Author Archives: AB

Hasuna’s Treachery, in Poems

Among the texts recorded by the French scholar Gilbert Boris in the 1940s is a poem about the Italian occupation of Tripolitania at the beginning of the colonial endeavor. Since Boris died in 1950, the collection of texts in which the present poem appears, Documents linguistiques et ethnographiques sur une région du Sud Tunisien (Nefzaoua) (Paris, 1951), was published posthumously.

The poem, which Boris calls a “chant de guerre” was authored by Muhammad bin Ṣōf, sheikh of the Maḥāmīd tribe. The Maḥāmīd were among the semi-nomadic tribes of Tripolitania (then referring to a larger region than today, including what is now the south of Tunisia) who fought in resistance to Italian troops during the so-called Italo-Turkish war of 1912-1913. His grandfather, moreover, was the famed Ghuma al-Mahmudi, a leader who together with ‘Abd al-Jalil Sayf al-Nasr rebelled against Ottoman rule of Tripolitania in the mid-1800s and became somewhat of a legendary figure associated with revolt against foreign rule.* Muhammad bin Ṣōf, who himself was probably a young man at that time, thus had a great deal of suspicion and dislike for certain figures—such as Hasuna Garamanli, the target of this poem—who were thought to have colluded with the Italian colonizers and to have helped them obtain control of Tripoli.

Hasuna Garamanli and Italian military personnel observe the hanging of Libyan resisters, Tripoli, 1911 (Archives of Gaston Chérau)

Boris relates that the poem belongs to a certain genre in which, as the poet recites, two other people repeat the refrain immediately after each verse. This refrain contains the poem’s main punch: “without you, you dog Hasuna, [the Italians] wouldn’t have occupied the sands of Zara”. In other words, Tripolitania would have resisted the Italians if Hasuna hadn’t sold out, enabling them to make inroads and eventually win at ‘Ain Zara, site of a decisive victory for Italian forces against Ottoman/Libyan ones. Think of this as, then, something akin to a diss track, one where the main insult is repeated with every verse. Here’s my (probably pretty rough) translation:

(Refrain)
(The Italians) raised up their cannons with treachery,
all night long continuing their fire,
but without you, you dog Hasuna,
they wouldn’t have occupied the sands of Zara!

ناضوا المدافع بالخونة
و بايت يوقّد في ناره
لومك يا كلب حسونة
ما يسكنوا رملة زاره
If not for you and your duplicity,
sixty curses upon the traitor,
a group well-visible came to you,
you sold your faith for cheap,
they wouldn’t exchange theirs even for millions,
the sons of the tribes who smash their enemies!
لومك وانت تتماين
ستين نعلة على الخاين
جوكم جماعة معاين
بدّلت دينك بالبارة
ما يبدلوشي بالملاين
اولاد العروبة كسّارة
ّIf not for you and your servility,
(the Italians) wouldn’t have occupied Bani Adam,
you will be regretful of your deeds,
your balance will tip towards sin,
as you step onto the scale,
on a day with no levity
لومك وانت تتخادم
ما يسكنوا في بني ادم
تبدا على فعلك نادم
ميزانك راجح قنطارة
وانت على السنجة قادم
في يومٍ لا فيه بصارة
The offspring of Gharyan came to you,
the Italian took off and fled;
a rich and thick seed,
(for) ‘Akkara, the people of the sickle,
they don’t reap the old man
but the young one, bloodied in his belt
جوكم ذراري الغرياني
خرّم هرب الطلياني
زرعه خصيب ومتداني
واهل المناجل عكّارة
ما يحصّدوش الشيباني
كان الصغير بكماره
The offspring of Warfella came to you,
they fell on those of little faith,
among them are those who invoke the bismilla.
With the molten ball and the bayonet,
they waylay anyone who appears,
and leave his bones dispersed
جوكم ذراري ورفلّة
طبّوا على قلال الملّة
فيهم يسمّوا بسم الله
بحبّ الملوّى والزغارة
كل من يبان يهيفن له
يخلّوا اعضامه شطّارة
Muhammad, leading his people,
sheikh of the well-known troop,
a carnivorous bird, grandson of Ghuma,
his beak reddened (with blood),
among the gathered Italian army
he raises a whirlwind!
رايس محمد في قومه
شيخ المحلّة المعلومة
طير اللحم جدّه غومة
يصبح محمّر منقاره
جيش الطلاين ملمومة
فيهم منوّض غبّارة

