I came across this book through a post on the Arabist's excellent blog--it was entitled A Libyan Novel You Should Read. The author of the post--Ursula Lindsey--wrote such a great opening hook to describe the books' author that I've included it here:
Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite who grew up in Ben Ghazi, was educated and wrote in Italian, and over the course of 40 years penned an extraordinary cycle of novels about the bloody establishment, brief flourishing and troubled aftermath of the Italian colony in Libya.
Lindsey also writes a very thorough and lengthy article on Spina: A Stage Across the Sea: An unjustly-neglected Libyan novelist captured the twisted logic of colonialism, past and present.
Confines of the Shadow is the first of a three volume collection that texturizes the history of Libya. The second two volumes have yet to be translated so you will have to wait for the exciting conclusion. The book's translator, Naffis-Sahely, does a really beautiful job with an introduction that captures the labor of love he completed to bring this collection to the Anglophone readers (read the intro here courtesy of google books). Naffis-Sahely also has a great blog/website that is a testament to his talent and breadth of scholarship. Prior to his superb translation (and really re-working/updating of the book), this gem had been largely forgotten.
Now that Spina's work is once again being read--this tome should easily ascend to the top of the reading list for any budding middle east/maghreb/european history scholar/foreign area officer/foreign service officer (hopefully I caught enough categories there).
Perhaps the most incredible part of Confines is its relevance today. Take for instance the comments by one Italian soldier concerning Italy foray into Libya:
Just as a language is only useful in the area in which it is spoken, and is pointless outside of it, so it goes with Europe’s liberal moral values, which don’t extend anywhere south of the Mediterranean. As soon as one reaches the other coastline, one is ordered to do the exact opposite prescribed by God’s commandments: kill, steal, blaspheme … Once the Turkish garrison was defeated and a few key locations on the coast were occupied, we found a vast, obscure country stretching out before us, into which we were afraid to venture. Thus, we cloistered ourselves in the cities while waiting for daylight. Instead, the night is getting deeper, darker, deadlier and teeming with demons.
This is a novel that should have been mandatory reading for all western countries before we even thought about getting involved in the Qaddafi overthrow. And while, Spina's collection did win literary recognition during its time, his keen analysis into the Italian ethos likely did him no favors in winning widespread popularity:
Italy’s obsession with catching up with Europe’s great powers is impeding its culture from recognising the legitimacy of other civilisations. We employ reason merely as an instrument in our attempt to imitate a superior model. We disdain civilisations to the south of us; in fact, it’s as if they embodied exactly what we wanted to escape. We’re a backward country that always keeps its eyes on the other European capitals: Vienna, Paris or London. If Venice had led the Italian unification effort, things might have turned out otherwise, but instead it was led by Piedmont, a lowly vassal of France, and we are the victims of those provincial beginnings. Italian culture seems to atrophy part of our organs. It’s no use trying to educate oneself, or to read books written elsewhere; whatever we do, a congenital mediocrity clings to us like a bad smell.
The genius of these stories is that much of what Spina writes transcends the particularity of the Italian colonial experience in the specific country of Libya:
On my part this is not meant as a commentary on past US/Western involvement in the middle east and north africa, however, these are important questions that should at least be considered and publicly debated within governments and wider society prior to intervention/invasion somewhere. Finally, Spina displays his gift for capturing what it is to be a foreigner in another country as he notes that presence and weapons will never confer acceptance.
- why/is this true?
- Who is the sun causing the shadow?
- what are the extremes of the shadows (i.e., when are they longest/shortest)?
- How does a character's subjugation to a shadow steal away their humanity?
The Confines of the Shadow by Alessandro Spina You have 76 highlighted passages
Here is Captain Romanino’s take on Italy’s African venture during a soirée in Milan, where he is on leave: Just as a language is only useful in the area in which it is spoken, and is pointless outside of it, so it goes with Europe’s liberal moral values, which don’t extend anywhere south of the Mediterranean. As soon as one reaches the other coastline, one is ordered to do the exact opposite prescribed by God’s commandments: kill, steal, blaspheme … Once the Turkish garrison was defeated and a few key locations on the coast were occupied, we found a vast, obscure country stretching out before us, into which we were afraid to venture. Thus, we cloistered ourselves in the cities while waiting for daylight. Instead, the night is getting deeper, darker, deadlier and teeming with demons.
