Category Archives: blogposts

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.

Continue reading


The news platform Huna Libya recently tweeted about the Libyan musical genre known as miriskawi (مرسكاوي), describing it as a combination of Amazigh heritage with Arabic bedouin poetry originating in Murzuq:

There is a debate about the origins and meaning of the term miriskāwī itself, with various theories in circulation. Each of these has problems, but so little seems to be actually known about miriskawi‘s origins that to some extent it is all speculation. Before we proceed, here is an example of one of the most famous singers of miriskawi, Ibrahim al-Safi:


1. The “traditional theory” holds that that music comes from the southern Libyan city of Murzug (مرزق) and that the adjective mirizgāwī (مرزقاوي) meaning “of Murzug, Murzug-ian” eventually changed into miriskāwī (مرسكاوي). It’s been pointed out, though, that this style of music doesn’t actually exist in Murzug. Apparently the Libyan composer Muhammad Murshan even went to Murzug to see if he could find out more, but wasn’t able to. If the music does come from the south, or has southern influences, perhaps Murzug is just a stand-in for the south as a whole? Or, that Murzug/southern Libya was used as a way of referring to the origins of black musicians who performed miriskawi? Additionally, the change of mirzgāwī to miriskāwī in pronunciation is also unexpected, as has also been pointed out by many.

2. The next theory holds that miriskawi actually derives from the term “morisco”, referring to Muslims of Andalusian origin who fled to northern African cities in the 15th-16th centuries and brought with them their music, which was then called miriskawi, that is, “moriscan”. I’m not actually sure that the term was widely used in Arabic, though (and at least in standard Arabic it is موريسكي). But even if so, the music itself would then be Andalusian—why wouldn’t it have been called mālūf (مألوف) or nōba (نوبة) like everywhere else in Libya and northern Africa? Moreover, is miriskawi music similar to those genres or Andalusi musical heritage more generally? I don’t know enough about this to judge well, but their sound, and the contexts in which they are performed, are so different that I doubt they are equivalent. But, miriskawi is primarily associated with eastern Libya, especially Benghazi and al-Bayda. Benghazi barely even existed when the Moriscos were expelled from Spain, so Andalusian refugees and their music couldn’t have landed there. Instead, as is well known, they went to established cities like Tripoli and Derna (which, not unrelatedly, are known for Andalusian music and not for miriskawi), the latter of which is widely known to be the most ‘Andalusian’ city in eastern Libya.

3. Other explanations hold that it is a Jewish music form, or an Amazigh music form, though these don’t explain the origin of the word. One other theory I’ve heard attempts to combine everything, claiming that Andalusian refugees went to Tripoli, then Murzug mixing their music with local influences, then back up to Benghazi. At the very least, it is true that Jewish Libyans also sang miriskawi (the well-known Vito Gerbi is the one in red in the below):


That’s about it. An actual study has yet to be carried out, as far as I know. Does anyone have other ideas, or more information, or wilder theories? Perhaps, as Ibrahim al-Safi sings, we’ll have to have صبر للنهاية to find out the true roots of miriskawi


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 2013 and 2017, and a close second of 24 in 2009.

Continue reading

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)

Continue reading

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. See also this post on dissertations on Libyan languages.

An old article about Tawargha


Tawarghan Women (Photo U. Paradisi, 1950s)

The inhabitants of the small oasis of Tawargha (تورغاء) outside of Misrata have suffered a great deal as a result of recent conflicts in Libya. The majority of Tawarghans are people often referred to in Libyan society as “black Libyans”, in order to draw attention to their sub-Saharan African ancestry (I prefer the term “Libyans”, since they are Libyans like everyone else). Unfortunately, most people make little effort to understand them or their history.

Tawarghan Man (Photo U. Paradisi, 1950s)

Tawarghan Man (Photo U. Paradisi, 1950s)

This being the case, I thought it important to share an article written about Tawargha fifty years ago by the linguist Umberto Paradisi, known mainly for his work on Libyan Berber. He also apparently noticed that  many Tawarghans were of sub-Saharan African ancestry (about 4600 of a population of 5100 in 1936, apparently), and wrote an article for the popular magazine Le Vie del Mondo about it (he also wrote popular articles for them about Tripoli, Ghadames, and other places in Libya). That this particular social situation was the case fifty years ago, and goes back even long before the colonial period, further shows that the recent forced displacement of Tawarghans by local militias is based on scapegoating and racism—they have been a part of society for as long as the concept of ‘Libya’ has existed. The reason for the unique demographic of Tawargha goes back to an unfortunate, but inescapable, part of Libyan history: the slave trade. This much is implied by the pejorative term shushan (plural shawāshna) used, then as sometimes now, to refer to them and other Libyans ultimately descended from enslaved people. We need to understand these histories and work to rectify, rather than repeat, them.

Here is a scan of the article (in Italian), entitled “I sudanesi di Tauórga” and published in Le Vie del Mondo (February 1956). It uses the dated and inaccurate way of referring to Black people in Arab societies as “Sudanese”, though this is unsurprising given the era and the colonial venue it was published in. It also has several photographs showing various aspects of life in Tawargha such as date cultivation and textile making.

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.