Thursday, September 16, 2010

Omar Al Mukhtar (August 20, 1861- September 16, 1931): Quranic Teacher and Resistance Leader عمر المختار

Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Omar Al-Mokhtar, a Libyan school teacher who led the resistance fighting against the Italian occupation of his country. Though his profession was Quranic teaching he was a particularly adept strategist and leader of the Senussi revolt against the Italian occupation of Libya for 20 years (1912-1931). Wounded in battle, he was captured on September 13, 1931, summarily tried, and hung in front of his supporters in the concentration camp at Suluq, just southeast of Benghazi. He was 70 years old.

Leptis Magna, Roman theatre, built c. 56 CE

The area of what is now Libya has a long and rich history dating from the Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans, as represented in the still magnificent ruins, at Leptis Magna for example. With the decline of the Roman Empire, Libya was subject to the Vandals and then the Byzantine Empire. From 642 until 1551 it was a colony of various Arab Muslim rulers. At that point, and until the Italian invasion in 1911, Libya was part of the Ottoman Empire. Resistance by Libyans against the Italians began as soon as the Italians fought the Turks. The Italo-Turkish war lasted from September 28, 1911 to October 18, 1912.

Italian landing at Tripoli, October 11, 1911, Invasion against the Turks

Italian Encampment at the oasis of Tripoli

Arab Encampment,Tripolitania, Libyans fighting with Italians against the Turks

Italian troops fighting the Turks in Libya, 1911

Italo-Turkish War, the trenches at the Agricultural College

Turkish soldiers head to battle, during the Italo-Turkish War

Damage by Italians at Tajura, 1912

Italian soldiers of an Alpine Division, surrounding fallen Libyan resisters, during the Italo-Turkish War, 1912

Omar Al Mukhtar was born in 1862 into a Mfina tribe, in the small village of  Janzour, near Tobruk (eastern Cyrenaica). A young orphan, he was under the guardianship of a religious leader and statesman, Sharif El Gariani, a founder of the Senussi movement in Libya at Al-Badiya.

Fountain in Janzour, early 1900's

Janzour in 1911, at the time of the Italian invasion and the Italo-Turkish War

Sand dunes outside Janzour, 1914

The Senussi movement was an Islamic political movement originally begun in Makkah in 1837 but predominant in Libya and the Sudan. It was influenced by the Salafi movement, and saw itself as a corrective to some aspects of Sufism, while adhering to others. It became a rallying movement for resistance against European occupation of North Africa, particularly against the French in the Sahara, and then the Italians in Libya.

Resistance fighters against the Italians, in Janzour, early 1900's

Spahis, Libyan Resisters against Italy, from Janzour, at Al Marcia

Libyan resisters killed by Italian fascist troops

Libyan resisters being taken to concentration camps

Libyan civilians being taken to concentration camps

Libyan civilians forced into concentration camps

Italian soldiers with a Libyan captive 1914, Tobruk

Omar Al Mukhtar was raised in this tradition, and educated at the local mosque before studying for 8 years at the Senussi university at Al-Jaghbub. He participated along with other Senussis in the final resistance against the French in Chad from 1899 until the defeat of Chadian leader Rabih az-Zubayr in 1900. He resumed his profession of Quranic teacher, until he formed the eastern Senussi resistance against the Italian invasion of 1911. Sheik Idris, later King Idris, a grandson of the founder of the Senussi movement in Makkah headed  the resistance in Cyrenaica before his exile to Egypt in 1922, from whence he continued to wage guerilla warfare against the Italians, with Omar Al Mukhtar as his delegate, and the de facto leader.

Italy, compared to other European powers was consolidated as a country late (1871) and arrived late to the collection of colonies, and the European partition of Africa. It did however envisage an Italian colonial empire from Tunisia and Libya south and east to the Eastern Horn of Africa: Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia (Abbyssinia). Beginning with Italian emigration especially from Sicily and Calabria for politico-economic reasons, through the nationalism of the turn of the 20th century, and then with Mussolini's renewed fervor for colonization from the dominance of his fascist party in 1922, Italy was involved in colonization and colonial wars against the Ottoman Empire, and the other European powers (Britain and France) to create "Greater Italy".

