Author Archives: AB

A Call for Independence from Tripoli and Benghazi, 1917

I recently stumbled upon an extremely interesting pamphlet from 1917 entitled “Aspirations and National Ideals of the Population of Tripoli of Africa and Benghazi” (“Aspirations et idéal national de la population de Tripoli d’Afrique et de Benghazie”). Written by Youssouf Chetvan and Mouhammed Salih Chérif, it was published in French, in Stockholm, Sweden. It is the earliest text I know of that was written by Libyans calling for independence in a European venue. More generally, the text connects the aspirations of people in Tripoli and Benghazi with the struggle of colonized Muslims the world over, framing itself as an “appeal in the name of the oppressed Muslims populations”. I wonder how widely it circulated…

I do not know anything about the authors, except that Youssouf Chetvan (يوسف بن شتوان؟) was likely a Benghazi notable, as that family has been prominent there for a long time. The other author, Mouhammed Salih Chérif (محمد صالح الشريف؟), credited as “one of the Senussi sheikhs”, could plausibly have been a member of the Senussi family or a ranking member of the Senussi order.

Online archive of al-Inqadh

A number of old issues of the well-known Libyan opposition magazine Al-Inqadh (الانقاذ) are now available online. The main publication of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (الجبهة الوطنية لانقاذ ليبيا), one of the main opposition groups to the regime of Muammar Qaddafi especially in the 1980s and early 90s, Al-Inqadh circulated widely among the Libyan diaspora in the US, UK, and Europe. It is now archived on the website of the National Front Party, which seems to view itself as the successor to the NFSL.

Collage of six different covers of the opposition magazine Al-Inqadh

The back issues are well worth browsing—they are a monument to the opposition movements of the 1980s and contain some very interesting political art and poetry.

Research Roundup Winter 2021

This research roundup includes some exciting recent work in fields that have been previously unexplored, as well as work from the past few years which I wasn’t previously aware of.

Elfeituri, Nada. 2020. Tribalism as urban planning: The role of non-state actors in governing Benghazi’s peripheries. DPU Working Paper 204. (online)

The persistence of tribalism in countries of the Middle East and North Africa has posed a challenge to researchers and practitioners seeking to understand the political and social drivers of change in the region, particularly after the 2011 revolutions which saw the collapse of many governments and a resurgence in the prominence of tribal networks. The presence and role of tribal structures in cities – one of many non-state actors attempting to fill the governance gap – has increasingly become a key element in how they function today, particularly in planning, service delivery and security.

The accepted binary that places tribalism as a nomadic or rural practice – one which diminishes in settled and urban populations – is no longer adequate to understand developments occurring in the social, political and spatial arenas of these cities. Tribal networks have evolved and adapted over the years, both influencing and being affected by state policies and laws. Studies that attempt to understand tribal phenomena outside of anthropology tend to look at the relationship between tribe and state without examining how this relationship plays out in urban areas.

This research aims to reconceptualise the notion of tribalism in the MENA region in order to understand contemporary urban tribal practices, by looking at the tribe and the urban rather than the tribe and state alone. It will first establish a framework of understanding tribalism that builds on Ibn Khaldun’s conception of the Arab tribe as a form of social solidary, placing this within the notion of precarious urbanism. It will then look at the case of urban tribalism in Libya, analysing the relationship between tribalism, the state and the city, in order to understand why tribalism persists and what impact it has on city planning today. This will be explored in depth by analysing the current role of tribalism in Benghazi’s peripheral areas.

Elfeituri, Nada. 2021. The “Solidere” Effect and the Localisation of Heritage Reconstruction in Post-war Transitions, Libya. In Historic Cities in the Face of Disasters: Reconstruction, Recovery and Resilience of Societies (The Urban Book Series), 301–316. (paywalled)

