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.
Back for your seasonal research roundup, containing sources on several totally un/under-researched areas.
After the Tunisian popular revolution of 2011, and during the civil war in Libya that followed, roadside stands near the Tunisian–Libyan bor- der near Remada, Tunisia sold nationalist souvenirs of the revolution with the reinstated Libyan flag (first flown from 1951 to 1969) as well as the Tunisian flag1. Post–independence governments in North Africa have been deeply invested in enforcing the borders they inherited from colonial regimes. Even when borders «were originally “artificial” creations, they have long since become an integral part of the lives of borderlanders. . . borders have an impact on social identities and have come to “demarcate mental space”» (Nugent and Asiwaju 1996, p. 10 in Lentz 2003, p. 274). International borders, for many people, are deeply meaningful and naturalized through socialization in school lessons, bureaucratic administrative procedures, economic systems, and even children’s play. In refugee camps and shelters on the Tunisian side of the border, Libyan children made homemade flags to decorate their temporary dwelling spaces. While «borders and borderlands define ourselves and others» (Lloyd et al 2010, p. 703 and Paasi 2003), a border in and of itself means nothing without human mediation, notably in the dual forms of policing and narration. As I explain in this article, during the first years of the Libyan civil war, the selves and others people were mediating were not only national — Tunisian and Libyan — but also ethnic: minority Amazigh (Berber) and majority Arab.
Historically, connections between southern Libya and northern Chad have always been close, if only due to the fundamental need for connectivity that characterises most Saharan economies. Drawing on so far mostly inaccessible archival records and oral history, this article outlines the implications of this proximity, arguing that it led to intimate entanglements within families and an ongoing confusion of property rights. This in turn resulted in increased rather than diminished hostility during the years of war that opposed the two countries, as people attempted to define uncertain boundaries, and were – and still are – competing for access to similar resources, moral, symbolic, social, and economic.
This article will challenge the currently accepted notions of weak British consular presence, influence and activity in the southern Mediterranean during the period 1795–1832 through a case study of the careers of three successive consuls in the Regency of Tripoli: Simon Lucas, William Wass Langford and Hanmer Warrington. Utilising the official cor- respondence of these agents, the extent of the consular bridgehead in the capital, Tripoli, will be investigated, and how, through these consular and diplomatic agents, it served to define imperial interests and activity at the frontiers of empire. Moreover, the overlapping personal and professional networks within which the consuls embedded themselves, the role of enterprising missions and the development of an intelligence-gathering network will be of central significance in understanding the consequent ruptures in the social and political fabric of the Regency of Tripoli. British imperial interest in North Africa during and immediately post the Napoleonic era remains under-studied and misunder- stood within both British diplomatic and imperial history. This article challenges the exist- ing literature that underestimates the diplomatic as well as consular power exercised by the British consuls to Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, as well as the importance of these three Barbary regencies to wider strategic interests in the Mediterranean.
Zarrugh, Amina. ‘You Exile them in their Own Countries’: The Everyday Politics of Reclaiming the Disappeared in Libya. Middle East Critique 27(3), pp. 247–259.
Located in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, Abū Salīm Prison has become suspended in Libya’s national collective memory as the site of a contested prison killing in 1996. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the prison hosted many prisoners of conscience, namely individuals who forcibly had been disappeared because security personnel suspected them of opposing the regime of Mu’amar Qadhdhafi. Drawing on interviews with their family members, I trace how Libyan families contested the state’s violence and forced disappearance through everyday behaviors, such as inquiring about their relatives’ whereabouts and visiting Abū Salīm Prison. The article contributes to an ongoing discussion within sociology, anthropology, and area studies about the significance of small-scale acts of resistance as forms of political action. Disappearance not only pulled people apart, but also brought them together, often around the same spaces that were intended to disenfranchise them.
