Two articles on Berbers and Revolution

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.

Two books on Zwara Berber | كتابين على لهجة زوارة الامازيغية

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.

The Berber language of Ghadames | لهجة غدامس الامازيغية

Ghadames. Image by George Steinmetz, National Geographic.

The historic city of Ghadames in the far west of Libya is well-known for its beautiful vernacular architecture. It is also is home to a unique variety of the Berber language. Like in Awjila, fieldwork in Ghadames was primarily done before the regime came to power and both research and mention of Berbers were restricted. Much material was collected primarily by a French linguist named Jacques Lanfry, who stayed in the oasis in the 1940s. Prior to that, linguistic material from Ghadames had not been published since 1904. Lanfry’s material has now been analysed by Maarten Kossmann, who works on a wide variety of languages in North Africa including several Berber varieties, and published as A Grammatical Sketch of Ghadames Berber (Libya). Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Cologne (2013, Berber Studies 40). The publisher’s website states:

“Ghadames constitutes a Berber language on its own, which has followed different historical paths from all other languages. It preserves a number of phonological features that are not commonly found else­where and in its morphology, Ghadames also has a number of highly unusual features. While much of its syntax follows general Berber patterns, a number of outstanding features occur. Ghadames Berber lexi­con has undergone relatively low influence from Arabic; thus in a count of loanwords in traditional narrative texts, Ghadames has 18% loanwords from Arabic, whereas languages such as Tashelhiyt and Figuig have twice as much. Furthermore there are a number of recognizable loans from Tuareg and Hausa.

In spite of the importance of Lanfry’s materials, in Berber studies the language of Ghadames has not yet been given the place it deserves. This may be due to the fact that anfry’s studies are difficult to obtain, and that Lanfry’s notations prove somewhat difficult to interpret for a superficial reader. Moreover, while Lanfry provides a detailed description of verbal morphology, other subjects remain under­represented, such as syntax. This is the reason the author decided to write this short grammatical sketch, based on Lanfry’s materials.”

The Berber language of Awjila | لهجة اوجلة الامازيغية

Here at the Silphium Gatherer we are going to close out this month with a focus on recent studies about the various Berber groups of Libya. [1]

Academic work on the Berbers of Libya has been primarily linguistic, but of course, as we often say here, all aspects of these groups are understudied. By sharing the main recent publications here, I hope to at least give an impression of what has been done and possibilities for future research. The first two works highlighted here are both based on linguistic data collected during the pre-regime period, as little fieldwork has been possible in the past several decades.

The most recent publication is my friend and colleague Marijn van Putten‘s overview of the grammar of the Berber variety spoken in the oasis of Awjila in eastern Libya: A Grammar of Awjila Berber (Libya), Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Cologne, 2014 (Berber Studies 41). The material for this was collected in the 1960s by a very able linguist named Umberto Paradisi, whose tragic death in an accident in Benghazi prevented him from finishing his work. Marijn van Putten has now turned his work into a detailed and readable grammatical description which also includes all the material in Awjila Berber recorded by earlier scholars, including a number of fairy tales and songs.

On a Berber-language-related blog that Marijn and I started a while ago, you can also find some discussion of Awjila Berber (note that it is oriented primarily at those with some linguistic knowledge of Berber languages). Over at Marijn’s academia.edu page those interested will also find a number of further articles about the Berber variety of Awjila.


1 The term ‘Berber’ is usually used in scholarly works, but is sometimes considered pejorative—however, we’ll continue to use ‘Berber’ here in order to refer to publications without confusion.

Studies on the Ibadis in Libya | دراسات في الاباضية في ليبيا

In North Africa, the Ibadi school (الاباضية) of Islam exists only among the Berber communities of the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya, the island of Jerba in Tunisia, and certain oases (such as Mzab) in eastern Algeria. The Ibadis of Libya are, of course, not so often discussed–to some extent even within the country itself. Although not everyone knows it, one of the most famous figures of Libyan history–Suleyman Baruni, who had a storied career as an Ottoman official and intellectual–was an Ibadi originally from the Nafusa Mountains.

Most of the western-language scholarship on the Ibadi communities of Libya was carried out by the Polish scholar Tadeusz Lewicki (تاديوش لويتسكي) some decades ago, fortunately usually in French. His publications include items that are also of interest for those working on Berber language and literature, such as medieval Berber chronicles (written in Arabic). Some important publications are the following:

Numerous further references, some with commentary in French, can be found at the website of the “Maghribadite” project based in France–click here for their bibliographic resources page. Otherwise, scholarship on various aspects of the Ibadis of North Africa is quite broad and this isn’t the place for a comprehensive bibliography. See the work of Virginie Prevost and Vermondo Brugnatelli, among others, for some good starting points.