The years following Qaddafi’s coup had seen the despot eliminating foreign influences in Libya, a process he began in 1970 with the expulsion of thousands of Jewish and Italian colonists. Thus, at age fifty, Spina witnessed the Italo-Arab-Ottoman universe he’d been born into vanish completely.
Twenty-first-century readers might do well to heed Solzhenitsyn’s warning that ‘a people which no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul.
Lies were promissory notes he would eventually settle on time. He pretended to take the young man’s words at face value. Cowardly obeisance to reality is the rot that eats away at the mediocre. That young man was ambitious, and lying was simply a form of risk-taking. Hajji Semereth decided to take him under his wing. Read more at location 215
We don’t need the colony: it’s yet another symptom of that same frenzy for bloating everything out of proportion for the lack of anything better to do. Read more at location 282
ROMANINO: If the officer stops thinking of the enemy as automaton and instead considers him as guileful. It’s laughable to accord those things such abstract concepts as rights, responsibilities, consciences and souls … it’s an entertaining game, like hunting – and massacres are taken lightly. But if said officer is rash enough to think of those two peoples as living under the same sky and under the same law, lights and shadows begin to assume such a mysterious shape that he’ll start questioning himself while absorbed in the act of killing the enemy; he’ll start to tremble and his anxiety will lead him down any number of paths. If that happens, the connection between the troops and their commanders will be severed. In times of war, isolation is fatal: enemies become supernatural knights, one’s own comrades become demons, comfort and morale vanish and an officer’s heart can rarely weather the ordeal. A hero can become a saint; but if he doesn’t, guilt will crush him and the warrior will begin to fear that he’s no better than a common murderer. Cruelty and suicide become the easiest way out of this dilemma. Just as a language is only useful in the area in which it is spoken, and is pointless outside of it, so it goes with Europe’s liberal moral values, which don’t extend anywhere south of the Mediterranean. As soon as one reaches the other coastline, one is ordered to do the exact opposite prescribed by God’s commandments: kill, steal, blaspheme … Once the Turkish garrison was defeated and a few key locations on the coast were occupied, we found a vast, obscure country stretching out before us, into which we were afraid to venture. Thus, we cloistered ourselves in the cities while waiting for daylight. Instead, the night is getting deeper, darker, deadlier and teeming with demons. Read more at location 331
Everywhere you look, you can’t help but see the omens of a tragedy hanging over our heads like a Damoclean sword, of which the Libyan enterprise is but the prologue. Read more at location 357
The outcome of the war would be decided outside the city’s walls, in the immense country that opened up before the aggressors’ eyes like a great abyss, and into which nobody dared set foot. Read more at location 461
The peace treaty between Italy and the Ottoman Empire concluded at Ouchy hadn’t resolved anything. It stipulated that the Ottomans withdraw all their troops, ratified the Italian occupation, but granted the natives the right to recognise the Sultan’s authority as Caliph. The invaders didn’t know the meaning of these words and didn’t understand that the Caliph was both a spiritual and temporal leader. Thus, from a legal standpoint, sovereignty was split between the Italians and the Ottomans. Not because both parties had agreed to it, but because of a basic misunderstanding. Read more at location 629
The Italian government insisted on pretending that the road to the Seraglio Point lay open to them, and that Istanbul was ripe for the taking. The Sublime Porte refused to do anything for that province, and some there may well have hoped a European power would rescue it from its abandon and neglect. But it distrusted Italy’s intentions. After all, it was the seat of the Papacy, and it would try to colonise the region with its own citizens; furthermore, the lamentable conditions of Italy’s southern regions didn’t presage anything good. In addition, while a truly great nation only needs to make a show of strength, a second-rate power is forced to actually employ it. The game was far from over: the Treaty of Ouchy didn’t hold much weight on the coast of Africa. Read more at location 639
It’s a well known fact that an insult inflicted on an individual is an insult to the whole clan. Read more at location 690
Semereth Effendi was handsomely attired and prolonged the customary greetings longer than he needed to. The strain in Semereth’s soul manifested itself in an accentuation of formalities. Life exhausted itself in rituals during those difficult moments. Read more at location 727
The young Maronite offered me a cup of tea with mint leaves and peanuts at the bottom. Read more at location 827