For a change, an article which looks, at least in part, at the Libyan south (and is open-access!):
Tabib, Rafaa. 2015. Mobilized publics in Post-Qadhafi Libya: the emergence of new modes of popular protest in Tripoli and Ubari. Mediterranean Politics 21(1), pp. 86–106
As the formal transformation process in Libya faltered and political and local elites were locked in contestation over shares of power and resources, spaces opened for non-formal movements of citizens pushing to exert influence on the political sphere, and to pursue their interests vis-à-vis state institutions with hitherto unknown forms of contentious action. This article investigates two distinctively different examples of such initiatives: on the one hand, the movement against militia rule and the extension of the mandate of the General National Congress (GNC) that emerged in Tripoli in the fall of 2013 and organized demonstrations for new elections throughout the spring of 2014. On the other, a movement for more equitable access to resources and citizenship rights that emerged in the provincial town of Ubari in the Fezzan region and gained momentum in late 2013 through the (largely peaceful) disruption of oil production. The chapter argues that through their mobilization capacities and innovative forms of contentious action, both movements compelled political and institutional actors to recognize mobilized publics as a force to reckon with, and modify the ways they interact with citizens and the general public.
Baldinetti, Anna. 2018. “Languages in Libya: building blocks of national identity and soft power tools,” The Journal of North African Studies 23/3 (Special issue: Soft Power in the Maghrib after the Arab Uprisings), pp. 418–439.
Abstract: Tracing the general lines of language policies in Libya since independence, this article discusses how Arabic has been instrumental in forging a national identity, and examines its role as a soft power tool used by Qadhafi’s regime through the World Islamic Call Society (WICS), established in 1972, which prioritised the teaching of the Arabic language. The article seeks to understand whether the 2011 revolution – at least until 2013, before the beginning of the ongoing internal conflict – has challenged the role of Arabic as the only constituent language of national identity.
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.
A new article discussing some old materials about the Berber (Amazigh) language of Sokna, an oasis in central Libya:
Souag, Lameen, “Sokna re-examined: Two unedited Sokna Berber vocabularies from 1850”. Quaderni di Studi Berberi e Libico-Berberi 4 : La lingua nella vita e la vita della lingua. Itinerari e percorsi degli studi berberi. Naples: UNIOR, pp. 179-206, 2015 [actually appeared 2016].
Abstract: “The Berber variety of Sokna, in west-central Libya, is rather unusual and not very well described. In 1915 it already had only five fluent speakers, and today only the old still remember a few words. The two vocabularies gathered by the English traveller James Richardson in 1850, previously unpublished, are thus important for the study of this variety, and by extension for the study of Libyan Berber more broadly. This article presents them for the first time, with transcription, commentary, and comparisons with the few previously published materials.”
(Anyone interested in a copy of the article, please contact the author)
Marijn van Putten & Lameen Souag, “Attrition and revival in Awjila Berber”, Corpus 14 (2015), pp. 23-58.
Abstract: Awjila Berber is a highly endangered Berber variety spoken in the East of Libya. Only minimal material is available on the language. This is unfortunate, as that material reveals that the language is in some respects very archaic and in others grammatically unique, and as such is of particular comparative and historical interest. Fieldwork has been impossible for decades due to the political situation, leading to uncertainty about whether the language was even still spoken. With the rising popularity of Facebook, however, more and more Berber speakers are taking to Facebook to converse in their own language. Several inhabitants of Awjila have accordingly set up a Facebook page Ašal=ənnax “our village” where they communicate with one another in the Awjila language. The authors have collected a corpus of the conversations on this Facebook page, which have been transcribed and translated. Analysis of this corpus adds substantially to our knowledge of Awjili and its situation. The posters’ discussion of their motivations for using the language cast light on the language’s prospects for survival, while the posts themselves yield many previously unattested words. At the same time, the corpus provides a case study in language contact. Examination of the grammatical and lexical features of this “Facebook-Awjili” language reveals that these speakers’ usage is heavily influenced by Arabic, showing extensive language attrition absent from earlier data. The resulting constructions show parallels with other contact-heavy varieties, notably Siwi. In both respects, this study casts light upon the uses and limits of social media as a source of linguistic material.
The article is not yet available online, only in the print version, but we will link to a PDF as soon as one is available.
Room in a Ghadamsi house (Plate 1). © AM Yedder.
