The French colonial scholar and administrator Constantin Louis Sonneck (1849-1904) isn’t that well known. Having spent his entire youth in colonial Algeria, Sonneck became an asset to the French administration and was employed in numerous roles in the colonial administration before eventually going on to teach at the École coloniale in Paris. Although his career consisted mostly of translation, teaching, and administering, Sonneck found time later in life to publish a few text editions like a proper Orientalist.
Title Page of Sonneck’s Chants arabe du Maghreb
The more well-known of these is his collection of songs and poems entitled Chants arabes du Maghreb: Étude sur le dialecte et la poésie populaire de l’Afrique du nord / الديوان المُغرب في أقوال عرب إفريقية والمغرب (Arabic Songs of the Maghrib: A Study of the Dialect and Popular Poetry of North Africa) published in 3 volumes totalling almost 700 pages between 1902 and 1906. This work has proven valuable to later scholars for its documentation of songs in the classical Andalusi repertoire as passed down in cities of northern Africa. Sonneck’s only other published academic work was a (shorter) collection in three parts entitled “Six chansons arabes en dialecte maghrébin” (Six Arabic Songs in Maghribi Dialect) and published in that venerable organ of French Orientalism, the Journal Asiatique, in 1899. It provides the text of six poems from differents parts of northern Africa in Arabic script with French translation and a few notes. Though Sonneck doesn’t say exactly where he obtained each poem, and who recited them for him, he does record some basic information for each:
- An ode from the Maḥāmīd of Tripolitania, poet unnamed.
- A poem composed in praise of Lalla Aisha al-Manoubiya, a saint in Manouba, Tunisia, who died in 1267 and is buried in Tunis. The unnamed author apparently lived in the mid-1700s in Manouba.
- The famous qasida by Muhammad bin Gitoun about the love story of Sa‘id and Ḥiziya in Sidi Khaled near Biskra, Algeria, composed in 1878 and later set to music.
- A poem composed by Qaddur bin Omar bin Benina, a scholar from Algiers who died around 1898 and was known as Qaddur al-Hadby, on the occasion of a trip to the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris of a musical troupe led by Francisco Salvador-Daniel, a Spanish music teacher in Algiers.
- An ode by Muhammad bin Sahla, a famous sheikh in Tlemcen, Algeria, who lived in the 1800s.
- A poem from a nobleman of Tafilalt, Morocco named Sidi Muhammad bin Ali U Rezin (1742-1822).
The earliest work on a Libyan Arabic variety was written by Hans Stumme (1864-1936), a diligent German linguist who studied a number of language varieties in northern Africa. In his Märchen und Gedichte aus der Stadt Tripolis in Nordafrika (Folktales and Poems from the city of Tripoli in North Africa, 1898), he describes the speakers he interviewed for his research and relates an interesting detail.
Arriving in Tripoli in 1897, Stumme was put in touch with a certain Sidi Brahim bin Ali al-Tikbāli, who he describes as a 45-year old inhabitant of the old city and a skilled poet. Sidi Brahim became Stumme’s main interlocutor for his study of the Tripoli dialect and provided the majority of the texts Stumme transcribed in his book (10 khurrafas and 7 poems). A second speaker, whom Stumme praises as a “walking dictionary”, was a 15-year old black Libyan named Mhemmed bin Jum’a Breñgāli. Besides being Stumme’s guide around the city and general explainer-of-things, Mhemmed provided 3 additional poems which Stumme transcribed. A third person, a Tunisian named Hmed al-Susi who apparently lived in Tripoli, helped translate when Stumme’s knowledge of Tunisian Arabic didn’t suffice to be clearly understood by his Tripolitanian interlocutors.
Stumme’s transcription of Sidi Brahim’s poem
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.