Tag Archives: colonial era

Hasuna’s Treachery, in Poems

Among the texts recorded by the French scholar Gilbert Boris in the 1940s is a poem about the Italian occupation of Tripolitania at the beginning of the colonial endeavor. Since Boris died in 1950, the collection of texts in which the present poem appears, Documents linguistiques et ethnographiques sur une région du Sud Tunisien (Nefzaoua) (Paris, 1951), was published posthumously.

The poem, which Boris calls a “chant de guerre” was authored by Muhammad bin Ṣōf, sheikh of the Maḥāmīd tribe. The Maḥāmīd were among the semi-nomadic tribes of Tripolitania (then referring to a larger region than today, including what is now the south of Tunisia) who fought in resistance to Italian troops during the so-called Italo-Turkish war of 1912-1913. His grandfather, moreover, was the famed Ghuma al-Mahmudi, a leader who together with ‘Abd al-Jalil Sayf al-Nasr rebelled against Ottoman rule of Tripolitania in the mid-1800s and became somewhat of a legendary figure associated with revolt against foreign rule.* Muhammad bin Ṣōf, who himself was probably a young man at that time, thus had a great deal of suspicion and dislike for certain figures—such as Hasuna Garamanli, the target of this poem—who were thought to have colluded with the Italian colonizers and to have helped them obtain control of Tripoli.

Hasuna Garamanli and Italian military personnel observe the hanging of Libyan resisters, Tripoli, 1911 (Archives of Gaston Chérau)

Boris relates that the poem belongs to a certain genre in which, as the poet recites, two other people repeat the refrain immediately after each verse. This refrain contains the poem’s main punch: “without you, you dog Hasuna, [the Italians] wouldn’t have occupied the sands of Zara”. In other words, Tripolitania would have resisted the Italians if Hasuna hadn’t sold out, enabling them to make inroads and eventually win at ‘Ain Zara, site of a decisive victory for Italian forces against Ottoman/Libyan ones. Think of this as, then, something akin to a diss track, one where the main insult is repeated with every verse. Here’s my (probably pretty rough) translation:

(Refrain)
(The Italians) raised up their cannons with treachery,
all night long continuing their fire,
but without you, you dog Hasuna,
they wouldn’t have occupied the sands of Zara!

ناضوا المدافع بالخونة
و بايت يوقّد في ناره
لومك يا كلب حسونة
ما يسكنوا رملة زاره
If not for you and your duplicity,
sixty curses upon the traitor,
a group well-visible came to you,
you sold your faith for cheap,
they wouldn’t exchange theirs even for millions,
the sons of the tribes who smash their enemies!
لومك وانت تتماين
ستين نعلة على الخاين
جوكم جماعة معاين
بدّلت دينك بالبارة
ما يبدلوشي بالملاين
اولاد العروبة كسّارة
ّIf not for you and your servility,
(the Italians) wouldn’t have occupied Bani Adam,
you will be regretful of your deeds,
your balance will tip towards sin,
as you step onto the scale,
on a day with no levity
لومك وانت تتخادم
ما يسكنوا في بني ادم
تبدا على فعلك نادم
ميزانك راجح قنطارة
وانت على السنجة قادم
في يومٍ لا فيه بصارة
The offspring of Gharyan came to you,
the Italian took off and fled;
a rich and thick seed,
(for) ‘Akkara, the people of the sickle,
they don’t reap the old man
but the young one, bloodied in his belt
جوكم ذراري الغرياني
خرّم هرب الطلياني
زرعه خصيب ومتداني
واهل المناجل عكّارة
ما يحصّدوش الشيباني
كان الصغير بكماره
The offspring of Warfella came to you,
they fell on those of little faith,
among them are those who invoke the bismilla.
With the molten ball and the bayonet,
they waylay anyone who appears,
and leave his bones dispersed
جوكم ذراري ورفلّة
طبّوا على قلال الملّة
فيهم يسمّوا بسم الله
بحبّ الملوّى والزغارة
كل من يبان يهيفن له
يخلّوا اعضامه شطّارة
Muhammad, leading his people,
sheikh of the well-known troop,
a carnivorous bird, grandson of Ghuma,
his beak reddened (with blood),
among the gathered Italian army
he raises a whirlwind!
رايس محمد في قومه
شيخ المحلّة المعلومة
طير اللحم جدّه غومة
يصبح محمّر منقاره
جيش الطلاين ملمومة
فيهم منوّض غبّارة

