Category Archives: Blogposts

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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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

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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