Searching the British Library database recently for Ph.D. theses related to Libya yielded an unexpected gem: The oral literature associated with the traditional wedding ceremony at Ghadames, a 1982 thesis written at SOAS by A.M. Yedder, a native of Ghadames. I first had a look at the physical copy in the SOAS library: a 431-page tome containing dozens and dozens of transcribed and translated texts in the Berber language of Ghadames, not to mention quite a few color photographs hand-pasted into it.
As with any Berber language in Libya, more material is a great boon, and this one contains a rich variety of oral literature used during weddings: 82 wedding songs, 20 ‘ritual utterances’, 3 ‘calls’, and 4 ululations. Many of the texts preserved here may no longer be known in Ghadames–Yedder gives details about each of his 19 informants, for example, several of which were born not long after 1900 and knew texts that were already in the 1970s forgotten by most other informants. A detailed discussion of the town’s social structure, unique house architecture, and the long and complex wedding ceremony itself means that the work is interesting even for those who do not specialize in Berber language.
Ghadamsi wedding jewelry (Plate 30). © AM Yedder.
It strikes me that this thesis may be one of the most detailed descriptions of a North African wedding ceremony ever made. Its wealth of information and uniqueness mean that it should be published, even, or especially, after having lain unconsulted in the SOAS library for thirty years. Thanks to some colleagues who helped allay the costs, I had the BL scan the entire thesis. It can be downloaded from this link (the file is large, > 100mb).
After a brief pause, here are two articles in Italian on Berber and other minority communities in Libya and the Libyan Revolution by Anna Maria di Tolla, a specialist in Berber literature and Ibadism at the University of Naples and Anna Baldinetti, a historian of Libya at the University of Perugia. Since the articles are not easily available online, get in touch if you would like copies.
Anna Maria di Tolla. “I berberi del Gebel Nefusa tra rivoluzione e identità culturale.” in La rivoluzione ai tempi di Internet: Il futuro della democrazia nel Maghreb e nel mondo arabo. Napoli (2012), 73-91.
Anna Baldinetta. “Identità nazionale e riconoscimento delle minoranze in Libia: le richieste della società civile.” in La guerra ai confini d’Europe: Incognite e prospettive mediterranee per l’Italia. Roma (2014), 103-119.
Picking up the theme of Berber (Amazigh) languages which we started last month, we move to the area of Zwara in northwest Libya. It has become known a bit better to the outside world, unfortunately, as a point of departure for refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and for related problems with trafficking. So it is with many places in Libya, which hadn’t been heard of until something bad happened. Like Benghazi: before 2011 no one had ever heard of such a place, now everyone has heard of it but still can’t pronounce it correctly. But I’m getting off track—I want to highlight something unique about Zwara: it is one of the places where a Berber language is still spoken in Libya.
The linguist T.F. Mitchell (1919-2007) spent time doing fieldwork in Zwara in the 1940s and 50s, publishing some articles about the language (he also published work on Cyrenaican Arabic). But only recently were some of his copious papers on the Zwara Berber language edited into monographs.
The first is Ferhat: An everyday story of Berber folk in and around Zuara (Libya) (Berber Studies 17, Rüdiger Köppe: Cologne, 2007). Ferhat is the result of Mitchell’s work with his main informant Ramadan Azzabi, who narrated aspects of everyday life in Zwara. It hadn’t been published until Mitchell gave the papers to the editor of the Berber Studies series shortly before his death. The publication of this lengthy material is a valuable contribution for those interested not only in linguistics, but also Libyan/Berber language and culture. There is also an appendix discussing marriage customs in Zwara and a bibliography of work on the language carried out up until that point.
The follow-up to that volume, and posthumously capping T.F. Mitchell’s work is Zuaran Berber (Libya): Grammar and Texts (Berber Studies 26, Rüdiger Köppe: Cologne, 2009). This work consists of a partial grammatical sketch (partial because it concentrates mostly on verb morphology) of the Zwaran language that Mitchell had completed before his death, together with a number of transcribed conversation between Zwarans. Best of all, the audio files are available online at the publishers website (see link above) so that anyone interested can hear some Zwaran Berber.