- Mohamed Fekini and the Fight to Free Libya
Angelo Del Boca’s long career has spanned many genres. He came of age as an anti-Mussolini partisan during WWII and matured as a revisionist historian of Italian Colonialism in Africa. Along the way, he wrote a novel and an autobiography. It is no surprise that he would be drawn to Mohamed Fekini (1858–1950): a Libyan tribal leader equally adept at diplomacy, lyrical poetry, camel treks, and guerrilla warfare. When Mohammad’s grandson, Anwar, approached Del Boca with his grandfather’s [End Page 371] unpublished Arabic memoirs and correspondence, Del Boca jumped at the chance to write a biography — first published in 2006 in Italian.
The Fekini family’s trove of documents provides great insight into not only how local Libyan communities interacted with the Italian military authorities, but more crucially how the jihad against the Italians was used as a pretext for intra-Libyan tribal and ethnic conflicts. Del Boca’s familiarity with Italian colonial archives allows him to successfully situate Fekini’s narrative of events within their larger historical context. In highlighting the intrinsically fractured nature of Tripolitania politics, Del Boca was remarkably prescient. Writing prior to 2007, he depicts tribal leaders from Misrata, Zintan, and Beni Walid fighting for supremacy in the Libyan civil wars of the 1920s. Read today, his work forms the perfect intellectual backdrop to the 2011 Libyan Uprising and its aftermath.
The translator of the 2010 English edition, Antony Shugaar, is an acclaimed novelist and translator of Italian literature. However, this is his first translation of Middle Eastern Studies. He succeeds in conveying the lyrical quality of Del Boca’s prose, yet his inconsistent retention of Italian norms of transliteration of Arabic names is quite problematic. Specifically, he does not honor the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (IJMES) conventions prevalent in English-language Middle Eastern Studies. To a non-specialist this might sound like a minor and pedantic issue, but it is not. Certain place names such as “esc-Sciueref” instead of the IJMES “Al-Sharif” or “Uenzerich” for “Winzrik” border on indecipherable, even for those knowledgeable in Libyan geography but unfamiliar with Italian phonetics.
As for the content of Del Boca’s work, its focus on Tripolitanian politics from the late Ottoman period to the end of Italian Colonization constitutes an excellent introduction to the regional and tribal complexities of modern Libya. Moreover, it redresses the prevailing Cyrenaican-bias in the English-language academic literature on Libyan History which tends to depict the jihad against the Italians as a largely Sanussi affair. That said, the book is not traditional history; Del Boca sees the writing of history as a way to advocate on behalf of those he deems “under-represented.” Therefore, the book is a work of post-modern narrative history that tells the story of the Italian colonization of Libya from the perspective of the Fekini family. It treats Mohammad Fekini — even though he was a wealthy and literate tribal chieftain — as a “subaltern” to whom it is the historian’s role to give a voice. The book closes with Del Boca’s own hagiographical prose-poem to the Fekini family to “whom we should restore their dignity, the richness of their culture, the recognition of their rights and their history, unjustly crushed underfoot” (p. 173).
In short, Mohamed Fekini and the Fight to Free Libya is partisan history at its best and at its worst. The narrative is meticulously backed up with footnotes, yet the facts are linked together via a sinew of interpretation, hagiography, and moral judgement that makes the book read like an anti-Colonial and anti-Berber polemic. That Del Boca’s narrative harshly criticizes the excesses of Italian Colonialism is hardly surprising; he is widely known for his groundbreaking researching into the extent of the Italian Fascist war crimes committed in Libya.
That Del Boca falls hook, line, and sinker for Fekini’s anti-Berber biases is more worrisome. The Berbers were Fekini’s opponents...