In the wake of mass urban conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the most pressing question has been how reconstruction can be achieved on a large scale. Cities such as Benghazi, Aleppo and Mosul have witnessed widespread destruction that will take billions of dollars and decades to repair. With such a momentous task, many governments in the region appear to be looking towards the “Solidere” model of reconstruction that was applied in downtown Beirut after the Lebanese civil war, a model built around “disaster capitalism” in which new laws facilitate the role of private companies to lead the process. While there have been countless criticisms of the effect that this process had in Beirut, the region offers few other examples of successful reconstruction projects. Indeed, with the current climate of authoritarian rule, it is the central governments rather than residents themselves who have decision-making power to shape the reconstructed city. These decisions are driven not only by economic opportunities but by socio-political strategy, namely what should be forgotten and what will remain in the post-war city. Within this process, the efforts of citizens and local actors—often the first to initiate reconstruction of their neighbourhoods—are often overlooked or ignored. There have been increasing calls for more locally led reconstruction processes that are driven by people rather than profit, within the wider shift towards more participatory processes in urban development. These processes can be seen as more inclusive and sustainable than the “Solidere” model of reconstruction, but there is limited literature regarding how these local mechanisms operate in reconstruction contexts in the MENA region, and how they can fit into wider political processes. The aim of this chapter is to investigate local reconstruction efforts and how they play out in heritage centres. It focuses specifically on the case of downtown Benghazi’s reconstruction in Libya after the 2014 civil war. It will conclude by attempting to answer the question of what place local reconstruction should have in national visions of urban redevelopment in cities affected by conflict.

Musbahi, Moad. 2018. The Sahara Is Not a Desert: Re-Mapping Libya, Unravelling the State. The Funambulist No. 18 (Cartography & Power). (online)

This map shows Libya in the moment prior to the 1935 Franco-Italian agreement that decided the demarcation of the southern border. / Istituto Geografico Militare (1926), photo by Moad Musbahi.

Bertazzini, Mattia Cosma. 2019. The economic impact of Italian colonial investments in Libya and in the Horn of Africa, 1920-2000. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science. (online)

This dissertation examines the micro-level effects of Italian colonial investments in Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and sheds light on both their short and long-term impact. It focuses on two flagship projects, launched by the dictator Benito Mussolini during the 1930s, namely the construction of a modern road network in the Horn of Africa and the settlement of Italian farmers in Libya. The contributions are twofold. First, this thesis focuses on types of colonial investment that have not been studied before, while looking at a group of colonies that have previously been neglected by the cliometrics revolution in African economic history. Thus, it enhances our understanding of the effect of colonialism in general and, on Africa, in particular. Second, by exploiting a set of quasi-natural experiments from the history of Italian colonialism to explore the micro-effect of specific policies, this thesis also contributes to the economic geography and development literatures that have looked at the determinants of agglomeration and productivity in developing countries. It is structured around three substantive chapters. The first one studies the effect of Italian road construction in the Horn of Africa on economic development and shows how locations that enjoyed a first-mover advantage in transportation thanks to the Italian road network are significantly wealthier today. The second substantive chapter assesses the effect of Italian agricultural settlement on indigenous agriculture in Libya at the end of the colonial period and pinpoints an adverse effect of Italian presence on Libyan productivity. Finally, the third substantive chapter studies the effect of the expulsion of Italian farmers from Libya after World War II and finds a reduction in agricultural commercialization in affected districts following the shock.

Simona Berhe and Olindo de Napoli, editors. 2022. Citizens and Subjects of the Italian Colonies Legal Constructions and Social Practices, 1882–1943. Routledge.

This forthcoming book features several chapters concerning Libya: “Subjecthood, Citizenship, Autonomy, Independence? Legal Status and National Claims in the First Decade of Italian Occupation in Libya (1911–1920)” by Federico Cresti, “The System of Differences: Justice and Citizenship in Libya (1911–1922)” by Alessia Di Stefano, and finally “Rights, Mobility and Identity: Colonial Citizenship in Libya in the Twenties”, by Simona Berhe.

19th-century Letters between Bornu and Tripoli

Previous posts on early modern sources for Libyan history include: i) Early Modern Libyan Manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and ii) European Journals and Correspondence from early modern Libya.

The Libyan National Archives (دار المحفوظات التاريخية) held in the Red Castle (السرايا الحمراء) of Tripoli contain, or used to contain, a number of letters sent between rulers of Bornu and officials in Tripoli dating to around the mid-1800s. Two editions of these letters appeared in the 1960s, but the archives became less accessible to outside scholars after 1969 because of the regime and little has been published on or about these primary sources since. I haven’t even been able to find if a more extensive Arabic edition exists, although I imagine that there is at least one such publication in Libya.

Letter from Abu Bakr ibn Umar al-Kanami to Nazif Basha, Wali of Tripoli, dated 12 Dec. 1881 (Gwarzo Letter #5)

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A note on varieties of Arabic in eastern Libya

Though very little research has been done on the varieties of Arabic in eastern Libya, recent work which cites the existing studies continue to get some basic and important facts wrong. In particular, the two main and most frequently cited sources for Arabic in eastern Libya do not discuss one and the same variety.

