The French colonial scholar and administrator Constantin Louis Sonneck (1849-1904) isn’t that well known. Having spent his entire youth in colonial Algeria, Sonneck became an asset to the French administration and was employed in numerous roles in the colonial administration before eventually going on to teach at the École coloniale in Paris. Although his career consisted mostly of translation, teaching, and administering, Sonneck found time later in life to publish a few text editions like a proper Orientalist.
The more well-known of these is his collection of songs and poems entitled Chants arabes du Maghreb: Étude sur le dialecte et la poésie populaire de l’Afrique du nord / الديوان المُغرب في أقوال عرب إفريقية والمغرب (Arabic Songs of the Maghrib: A Study of the Dialect and Popular Poetry of North Africa) published in 3 volumes totalling almost 700 pages between 1902 and 1906. This work has proven valuable to later scholars for its documentation of songs in the classical Andalusi repertoire as passed down in cities of northern Africa. Sonneck’s only other published academic work was a (shorter) collection in three parts entitled “Six chansons arabes en dialecte maghrébin” (Six Arabic Songs in Maghribi Dialect) and published in that venerable organ of French Orientalism, the Journal Asiatique, in 1899. It provides the text of six poems from differents parts of northern Africa in Arabic script with French translation and a few notes. Though Sonneck doesn’t say exactly where he obtained each poem, and who recited them for him, he does record some basic information for each:
- An ode from the Maḥāmīd of Tripolitania, poet unnamed.
- A poem composed in praise of Lalla Aisha al-Manoubiya, a saint in Manouba, Tunisia, who died in 1267 and is buried in Tunis. The unnamed author apparently lived in the mid-1700s in Manouba.
- The famous qasida by Muhammad bin Gitoun about the love story of Sa‘id and Ḥiziya in Sidi Khaled near Biskra, Algeria, composed in 1878 and later set to music.
- A poem composed by Qaddur bin Omar bin Benina, a scholar from Algiers who died around 1898 and was known as Qaddur al-Hadby, on the occasion of a trip to the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris of a musical troupe led by Francisco Salvador-Daniel, a Spanish music teacher in Algiers.
- An ode by Muhammad bin Sahla, a famous sheikh in Tlemcen, Algeria, who lived in the 1800s.
- A poem from a nobleman of Tafilalt, Morocco named Sidi Muhammad bin Ali U Rezin (1742-1822).
It is the first of these six poems that concerns us here, as it is attributed to a member of the Maḥāmīd, a semi-nomadic tribe who, around the turn of the century, lived in the plains west of Tripoli including the oases of Sorman and Sabratha, and who had enjoyed privileged relations with the ruling Garamanli family during the 1800s. This is the same group of people who only a decade or so later would fight against the Italian occupation of Tripolitania and record some of these events in poetry. At least two such poems have survived which offer a scathing critique of Hasuna Garamanli’s hospitable relations with the Italian forces (I’ve blogged about those previously).
The poem Sonneck recorded from a member of the Maḥāmīd tribe in the 1890s, however, is just a bit of purely local history—a story of forbidden love. It isn’t a literary masterpiece by any means (just compare it to the poem about Hasnuna composed a few decades later by the Maḥāmīd leader Muhammad bin Sof), nor did it go on become famous (as far as I can tell) like some of the other poems recorded by Sonneck. It’s the only totally anonymous one and he seems to indicate that he copied it from an unspecified written collection of poetry; but he must have had someone read it aloud since he includes notes on its pronunciation. I find it worth sharing here just for its relevance to the other poems by members of the Maḥāmīd and possible relevance to Libyan Arabic more generally. Sonneck also includes the following typically Orientalist comments about the Maḥāmīd themselves:
Their lifestyle, which has hardly changed since they left the Arabian peninsula, and their noble origins [i.e. as descendants of the Prophet], which makes it an obligation for them to piously preserve everything that can be remembered of their past, have strongly contributed to the maintenance of their customs and their language, and their poetic works preserve somewhat the solemn, self-righteous, and savage character of the customs of their pre-Islamic ancestors.
A few lines recorded by Sonneck, apparently part of the collection in which it was written, explain the story as follows: A young man named Ali bin Bu Fayid fell in love with a woman. He asked his father to request her hand, but the father refused. Distraught, Ali obtained a rifle, wrote his name on it, and went out to hunt. His father sent for him requesting the rifle, and Ali responded with the verses below. I’ve reproduced Sonneck’s Arabic text, with my woeful attempt at an English translation following. It must be said that the Arabic seems quite unclear at points (or perhaps just very archaic?), and I’ve relied on Sonneck’s very loose French translation in some places. Even some older Libyans I’ve shown it to have been unsure of some of the phrases and expressions.