Here it isn’t just that Muhammad bin Sof blames the loss of the positions at ‘Ain Zara and Bani Adam on Hasuna’s treachery. He also mentions several prominent tribes of the larger Tripolitanian region, who also seem opposed Hasuna’s capitulation and whose fighting he praises: Gharyan, Werfella, and ‘Akkara. He finishes with a little boasting: Muhammad, descendant of Ghuma, took care of the Italians!


Interestingly, the same theme occurs in another poem, recorded closer to the time of the events themselves but under totally different circumstances. During World War I, Germany operated a prisoner-of-war camp for the Muslim members of French and British enemy forces. Located just outside of Berlin, it was known as the Halbmondlager (“Half Moon Camp”) and its primary purpose was to indoctrinate the Muslim prisoners, primarily South Asians and North Africans, to commit acts of terrorism back in England and France.

But its prisoners also served as a captive audience for German linguists to use experimental techniques in sound recording. Thousands of shellac discs, the predecessor to vinyl records, were recorded in dozens of languages, by forcing prisoners to speak, recite, or sing in their native languages.** Some of these recordings were then published. A number of recordings in Arabic were published by Hubert Grimme, a scholar of Semitic languages, in a contribution entitled “Die Farbigen von Nordwestafrika” to the book Unter fremden Völkern: Eine neue Völkerkunde published in 1925.

South Asian POWs are recorded in the Half Moon Camp (Source: Lautarchiv, Humboldt University Berlin)

One text, presented only in German translation with no Arabic, was apparently recited by a female poet from Tripoli, who names herself in the poem as Fatima al-Kankusha. It too takes aim at Hasuna Garamanli. Though Grimme noted that “[the Libyans] disposition towards the Italians can easily be seen in the following poem which I recorded in the camp from a Tripolitanian female poet”, the poem actually only mentions the Italians obliquely (the “wild animals”) but directly addresses Hasuna, with insults, several times. Here’s the German with my translation:

O Tripolis, Stadt der schönen Paläste,
Verkauft hat dich Hsuna an fremde Gäste.
Dieses Jahr noch wollen wir ruhig sein:
Gott wolle den Türken Hilfe leihn!
Dieses Jahr noch wollen wir ruhig bleiben,
Dann aber die Welschen des Landes vertreiben.
Wer Tränen hat, weine sie mit mir jetzt:
Voll Trauer, O Vater, ist mein Sinn und entsetzt.
Ich bin aus Gasr bil-Gordan gekommen:
Mich jammert, daß wilde Tiere es genommen.
Ich brachte ein Mädchen heim (?) aus Gasr bil-Gordan,
Nachdem sie mir Gewalt und Hohn angetan.
Es nagt ein Wurm in meinem Innern;
Wird Allah sich nicht seines Volks erinnern?
Ich möchte mein Herz in den Händen halten
Und es durchforschen, Falte für Falte.
Doch, o Sohn der Hure, für dein Blut
Gäb’ ich meines Vaters, meiner Großmutter Gut,
Gäb’ ich Haus und Feld und des Herdes Glut,
Wenn ich, die Fatma el-Kankuscha geheißen,
Dich könnte an den Haaren vom Pferde reißen!

O Tripoli, city of beautiful palaces,
Hasuna sold you to foreign guests.
This year we want to remain peaceful still:
would that God aid the Turks!
This year we want to remain calm still,
But then chase the Romans from our land.
She who has tears, weep with me now,
my mind, O God, is shocked and full of grief.
I’ve come from Gasr bil-Gordan (?):
it pains me that wild animals have taken it.
I brought a girl home from Gasr bil-Gordan,
after they beat and scorned me.
A worm eats away at me inside;
will God not remember his people?
I want to hold my heart in my hands
and search it deeply, fold for fold.
But, O son of a whore, for your blood,
I would give my father’s or grandmother’s estate,
I would give house and field and the warmth of the hearth,
if I, who am called Fatima al-Kankusha,
were able to pull you from your horse by your hair!