T. F. Mitchell, carrying out fieldwork in eastern Libya in the late 1940s, worked primarily in Benghazi and Shahhat. His two published pieces on Arabic in eastern Libya, which have been frequently referenced in subsequent linguistic literature of various kinds, are “The active participle in an Arabic dialect of Cyrenaica” (1952) and “The language of buying and selling in Cyrenaica” (1957). Both of these are based on data from Shahhat, which Mitchell, following the colonial nomenclature of the time, calls Cyrene. A later work (Mitchell 1960) includes data from the same dialect in a comparative study. As he notes:

Material for the present article was obtained before and during a recent period of study-leave in Cyrenaica. My particular informant, who also accompanied me during the tour, was Mr. Idris ‘Abdallah, from Cyrene, a member of the Hasa tribe. The dialect illustrated may be termed the Bedouin dialect of the Jebel. (1952:11)

During a period of seven months spent in Cyrenaica in 1949 with the special purpose of investigating the Bedouin Arabic of the Jebel, I selected for particular attention the language of buying and selling. Accompanied by my research assistant [fn: in the Jebel village of Cyrene]… (1957:31)

Jonathan Owens, carrying out fieldwork in the late 1970s, worked in Benghazi. Although he published some later studies which re-analyzed the data Mitchell published in the above two articles (Owens 1980, 1993), his book-length grammar, somewhat broadly titled A Short Reference Grammar of Eastern Libyan Arabic (1984) is actually a description of (one type of) Benghazi Arabic. He notes:

Our analysis differs on some points of detail from Mitchell’s (some due to dialectical differences, cf. 1.2), though it does not necessarily supersede his (p. 1).

This study is based for the most part on the dialect of Mr. Salah Busafha, translator at Garyounis University in Benghazi, a 25-year resident of Benghazi who comes from Sulug, a small town about 50 kilometers south of Benghazi. It has been supplemented in places by work with various students (from Benghazi) in the English Department at Garyounis University, where I taught between September 1977-July, 1979. The title of the book is in fact broader than the data warrants for two reasons. First, it does not take into account dialect differences within Eastern Libyan Arabic. In comparing my data with Mitchell’s, which was collected mainly in the rural areas (I will call it rural/Bedouin) east of Benghazi (particularly, around El-Bedha) in the late 1940’s, three major differences are apparent. [My summary: 1) Diphthongs, 2) Imala, 3) raising of the ending -a(h) to -i(h)]. Secondly, the study tries to be representative of colloquial dialects and I have tended to ignore Modern Standard Arabic usage, the Arabic of journalism for instance. In doing this I ignore an important aspect of modern Libyan dialects, for the speech of many Libyans, particularly the literate, has incorporated aspects of Modern Standard Arabic. (p. 2-3)

Based only on these two groups of studies, there are a number of phonological differences between the two varieties—that of Benghazi and close environs, and that of rural eastern Libya—which one can note, if one reads the introductions and footnotes carefully. Owens, coming later, takes care to explain that his data is different than Mitchell’s. So in our studies now, we should obviously not mix the two under the same label, or else we will introduce problems, such as unexplainable phonological variation, where there aren’t any.

For more on rural eastern Libyan Arabic, see Laria 1993, 1996, which are also based on a variety from near Shahhat. For more on Benghazi Arabic proper, see Benkato 2014, 2017. Unpublished PhD theses with data from various places in eastern Libya include Abdunnabi 2000 (Jabal Akhdar region), Aurayieth 1982 (Derna), and Bobaker 2019 (Tobruk). For complete references, see the bibliography of Libyan languages.

European Journals and Correspondence from early modern Libya

Previous posts in this series on historical sources for the study of early modern Libya:
i. Early Modern Libyan Manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The present post gives references to journals and correspondence written by English observers, mostly diplomats of some kind, who lived in the region for a period of time. Travel accounts, which are far more numerous, will be dealt with separately. Fortunately, several of the most extensive collections of correspondence have been collected and published—those are the ones detailed here, with a few references thrown in to unpublished material; this post is not necessarily exhaustive.

17th century

Thomas Baker, English consul in Tripoli between 1677 and 1685 (then part of the Ottoman Empire and a key base of the “Barbary pirates”), kept a detailed journal during his time in the city-state. Though English consuls had been in Algiers and Tunis for some time, one was only sent to Tripoli from 1658, primarily for dealing with pirates, rather than trade. Baker’s journal, now preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, is an intriguing early record at a time for which hardly any historical sources exist.

  • Piracy and Diplomacy in Seventeenth-Century North Africa: The Journal of Thomas Baker, English Consul in Tripoli, 1677-1685, edited by C.R. Pennell (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989)

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Research Roundup Summer 2021

Here is my occasional roundup of published research on Libya in the humanities and social sciences which I find interesting or useful. I’ll also slowly be gathering some of the older individual posts on this blog into collective roundup posts.

