Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, Genocide in Libya: Shar, a Hidden Colonial History (Routledge, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ali Abdullatif Ahmida (AA): My grandparents were freedom fighters in the anti-colonial resistance in Libya. With the exception of the work of a few anti-fascist and courageous scholars, the genocide (1929-34) of Libyan nationals at the hands of Italian Fascists remains virtually unknown to all but the Libyan people—a genocide silenced and mostly forgotten for over eighty years. In 1929, over 110,000 Libyans, the total population of rural Eastern Libya, was interned in concentration camps. By 1934, only 40,000 were left alive amid widespread executions, suicide, starvation, and disease. The ensuing silence around colonial Libya has contributed to the persistent notion that Italian Fascism was somehow moderate. The voices of those lost in the genocide risk being lost forever, with now only a few survivors still alive to tell their stories.

Why has this brutal phase of Italian Fascism been overlooked until now? Three factors partially explain this ongoing silence among liberal, radical, and conservative scholars of Italian Fascism: Eurocentrism, anticommunism, and the rise of neo-Fascist movements in Italy and Western Europe. This is why part of the book outlines the larger historical context between 1922 and 1939. The United States was not only unthreatened by Italian Fascism, but it in fact welcomed the anticommunist ideology of a country that once had the largest communist party in Western Europe. Even critics of Mussolini often portrayed him as a buffoon or ordinary dictator, rather than a representation of an actively ideological threat.

Today there are still scholars who advance the notion of moderate Italian Fascism as Mussolini’s legacy. The case of Libya is ignored within recent books on forgotten genocide, such as the remarkable book by Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007), Rene Lemarchand’s edited Forgotten Genocides (2011), or Rutgers University’s Forgotten Genocide Project. I also came to realize little was known about this topic during my talks at universities, such as Columbia, NYU, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Yale, Harvard, and Georgetown, Washington University, between 2005 and 2011.

Not only is there a lack of awareness about the Libyan genocide, but there are also counter-political forces actively trying to produce the myth of Italian Fascism as a moderate and lesser evil than the Nazi genocidal state. The contemporary rise of the Fascist Party in Italy, the New Alliance, lends force to the theory that Italian Fascism helped modernize Italy, especially after it captured fourteen percent of the vote, or one hundred of the 630 seats in the Italian lower house, and joined the government as a legitimate party in 1994. In 2001, party leader Gianfranco Fini became deputy prime minister in Silvio Berlosconi’s government, and on 20 November 2004, he became the new Italian foreign minister. Italian Fascism is becoming respectable again, not because it is less evil, but because we have forgotten what it means.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

AA: I challenge Eurocentric and colonial scholarship, and present a new subaltern narrative based on primary sources fieldwork, oral history, interviews, and testimonies of the survivors, as well as Arab and European scholarship on genocide. The book examines new primary archival and oral evidence to understand what exactly happened and why there has been such a profound silence regarding the memory of this phase of Italian Fascism. In addition, I investigate public perceptions and scholarship; the context and causes for such views; alternative critical scholarship; the history of Fascist genocide in Libya based on the views and narratives of the Libyans who survived the concentration camps between 1929 and 1934; and the politics of official and unofficial memory inside Libya, Italy, and the United States.

In short, the book presents a paradigm shift and a new research agenda based on a critical model of Italian Fascism, with clear implications for future studies of the documentation of genocide in general, and the tragedy of modern Libya in particular.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AA: It continues my critical analysis of colonial and post-colonial discourses and the production of knowledge within my previous books: The Making of Modern Libya (1994), Post-Orientalism (2009), Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism In the Maghrib (2009)Bridges Across The Sahara (2009), and Forgotten Voices (2005).

