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Monday, 25 August 2008

An old Libyan poem

Caption: Omar Mukhtar who is actually in shackles being photographed on his arrest by the Fascist Italian army under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in 1931 and the concentration camp where many innocent Libyan civilians were imprisoned.

by Suzan Abrams

Below are excerpts of an old Libyan poem in translation by the Bedouin poet and resistance leader, Omar Mukhtar who was born in 1862 in a small village called Janzur on the eastern part of Barqa. Mukhtar who throughout his life remained religious and very poor, would turn to fighting in the desert against the then Fascist Italian Army.

Mukhtar who understood the strategies and geography of desert warfare well, led his people in small groups to successfully usurp many of the Italian army personnel in the fight against battleships and Italian colonization. The army was terribly embarassed at the time that one of their biggest foes, had turned out to be someone thought completely insignificant in the role of conqueror, as no one expected much of a Bedouin, one of the famous of Arab nomadic tribes.

It was the early part of the 20th century when Italy occupied Libya. It was only when Tripoli, its capital city, was finally bombed for three days in a row, that Mukhtar who had held his enemies off for 20 years and feeling defeated and exhausted, was finally arrested by the Italian army who in turn, was said to have treated the rebellious resistance leader as a prize catch. On the direct orders of Mussolini, he would be hung in front of his followers at the concentration camp in Solluqon as a stout reminder on the folly of rebellion. The poet's fight for peace and freedom for his land came to a sad undignified end.

In 1981, a film was made on the last years of Mukhtar's life and it starred Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed and Irene Papas. Today, Mukhtar's face is still shown on Libya's 10 dinar dollar bill. The film considered to be damaging to the country's history, was banned in Italy.


My only illness is being at al Agailla camp, the imprisonment of my tribe and the long way from home…

My only illness is the loss of my beloved, good-looking strong people on top of camels and best-looking horses…

My only illness is having to lose my dignity at my advanced age and the loss of our finest people, the ones we cannot do without…

My only illness is the torturing of our young women, with their bodies exposed…

My only illness is the loss of sweet and good people and having to be ruled by grotesque people whose straight faces show nothing but misery…

My only illness is the broken hearts, the falling tears and all the herds with no protector of care-taker…
- Omar Mukhtar -

The above are carefully written lines that measure the devastation set before the poet's eyes. The poem scribbled in secret, is not meant for any tender display of beauty, grace or style as much as it is to painfully evoke the raw anguish, suffering and despair of a broken people. The poem serves as a lamentation in its quest to convey an important message.

The poet himself longs for a peaceful, happier time in the desert. The poet is solely concerned in these heart-wrenching verses with the loss of his land and longs for the mighty warrior strength inhibited by the Bedouin tribes as they proudly rode their horses and camels.

Through capture and imprisonment, all dignity has been lost and every family heirloom, tradition, ritual and old culture have faded to a distant memory. The old man can no longer bear it...he is stricken by what the weakness of his age has brought him. He does not fear the future as much as he inwardly shudders at the present predicament of his peoples' tears. He sees in what he perceives to be the difference in the ugliness of the bad and the sweetness of the good, both of which are uncomfortably displayed before him, like jagged shards of glass unable to fit harmoniously together.

The poet is also abashed that the modest women of his tribe, always covered from head to toe, would have had to strip for degrading acts. He is worried that his people may be forever scattered with no commendable leader to watch over them.

There is no freedom for the individual, no time to reflect on philosophical wisdom while sipping tea in a tent or mulling on the change of weather. How much harder for a nomadic tribe so used to the wide open lands before them, to movement and a closely-tended treasured community spirit, to be deprived of the simple acts of peace snatched from them; a peace liberally given them from birth. - suzan abrams

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