The German translation is rhymed and metered quite nicely, so one should probably assume that it takes some license with the Arabic original. Still, the poet’s antagonism to Hasuna Garamanli is quite clear. If these two examples represent a more widespread sentiment, especially among the semi-nomadic groups of the Tripolitanian hinterlands, it stands to reason that a number of poems criticizing Hasuna circulated.

“Hasuna Basha, a great friend of Italy, mayor of Tripoli confirmed by the Italian authorities”. Postcard made by E. Biagio Giarmoleo, ~1912

There might be more preserved somewhere, especially in Arabic collections published in Libya, but I don’t know of any off the top of my head. And also, does anyone know anything about Fatima al-Kankusha?


*You can find out more about Ghuma in Bradford G. Martin, “Ghuma bin Khalifa: a Libyan Rebel, 1795-1858”, in Studies in Ottoman Diplomatic History, ed. S. Derengil & S. Kuneralp (Istanbul, 1990), or Muhammad al-Tawir, الشيخ غومة المحمودي على العثمانيين (Tripoli, 1995), or even Orhan Koloğlu, “Libya, from the Ottoman Perspective (1835-1918),” Africa: Rivista Trimestrale Di Studi e Documentazione Dell’Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (63/2, 2008), pp. 275–282.

**This is the subject of a great documentary, the Half Moon Files. The records all form part of the Lautarchiv collection at the Humboldt University, Berlin.

Article: “The Persecution of Jews in Libya Between 1938 and 1945: An Italian Affair?”

Jens Hoppe, “The Persecution of Jews in Libya Between 1938 and 1945: An Italian Affair?” in The Holocaust and North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2018).

This chapter explores the measures adopted by Italy against Jews in Italian-occupied Libya, particularly those laws passed between 1938 (when the so-called racial laws were also introduced in Libya) and 1943 (when the British Eighth Army occupied the country and ended Italian rule). Paying close heed to the internment of Libyan Jews in special camps and the deportation of foreign Jews to Tunisia or Italy in 1942, the essay includes background history since the 1920s and extends to the period after 1943, especially the pogroms in November 1945, before finally assessing the Libyan situation.

Book: Ali Dinar and the Sanusiya

Jay Spaulding & Lidwien Kapteijns, An Islamic Alliance: ‘Ali Dinar and the Sanusiya, 1906-1916 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1994).

This volume is a contribution to the growing literature of documentary source publications from northeastern Africa. Its primary purpose is to help restore African voices to an historiography too often dominated by the perception of Europeans, and to allow authentically African definitions of historical experience to emerge. … The subject of this book is the defense, by devoutly Islamic leaders, of one of the last parts of the African continent to be overrun by the imperial European “Scramble for Africa” during the decade that culminated in the First World War, a region which extended south from the Mediterranean coast of Cyrenaica for more than two thousand miles to embrace parts of northern Chad, and the sultanate of Dār Fūr in the western portion of the modern Republic of Sudan. … These surviving pieces of diplomatic correspondence concentrate on the alliance between ‘Alī Dīnār, prince of the sultanate of Dār Fūr in the western Sudan, and the leaders of the Sanusi brotherhood then based in southern Libya. In contrast to the European view of the alliance as ephemeral, the documents indicate a sincere, passionate attempt to join–despite immense physical difficulties–an ancient monarchist tradition to a more modern, trade-based sociopolitical organization. The first part of the study is an extended interpretive essay, organized chronologically, that attempts to place the documents themselves and the information they contain in a wider historical context. The second part presents the documents themselves.

Article: “Mastering the Wheel of Chance: Motor Racing in French Algeria and Italian Libya”

A special issue of the journal Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East is out with the theme “The Global Middle East in the Age of Speed”. In it, an article on motor racing in colonial North Africa appears:

Jakob Krais, “Mastering the Wheel of Chance: Motor Racing in French Algeria and Italian Libya.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 39 (1), 2019, pp. 143–158.