Omar Al Mukhtar, known for his exceptional abilities as a strategist and architect of guerilla warfare in the desert, became the leader of the Senussi uprising, particularly against the renewed military efforts of fascist Italy, and of Idris' exile. From 1922 to 1928 General Pietro Badoglio was in charge of a highly repressive and punitive regime.

The Lion of the Desert

However, in 1928 Mussolini agreed to appoint Marshal Rodolfo Graziani as field marshall, on the condition set by the Marshall that he be allowed to act outside the bounds of Italian and International law. This included constructing a barbed wire fence from the Mediterranean to the oasis of Al Jaghbub to cut off supplies; the forced migration of 100,000 locals, supportive of the Senussis, from Jebel Akhdar to concentration camps in Suluq and Al-Agheila; and, conditions so poor that between 20-50% (most likely a third) of that population died of starvation and disease.

Libyan resistance to Italy

El Agheila concentration camp, one of many where Libyans were confined in the desert after forced marches; many died on the marches and in the camps, of thirst and starvation; along with killings by the Italian military between 1928 and 1932 half the Bedouin population was put to death

Omar Al Mukhtar, 2nd bearded man from left, head of the Senussi resistance; Pietro Badoglio, officer with arm band at centre, Governor of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica; Domenico Siciliani, in white 2nd from right, Vice Governor of Cyrenaica--Meeting at Sidi Rhuma, 1929, of resistance leaders with Italian leaders mediated by Omar's former guardian Sharif El Gariani; a failed effort at truce

Omar Al-Mukhtar being shackled at the time of his capture, September 13, 1931

Omar Al-Mukhtar, captive, and a prize for the Italian forces

Omar Al-Mokhtar was captured by a Libyan squadron in the service of the Italian Army, after being injured in the arm, and unable to lift his weapon. A Libyan soldier for Italy had aimed and was about to kill him, when he stated "I am Omar Al Mokhtar", whereupon he was held captive instead.

The Trial, held as a military tribunal

From the secret proceedings of the trial, available in English here

Hanging, September 16, 1931, Suluq

With the death of Omar Al-Mokhtar the Libyan resistance was effectively broken, and in 1934 Italian Libya was established, comprised of the 4 provinces of Tripoli, Benghazi, Derna, and Misurata, each with a capital city of the same name, plus the southern military territory with its capital at Houn. These provinces were considered an integral part of Italy (The Fourth Shore), and under Mussolini the populace was given new rights, and various encouragements to join the fascist movement, and the Italian armed forces. Italians were also encouraged to move there, and to integrate the colony, which many did, up to 150,000 or 20% of the total population until the defeat of the Italians in WWII.

Postage stamp for Italian Tripolitania, 1934

The King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, visiting "Bengasi" in 1938

From 1943-51 Libya was a British and French protectorate, until King Idris was made the hereditary monarch of the United Kingdom of Libya (Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, the latter a former French colony), a constitutional monarchy.

King Idris, first and only King of the United Kingdom of Libya which he declared autonomous on December 24, 1951, with UN approval

Shortly after his "bloodless coup" against King Idris,  in 1969, Gaddafi expelled all 20,000 Italians from the new Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Intergovernmental tensions with Italy have remained high.

An ongoing inspiration, a mujahed

Omar Al-Mukhtar is celebrated as a resistance hero throughout the Arab world, and serves as an inspiration against invading foreign powers. He is most respected for his bravery, ability, and integrity as a warrior, and his dignity when captured, replying to all questions with Quranic verses, and then when led to his death. His final words were the Quranic verse: Innā li-llāhi wa innā ilayHi rāgiʿūna (To Allah we belong, and to Allah we return). Many cities throughout the Arab world have a street or a square named after Omar Al-Mokhtar. The Libyan 10 dinar note has long carried his image.

