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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Another Soul Goes Marching On:
Remembering the "Old Man" of Libya, Umar Almukhtar

I don't often stray too far afield given the nature of this blog, but once in a while it is helpful to do so.  In this case, I would like to briefly remember a pious, principled man who fought against invaders and oppressors from Italy in his native land of Libya.  His name was Umar Almukhtar and he was born in 1860 and was captured and hanged by the occupying Italian invaders in 1931.  Italians may think of themselves as lovers, but under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, they behaved with the most ruthless and violent racism in the conquest and oppression of north and northeast Africa.  The role of the Italians in colonial oppression may not be as extensive as that of the British, the French, the Belgians, and other Europeans, but the bloody chapter written in Libya in the early 20th century more than guarantees the Italian people their place in the colonizers' hall of shame.  

Interestingly, the story of Almukhtar's later years as a freedom fighter was made into a film (starring Anthony Quinn) in 1981.  Unfortunately, it also faced prejudice and opposition, something that we are familiar with as students of John Brown.  The movie, Lion of the Desert, was actually banned in Italy for a decade, perhaps because there were enough Italians alive from that era with guilty consciences.  In the U.S., the movie was roundly attacked by film critics because Libyan money was vital to its production.  After all, Almukhtar was and remains a Libyan national hero to this day.  However, Libya's fuel embargo of the 1970s, and the fact that the Reagan administration was feuding with the Qadhafi government in 1981 gave film critics in the U.S. an excuse to pan Lion of the Desert.  (Since Libya likewise opposed the one-sided pro-Israel bias of the U.S. government, perhaps film critics with Zionist sympathies also vented their hostility on Lion of the Desert.)  A movie that for once portrayed Arabs as human beings--and also promoted a bona fide Muslim hero--was snubbed.

The Italians with their captive: "To God we belong.
To Him we shall return."
As to the Umar Almukhtar of Libyan history,  he should be remembered for leading a tireless anti-Italian resistance movement for twenty years.  Almukhtar was not only a military genius, but also an honorable man of great religious faith and piety.  Reminiscent of the John Brown story too, some sources suggest that after his arrest, the elderly hero “had an impact on his Italian jailers, who later remarked upon his steadfastness.”  Before he was hanged by the fascists, Almukhtar declared:  “To God we belong. To Him we shall return.” 

Here is a literal translation of a poem he wrote reflecting his passion for his people's freedom:  
"My only illness is the broken hearts, the falling tears and all the herds with no protector of care-taker.

Umar Almukhtar, hanged by colonizers of Africa, 16 Sept. 1931
My only illness is being at al Agailla camp, the imprisonment of my tribe and the  long way from home…
My only illness is having to lose my dignity at my advanced age and the loss of our finest people, the ones we cannot do without…

My only illness is the loss of my beloved, good-looking strong people on top of camels and best-looking horses…
My only illness is the torturing of our young women, with their bodies exposed…
John Brown, hanged by enslavers of Africans,
2 Dec. 1859 
My only illness is the loss of sweet and good people and having to be ruled by grotesque people whose straight faces show nothing but misery…"

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