An officer is a man who identifies with an Order and who devotes his life to guarantee its longevity. Read more at location 832
Eighteenth-century operas excelled at resolving private conflicts with military violence. Read more at location 879
quoi! La vie içi est à un très grand bon marché!’ was a saying that had been attributed to Anwar Bey, the leader of the Libyan partisans stationed in Derna. Read more at location 913
Worshipping one’s own slave is the most horrible of traps. Seducing what he already owned – it’s the very essence of hope and the painful prison that encages all powerful men. Opera is the complete repository of all human nadirs. Read more at location 951
DELLE STELLE: Is the story of Semereth and his wife a metaphor for our role as the unloved conquerors in this splendid African province? Still, the desire to be loved, to seduce – if I am to employ your librettist’s language – is a poison that you have succumbed to. This has nothing to do with us. After all, being loved by people we already control is superfluous. Read more at location 955
He can only save himself by coming to terms with how provincial he is, by neither playing up to it, nor being ashamed of it, just like nobody should be embarrassed by the language they speak. This is not to refute the concept of cultural exchange, but to say that imitation is only a masquerade of that cultural exchange: because one party immediately declares himself the loser from the outset. Colonialism humiliates and offends, and whenever it shows a more benevolent face, it corrupts. As Christians and foreigners we are treated kindly, and they’ve offered us a chance to assimilate. But we must keep our guards up. Read more at location 1188
This does not mean that our customs are superior to others, simply that they are the foundations upon which our code of conduct has been built; it is the narrative of our history, the language with which people have expressed themselves, reached an understanding, or even how they respect and come to love one another. Read more at location 1197
One must measure oneself against perfection, not other people’s mistakes.Read more at location 1208
PIETRA: What I’m still unsure about is whether I’m more astonished by the differences between us or our similarities. They are different, and this puts our values and beliefs into doubt. But then they are also similar, and this jeopardises our notions of superiority. We’re even in a hurry to destroy this civilisation because we’re so afraid that its mere existence threatens the worthiness of our own. Read more at location 1305
PIETRA: Italy’s obsession with catching up with Europe’s great powers is impeding its culture from recognising the legitimacy of other civilisations. We employ reason merely as an instrument in our attempt to imitate a superior model. We disdain civilisations to the south of us; in fact, it’s as if they embodied exactly what we wanted to escape. We’re a backward country that always keeps its eyes on the other European capitals: Vienna, Paris or London. If Venice had led the Italian unification effort, things might have turned out otherwise, but instead it was led by Piedmont, a lowly vassal of France, and we are the victims of those provincial beginnings. Italian culture seems to atrophy part of our organs. It’s no use trying to educate oneself, or to read books written elsewhere; whatever we do, a congenital mediocrity clings to us like a bad smell. Read more at location 1320
In a war like this, merchants must be as brave as soldiers: otherwise they’ll grow poor and vanish. Read more at location 1646
‘Family is the community, and it protects its laws and values. Don’t make the mistake of thinking – or believing, or pretending – that you can move freely about in this foreign land as though it belonged to you or your people, or of thinking you can overcome their different religion and customs. They are confines that one should respect. Read more at location 1705
A melancholy shadow swept through his soul: privilege always entails exclusion, he thought. Taking part in an old, compelling world is always accompanied by a loss. Read more at location 1819
He took hold of the tambourine and began beating the rhythm of a dabke, a popular dance from the mountains of Lebanon. Read more at location 1855
Abdelkarim could detect his master’s character from his movements. Relationships are desire and memory.Read more at location 1880
Shadows make people bigger than they are. Read more at location 1960
adumbrated Read more at location 2040
uselessly tried to detect fear in his features, or hatred, or pious resignation. He said: We return from whence we came. Or maybe: Devoted to God, to Him we return. Every translation is a restless shadow.’ Read more at location 2198
Solidarity is the true channel of communication between men. Read more at location 2298