I was aware of the significance of poetry to moral and cultural beliefs during the writing of my first book, The Making of Modern Libya. However, it was only during my research on the genocide, and after reading the collected books of Libyan folk poetry written during the colonial period, that I realized it offers by far the richest and the most illustrative source of Libyan colonial history, especially of the camp incarceration years of 1929 through 1934. Among the most notable are published memoirs by Ibrahim al-’Arabi al-Ghmari; al-Maimuni, who writes about his life in the Agaila (the most notorious concentration camp), and Saad Muhammad Abu Sha’ala, who also writes on life inside the camps. These two provide powerful testimony, along with the most outstanding poet of the period, Rajab Hamad Buhwaish al-Minifi, who was interned in the Agaila camp and wrote the famous epic poem Ma Bi Marad (“I have no ill except al-Agaila concentration camp”). Known by most Libyans, the poem is a brilliant and damning reaction to the horrors of the camp, as well as to the impact of killing and suffering on freedom loving semi-nomads. To my delight, I also discovered women poets, such as Fatima ‘Uthamn from Hun, who composed the poem Kharabin Ya Watan (“My homeland ruined twice”), and Um al-Khair Muhammad Abdaldim, who was interned in the Braiga camp. These poets offer powerful testimonies concerning the views of the men and women who experienced uprooting, exile and displacement.  Oral poetry was more profound and significant than I had expected. My new book thus relies much more on this cultural mode of creative communication and imagination.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AA: This book is new and timely, for genocidal acts are still occurring. I am the only scholar who consistently has conducted research on this topic across three continents and in three languages (Arabic, English, and Italian) during the last ten years. I hope it will prove an original and trailblazing study based on critical methods, comparative analysis, and, most importantly, previously untapped primary sources. The book will appeal to scholars, students, and policy makers in various fields, such as European studies, American studies, African studies, Middle Eastern studies, conflict resolution, truth and reconciliation, and genocide studies.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AA: I plan to finish a second book on the Libyan genocide focusing on the problem of witness testimony, and decolonized archives and knowledge.

J: How is silence produced through the struggle over memory across cultures?

AA: Mainstream scholarship still is ignoring genocide, empire, and imperialism, and framing history through the nation-state, progress, modernization, and Islam. Power and knowledge are interlinked, as the hidden history of the Libyan genocide is showing us. There is an alternative living history. Yet to recover it we need first critical examinations of academic social and political theories of the Arab world, which often assume that there is no civil society, and that consequently it must be introduced from the outside. I find this mode of thinking problematic and orientalist. Instead of inventing civil society within the Arab world, I argue there is a society that has existed for a long time, but one which has been completely ignored and overlooked. Let us review the common western view of modern Libya, a model which tends to discuss only whether Libya resembles francophone urban Tunisia or not, instead of reading its social history from its own Arab/Muslim and Ottoman dynamics.


Excerpt from the book

Introduction: Thinking About Forgotten Libyan Genocide

In October 1911, Italy invaded and occupied the coast of the former Ottoman provinces on Tarabulus al-Gharb. Invoking the restoration of the Roman rule, they renamed the province Libya, forming a new colony. With the advent of the fascist regime under Benito Mussolini in 1922 a new brutal policy was designed to conquer the colony and defeat the interior resistance. The people of Libya had resisted from the outset, and they mounted a major rebellion that the Italians would suppress only after 20 years of counter-insurgency culminating in genocidal policy. I am a grandson of those anti-colonial resistors.

Between 1929 and 1934, thousands of Libyans lost their lives, directly murdered and victims of Italian deportations and internments that, I argue, amount to genocide. They were forceably removed from their homes, marched across vast tracks of deserts and mountains, and confined behind barbed wire in 16 concentration camps. This is a story that has escaped serious reckoning by the perpetrators and has been soft-peddled at best in the West. The Italians, so it is the commonly held myth, are not a people capable of genocide, certainly not when compared to their brutal German neighbors. Yet, it is a story that Libyans have recorded in their Arabic oral history and narratives, while remaining hidden and unexplored in systematic fashion, and never in the manner has that allowed us to comprehend and begin to understand the extent of their existence. It is the first genocide after the Armenian and Herero genocides during WWI. That is what I set out to do in this book, through cross-cultural critical, anthropological, literary, theoretical, and comparative readings of genocide studies. Why call it genocide? I would argue that it fits the requirements defined by the father of modern genocide studies, the Polish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, in 1948 at the UN convention. He specifically identified two conditions. First, the intentionality of killing and second, the policy of destroying physical, biological, and cultural patterns of life.

