Article: Italian colonial psychiatry in Libya

Scarfone, Marianna. 2016. Italian colonial psychiatry: outlines of a discipline, and practical achievement in Libya and the Horn of Africa. History of Psychiatry 27(4), pp. 389–405.
This article describes the establishment of psychiatry in Italy’s former colonies during the period 1906–43, in terms of the clinical and institutional mechanisms, the underlying theories and the main individuals involved. ‘Colonial psychiatry’ (variously called ‘ethnographic’, ‘comparative’ or ‘racial’ psychiatry) – the object of which was both to care for mentally afflicted colonists and local people and also to understand and make sense of their pathologies – received most attention in colonial Libya, starting in the first months of the Italian occupation (1911–12) and then taking institutional form in the 1930s; in the colonies of what was known as ‘Italian East Africa’, on the other hand, less was said about psychiatric care, and practical achievements were correspondingly limited.

The music of Dania Ben Sasi in 2011

On the anniversary of the revolution, we’re sharing a new article by Leila Tayeb, “Our star: Amazigh music and the production of intimacy in 2011 Libya” out in the Journal of North African Studies, about the music of Libyan Amazigh singer Dania Ben Sasi during the events of the 2011 revolution.

The abstract is:

This article explores the production and circulation of Amazigh music among Libyans between 2011 and 2013. It takes as a focal point the performance archive of Serbian-Libyan Amazigh singer Dania Ben Sasi, whose Amazigh-language music found unprecedented fame in Libya in 2011. Through close readings of her initial musical recording of that year, interviews with Ben Sasi and listeners, analysis of performances onstage and in daily life, and drawing on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in Libya, Serbia, and Tunisia, I present a brief history of a temporary moment of political possibility. I suggest that the formation of an intimate public around Amazigh music in Libya offered glimpses of an unfinished future in which popular practices of recognition could still be built.

The article appears to be freely accessible online at the above link.

Jewish Libya: Memory and Identity

jewish240A new book, Jewish Libya: Memory and Identity in Text and Image, edited by the Libyan Jewish writers and scholars Jacques Roumani (†), David Meghnaghi, and Judith Roumani, is coming out soon from Syracuse University Press. It includes chapters on Libyan Jewish language, cuisine, history, social change, women, diaspora, and biographical and liturgical literatures. A table of contents can be found at this link.

From the publisher’s description:

“In June 2017, the Jews of Libya commemorated the jubilee of their complete exodus from this North African land in 1967, which began with a mass migration to Israel in 1948–49. Jews had resided in Libya since Phoenician times, seventeen centuries before their encounter with the Arab conquest in AD 644–646. Their disappearance from Libya, like most other Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East, led to their fragmentation across the globe as well as reconstitution in two major centers, Israel and Italy.

Distinctive Libyan Jewish traditions and a broad cultural heritage have survived and prospered in different places in Israel and in Rome, Italy, where Libyan Jews are recognized for their vibrant contribution to Italian Jewry. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, memories fade among the younger generations and multiple identities begin to overshadow those inherited over the centuries. Capturing the essence of Libyan Jewish cultural heritage, this anthology aims to reawaken and preserve the memories of this community. Jewish Libya collects the work of scholars who explore the community’s history, its literature and dialect, topography and cuisine, and the difficult negotiation of trauma and memory. In shedding new light on this now-fragmented culture and society, this collection commemorates and celebrates vital elements of Libyan Jewish heritage and encourages a lively inter-generational exchange among the many Jews of Libyan origin worldwide.”


Two Essays on Hisham Matar’s Novels

Tasnim Qutait, “Like His Father Before Him”: Patrilineality and Nationalism in the work of Hisham Matar, Jamal Mahjoub and Robin Yassin-Kassab, Postcolonial Interventions 2/2, 2017, pp. 129–160.

Abstract: Despite recent increased attention to the study of masculinities in the Middle East, discussions of gender and nationalism in the Arab world tend to focus on the impact of the patriarchal nation-state on women. This focus, in part reflecting the persistence of essentialist discourses about the disempowered Arab woman, elides the centrality of masculinity and patrilineality to the narratives of the nation-state. In this article, I consider the implications of patrilineality in the work of three Arab British authors, identifying the centrality of the absent or distant father to the examination of nationalism and exile in this emerging literature. The article examines two novels by Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), alongside Jamal Mahjoub’s Travelling with Djinns (2003) and Robin Yassin-Kassab’s The Road from Damascus (2008). Matar, Yassin-Kassab and Mahjoub are three writers settled in Britain and writing in English, with backgrounds in Libya, Syria and Sudan respectively. I argue that all three writers employ a narrative of failed filial relationships in order to dramatize a sense of distance from the post-independence generation, and the growing awareness of the discontinuities between an emancipatory national project and the reality of state violence.

Christopher Micklethwait, “Zenga Zenga and Bunga Bunga: The Novels of Hisham Matar and a Critique of Gaddafi’s Libya”, in The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English: The Politics of Anglo-Arab and Arab-American Literature and Culture, edited by Nouri Gana, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, pp. 171–196.

