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.)Continue reading
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
A new and entirely open-access collected volume on the African colonial role in the First World War, and one co-edited and co-published by African scholars:
Shiferaw Bekele, Uoldelul Chelati Dirar, Volterra, A., & Zaccaria, M. (Eds.), The First World War from Tripoli to Addis Ababa (1911-1924). Addis Abbaba: Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 2018.
For a long time now it has been common understanding that Africa played only a marginal role in the First World War. Its reduced theatre of operations appeared irrelevant to the strategic balance of the major powers. This volume is a contribution to the growing body of historical literature that explores the global and social history of the First World War. It questions the supposedly marginal role of Africa during the Great War with a special focus on Northeast Africa. In fact, between 1911 and 1924 a series of influential political and social upheavals took place in the vast expanse between Tripoli and Addis Ababa. The First World War was to profoundly change the local balance of power.
This volume consists of fifteen chapters divided into three sections. The essays examine the social, political and operational course of the war and assess its consequences in a region straddling Africa and the Middle East. The relationship between local events and global processes is explored, together with the regional protagonists and their agency. Contrary to the myth still prevailing, the First World War did have both immediate and long-term effects on the region. This book highlights some of the significant aspects associated with it.
The entire book is fascinating and opens up new areas of research tying into dynamics of which Libya was ultimately a part. The specific essays concerning Libya are:
- Andrea Ungari, “Why did the Italians go to Libya?”
- Alessandro Volterra, Askaris and the Great War. Colonial Troops Recruited in Libya for the War but Never Sent to the Austrian Front
- Gabriele Montalbano, The Italian community of Tunisia: From Libyan Colonial Ambitions to the First World War