Here it isn’t just that Muhammad bin Sof blames the loss of the positions at ‘Ain Zara and Bani Adam on Hasuna’s treachery. He also mentions several prominent tribes of the larger Tripolitanian region, who also seem opposed Hasuna’s capitulation and whose fighting he praises: Gharyan, Werfella, and ‘Akkara. He finishes with a little boasting: Muhammad, descendant of Ghuma, took care of the Italians!


Interestingly, the same theme occurs in another poem, recorded closer to the time of the events themselves but under totally different circumstances. During World War I, Germany operated a prisoner-of-war camp for the Muslim members of French and British enemy forces. Located just outside of Berlin, it was known as the Halbmondlager (“Half Moon Camp”) and its primary purpose was to indoctrinate the Muslim prisoners, primarily South Asians and North Africans, to commit acts of terrorism back in England and France.

But its prisoners also served as a captive audience for German linguists to use experimental techniques in sound recording. Thousands of shellac discs, the predecessor to vinyl records, were recorded in dozens of languages, by forcing prisoners to speak, recite, or sing in their native languages.** Some of these recordings were then published. A number of recordings in Arabic were published by Hubert Grimme, a scholar of Semitic languages, in a contribution entitled “Die Farbigen von Nordwestafrika” to the book Unter fremden Völkern: Eine neue Völkerkunde published in 1925.

South Asian POWs are recorded in the Half Moon Camp (Source: Lautarchiv, Humboldt University Berlin)

One text, presented only in German translation with no Arabic, was apparently recited by a female poet from Tripoli, who names herself in the poem as Fatima al-Kankusha. It too takes aim at Hasuna Garamanli. Though Grimme noted that “[the Libyans] disposition towards the Italians can easily be seen in the following poem which I recorded in the camp from a Tripolitanian female poet”, the poem actually only mentions the Italians obliquely (the “wild animals”) but directly addresses Hasuna, with insults, several times. Here’s the German with my translation:

O Tripolis, Stadt der schönen Paläste,
Verkauft hat dich Hsuna an fremde Gäste.
Dieses Jahr noch wollen wir ruhig sein:
Gott wolle den Türken Hilfe leihn!
Dieses Jahr noch wollen wir ruhig bleiben,
Dann aber die Welschen des Landes vertreiben.
Wer Tränen hat, weine sie mit mir jetzt:
Voll Trauer, O Vater, ist mein Sinn und entsetzt.
Ich bin aus Gasr bil-Gordan gekommen:
Mich jammert, daß wilde Tiere es genommen.
Ich brachte ein Mädchen heim (?) aus Gasr bil-Gordan,
Nachdem sie mir Gewalt und Hohn angetan.
Es nagt ein Wurm in meinem Innern;
Wird Allah sich nicht seines Volks erinnern?
Ich möchte mein Herz in den Händen halten
Und es durchforschen, Falte für Falte.
Doch, o Sohn der Hure, für dein Blut
Gäb’ ich meines Vaters, meiner Großmutter Gut,
Gäb’ ich Haus und Feld und des Herdes Glut,
Wenn ich, die Fatma el-Kankuscha geheißen,
Dich könnte an den Haaren vom Pferde reißen!

