From the Editors
This long poem is from the concentration camp of El-Agheila in Libya, is one the most criminal chapters in the history of colonial Africa. The Italian colonization of Libya began in 1911, but in the east it was successfully resisted by the Sanussiyya movement for more than two decades. When the Fascists rose to power in Rome in 1922, colonization efforts intensified in order to pave the way for settlement programs—and the resistance intensified in kind under the leadership of Umar al-Mukhtar.
By 1929, the Italians began removing the native population so as to deprive the resistance of material support. By the end, they had deported two thirds of the population of the east to 16 camps. Forced to walk hundreds of miles, many perished before they even arrived. In some sense, the camps were a colonial prelude to those of Europe in the years that followed—with barbed wire, forced labor, a total lack of medical aid, and intense hunger and deprivation. Prisoners talked of having to eat grass, insects and mice to stay alive. In 1931, Omar al-Mukhtar was captured and executed. The majority of the other resistance leaders were captured or killed by 1932, and the resistance collapsed soon thereafter. By 1934, the camps were no longer necessary. Of the 110,000 Libyans originally sent to the camps, less than 40,000 survived the ordeal.
The poet Rajab Hamad Buhwaish al-Minifi was interned in the notorious El-Agheila camp, reserved for the families and relatives of resistance fighters. His poem " ما بي مرض " is one of the few primary documents of the camp experience. The poem spawned numerous others with the same refrain as well as songs and remains well-known among Libyans till this day. The original, with explanatory notes, can be found here.
No illness but this place
I have no illness but this place of Egaila,
the imprisonment of my tribe
and separation from my kin’s abode.
No illness but endless grief
and the loss of my black red-spotted steed
who, when strife broke, stretched her solid-flesh neck,
impossible to describe,
her peer does not exist.
I have no illness except my threadbare state
and this unbearable longing
for Aakrama, Adama and Sgaif,
And for the pastures Lafwat, best of places,
which, even when parched
bursts grass green for the herds.
I long for Aakrama and Sarrati,
I wish I were there now.
I’ll be grateful to reach them alive.
When I remember those places I forget my misery—
storms drenching my beard, raging floods.
I have no illness but the memory of the sons of Harabi,
the best of friends
who keep on striking as bullets rain down.
and who ride spirited red horses—whoever falls
is promptly snatched up
by great companions who concede his love.
I have no illness but the loss of good men
and all our possessions
and the incarceration of our women and children.
The horseman who once chased untamed camels,
Now bows his head to the invaders
like an obedient girl.
He bows to them like a concubine
who has made a mistake
and must show deference morning and night.
Carrying filth and wood and water,
a low life indeed—
none but God can rise and lift this grief.
Bowing like a slave
forgetting my status
having lived my life untainted, strong,
I stand without vigor, light and useless,
a mere factotum
carrying on as if healthy, free of disease.
I have no illness except missing loved ones
gentle, honorable folk
riding sturdy camels, prancing steeds.
They were lost for a trifle before my eyes
and I’ve found nothing
to console me since they were laid to waste.
I have no illness except this endless aging
this loss of sense and dignity
loss of good people who were my treasure,
Yunes who rivals al-Hilali
throne of the tribe
Emhemed and Abdulkarim al-Ezaila and Buhssain.
His sweet countenance and open hand
and al-Oud and the likes of him,
lost without a battle to honor their parting.
I have no illness except the loss of young men
masters of clans
plucked out like dates in the daylight
who stood firm-chested against scoundrels
the blossoms of our houses
whose honor will shine despite what the ill-tongued say.
I have no illness except the dangers of roadwork
my bare existence,
returning home without a morsel to shove down a throat.
Whips lash us before our women’s eyes
rendering us useless
degraded, not even a match among us to light a wick.
Nothing ails me except the beating of women
whipping them naked
not an hour are they left unharassed.
Not even a shred of regard for them,
calling them ‘whores’
and other foulness, an affliction to the well-bred.
I have no illness except an inability to think straight
my scandalized pride
and the loss of Khiyua Mattari’s sons, Moussa and Jibril
sweet companions of night-dirges, masters of horses
tamers of wild camels
unharmed by rumors calling them cowardly, meek.
I have no illness except this long homesickness
my arms bound tight
my patience withered, no means to make a livelihood.
And my stalwart mates who rescue in strife
best of the tribe
neighbors who nightly guard the camel herd.
I have no illness except my far-flung kin
imprisoned by thugs
and the lack of friends to grieve to when wronged
the lack of those who rule with fairness,
evil dominant, crushing any grain of good.
I have no illness except my daughters’ despicable labor
the lack of peace
loss of friends death hurriedly took
and the capture of my firm-muscled Bu Atatti
his likes desirable
who sooths the heart in a forlorn hour.
No illness except the loss of my pasture
and I’m not counting
even though the taker has no remorse, no pangs of guilt.
They bring nothing except rule by torture
long booming throats
tongues tapered with pounding epithets.
No illness except the lack of defenders
frailty of my words
the humiliation of the noble-named
the loss of my gazelle-like unbridled steed
fine-featured like a minted coin of gold.
I have no illness except the hearing of abuse
denial of pleas
and the loss of those who were once eminent.
And women laid down naked, stripped
for the least of causes
trampled and ravished, acts no words deign describe.
No illness except the saying of “Beat them”
and “With the sword extract their labor,”
thronged in the company of strangers,
a base living—
except for God’s help, my hands’ cunning stripped.
No illness but the swallowing of hardship
my imagination pining
for our horses, sheep, beasts of burden.
Nothing but starving work under lashing wails—
what a wretched life!
Then for tattered chattel they turn on the women.
No illness except the loss of sweet and good people—
a government of imbeciles now
faces that bespeak calamity, others vulgar glare.
How many a child has fallen writhing to their whips
his senses bewildered.
O my conscience, an old man now among his peers.
No illness except the breaking of wills
my tears pour and drip
herds let loose to no one’s care.
Shepherds have roped their best studs
letting unfit, measly males
mate with their young dromedaries.
No illness except the capture of honored men
the nullity of my days
and the Capo who daily beats the kind-hearted.
He stands, calls you out with a burning tongue
You fear he’ll kill you before you sound your grievance.
Ill-bred imbeciles now rule. How could one sleep
with them roaming about?
They’ll sell you out for the slightest of cause.
I have no illness except shorn honors.
Black guards standing
stiff with cruelty, barbed wire looped around poles.
No strength, will, or effort to lift these burdens—
Of our lives we’re ready
to absolve ourselves when death’s agent comes around.
No illness except the bad turn of my stars
the theft of my property
the tight misery of where I lie down to rest.
The fearsome horseman who on days of fray
shielded his women folk
now begs, straggling after apes without tails.
Every day I rise complaining of subjugation
my spirit disgraced
and like a helpless girl I can’t break my chains.
I have no illness except the bent shape of my life
my limpid, wilted tongue.
I cannot tolerate shame, though now shame has overtaken me.
And my tribesmen of whom I used to boast
beautiful in strength and poise
unshakeable when a day turns, disaster foretold—
When they fell, I was chased out of my home
a long night
its darkness overpowered my lanterns’ bright flames.
I have no illness except missing my land
and longing for my home
the pastures out west towards Sa-aadi…
I plead with the Generous one
on whom I lay my dependence
to swiftly lift this evil before thirty nights pass.
Only God is eternal. The guardian of Mjamam is gone—
an oppressive light now shines
no daylight is safe from the wicked’s dark.
If not for the danger, I would say what I feel—
I would raise him to noble heights
expound my praise, sound the gratitude I owe.
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