Author Archives: AB

Another Poem from Old Tripolitania

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.

Title Page of Sonneck’s Chants arabe du Maghreb

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:

  1. An ode from the Maḥāmīd of Tripolitania, poet unnamed.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. An ode by Muhammad bin Sahla, a famous sheikh in Tlemcen, Algeria, who lived in the 1800s.
  6. A poem from a nobleman of Tafilalt, Morocco named Sidi Muhammad bin Ali U Rezin (1742-1822).

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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

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“Non-site” Fieldwork on Libyan Languages

For the past several decades, linguistic fieldwork in Libya has been extremely difficult, even at times downright impossible. This has certainly been the case for foreign researchers: not only was it nearly impossible to get research permits for Libya from the 1980s to 2000s, and fieldwork that did occur was heavily monitored and restricted, but there has been so little work on Libya in general, and scholars of Libya in Western institutions, that interested students usually have no place to start or advisors with whom to work. But this also to a great extent true for Libyans as well: Libyans with linguistic training have typically returned to work in universities teaching translation studies or foreign languages and only a few have published research in Libya on Libyan languages. Up until 2011 it was illegal to openly research anything other than Arabic—the regime’s official position was that Amazigh is a dialect of Arabic, and numerous researchers (not to mention activists) were thrown in jail for trying to write, teach, or research Amazigh in Libya. And now, although the activism and dedication of numerous Libyans has led to the increased visibility of the Amazigh and Tebu languages in Libya, actual fieldwork and research remains difficult for everyone due to the current political and military struggles.

I’ve always assumed that fieldwork during the colonial era and during the kingdom was, in contrast, much easier. Foreign researchers could simply have taken advantage of colonial power structures to go where they wanted, and indeed many did. Or after independence they were given permits to do so. And this is largely the case for research on Libya up until the early 1970s in a variety of fields—anthropology, linguistics, history, urban studies and so on. But, on examining a bunch of older linguistic works more closely, I was surprised to find that many of them were not actually done in the place the language was actually spoken at all—some of them not even in Libya.  Of course, these studies were still carried out within colonial power structures. But, it’s likely that French scholars, for example, weren’t as easily able to travel to then-Ottoman Libya as they were able to travel within French colonial domains, and therefore took advantage of what opportunities they had to produce knowledge on the region. I’ve gathered some of these sources together under the rubric “non-site fieldwork”, the opposite of “on-site fieldwork”. Continue reading

Dissertations on Libyan Languages

When you do research in a particular field, over time you become acquainted, naturally, with the general trends of that field, what studies are considered the most important, what gaps there are, and with individual scholars and their works. But it often isn’t until you can sift through a large bibliography that you can really see what has or hasn’t been done, what’s completely lacking, and what works have been totally overlooked.

One of the major surprises to come out of my bibliographic work on Libyan languages (you can see the complete bibliography here) has been how many MA and PhD theses were written on Libyan Arabic or Berber (there are no theses, nor any academic publications at all, on the other languages of Libya), primarily by Libyan students in Western universities. Not only is the number higher than one would expect, but in most cases these theses were never published, their authors returned to Libya, and their theses were not circulated among linguists and hence rarely, if ever, cited. Although most of these theses have been almost totally overlooked, several of them are quite valuable and deserve wider attention. So, the purpose of this post is to first and foremost make them all more accessible. This isn’t a detailed review of any particular work, rather just an effort to simply show how they, and the scholars who wrote them, represent unused potential for broadening and deepening scholarly knowledge of Libyan languages. A complete listing is posted at the end, but first I want to briefly examine the bibliographic data.

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Some Data on Publications on Sogdian

I’ve been keeping an updated bibliography of publications on Sogdian language and texts for a while now. It amounts to 624 entries, covering from 1904 (when Sogdian was first deciphered and published) to 2020, containing only works that are directly about Sogdian language, linguistics, or manuscripts. It’s more than one might expect for a pretty niche subject like Sogdian, but also certainly less than some related languages like Middle Persian.

I suppose it’s worth trying to do something interesting with all that data, besides just look at it and wish more people were researching Sogdian. So, here are some rough graphs.

We can start with how many publications on Sogdian there have been per year. As we might expect for any field, the rate of publications has increased over the past few decades, with a high of 25 in 2009 and 2017, and a close second of 24 in 2013.

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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, published in Schill, Pierre, Réveiller l’archive d’une guerre coloniale. Photographies et écrits de Gaston Chérau, correspondant de guerre lors du conflit italo-turc pour la Libye (1911-1912), Créaphis, 2018)

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Libyan Bibliographies

[Note — Post will be updated regularly as I digitize or acquire sources] 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).
—Contains mostly colonial works on a variety of topics (681 total entries), but with a useful section detailing about 100 unpublished manuscripts and documents located in the archives of the Antiquities Department in Tripoli.

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

§7. Hans Schlüter, Index Libycus: Bibliography of Libya, 1970–1975. Vol. I: Titles (Boston, 1975).
—Lists 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. Hans Schlüter, “Non-Arabic regional bibliographies pertaining to the Libyan Arab Republic,” International Library Review 8/2 (1976), pp. 201–215.
—An overview of various smaller topic bibliographies relating to Libya, frequently referencing the author’s two book-length bibliographies cited above.

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

§10. 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.

§11. 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, linked here, is a little cringeworthy, though)

§12. 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. See also this post on dissertations on Libyan languages.

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.