And there is no address on the surviving Cassar photo, so who knows if it was “by the arches” as Sidi Brahim writes.

2 thoughts on “A Poem about being photographed in 1890s Tripoli

  1. Shatha Maayouf

    Thank you for this blog post! and for helping me decide what book I’ll purchase next to start my Libyan collection with!



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