He said the Italians’ biggest mistake had been to set foot in the hinterland, which no one had ever managed to bring under their control. Benghazi, on the other hand, was well equipped to welcome an Italian military administration – relationships had already been forged there, and the city already had a bureaucracy – but the interior was governed by traditions nobody could uproot. Even the Sanussi Brotherhood had asserted its authority by espousing tribal customs that pre-dated its existence, and in fact ended up making these customs even more unassailable. The Italian authorities would never manage to impose their own laws and do away with the customs that had held that society and its individuals in equilibrium. The Sanussis had been welcomed a century earlier as venerated Islamic teachers, whereas the aversion the Italians had encountered could be largely explained by the fact they were infidels. Read more at location 2330
The ruins always emerged out of the sand alongside the coast, as if even the Greek colonists hadn’t dared to venture into that boundless interior. Read more at location 2459
General Caneva’s Expeditionary Force invaded the Libyan coast towards the end of September 1911. Having vanquished the Turkish garrison, the Italians concluded a peace treaty with the Sublime Porte in Lausanne in October 1912. However, by 1921 the Italians still hadn’t managed to break the back of the Libyan rebellion in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. After numerous military vicissitudes, colonial power was still confined to urban centres, while sovereignty over the boundless, mostly deserted hinterland was still ambiguous, with power alternating from one side to the other according to how the struggle was going. Read more at location 2618
But the indigenous people know that we granted them this Basic Charter because we couldn’t win the war. Read more at location 2687
The tea ceremony, which took so much time, exasperating the colonists – who confused efficiency with purity of heart, or organisational rigour with equilibrium – had never made the Count impatient. Read more at location 2737
Impatience is a sign of ignorance: first he had to let the cat out of the bag. Read more at location 2747
Sharafeddin was drinking laghbi, a fermented liquid distilled from palm leaves. Read more at location 2797
In Tripoli, the Italian governor had summoned the Arab chiefs to the fort – which had once belonged to Charles V, then been passed to the Hospitaller Knights of St John of Jerusalem in 1530, subsequently become the seat of the independent Qaramanli dynasty in the eighteenth century, and finally become the official residence of the Sublime Porte’s representative in the nineteenth century – so they could officially submit to him. Read more at location 2801
‘There’s no such thing as friendship unless one is among kinsmen, just like there’s no pity for the defeated. Read more at location 2812
Venier was enchanted by the city of Benghazi, with its palm groves, whitewashed houses, and a sky that took up nearly the entirety of the boundless plain. Read more at location 2849
Omar was the shadow that followed Antonino, but he also silently guided him. Read more at location 2915
Professor Bergonzi had arrived in Africa as though he’d shifted apartments from one floor of a building to another, where he brought the same familiar objects and where the same idols would be waiting for him. The colony had to become just another Italian province, and its different origins wouldn’t be allowed to enrich or influence it, since the military conquest had made it into a legitimate part of Italy’s heritage. Bergonzi never mentioned the Libyans, who didn’t feature in his thoughts because they’d never appeared in the books he’d read, which was the only guarantee of reality besides the confusion of the present: his ignorance of the context in which he was operating was unshadowed by questions and doubts. Read more at location 2940
‘Civilisation, the end goal of all the progress you preside over, is not a fixed, timeless paradigm, but is simply the expression of a powerful clique at a given moment in history. It’s the rubble on which others will build another edifice once they’ve reconquered their freedom. There are no universal rules: the fury of nationalism finds its justification in this certainty, and strength is the only guarantee of survival. Read more at location 3004
The continuity of tradition, the identity of a nation, matter more than peace; neither is it possible to have peace if the continuity of these traditions is compromised. Read more at location 3010
Your efforts to persuade these people it’s in their best interests to stick with us, that we can teach them many useful things, that business will boom – meaning, in other words, that trading their freedom for economic, medical, and educational advantages is a good deal for them – is haunted by a wretched, demonic shadow: the surfeit of reason produces monsters. Read more at location 3011
Generosity cannot overcome our fundamental problem: is our presence here legitimate? What right do we have to interfere in their destinies? Did anyone ask us to bring order to their world? Read more at location 3268
We have granted the natives this Basic Charter because of our inability to pacify the country by means of arms; nevertheless, we’ve painted it as a grand gesture, as though granting these inferior people the right to open the book of civilisation. Read more at location 3403
