Mercantile Documents from Ghadames | وثائق تجارية من غدامس

ghadames-mss219th-century documents from the collection of the Yusha‘ family—one of the most important merchant families of Ghadames during the 18th and 19th centuries—were published by the Ghadamsi scholar Bashir Qasim Yusha‘ in 1983, shedding light for the first time on the extremely wide extent of the Ghadamsi mercantile network in Africa. Merchants from Ghadames were apparently so well-known in Saharan and western Africa that in Hausa the only North African group other than  Larabawa ‘Arabs’ to have a particular designation were the Adamusawa ‘Ghadamsis’. Yusha‘’s publication is the following: Yusha‘, Bashir Qasim. Ghadāmis. Wathā’iq tijāriyya tārikhiyya ijtimā‘iyya (1228-1310 hijri). Tripoli, 1983.

To my knowledge, the only Western scholar to engage with these sources was Ulrich Haarmann. His lengthy (94 pages, 492 footnotes!) and wide-ranging article based on the documents, “The Dead Ostrich: Life and Trade in Ghadames (Libya) in the Nineteenth Century“, was published in 1998 in Der Welt des Islams. Before his death in 1999 Haarmann had prepared translations and commentaries of many of the documents published by Yusha‘. This material was gathered and published posthumously in German:

Haarmann, Ulrich, edited by Stephan Connermann. Briefe aus der Wüste: Die private Korrespondenz der in Ġadāmis ansässigen Yūša‘-Familie (Letters from the Desert: the private correspondence of the Yusha‘ family resident in Ghadames). EB-Verlag, 2008.

Publisher’s blurb (German): “Im Jahre 1983 legte der Gadameser Gelehrte Basir Qasim Yusa der interessierten Öffentlichkeit 150 Privatpapiere – Briefe, Rechnungen, Warenlisten, Quittungen oder Geburtsregister – aus dem Besitz seiner Familie vor. Diese Dokumente, die in dem Zeitraum von 1813 bis 1917 entstanden sind, handeln alle in der einen oder anderen Weise von Mitgliedern der berberischen Familie Yusa. Geschrieben sind diese Schriftstücke in einem lokalen Umgangsarabisch, in dem sich verschiedentlich berberische oder hocharabische Einsprengsel finden. Als Verfasser kommen entweder die Absender selbst, deren schriftkundigen Bekannte oder aber bezahlte Briefschreiber in Frage. Kurz nachdem Basir Qasim Yusa seine Edition veröffentlicht hatte, begann Ulrich Haarmann sich mit den Texten zu befassen. Ein Aufenthalt am Berliner Wissenschaftskolleg im Frühjahr 1997 gab ihm Zeit und Gelegenheit, alle Befunde in einen geschlossenen Text zu gießen, der dann 1998 in der Zeitschrift Die Welt des Islams unter dem Titel „The Dead Ostrich: Life and Trade in Ghadames (Libya) in the Nineteenth Century“ publiziert wurde. Die von ihm weitgehend übersetzten Dokumente sollten einer späteren Veröffentlichung vorbehalten sein. Dazu kam es dann aber nicht mehr, denn Ulrich Haarmann verstarb 1999. Stephan Conermann hat die Übertragungen der schwierigen Texte nun zusammen mit einer längeren Einleitung in vorsichtiger Überarbeitung herausgegeben.”

Organization and Social Structure in Libyan Oases

Organization of cultivated land in Ghadames (pull-out chart from Eldblom, Structure foncière, 1968).

In the late 60s, the Swedish scholar Lars Eldblom published an extremely detailed study of the socio-economic life in the three Libyan oases of Ghadames, Ghat, and Mourzouk. Since life in Libya has changed dramatically since then, his work undoubtedly documents pheno-mena of oasis life that hardly or no longer exist. It is also full of detailed maps and figures, based on painstaking research. Because of its high level of detail it certainly deserves to be better known. The book is:

Eldblom, Lars. 1968. Structure foncière. Organisation et structure sociale. Une étude comparative sur la vie socio-économique dans les trois oasis libyennes de Ghat, Mourzouk et particulièrement Ghadamès. Lund.

He also published an English summary of the book, under the following title (available freely online):

Eldblom, Lars. 1971. Land tenure – social organization and structure: a comparative sample study of the socio-economic life in the three Libyan oases of Ghat, Mourzouk and Ghadamès. Uppsala University: Nordic Africa Institute.

And finally, I have also found an earlier study of his focusing especially on irrigation in the oases of Brak, Ghadames, and Mourzouk:

Eldblom, Lars. 1961. Quelques points du vue comparatifs sur les problèmes d’irrigation dans les trois oasis Libyennes de Brâk, Ghadames et particulièrement Mourzouk. Lund (Lund Studies in Geography 22).

Oral literature in Ghadamsi Weddings | الادب الشفوي في الاعراس الغدامسية

Room in a Ghadamsi house (Plate 1). © AM Yedder.
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.
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).

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.”