From the essay: “The two novels of Anglo Libyan author Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), center on the abduction of their respective protagonists’ fathers at the hands of revolutionary dictatorships. In the former, the father, Faraj el Dewani, is seized by members of the Revolutionary Committee during the reign of political terror in Libya in 1979, viciously tortured in custody, and then released to his family after confessing and revealing the names of his co-conspirators. In the latter, the father, Kamal Pasha El-Alfi, an ex-minister and exiled dissident of an unnamed Arab country, is kidnapped from the home of his mistress in Geneva in the winter of 1972, never to be seen or heard from again. The thematic similarities of these plots have made it difficult not to relate them to the author’s family and personal experiences with the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, which ruled Libya from 1969 until 2011. As Matar has reported in several public interviews, his father, political dissident Jaballa Matar, vanished from Cairo in 1990 where he had been living in exile; he had been abducted by Libyan agents with the cooperation of Egyptian security forces and clandestinely repatriated to Libya where he was held, for a time, in Libya’s infamous Abu Salim prison, only to disappear completely in 1996…”


Studies on law and custom in sedentarizing societies

This post draws your attention to three book-length studies published on Islamic law as preserved in documents from the courts of Ajdābiya and Kufra, two cities that are home to mostly sedentarized Bedouin. The cases preserved in those court archives date from the 1930s to the 1970s—thus the studies reveal the nature of the interaction between law and custom as it was in mostly nomadic but sedentarizing societies, as opposed to how it is now.

Layish, Aharon. 1991. Divorce in the Libyan Family. A study based on the sijills of the sharī‘a courts of Ajdābiyya and Kufra. New York: NYU Press.

Layish, Aharon. 1998. Legal Documents on Libyan Tribal Society in Process of Sedentarization. A selection of decisions from the sijills of the sharī‘a courts of Ajdābiya and Kufra. Part 1: The documents in Arabic with a glossary of Arabic legal terms and phrases, with an anthropological critique by John Davis. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Layish, Aharon. 2005. Sharī‘a and custom in Libyan tribal society. An annotated translation of decisions from the Sharī‘a courts of Ajdābiya and Kufra, with a linguistic essay by Alexander Borg. Leiden: Brill.




Article: Exported Urbanity in 1970s Libya

Sometimes I come across studies on topics I never even knew could be topics. Here, an essay examining the models  of urbanity ‘exported’ to Libya by Croatian architects working on the naval base in Khoms (الخمس), Libya.

Smode Cvitanović, Mojca, Smokvina, Marina, Kincl, Branko. 2016. “Maritime Ports as the Testing Field for a New Urbanity. Centroprojekt Zagreb Design for Naval Base Homs, Libya, 1976.” In Urban Planning in North Africa, ed. Carlos Nunes Silva, Routledge, pp. 145–155. [Link to partial preview]

“Drawing on experience gained through the modernization of their own country after the Second World War, Yugoslav experts made their mark applying their expertise in many African and Asian countries, thereby taking part in the creation of those continents’ modern societies in the years that followed. A large field of expertise was as a consequence applied including civil engineering, architecture, and urban planning. A specific professional sector among Yugoslav ‘exports’ was the design and construction of port facilities. Depending on the developments adjacent to the ports, different expertise in urban planning and architecture was needed within this multi-disciplinary task. Architectural developments, as support to a port facility, were usually planned in empty areas and without a previously established analogous architectural or urban typology in the local tradition. This chapter follows the particular case of the Naval Base Homs (Khoms, Al-Khums) in Libya which received a significant contribution of urban and architectural design, the task having been assigned to the Centroprojekt Zagreb company in the mid-1970s. The chapter examines the models of urbanity ‘exported’ by Croatian architects engaged in a task whose primary function was to support the adjacent port facility.”


Book: Desert Borderland

Matthew Ellis, Desert Borderland: The making of modern Egypt and Libya, Stanford University Press (coming 2018).

Publisher’s blurb: “Desert Borderland investigates the historical processes that transformed political identity in the easternmost reaches of the Sahara Desert in the half century before World War I. Adopting a view from the margins—illuminating the little-known history of the Egyptian-Libyan borderland—the book challenges prevailing notions of how Egypt and Libya were constituted as modern territorial nation-states.

Matthew H. Ellis draws on a wide array of archival sources to reconstruct the multiple layers and meanings of territoriality in this desert borderland. Throughout the decades, a heightened awareness of the existence of distinctive Egyptian and Ottoman Libyan territorial spheres began to develop despite any clear-cut boundary markers or cartographic evidence. National territoriality was not simply imposed on Egypt’s western—or Ottoman Libya’s eastern—domains by centralizing state power. Rather, it developed only through a complex and multilayered process of negotiation with local groups motivated by their own local conceptions of space, sovereignty, and political belonging. By the early twentieth century, distinctive “Egyptian” and “Libyan” territorial domains emerged—what would ultimately become the modern nation-states of Egypt and Libya.”