Category Archives: blogposts

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

Ahmed Shawqi’s Elegy for Omar al-Mukhtar

Omar al-Mukhtar, the leader of the Libyan resistance to the Italian colonial forces was executed in Sullug outside of Benghazi by the Italians on this day 89 years ago— September 16, 1931—after having finally been captured a few days before. Below is the photograph from the time of his detention prior to execution that has now become iconic.By the early 1930s the Libyan resistance, although increasingly unable to hold back the Italian advances, had become known around the Arab world and Omar al-Mukhtar had become a symbol of resistance to colonialism in the Middle East more generally. His execution prompted the famous Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi (1868-1932), the “Prince of Poets” (أمير الشعراء) to write an elegy (رثاء) in his honor, written not long before Shawqi himself passed away in Cairo. (A clear recitation is here for those who’d prefer to listen to it being read aloud.)

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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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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 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. See also his article (“Non-Arabic regional bibliographies pertaining to the Libyan Arab Republic,” International Library Review 8/2 (1976), pp. 201–215) overviewing various smaller topical bibliographies.

§8. Salvatore Bono, Storiografia e fonti occidentali sulla Libia (1510-1911) (Rome, Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Tripoli, 1982).
—More of a guide to the scholarship on, and archives of, Libyan history, than a simple bibliography, this book is an essential reference for any historian of Libya.

§9. Muhammad Alawar, A Concise bibliography of northern Chad and Fezzan in southern Libya (Cambridgeshire, 1983).
—In the introduction to this volume, Alawar reflects on his organizing principles, stating that “among the legacies of Western European colonial occupation in Africa is a pattern of international frontiers that reflects imperial strategies and aspirations. The borders imposed in the African continent have often had only slight reference either to local perceptions and definitions of spatial authority or to indigenous economic realities”. This work lists 2991 titles over a broad range of themes.

§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. A total of 528 entires, mostly politics and economics, including a number of newspaper and magazine articles in various languages.



§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 above, 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 and this one on “non-site” research on Libyan Amazigh varieties.

 

A few verses by Ahmad Rafig al-Mahdawi

The ‘national poet’ of Libya, Ahmad Rafig al-Mahdawi (احمد رفيق المهدوي), wrote a poem entitled أنا ساكت “I am silent” during the de-colonization of Libya and the struggle for nationhood. A few verses from it have been going around Libya social media, since they are as applicable to the situation today as they were sixty-odd years ago. Such is great poetry, I suppose. Here are the verses and my attempt at a somewhat literal translation:

قلبي يحدّثني بان ممثلا     خلف الستائرللحقائق يمسخُ

اما الذي هو في الحقيقة واقع     وطن يباع و امة تتفسّخُ

ماذا اقول و ما تراني قائلا     انا ساكت لكن قلبي يصرخُ

ابكي على شعبٍ يسيّر امره     متزعّمون و جاهلون و افرخُ

My heart tells me that behind the curtains, an actor distorts truths,

But the reality is this: a country is sold and a nation broken apart.

What is there to say? I am silent, but my heart cries out;

I weep for a people whom false leaders, the ignorant, and the bastards guide about.

Libyan Flavours | نكهات ليبية

Libyan Flavours is a “movement to celebrate the traditions and cultures that unite Libya.” Its byline is: ليبيا: نكهات مختلفة – روح واحدة “Libya: different flavors, one spirit”. To that end, the people behind it have produced so far three beautiful videos showing different aspects of Libyan culture integral to all regions and groups. On their Facebook page, you can also find relevant photos and videos contributed by other users.