Libyan 10 dinar banknotes from: 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001

In Libya a village has been renamed in his honour. It is located near the caves where he and his resistance fighters hid from the Italians, and where a monument has now been erected in his honour, in Wadi Al-Kuf, Cyrenaica.

Omar Al-Mukhtar was the subject of a major film, Lion of the Desert (1981), by Moustapha Akkad, starring Anthony Quinn as Omar Al-Mukhtar, financed by the Libyan government, and shot simultaneously in English and in Arabic versions. The film was banned in Italy, until the recent visit of Gaddafi in 2009.

Related Posts (on the film Lion of the Desert)
Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part II--Arab Cinema(s)
Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part II--Arab Cinema(s)Overview

Your comments, thoughts, impressions?

Addendum--Related Posts (on the Libyan uprising of February 17, 2011):
Saif Al-Islam Alqadhafi's PhD Thesis from the London School of Economics (LSE); Libyan Funding of LSE; Response of the University; LSE Student Sit-In
Whence Gaddafi is Getting His Mercenaries: His Influence in Subsaharan Africa
Lockerbie and Libya: Scapegoating? The Silence of the Arab League--Doha Debates Chez Chiara


Susanne said...

I enjoyed the history lessons and the pictures. Thank you for bringing this to our attention!

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for your comment, and you are welcome. This is an area of Italian history with which I was unfamiliar until a couple of years ago. Not an edifying aspect of the country's history. And to think there are still fascists, and Mussolini's granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini (daughter of his son, and Sophia Loren's sister) is a fascist member of the Italian parliament. She was better off as a playboy model! :)

jaraad said...

Nice post! This is he best article I read about the life of Omar Al-Mukhtar. I have not seen these pictures before. I watched the movie many times, it is one of my favorites.
I didn't know that the movie was banned in Italy.

Countrygirl said...

strange i live in Italy and I wasn't aware that there are fascits in the italian parliament....unless you equate being conservative=to be fascist.

Right now she's part of the popolo delle libertà (the people of freedom) the main party here but i can assure it's no fascist at all unless you listen to the tall tales of the far left newspapers

Chiara said...

Jaraad--Thank you for your comment and your very kind words! I was so pleased to discover these photos as well! I am due for a re-viewing of Lion of the Desert. I didn't include the picture of Gaddafi's arrival and reception in Italy which shows him wearing a relatively large framed copy of the famous picture of Omar Al-Mukhtar being led in chains. There was a lot of polemic before he arrived, including about the film (Italians pointed out that Germans were watching Schindler's List) and then about his decoration among the other medals on his chest. I didn't include it because...well...Gaddafi has a way of dominating his surroundings. LOL :) Thanks again for your comment and kind words! :)

Chiara said...

Countrygirl--Thank you very much for your comment and your corrective. Indeed, Alessandra Mussolini has in the past been associated with neo-fascist parties--the one she was first elected through Movimiento Sociale Italiano, and the one she founded Alternativa Sociale--but is currently part of the right wing of the centre-right and current governing party, "Il Popolo della Libertà" headed by Berlusconi.

There is no current "fascist" party in Italy. Moreover, on many social issues Alessandra Mussolini is very "progressive" or "left": women's rights, abortion, civil unions. She does, however, defend not only her own family heritage but fascism as well, most famously when saying "Meglio fascista che froccio" (Better a fascist than a faggot) when replying to a transgendered parliamentary candidate's accusation of being a fascist.

What with the changing parties and alliances in Italy or with Italian friends who self-identify as fascist, I wasn't as precise in my comment as I should have been. Thank you again for pointing that out.

I am also happy to report that the correct spelling of Sofia Loren's name is with the Italian "f" and not the English "ph". I have mis-typed it twice recently, all the while shaking my head at why her name was anglicized. What a relief to be able to type Sofia! :)

Majed said...

I just came back to this post, as it is very hard to me to follow you at your current speed.
Considering your Italian descent you have been too fair and too just to be true, I think it is very wonderful and very rich post in information and photoes about a highly respected and well known figure, it also changed what I used to think about him as he was lybian and precisely from Janzour in my mind I never imagined him to be other than a follower of the Ibadi Islamic school of thought since Jonzour used to be the center of Ibadist in North Arica, of course that would neither detract from nor add anything to his beautiful image in mind and heart.

