May 14, 2007 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Libya is a desert, yes, but if you trace your fingers through the moonlit sand and listen, carefully, you may hear ancient whispers: of Apollo's love of Cyrene; of prehistoric hunters making Rock Art [1, 2, 3], back when the Sahara was wet; of Phoenicians subdued by Greeks, of Romans followed by Byzantines, all leaving ruins that Libya is famous for [Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha, et cetera]; of desert soldiers in World War II, remembered in Graves and Memorials; of the occupying Italians, who responded to Omar Mukhtar's resistance of the Fascists by rounding Libyans into concentration camps; of the camps' prisoners, one of whom wrote this famous poem: "My only illness is the torturing of our young women, with their bodies exposed ... how my speech has become subdued, the humiliation of our noble and leading men and the loss of my gazelle-like horse..."; of more culture, more memories from this land that witnessed the wrenching passion of all man's history—whispering in the very dust that made his soul.
posted by Firas (18 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Great post.
posted by chunking express at 8:56 AM on May 14, 2007

Around 90,000 Libyans died in the concentration camps. Here's a remarkable image of Omar Mukhtar superimposed on gravestones marked England.. Italy.. USA. It's easy to overlook that to many eyes, Fascists and their sworn enemies are all basically the same: colonizers.

The connection between the cultures and peoples that made these artifacts is tenuous, of course; one can fairly claim that even modern "Libyan Art" is no more well-defined than whether Libya itself is Arab or African. (Note that I skipped Berber, Islamic/Arab culture and the general issue of folk and cosmopolitan culture modern Libya, that's a project unto itself.)

Check out this famous prehistoric carving called 'Fighting Cats'.

An engaging and quick introduction is Michael Palin's Sahara trip (days 77-85 for Libya, with excellent photos). I highly recommend exploring the history of the area; it's old, it's diverse, it's tumultuous: it's so goddamn human.
posted by Firas at 8:57 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

...more culture, more memories from this land that witnessed the wrenching passion of all man's history—whispering in the very dust that made his soul.

This is supposed to be the blue, not the purple.

I keed, of course. Very nice post.
posted by cog_nate at 9:06 AM on May 14, 2007

And there is a fantastic song about the country in Metafilter Music: Oh Libya!

Sorry, I couldn't resist, but to compensate for my terrible pun I'll leave a link to the excellent Tinariwen, who, legend has it, formed in Kaddafi's training camps.

posted by micayetoca at 9:10 AM on May 14, 2007

Arrr, there be pirates too!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:15 AM on May 14, 2007

Holy CRAP Firas that was good.
posted by tkchrist at 10:29 AM on May 14, 2007

My sisters and I
Have this wish before we die
And it may sound strange
As if our minds are deranged
Please don't ask us why
Beneath the sheltering sky
We have this strange obsession
You have the means in your possession

We want our tea in the Sahara with you
posted by tkchrist at 10:33 AM on May 14, 2007

Also it must be noted that as the former Roman Breadbasket, Libya is a case and point for climate change and the lasting effects of human habitation on the landscape.
posted by tkchrist at 10:35 AM on May 14, 2007

Brilliant post. Thanks!!
posted by watsondog at 10:40 AM on May 14, 2007

'They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.'
posted by taosbat at 11:33 AM on May 14, 2007

Also it must be noted that as the former Roman Breadbasket, Libya is a case and point for climate change and the lasting effects of human habitation on the landscape.

care to elaborate a bit more?
posted by micayetoca at 12:22 PM on May 14, 2007

Hmm, I thought that Egypt was the source of most of Rome's grain. Table 1 from this site seems to support that, although it does note that Libya was an exporter to Greece prior to the ascendancy of Rome.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 1:41 PM on May 14, 2007

Excellent post! I'd just add that in your leap from ancient times to WWII you skipped over the Tripolitanian War, which revealed the desperate weakness of the Ottoman Empire (leading to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the dress rehearsal for WWI) and strengthened nationalism in Italy (leading directly to the rise of fascism).
posted by languagehat at 3:31 PM on May 14, 2007

Thanks languagehat! Yeah, I was actually just going to post, then I got carried away. A dicussion of Libya is really not complete without mentioning what happened between the Romans and Qaddafi. I find it intruiging because the upheavels around North Africa so closely trace the evolution of settlement/governmental structures in general.

