Book Review: Desert Encounter; Documenting Libya’s Cycles of Violence

“What rebellion? There is no rebellion; there is only a desperate fight for existence on the soil which our fathers possessed long before us.”

62133363_423941841792172_1536561443913072640_nFor many who researcher or read about Libya, the most common lament you’ll hear is the sheer lack of resources about the country. You’d be hard pressed today to find accurate reporting or studies during the nation’s current turbulent transition, while the Gadhafi era is considered a ‘black hole’ in the country’s history due to the regime’s practice of isolating itself from the rest of the world. But it is Libya’s colonial period that offers a peculiar absence of information.

What makes it so strange is the fact that there was much documentation done during the Italian occupation of Libya. Considered one of the most brutal attempts at colonization in the world, Italian authorities of the time had no issue boasting of the bloody tactics used to subdue Libyans, even as they denied it was a genocide. But after the defeat of the fascists and the declaration of Libya’s independence, many archives were allegedly destroyed in Italy.

The most likely explanation is that Italy, conscious of the reparations they would have to make to the country they brutalized, attempted to minimize the extent of the horrors committed by destroying the evidence. The results of these actions continue to play out in Libya today, a country haunted by the legacy of violence but without its memory, leaving it trapped in a vicious circle. We’ll never truly know about the concentration camps, the institutionalized genocide, and the amount of Libyan blood lost.

All that really remain are fragments, such as the ethnographic studies conducted by Italian researchers in an attempt to learn how to divide and control Libyan communities, or the maps created to plot the development of Libyan cities for Italian immigrants. There also remains the memory of our grandparents, blurred over the decades by new waves of violence. Historians such as Ibrahim Ahmed Elmehdewi and Khalifa Tillisi have translated Italian records into English, while newer efforts such as Ali Hussein’s ‘Alagailah: A Camp of Suffering’ attempt to relive that period through storytelling.

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across a rare book written by neither Italians nor Libyans, which give an outsiders view to that era of history. Knud Holomboe’s ‘Desert Encounter’ is one of these gems. Written by a Dutch Muslim convert, Holmboe chronicles his road trip through North Africa as he attempts to reach Mecca, and what he found when he crossed Libya.

I found this book almost by accident, looking for documents on Italian concentration camps. My extensive googling led me to this book, almost hidden away in the scant listings on Libya. Right off the bat you can tell it’s going to be interesting; banned in Italy almost immediately after its release in 1931, the author assassinated shortly after its publication in Jordan. While the tone of the book is not overtly political, it can be read as a condemnation of colonialism and the neoliberal policies that underpin it, celebrating instead a more spiritual way of life.

It starts with Holmboe in Morocco, deliberating how to reach Mecca. While he initially plans to cross the Mediterranean by boat, he is convinced by another travel to attempt a road trip by car. He passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, with an Arab boy and American companion, catching only brief glimpses of French occupation, the names of resistance fighters reverently whispered by the occupied populations.

During this time, he shares musings with the roving clans that accommodate them during the nights. Among the ones that struck me was how Holmboe, being a devote Muslim, believes that Islam has become ‘diluted’ in North Africa, with people following superstitions rather than a pure interpretation of the religion. Throughout the book – and while he does occasionally acknowledge the privilege he is afforded for being a white man in a colonized region – these kinds of observations make an otherwise interesting story somewhat uncomfortable.

By the time he reaches the borders of Libya, he begins to encounter problems. The Italian occupiers were very strict when it came to movement through and around Libya, and they make it difficult for him to pass by putting him through layers of menacing bureaucracy. What is interesting here is the division of Libya:

“If you…sign a declaration…it is possible that I may obtain permission for you. There are two Governments, one in Tripoli and one in Cyrenaica. I will also have to obtain permission from Benghazi.”

History repeating itself today? I remembered here all the running around we had to do for my previous workplace to get permissions from the two governments of Benghazi and Tripoli in order to be able to work.