Abstract: During the 1920s and 1930s, French Algeria and Italian Libya witnessed spectacular motor-sports events: desert rallies as well as car races on closed circuits. Speed sports events, in this context, served three main purposes: they integrated or reconquered the colonial territory symbolically; they demonstrated the advancement and technological superiority of the conquerors vis-à-vis the “backward” indigenous population; and beyond that, they established the colonies as laboratories of modernity and experimentation grounds of progress. In this sense, this essay employs the Foucauldian term heterotopia to designate the sites of motor sports competitions in Libya and Algeria. The colonies now were even more modern than France or Italy itself, or, put differently, they served as showcases for a possible future. Motor sports were especially apt to serve the outlined purposes. Road races and new circuits constantly referred to colonial claims about the progress of infrastructure. “Automobilism” was perceived as the very epitome of modernity and progress, set to take over the colonies, which were imagined as a tabula rasa. Finally, mastery of a car at a “devilish speed” was metonymically extended to represent the taming of the wheel of contingency in an uncertain situation and staying in control of the colonies.

Book: Il V Battaglione Ascari in missione sul fronte libico (1912)

Massimo Zaccaria. 2012. Anch’io per la tua bandiera. Il V Battaglione Ascari in missione sul fronte libico (1912). Giorgio Pozza Editore, Ravenna.

This book traces the history of the first Eritrean “ascari” battalion employed by the Italians in their conquest of Libya in 1912. For the colonizing forces, this battalion served two purposes besides military: the Italians aimed to show in Libya and other colonies that there were “Muslim” forces on their side, and enabled them to show other European colonial powers that they had a successful “civilizing” mission.

The book is in Italian, but has been reviewed in English by Francesca Di Pasquale here.

Article: The “Other” at Home: Deportation and Transportation of Libyans to Italy During the Colonial Era (1911–1943)”

Francesca Di Pasquale, “The “Other” at Home: Deportation and Transportation of Libyans to Italy During the Colonial Era (1911–1943)”, International Review of Social History, Volume 63 (Special Issue S26 Transportation, Deportation and Exile: Perspectives from the Colonies in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries), 2018, pp. 211-231

This article analyses the practices of deportation and transportation of colonial subjects from Libya, Italy’s former possession, to the metropole throughout the entire colonial period (1911–1943). For the most part, the other colonial powers did not transport colonial subjects to Europe. Analysing the history of the punitive relocations of Libyans, this article addresses the ways in which the Italian case may be considered peculiar. It highlights the overlapping of the penal system and military practices and emphasizes the difficult dialogue between “centre” and “periphery” concerning security issues inside the colony. Finally, it focuses on the experience of the Libyans in Italy and shows how the presence there of colonial subjects in some respects overturned the “colonial situation”, undermining the relationship of power between Italians and North Africans.

The article appears to be available open-access.

Article: “Fascist Violence and the ‘Ethnic Reconstruction’ of Cyrenaica (Libya), 1922–1934”

Michael R. Ebner, “Fascist Violence and the ‘Ethnic Reconstruction’ of Cyrenaica (Libya), 1922–1934” in Violence, Colonialism and Empire in the Modern World, eds. Dwyer, Philip, Nettelbeck, Amanda, pp. 197-218 (Palgrave, 2017).

In the spring of 1931, Italian colonial authorities ordered the construction of a fence on the border between Libya and Egypt. By September, 270 kilometres of cement, chain-link fence, and barbwire stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Oasis of Jaghbub. Italian authorities constructed the fence in order to deny Omar al-Mukhtar and his resistance fighters safe-havens and material support in neighbouring Egypt. Thus Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, which was already completely separated from Tripolitania (Libya’s western province) by the desert of Sirtica, had now been also cut off from Egypt to the east of the fence. The peoples of Cyrenaica, particularly those living on the fertile highlands of the Jebel Akhdar, were the major source of support for Omar al-Mukhtar’s anti-colonial insurgency. The year before the fence went up, Italian authorities ordered the deportation and internment of between one-half and two-thirds of the civilian population of Cyrenaica—between 90,000 and 110,000 people