Tag Archives: benghazi


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


Book: Najwa Bin Shatwan’s The Slave Pens | زرايب العبيد لنجوى بن شتوان

The latest work of Benghazi-born writer Najwa Bin Shatwan, The Slave Pens (زرايب العبيد) has been garnering praise across the Arab literary world. She was recently shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and a translated excerpt from her book is featured in the current issue of Banipal magazine (#58 ‘Arab Literary Awards’).

The novel is set just outside of downtown Benghazi in the early 20th century. In this part of the city, known as al-Sabri (الصابري), both enslaved and free people lived in a dense network of rudimentary palm-leaf dwellings, essentially a ghetto. Bin Shatwan is the first writer or scholar to attempt to address this aspect of Benghazi’s history in particular, perhaps the first Libyan writer to deal deeply with slavery and its legacy in Libya.

Summary: The Slave Pens lifts the lid on the dark, untold history of slavery in Libya, of which the effects can still be felt today. Slave owner Mohammed and his slave Ta’awidha have fallen in love, but their relationship is considered taboo. Living in a community where masters take female slaves as lovers as they please, Mohammed’s father sends him on a trading mission in an attempt to distance him from Ta’awidha. During his absence, his mother forces her to miscarry by serving her a spiked drink, and she is married off to another slave. On his return from his trip, Mohammed learns of his family’s activities and he begins searching for his beloved.

Interviews with the author:


Book: Benghazi Through the Ages | بنغازي عبر التاريخ

The Libyan historian Hadi Bulugma produced a series of books in Arabic on the history of Benghazi entitled بنغازي عبر التاريخ. He also made an abbreviated English version, the first volume of which (I am not sure that the second and third volumes were ever finished) concentrates on the geography and geographical history of the city. Here is a PDF of the book.

Bulugma, Hadi. 1968. Benghazi through the Ages. Volume I. Dar Maktabat al-Fikr, Tripoli.

Article: An Oil Boom, Women, and Changing Traditions

Fikry, Mona. 1978. “An Oil Boom, Women, and Changing Traditions: A study of Libyan women in Benghazi.” In Folklore in the Modern World, ed. R. Dorson. Mouton: The Hague, pp. 65–76. [PDF]

This is an article about the modernization of Libya after the discovery of oil and its effects on the lives and roles of women in Benghazi. The article discusses in particular the suppression of the social and cultural lives of women in connection with modernizing forces, such as mass media, and draws attention to the declining visibility of, and place for, folklore and oral literature–which except for traditional poetry was mostly transmitted and performed by women. Fikry notes, for example, that:

“Tale-telling, called khurrafat in Libya, used to be an essential part of family entertainment in towns, villages, and tents, but in the city it has now all but disappeared to be replaced by television. The time that young children spent listening to tales is now spent studying, reading magazines, or watching television. Rare are the occasions when tales are told and few are the young urban women who know any tales to tell. Even the special night devoted to tale-telling during the wedding celebration is now firmly linked with the past.”


Article: Complaints from Libya at the Turn of the 20th Century

With apologies for a series of posts of articles that are not easily accessible, though worth reading if you have access, I present the following:

Henning Sievert, “Intermediaries and Local Knowledge in a Changing Political Environment: Complaints from Libya at the Turn of the 20th Century”. Die Welt des Islams 54, 3-4 (2014), pp. 322–362. [Online behind paywall]

Abstract: As historiography on Ottoman Tripolitania and Benghazi focuses mainly on the Italian invasion and on the Sanūsiyya and pays little attention to Ottoman records, studies on political practice and change in that period are rare. However, the special circumstances of that remote and sparsely populated part of the empire enable us to focus on the role of intermediaries and complaints within the imperial framework. Complaints and related correspondence were crucial in the negotiation of order, both from the government’s and from the subjects’ point of view. With the 19th-century reforms, new notions of order emerged, and old notions were modified. The new mode of politics did not, however, consist of immutable prescriptions but could acquire new layers of meaning in a process of translation into the vernacular politics of the Libyan provinces and vice versa. Imperial notions of order were thus read and utilised in various ways. The key interpreters and translators in this process were intermediaries between imperial, provincial and local levels. This contribution suggests to study political communication within the imperial framework by focusing on these intermediaries.

Book: A report on the 1874 plague in Benghazi

pesteI recently came across a small, old pamphlet entitled, in French, “Essai sur la peste de Benghazi en 1874” (Essay on the 1874 plague of Benghazi) written by a certain Dr. Léonard Arnaud (a “médécin sanitaire au service Ottomane”) and published by the Ottoman Health Administration in Constantinople in 1875.

The report deals with an interesting and practically unknown episode of eastern Libyan history: an outbreak of the plague in ‘Benghazi’—then used to indicate the eastern part of modern-day Libya in general—which followed an earlier outbreak in the same region in 1858. This particular outbreak occurred in the encampments of several groups of nomadic Bedouin in the plateaus between Benghazi and al-Merj. Of concern to the Ottoman officials, no doubt, was that Dr. Arnaud identified the disease as the same as the plague which had been occurring in the Levant (according to a report made in London, the Ottoman health service was apparently dealing with a number of plague outbreaks in their Middle Eastern provinces). A quick search for the author reveals that he seems to have been a specialist in dealing with the plague and other epidemics in various territories of the Ottoman empire.

Are there any other sources for this episode of history, Ottoman, Arabic, or European?