Almost immediately, the signs of cruelty can be seen in the occupation of the country. He meets the ‘Arab population’ – who are almost always referred to as bedouins – dressed in rags, looking haggard and thin, and always gazing silently during Italian festivals or exhibitions. He finds bedouin camps along the way, who share stories of resistance and defeat.

“…we are treated like dogs – worse than dogs; we have surrendered. It was impossible to continue to fight against the Italians…they blocked up our wells with concrete so that the cattle could not drink…now we are starving to death slowly. I think the Italians want to destroy us utterly. We are getting more and more ignorant, more and more poor, more and more like the animals they call us.”

Holmboe was very sympathetic to the Libyan people, and is it possible that there was some embellishment in what he wrote, but even this thought didn’t prevent me from feeling a sense of grief over what I read. Libyans are a proud people, and the complete subjugation under colonialism had not only material consequences but also psychological, not just of trauma but also broken dignity.

I also felt something I didn’t expect; a deep and growing rage, not just at what had happened to my country but in the fact that we don’t remember, that we continue to allow foreign actors like the current Italian government to insidiously involve themselves in our affairs. As Holmboe makes his way East towards Benghazi, he continues to see further cruelties. The tribes in East Libya – referred to as the ‘free bedouins’ – had continued fighting Italian occupation under the leadership of Omar Mukhtar, and were met with even more aggressively punitive measures.

Another interesting historic precedent is the use of foreign troops, repeated again by Gadhafi’s hiring of mercenaries during the 2011 war. Holmboe encountered Eritrean troops brought in by the Italian. When he asked why there were so many, they replied, “Because they are the only troops we can depend on…they are absolutely loyal,” whereas Arab soldiers mostly refused to fight other Arabs. “Here we have to kill almost the whole population before they understand that we are the stronger.”

61551976_624846001260268_6310179875567173632_nAfter a harrowing ordeal of getting lost in the desert near Naufilia, he finally makes his way to Benghazi, where he witnesses the daily hangings of any dissident Libyans. He also encounters “sympathetic” Italian officers, who express their disdain towards the system they work for. “What can you expect from people who don’t speak a word of Arabic, and who live under the strange delusion that civilization if culture?” These characters are put into relief by their counterparts, who don’t spare any derogatory words in their contempt of Libyans, who they see as being unable to ‘develop’ the land and therefore don’t deserve it.

The most difficult part of the trip was the expanse between Marj and Tobruk, an area that the Italians were not able to control, due to the presence of resistance fighters who hid in the caves around the Green Mountain. During this trip, Holmboe was captured by bedouins, who released him after learning that he was a Muslim. He then arrives to Derna where people are arrested and hanged for mere trifles, as the occupation was on edge due to the “rebellion” against them. During this stretch, he is captivated by the Arabs/bedouins he meets and the sufi practices of the people. Much of the book contains his reflections on spirituality, his own personal quest which is what led him to pass through Libya initally.

Eventually, he is arrested and deported, where he makes his way to Egypt to meet with Libya’s exiled king. The book ends on a bitter note, looking cynically at the future of the region. Holmboe never lived to see the king return, unite the country and declare independence from Benghazi in 1954. But his book was an attempt to shed light on what was happening in Libya, and he tried to advocate against Italian occupation during the remainder of his life.

It is estimated that the Italian colonization of Libya ended in the murder of almost one third of the population. Few documents exist today which detail this bloody history. Gadhafi attempted to mold the country in his post-colonial vision,  but greed and madness led him to repeat many of the tactics used by the Italians, a legacy that he once vowed to undo. In Libya, I believe our loss of memory is our undoing, condemning us in the Sisyphean task of rebuilding our country by repeating the same historic events. Foreign occupation, revolutions, wars and constant uncertainty is a cycle that we have to break out of, by first acknowledging it. Desert Encounter is, if nothing else, an excellent and emotional book, and a good place to start.

You can get your copy of Desert Encounter from Dar Fergiani publishers at this link here.

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