O Tripoli, city of beautiful palaces,
Hasuna sold you to foreign guests.
This year we want to remain peaceful still:
would that God aid the Turks!
This year we want to remain calm still,
But then chase the Romans from our land.
She who has tears, weep with me now,
my mind, O God, is shocked and full of grief.
I’ve come from Gasr bil-Gordan (?):
it pains me that wild animals have taken it.
I brought a girl home from Gasr bil-Gordan,
after they beat and scorned me.
A worm eats away at me inside;
will God not remember his people?
I want to hold my heart in my hands
and search it deeply, fold for fold.
But, O son of a whore, for your blood,
I would give my father’s or grandmother’s estate,
I would give house and field and the warmth of the hearth,
if I, who am called Fatima al-Kankusha,
were able to pull you from your horse by your hair!

The German translation is rhymed and metered quite nicely, so one should probably assume that it takes some license with the Arabic original. Still, the poet’s antagonism to Hasuna Garamanli is quite clear. If these two examples represent a more widespread sentiment, especially among the semi-nomadic groups of the Tripolitanian hinterlands, it stands to reason that a number of poems criticizing Hasuna circulated. There might be more preserved somewhere, especially in Arabic collections published in Libya, but I don’t know of any off the top of my head. And also, does anyone know anything about Fatima al-Kankusha?


*You can find out more about Ghuma in Bradford G. Martin, “Ghuma bin Khalifa: a Libyan Rebel, 1795-1858”, in Studies in Ottoman Diplomatic History, ed. S. Derengil & S. Kuneralp (Istanbul, 1990), or Muhammad al-Tawir, الشيخ غومة المحمودي على العثمانيين (Tripoli, 1995), or even Orhan Koloğlu, “Libya, from the Ottoman Perspective (1835-1918),” Africa: Rivista Trimestrale Di Studi e Documentazione Dell’Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (63/2, 2008), pp. 275–282.

**This is the subject of a great documentary, the Half Moon Files. The records all form part of the Lautarchiv collection at the Humboldt University, Berlin.

Libyan Bibliographies

Bibliographies do not just provide a useful list of references about something, but are a way of assessing the state of research on a subject, and, perhaps more importantly, defining a subject—what it includes, excludes, and what counts as relevant.

The first bibliographies on “Libya” appeared over one hundred years ago and were an important part of the colonial attempt to define and produce knowledge about colonized lands. In fact, it was an Italian colonial bibliographer, Federico Minutilli, who was responsible for resurrecting the ancient Roman designation Libia as a cover term for the three provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the Fezzan that the Italian colonial project eventually brought under its control. Since then, bibliographies about Libya have been published about every decade, containing updated references to scholarship, journalism, and general literature about the country. (It’s worth noting that studies on Libya compared to its neighbors are still few enough that compiling an all-encompassing bibliography is a relatively feasible project…). Here is a list of the ones I’ve managed to locate so far, with brief comments.

§1. Lambert Playfair, Bibliography of the Barbary States: Part I: Tripoli and the Cyrenaica (London, 1889).
—The first such bibliography to appear, this work contributes to the European race to colonize the lands that later became Libya. Listed 579 books and articles in chronological order from Herodotus (!) to 1889, with an appendix describing 62 manuscripts obtained by the British Consulate in Tripoli.

Map of the “Barbary Coast” accompanying Playfair’s 1889 book

§2. Federico Minutilli, Bibliografia della Libia (Turin, 1903).
—The first work to bring back the old Roman geographical designation Libia, it listed 1,269 titles and purported to contain all published references to Libya from the invention of the printing press until 1902.

§3. Ugo Ceccherini, Bibliografia della Libia (Rome, 1915).
—A continuation of Minutilli’s work containing 3,041 titles on Libya published between 1903 and 1914; the incredible uptake being due to Italy’s drive to colonize Libya.

§4. R.W. Hill, Bibliography of Libya (Durham, 1959).
—Conceived of as “a major project of research involving economic and social problems”, simultaneous to the discovery of oil in Libya, and part of a small publication series on Libya produced by the Durham Geography department.

