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correspondence have been collected and published—those are the ones detailed here, with a few references thrown in to unpublished material; this post is not necessarily exhaustive.
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)
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
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
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
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
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.)
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:
- An ode from the Maḥāmīd of Tripolitania, poet unnamed.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- An ode by Muhammad bin Sahla, a famous sheikh in Tlemcen, Algeria, who lived in the 1800s.
- A poem from a nobleman of Tafilalt, Morocco named Sidi Muhammad bin Ali U Rezin (1742-1822).
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
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
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.