To be a foreigner is a magical condition: this land will never belong to me, no matter how many cannons and rifles I bring here; weapons will only protect me, and I don’t know how long that will last. Alas, you can’t put down roots with cannons. Read more at location 3432
The native is a living shadow, Read more at location 3457
The high functionary smiled: all the new arrivals talked like this. ‘Our presence here,’ he continued, holding forth pedagogically, ‘stirs the opposite reaction in the indigenous people: they will sanctify every aspect of their culture, refuse our help, our physicians, and their fanatics will even refuse the bread we offer them. Religious faith will become the national ethos. Thus, either we forsake continuing our presence here, or we must consider all aspects of indigenous culture a citadel of the enemy – precisely because it has been sanctified – and apply ourselves to dismantling them, one after the other. Strategy is as important when it comes to spirituality as it is on the battlefield. Believe me, it will not take much for the rest to crumble. Read more at location 3585
long pauses were a sign of respect, not of embarrassment. Read more at location 3609
BENITO MUSSOLINI, PRIME MINISTER Read more at location 3790
The seven years of which I speak lie between May 1915 and October 1922. Read more at location 3798
I am here to defend and give the greatest value to the revolution of the ‘black shirts.Read more at location 3800
The Count, who was the managing director of a textile company where his father-in-law was the major shareholder, was walking along the Via Santa Margherita in Milan on a clear evening in September 1931. Read more at location 3806
Two days earlier, after a celebrated trial had taken place in the rooms that once housed the dissolved Cyrenaican assembly, the legendary leader of the twentyyear Libyan resistance to the Italian occupation Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar had been hanged at the age of seventy-four. The execution had been carried out in Solluk, a wretched little village to the south of Benghazi. The man had the same name as the young man who’d lived in the Count’s house when he was in Africa. Read more at location 3809
To read is to travel.Read more at location 3818
What had prompted Sheikh Hassan to seek this grim vignette in the pages of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah? Read more at location 3835
‘History,’ Ibn Khaldun wrote, ‘is a science: it deals with the principles of politics, the nature of things, and the differences between nations, places and historical epochs, ways of life, customs, sects and schools Read more at location 3871
as well as Benghazi, the city on the coast which few loved, Read more at location 3875
To read was to open a window onto the world. Read more at location 3897
Ibn Khaldun wrote: ‘The secret of Bedouin society lies in its simplicity and its moderation and reserve.’ Did literature violate these virtues? Ibn Khaldun tells us everything ‘decays, crushed by the superfluous.’ ‘When sophistication reaches its apex, it enslaves us to our desires. Suffering from a surfeit of beauty, the human soul is blinded by a multiplicity of colours that obscures its vision of this world, or the next. Read more at location 3916
The Italian Expeditionary Force had believed conquering Benghazi would mean they would control the rest of the country, but Benghazi meant nothing to the tribes, who merely saw it as a useful convenience, or a deadly bridge. The city had always been ruled by foreigners: by Tripoli during the time of the Qaramanli family, by Istanbul, and now by Rome. Read more at location 3941
Ibn Khaldun praised the Bedouin way of life because it safeguarded them from the ‘mediocrity of the cities. Read more at location 3958
He hurled himself from the fort’s highest wall and landed on the rocky hillside. His death brought the sad affair to a close. ‘God does as He wishes. Read more at location 4201
The travellers’ road is neither happy nor lucky, as is their arrival in foreign lands. No arrival is ever as exciting as the return. This was the hope that the exiles carried with them. Read more at location 4218
There is, however, a tome I would like to single out for attention: Francis McCullagh’s Italy’s War for a Desert, Being Some Experiences of a War-Correspondent with the Italians in Tripoli(London: Herbert and Daniel, 1912). This is by far the most cited book in The Young Maronite, and for good reason; it was perhaps the only contemporary account untainted by the usual pro-colonial jingoism that saturated most Western newspapermen at the time. In an article penned in 1913, McCullagh predicted that the war correspondent was marked for extinction, and that he would soon be replaced by a new breed of armchair journalists, who would talk about the war from the hardships of the front while ensconced in the comfortable safety of conference rooms and hotels. Anyone who watches the news today knows this to be true.