This book examines the hidden history of the Libyan genocide by the Italian colonial state that took place in eastern Libya between 1929 and 1934. The genocide resulted in a loss of 83,000 Libyan citizens as the population declined from 225,000 to 142,000 citizens. Some 110,000 civilians were forced to march from their homes to the harsh desert and then were interned in horrific concentration camps. Between 60,000 and 70,000, mostly rural people (including men, women, elderly, and children) and their 600,000 animals were starved and died of diseases. This mass killing and destruction of people and culture was the result of a 20-year anti-colonial resistance and represented, by all measures, genocide based on a racist colonial plan to crush local resistance and settle poor Italian peasants in the colony. The Italian state suppressed news about the genocide; evidence was destroyed, and the remaining files on the concentration camps were hard to find even after the end of fascism in Italy in 1943. After visiting Italy, in an attempt to locate files on the concentration camps, I came to the realization that it was not simply these sensitive files that were missing, but that there was a collective silence and amnesia which persisted. It is about time to recognize that the archives are ideologically constructed and they privilege and exclude certain groups and voices and, in the case of Italian colonial fascism, they cover up atrocities and genocide.

The Italian public’s refusal to recognize fascist colonial atrocities and Cold War politics compromised any attempt at war crimes trials for Italian Fascist leaders and generals. It is not surprising, then, that this case, until recently, was not even cited in books on comparative colonial and forgotten genocides. The invisibility of, and silence about, this story became a puzzle that needed to be solved. This awareness led me to pursue two strategies: to travel to eastern and southern Libya in order to find the survivors and listen to their stories about what happened to them and their families, and to read and research the fields of modern genocide and Holocaust studies and comparative fascism to understand how we might resolve these studies. The book has evolved as a critique and a recovery of alternative examination of the politics of language, identity, and cultural history of survival and healing.

Long ago, Franz Fanon argued against universalizing and applying western Freudian psychoanalysis when he examined survivors of colonial trauma in Algeria and Tunisia in 1952. Instead, he advocated paying attention to local cultural and colonial specificity of trauma under colonialism. I found his critique helpful for understanding this hidden colonial history and question the American focus on psychoanalysis and cultural representations. Capturing the Libyan case required specialized knowledge of local culture, language and collective nonwestern views of suffering and healing. The survivors relied on their Muslim and Arab/African regional culture and values, but the intermittent and the genocide created a new collective identity for them after 1934. My biggest challenge was in examining and understanding the ways the survivors mediated and negotiated their early modern non nationalist culture and values and the violence of settler colonial “modernity.”

This book is the product of a long personal and academic journey of discovery that began nearly twenty years ago. However, making sense of the material and overcoming the obstacles required deep reflections and assessment of my early childhood and education in central and southern Libya, my college education in Egypt, and my graduate schooling in the United States. I had no idea what I was going to discover—this book evolved as a journey and a challenge to make sense of the discovery. In short, when I could not find the main files on the case in Rome and only some in Tripoli, I turned to oral history in eastern and central Libya.

I began to realize this hidden history is not just about a sad colonial brutality, but it is about Libya, Italy, and above all, the discovery of a dynamic creative oral culture. The discovery of living survivors’ narratives and culture became my most significant contribution. Prior to this investigation, I decided to critically examine my own nationalist public-school education in Independent Libya. This self-reexamination allowed me to discover and understand the regional culture of the people who were interned, and how they interpreted their experiences and reactions during and after the years of internment. It allowed me to investigate the silences and representations of colonial and nationalist historiographies, and to locate this hidden case within a larger comparative and transnational perspective, especially the merging links between colonial genocide and Holocaust scholarship. Above all, I had an opportunity to meet and listen to hundreds of ordinary Libyans and learn about their passions, views of colonial history, and humanity.