I also don't know much about the Byzantine mosaics, one could probably do a whole post on just those, or just Leptis Magna, or just Omar Mukhtar... it's alarming how much of modern Libya is inaccessible because nobody bothered to translate stuff from Arabic and the only lens through which people see it is Lockerbie. The resistance to Fascist Italy is very fresh in people's minds there.
posted by Firas at 5:16 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sicily, too, was the breadbasket of Rome. Indeed, it supplied the Spanish holdings in North Africa in the sixteenth century.

Whole lot of bakin' goin' on.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:24 PM on May 14, 2007

just voicing my approval of this most excellent of posts - lovely and poetic too.
posted by rmm at 10:34 PM on May 14, 2007

Thanks for the post—no mention of the Garamantians, though? :-)
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 3:53 AM on May 16, 2007

Good catch, Aidan. There's a good concise history in this Library of Congress country study of Libya.

We kids were instructed to never mention Qaddafi's name. Just in case, you know? You never know who's listening and liable to get you in major trouble.

Once an year, on September 1, there'd be celebrations of the revolution all over the place. A stage would be set up in the parking lot in front of our apartment building. I presume people gave speeches. Qaddafi has a book, did you know? The Green Book.

There was also some annual occurance where young guys would dress up in ghastly forms and run around hollering door to door. I have no idea what they were up to, it was kinda scary. Maybe they'd adapted halloween and it was a Libyan version of trick-o-treating?

The fun night was that of the Prophet's birthday. Everybody got firecrackers. Firecrackers all over the city, on terraces, in balconies.

Most of the world has nothing like dependable electricity. We broke out the candles fairly often. And sometimes it'd be dark and winter, so we'd get hailstorms. Hail! We'd put metal bowls on the balcony and then collect and drink it. Libya gets fairly cold. We had sweaters and shutters.

There was a dingy little place within walking distance where our parents decided to send us to memorize the Quran. The girls went upstairs, the boys were downstairs. We wrote out versus on wooden slates with wooden nibs. To clean the slate you'd go to this tub and grab a sponge, dib it in the muddy (clayish?) water and wipe off the ink.

When the Quran teacher got it into his head to really punish someone he'd—oh my god—there was this wooden branch type thing ok? With a rope attached to it. You lay the guy being punished on his back, wrap his feet up on that wooden block, and then the teacher took a wooden rod and smacked the soles.

I've never had my feet beaten but from the cries it sounded horrid.

One day the teacher guy intimated to me somehow (I don't even know Arabic so I don't know how we communicated) that if I keep missing classes he'll have to stop being lax with me and pointed me to the area where they kept their little feet-wrapping contraption.

I never went back. Just sat home and watched the Smurfs in Arabic. Like, screw you, dude.

We knew this farmer, wonderful fellow, had a mosque on his farm. I think he was considering selling it because he'd run into financial difficulties. When he invited you over to eat he treated you like a Valhalla hero come to feast. I don't know what plant it was, but when you gave up trying to chase his chicken and ran through his fields, you'd get this prickly thorny stuff attached to your legs and clothes.

There's a really famous Urdu ghazal reminiscing about childhood called 'That Paper Boat'. I just googled for a translation and found one here:
Do take my gold, and my fame, if you must
You can have my youth if you so do will
But do give me back my childhood showers
My little paper boat, the fresh rain's thrill
Libya had an air embargo of course, but you traveled by ship. Sister cruise ships, Garnata and Toletela, took you to Malta.

Malta is of course a 'Western' Island. In Malta women dipped in pools in bikinis. Western culture has this endearing respect for civil order. If you step onto a zebra crossing in Malta, cars coming your way stop, period. Pretty charming.

The bottom floor of our hotel in Malta had this little gambling place. And there was a slot machine. You know, put your coins in, pull the lever, wait to see if the spinning stuff matches up in a lucky pattern. The 10c Maltese coin has a dolphin engraved on it; it may have been me or my little sister, but we were there and put our coins in, sometimes got something back, often not, and then something happened—we pulled the lever, and, oh my god—the coins didn't stop pouring!

So many coins. Dolphins dropping into the receptacle, dolphins flowing over, scores and scores of dolphins… we hastily tried to pocket them, ran out to say look Mom and Dad, coins, so many coins, all these coins spraying out for us…

…My little paper boat, the fresh rain's thrill.
posted by Firas at 8:44 PM on May 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

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