Tag Archives: poetry

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. 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.

Essay: How Long Have You Been With Us? by Khaled Mattawa

How Long Have You Been With Us? Essays on Poetry by Khaled Mattawa has just been published by the University of Michigan Press.

“Khaled Mattawa, an American poet of Libyan origin, explores various dynamic developments shaping American poetry as it is being practiced today. Arising from an incredibly diverse range personal backgrounds, lyric traditions, and even languages, American poetry is transforming into a truly international form. Mattawa, who also translates Arabic poetry into American English and American poetry into Arabic, explores the poetics and politics of cross-cultural exchange and literary translation that fostered such transformation. The essays in this collection also shed light on Mattawa’s development as a poet and provide numerous portraits of the poets who helped shaped his poetry.”

Poetry of Khaled Mattawa | دواوين شعر خالد مطاوع

Khaled Mattawa is a renowned Libyan-American poet, in addition to being a prolific translator of Arabic poetry into English and scholar of Arabic literature. He is a member of the American Academy of Poets and was recently in the news for being named a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship. Mattawa has published four books of his poetry in English:

Tocqueville (2010)

Amorisco (2008)

Zodiac of Echoes (2003)

Ismailia Eclipse (1995)

In the aftermath of killing of Libya’s former dictator, he wrote the  poem, “After 42 Years”. You can listen to him reading it here.

A few verses by Ahmad Rafig al-Mahdawi

The ‘national poet’ of Libya, Ahmad Rafig al-Mahdawi (احمد رفيق المهدوي), wrote a poem entitled أنا ساكت “I am silent” during the de-colonization of Libya and the struggle for nationhood. A few verses from it have been going around Libya social media, since they are as applicable to the situation today as they were sixty-odd years ago. Such is great poetry, I suppose. Here are the verses and my attempt at a somewhat literal translation:

قلبي يحدّثني بان ممثلا     خلف الستائرللحقائق يمسخُ

اما الذي هو في الحقيقة واقع     وطن يباع و امة تتفسّخُ

ماذا اقول و ما تراني قائلا     انا ساكت لكن قلبي يصرخُ

ابكي على شعبٍ يسيّر امره     متزعّمون و جاهلون و افرخُ

My heart tells me that behind the curtains, an actor distorts truths,

But the reality is this: a country is sold and a nation broken apart.

What is there to say? I am silent, but my heart cries out;

I weep for a people whom false leaders, the ignorant, and the bastards guide about.