I could not stop myself from laughing at the response of Alessandra Mussolini (Better a fascist than a faggot) to me she sounds quite an Italian, but I thought Italian men only spoke that way. I wonder if we shall take it as anything other than very innocent reflex, right now I will check out for her photo.

Chiara said...

Majed--Thank you for your comment, and I am very glad you enjoyed the post. "La Mussolini" is a "strong personality". She also had Italian law changed so that her children (sons) could have the legal last name Mussolini instead of that of her husband and their father. I would have included an appropriate picture but I didn't want to detract from the post. If you put her name into Google Images you will find many. If you add "Playboy" to her name you will find many more. :D

Ameen said...

very interesting post
i saw the movie when i was a kid and i loved it so much
and read some articles of omar al-mukhtar lately

he was a wonderful character that i liked

Anonymous said...

Indeed ... Thank you - Very informative.

Anonymous said...

Thank you verymuch.
جزيل الشكر على اعطاء هذه المعلومات التي لا نجدها نحن الليبيون في مكتباتنا

Chiara said...

Ameen--thank you very much for your comment. My apologies for the long delayed reply. I hope you have continued to follow the blog and will comment on posts of interest to you.

Anonymous in February--Thank you as well for your comment, and I hope you too have continued to follow the blog and will comment on posts of interest to you. My apologies to you as well for the long delayed reply.

Anonymous in August--Thank you very much for your comment. I am delighted that the post has provided information that is inaccessible in Libyan libraries. I hope you will continue to follow the blog and to comment on posts of interest.

Again, thanks to all 3 of you for your comments!

a CDN said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I saw Lion of the Desert for the 1st time this past July. Apparently what the Italians do in the movie is not exaggerated! So Omar Al Mukhtar should be much more well known all over the world than he is.

smcube said...

Great article..Especially a hero's history with photos....!

Luaay said...

Is it true that during \Omar 'era monarchy flag with crescent was in use?

Anonymous said...

thanks for the article. however I'm Libyan and saying that this knowledge was not accessible in Libyan libraries is false and strictly based on ignorance from your part concerning it's availability. as you said the memory of Omar Al-Mukhtar is very well alive and known by everyone including children, school curricula cover his legacy and books made sure to tell his tale. In addition, every year national Television re-airs the great biopic (stopped after Kaddafi) made in his honor by the great cineast :Mustapha Al-Akkad. which I advise your readers to watch, its a great movie regardless of the story, starring none other than Anthony Quinn himself in the role of Umar.

Chiara said...

Anonymous--thank you for your comment, and my apologies that there was a delay in posting it. I was hoping to have time to publish it and my reply at the same time, then decided to publish it and reply as soon as possible.

I assume you are referring to the content of a comment I made in reply to Anonymous in August above.

My understanding of the original comment in Arabic was that certain elements of my post were not available, or not easily available, rather than the whole subject of Omar al-Mukhtar and his role in Libyan history. This is of course well known in Libya (I learned about it from Libyabs!) and throughout the Arab world. As mentioned in the post,this is a shameful aspect of Italian history that is not widely taught.

I very much appreciate your comment, and the additional information you provided.

Perhaps one of the blog readers whose Arabic is better than mine could enlighten the rest of us about the original comment, or perhaps you yourself could provide a translation.

I hope you have continued reading the blog, and feel inspired to comment on other past or upcoming posts.

Chiara said...

a CDN and smcube--belated but heart-felt thanks for your comments. I hope you have continued to read the blog and will feel inspired to comment again.

Luaay--both belated thanks for your comment and my apologies for a tardy reply to your interesting question.
Indeed, the flag of the Italian colonies, including in Libya was the flag of the Kingdom of Italy (1861-1946). It resembles the current flag of Italy but with the symbol of the ruling House of Savoy in the centre of the middle white field. Here is the link to the Wiki photo of it.

Thank you all again!


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