§5. Mohamed Murabet, A Bibliography of Libya: with particular reference to sources available in libraries and public archives in Tripoli (Valetta, 1959).
—I haven’t consulted this source yet…

§6. Hans Schlüter, Index Libycus: Bibliography of Libya, 1957–1969, with supplementary material 1915–1956 (Boston, 1972).
—Contained 4,418 entries covering the years since 1915 but without duplicating references mentioned by Hill 1959, emphasizing publications since 1957.

§7. Hans Schlüter, Index Libycus: Bibliography of Libya, 1970–1975. Vol. I: Titles (Boston, 1975).
—Listed 4,380 entries focusing on the years since 1970 but including references before that which were omitted in the previous volume or in Hill 1959. Note that it is actually the second volume of the Index.

§8. Muhammad Alawar, A Concise bibliography of northern Chad and Fezzan in southern Libya (Cambridgeshire, 1983).
—Haven’t been able to check this source yet either.

§9. Natasha Beschorner, Bibliography of Libya 1970–1990 (London, 1990).
—Compiled as part of a SOAS research project on Libya in the 1990s led by J.A. Allan and K.S. McLachlan, who both produced other research on Libya. Limited to mostly politics and economics and includes a number of newspaper and magazine articles.

§10. Nicola Labanca & Pierluigi Venuta, Bibliografia della Libia coloniale (1911-1920) (Florence, 2004).
—This book contains not only Western research on colonial Libya, but also works in Arabic and/or published in Libya. (The publisher’s blurb is a little cringeworthy, though)

§11. Adam Benkato & Christophe Pereira, “An annotated bibliography of Arabic and Berber in Libya,” Libyan Studies 47 (2016), pp. 149–165.
—A comprehensive (up to mid-2016) bibliography of studies about the Arabic and Berber (Amazigh) languages in Libya, organized by region. I continue to update this bibliography in a publicy-available Google Doc, now updated to end of 2019.

Article: “The Persecution of Jews in Libya Between 1938 and 1945: An Italian Affair?”

Jens Hoppe, “The Persecution of Jews in Libya Between 1938 and 1945: An Italian Affair?” in The Holocaust and North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2018).

This chapter explores the measures adopted by Italy against Jews in Italian-occupied Libya, particularly those laws passed between 1938 (when the so-called racial laws were also introduced in Libya) and 1943 (when the British Eighth Army occupied the country and ended Italian rule). Paying close heed to the internment of Libyan Jews in special camps and the deportation of foreign Jews to Tunisia or Italy in 1942, the essay includes background history since the 1920s and extends to the period after 1943, especially the pogroms in November 1945, before finally assessing the Libyan situation.

Book: Ethnoarchaeology of the Kel Tadrart Tuareg in Libya

Stefano Biagetti, Ethnoarchaeology of the Kel Tadrart Tuareg: Pastoralism and Resilience in Central Sahara (Springer Publishing, 2014).

This book focuses on the issues of resilience and variability of desert pastoralists, explicitly challenging a set of traditional topics of the discourse around pastoralism in arid lands of the Old World. Based on a field research carried out on the Kel Tadrart Tuareg in Libya, various facets of a surprisingly successful adaptation to an extremely arid environment are investigated. By means of an ethnoarchaeological approach, explored are the Kel Tadrart interactions with natural resources, the settlement patterns, the campsite structures, and the formation of the pastoral archaeological landscape, focusing on variability and its causes. The resilience of the Kel Tadrart is the key to understand the reasons of their choice to stay and live in the almost rainless Acacus Mountains, in spite of strong pressure to sedentarize in the neighboring oases. Through the collection of the interviews, participant observation, mapping of inhabited and abandoned campsites, remote sensing, and archival sources, various and different Kel Tadrart strategies, perceptions, and material cultures are examined. This book fills an important gap in the ethnoarchaeological research in central Sahara and in the study of desert pastoralism.​ Desert lands are likely to increase over the next decades but, our knowledge of human adaptations to these areas of the world is still patchy and generally biased by the idea that extremely arid lands are not suited for human occupation.​

Article: “From colony to oil producer: US oil companies and the reshaping of labor relations in Libya during the Cold War”

Elisabetta Bini, 2019, “From colony to oil producer: US oil companies and the reshaping of labor relations in Libya during the Cold War”, Labor History 60/1, pp. 44-56.

