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Rajab Buhwaysh, "No Illness But This Place"

[El-Agheila Concentration Camp. Image ّfrom chezchiara.com] [El-Agheila Concentration Camp. Image ّfrom chezchiara.com]

 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

meager provisions

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—

tears fall,

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,

justice nonexistent

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

swift-limbed

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”

"No pardon”

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

spewing foulness.

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.

1 comment for "Rajab Buhwaysh, "No Illness But This Place""

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Beautiful -- have read before, but only in obscure academic texts. Thanks for publishing.

An important glimpse into a too-often-forgotten part of Libyan and Italian history.

There is no such thing as "benign" fascism.

Jamila wrote on May 17, 2011 at 03:21 PM

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