١ دزّيت لي على اللي اسماي فيها بلا جودتي يا والدي نعطيها
٢ ومن اين هذا عرفك دزّيت لي هات نرهنوا مكحلتك
٣ الله يسح لك في بلادك فلتك وانا منك والله لا بغيت انجيها
٤ ماهي شي عملتك مصوابا شمتت بي ناس العدو يا بابا
٥ نحسب تهوّن داركم والغابا والمكحلة هل من سبيل عليها
٦ لا نقصروا من دونك لاك والدي انا مضنونك
٧ شكيتك يا ابي تكبر وتطيح سنونك لا تنفعك الناس الّي تعاشر فيها
٨ لا تنفعك شي احبابك ولا ينفعك شي الوالد الّي جابك
٩ وما ينفعك في الضيق كان جيد اقرابك ييسّر لك مسارب ياسر تواسيها
You sent for me regarding that which my name’s on, I’ll give it back reluctantly / How did you know? You send for me (saying), “Give it here, we’ll sell off your rifle” / God pardon you, I leave your country and because of you I won’t return / You behave wrongly, our enemies insult me O father / If you abandon your home and gardens, will there be a way (to get the rifle back)? / I won’t be lesser without you, you’re not my father and I’m not your son / I see O father, that you grow old and your teeth fall out, your people don’t attend to you / neither your friends nor your own father attend to you / Your relatives’ nobility won’t attend to you when you’re in need, (may God) increase the paths you follow …
١٠ الّي ما جاك شي في الحيرة ارحل عليه باعده بالجيرة
١١ واليوم عمّي بعث لي على تسطيره اذا كان في يده ورقتي يحيها
١٢ اذا كان في يده الورقة قل له يحيها لا خفا ولا درقة
١٣ بلا ربّنا لا تقدروا شي الفرقة واهل للخيابة شرّهم نكفيها
١٤ للجعبة صديده وزنادها قليل للجهد في التقعيد اكيده
١٥ لا خير في عبد يهوّن وليده على اقلّ المسايل قال هات اعطيها
١٦ نقصد بلاد الباير نحصل اولاد عزيز نصج غاير
١٧ غير قولوا الى مولاة الغثيث ضفاير على الحيّ نغيبوا ونجوها
١٨ نغيبوا ونجوها وما دامنا في الحياة ما ننسوها
١٩ وراس من على علي تهموها عن خاطري طاس الهوى راميها
٢٠ طاس الهوى سكّرها يا خالقي عن فرقتي صبّرها
٢١ يهسس عليّ وقت نتفكّرها لن سكن خلف الباطنة يڤديها
٢٢ كبدتي مطبوقة ردس دس خلّف الباطنة مسحوقة
٢٣ لن عدت نهجع المنام لا نذوقه لن عدت مثل الطير مكسور جناحها
٢٤ طير ان هفا بجناحه هكّاك عقلي لا شفا لا راحه
٢٥ عيون الحبّة شاعلة وضّاحه على جال كلمة تغرّق مواليها
He who didn’t come to you when you were confused, leave him far behind / My uncle sent me today some writing, if in his hand was the paper (of my fate) he’d erase it / If that paper was in his hand, well he should erase it openly, not in secret / Without God you couldn’t bear separation, and the ungrateful we’ll spare their evil / This (rifle) barrel is rusty, its hammer is weak when loaded / There’s no good in he who abandons his son and at the smallest trifle says “Give it back!” / I head for the desert, I’ll go to the Awlad ‘Aziz and live plainly / But tell to the beautiful thick-haired one that though I leave the tribe I will still come for her / I’ll leave but will come to her, and as long as I live won’t forget her / I swear upon her, she who became suspect because of my desire, the cup of love conquered her / The cup of love that intoxicated her, O God give her patience to endure my absence / How painful it is when I think of her, love of her has completely inhabited my heart / My heart is sad, love pained it and reduced my insides to nothingness / I lie awake and do not taste sleep, I’m like a bird with broken wings / Like a bird who beats its wings in vain, my mind neither relieved nor rested / My beloved’s eyes shine brilliantly, a single word from her is enough to drow her admirers.