Ali Ahmida, Genocide in Libya: Shar, a Hidden Colonial History (Routledge, 2020)

This original research on the forgotten Libyan genocide specifically recovers the hidden history of the fascist Italian concentration camps (1929–1934) through the oral testimonies of Libyan survivors. This book links the Libyan genocide through cross-cultural and comparative readings to the colonial roots of the Holocaust and genocide studies.
     Between 1929 and 1934, thousands of Libyans lost their lives, directly murdered and victim to Italian deportations and internments. They were forcibly removed from their homes, marched across vast tracks of deserts and mountains, and confined behind barbed wire in 16 concentration camps. It is a story that Libyans have recorded in their Arabic oral history and narratives while remaining hidden and unexplored in a systematic fashion, and never in the manner that has allowed us to comprehend and begin to understand the extent of their existence.
     Based on the survivors’ testimonies, which took over ten years of fieldwork and research to document, this new and original history of the genocide is a key resource for readers interested in genocide and Holocaust studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, and African and Middle Eastern studies.

There is an illuminating interview with the author on Jadaliyya, in addition to one on the New Books Network. Continue reading

ياللي حررت البشمرقة / You who freed the Peshmergeh

Sent around privately or posted on diaspora websites in the early 2000s, a poem entitled ياللي حررت البشمرقة / You who freed the Peshmergeh used the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein to mockingly call for the same to happen in Libya. It addresses the American forces who overthrew Saddam’s regime in Iraq, thereby freeing the autonomous Kurdish army, the Peshmergeh, and requests they come and do the same in Libya. Of course, calling for regime change in Libya at that time was punished harshly, and if it were known who had composed such a poem, that person would no doubt have been imprisoned, or worse. So the poem circulated anonymously then, and apparently remained anonymous even within the poet’s own family, until Suleyman al-Sahli publicly revealed in 2012 that it was actually composed by Abdelsalam al-Hurr. Though usually known as a master of shitawa in eastern Libya, al-Hurr also composed a few qasa’id. And indeed, after the 2011 revolution and subsequent regime change, the public recitation of the poem and its attribution to a well-known eastern Libyan poet finally became possible.

Above, you can listen to Suleyman al-Sahli, then Minister of Education and son of the great Libyan folklorist and diwanist Ali al-Sahli, recite the poem. Below, I’ve provided the Arabic text and my own English translation and some notes. Continue reading

The Librarian of the Desert

In 1906, Harry Lyman Koopman wrote a lengthy speculative poem about the transfer of the Senussi library from Jaghbub to Kufra some ten years earlier, part of the removal of the entire Senussi headquarters. A librarian at Brown University, Koopman (1860-1937) seemed captivated by the Senussi center of learning deep in the Sahara: the library was supposed to be so vast that, he relates, it required hundreds of camels to transport. Reflecting on this feat as a librarian himself, Koopman’s poem takes the perspective of the hypothetical Senussi librarian at Kufra. This fictitious narrator expounds on the history of Islam, the trajectories of Islamic learning, and finally the removal of the library from one oasis in the Sahara to another even more deep in the desert.

One might characterize the poem as Koopman’s attempt to describe the library job he might have enjoyed having, in an alternate universe. Appropriately, it was first published in The Library Journal, the official organ of American library associations, where it probably enjoyed a favorable reception among other librarians of venerable Anglophone educational institutions. It was then included two years later in a collected volume of Koopman’s poetry, his fifth, entitled The Librarian of the Desert and other poems (Boston, 1908). Since readers at that time may have been rather unfamiliar with the topic and its background, Koopman provided the poem with a “prefatory note”: Continue reading

Early Modern Libyan Manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

A great deal of historical writing on early modern Libya depends on sources written by Westerners, whether colonial archival documents, or travelogues and journals written by travellers, British diplomats’ relatives, and so forth. Only recently are local documentary archives coming to light (e.g. the ones in Ghadames). But there are also Libyan historical texts from before the colonial era scattered in collections in Libya and elsewhere. Here and in some upcoming posts I’ll try to post some brief guides to these resources, many of which still require study and publication.

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris has a few interesting Libyan historical manuscripts (described in William MacGuckin de Slane’s Catalogue des manuscrits arabes, pp. 339-340). Fortunately, several of the manuscripts have been digitized and are freely available to download and read. Here is a brief description of each manuscript. Continue reading