This article analyzes the labor relations the US government and American oil companies introduced in Libya between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the rise of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 1969. It argues that labor policies played a crucial role in American Cold War efforts to place Libya in the Western bloc and assure access to its oil resources. Like in other contexts, the American government relied on anti-Communist trade unions, in particular the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), to oppose radical forms of labor organizing. Bini examines the ways in which Libyan oil workers resisted the forms of segregation and discrimination introduced in oil camps and company towns, by demanding the right to redefine labor relations through trade unions, and establishing ties with other trade unions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. This article shows that despite American efforts to repress Libyan trade unions, in the second half of the 1960s oil workers were a crucial force in redefining international oil politics. During the Six Day War of 1967, they constituted one of the main forces behind Libya’s support of oil nationalism and set the stage for the emergence of Qaddafi’s regime in 1969.

Article: “Emerging transnational spaces of care between Libya and Tunisia”

A new article, the first to do so, examines the phenomenon of Libyan patients seeking medical care outside of Libya, in this case in Tunisia in the years after the revolution:

Betty Rouland & Mounir Jarraya, 2019, “From medical tourism to regionalism from the bottom up: emerging transnational spaces of care between Libya and Tunisia”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (Special Issue: Transnational medical travel: Patient mobility, shifting health system entitlements and attachments).

This paper analyses the emergence of transnational care through the case study of Libyan patients seeking care in the Tunisian city of Sfax as a result of changes triggered by the 2011 Arab uprisings. Deconstructing categories of ‘medical tourist’ and ‘medical traveller’, we examine how the evolving geopolitical context produced specific migratory profiles (diasporic, traveller, cross-border, war-wounded and transnational patients) and spaces (cross-border, (intra)regional and transnational spaces of care) between Libya and Tunisia. Given a lack of data on the topic in North Africa, we developed a study on health mobilities and circulations from a South-South perspective. Based on a survey amongst Libyan patients (n = 205) in four private clinics and nine semi-structured interviews with health professionals in Sfax, we identified, how four key geopolitical periods shaped medical travel to this city: (1) initial diasporic exchanges facilitated by bilateral agreements; (2) an emerging medical tourism industry within private health services arising from the UN embargo on Libya; (3) the 2011 political crisis and arrival of war-wounded; and (4) therapeutic circulations and emerging transnational spaces of care resulting from the context of war.

Book: Ali Dinar and the Sanusiya

Jay Spaulding & Lidwien Kapteijns, An Islamic Alliance: ‘Ali Dinar and the Sanusiya, 1906-1916 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1994).

This volume is a contribution to the growing literature of documentary source publications from northeastern Africa. Its primary purpose is to help restore African voices to an historiography too often dominated by the perception of Europeans, and to allow authentically African definitions of historical experience to emerge. … The subject of this book is the defense, by devoutly Islamic leaders, of one of the last parts of the African continent to be overrun by the imperial European “Scramble for Africa” during the decade that culminated in the First World War, a region which extended south from the Mediterranean coast of Cyrenaica for more than two thousand miles to embrace parts of northern Chad, and the sultanate of Dār Fūr in the western portion of the modern Republic of Sudan. … These surviving pieces of diplomatic correspondence concentrate on the alliance between ‘Alī Dīnār, prince of the sultanate of Dār Fūr in the western Sudan, and the leaders of the Sanusi brotherhood then based in southern Libya. In contrast to the European view of the alliance as ephemeral, the documents indicate a sincere, passionate attempt to join–despite immense physical difficulties–an ancient monarchist tradition to a more modern, trade-based sociopolitical organization. The first part of the study is an extended interpretive essay, organized chronologically, that attempts to place the documents themselves and the information they contain in a wider historical context. The second part presents the documents themselves.