...Best of Sicily presents... Best of Sicily Magazine.
The first online magazine about Sicily.
... Dedicated to Sicilian art, culture, history, people, places and all things Sicilian.
Sicilians and Libyans - Of Lions and Deserts
by Luigi Mendola

Magazine Index

Best of Sicily

Arts & Culture


Food & Wine

History & Society

About Us

Travel Faqs


Map of Sicily


Omar Mukhtar, the Lion of the Desert.On the evening of 11 June 2009 an Italian satellite television network (Italy's Sky affiliate) did the unexpected. It aired a film banned in Italy since 1981. The movie, which deals with Italy's decades-long colonialist repression in Libya, was belatedly brought to the attention of several generations of Italians during the recent visit of the elderly son of the hero it depicts, Omar al Mukhtar, known to his countrymen as "the Lion of the Desert." But this was only the most recent in a chain of events highlighted by, among other things, the first state visit of the Libyan head-of-state Muammar Qadhafi (Kaddafi) during the same week.

Earlier this year (2009), the Italian government concluded negotiations with Libya, a result of which will be cheap petroleum products for Italian consumers (the African nation already provides about 25% of Italy's carbon fuels) in exchange for five billion euros in aid. Most of this money will be spent on construction projects in Libya --particularly a modern highway system designed by Italian engineers and built by Italian companies-- over the course of two decades. Italy, of course, is the more generous partner in this bilateral enterprise, for reasons that far eclipse humanitarian interest and inexpensive petrol.

Why? A good question whose answer lies in the historical events of a century ago. Yes, it was in 1911 that Italy invaded Libya as part of a general European conquest of Ottoman territories in the Mediterranean. Like Italy's humiliating military defeat in Ethiopia in 1896 (under the mediocre statesman Francesco Crispi), this, too, would be a disastrous attempt at colonialism and, at best, a mediocre military exercise.

Thousands of Italian troops, mostly from southern regions such as Sicily, were conscripted to die in the Libyan desert over the course of a war that
"So shamed were Italians by the inhumanity and incompetence of the Libyan occupation that the best-known film about the debacle was banned in Italy for twenty-eight years following its release in 1981."
would last some twenty years. In the process, the Italians effectively decimated Libya's civilian population. By the time the Allies liberated the nation in 1943 as a prelude to the invasion of Sicily, kicking out Italian troops once and for all, there were fewer Libyans than there had been in 1912, despite general population trends reflecting an increase in neighbouring nations. That's because the Italians massacred the Libyans in a process of genocide rivalled (in modern Italian history) only by the Ethiopian occupation --and led by the same infamous general, Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955), convicted of war crimes following the Second World War.

So shamed were the Italians by the inhumanity and incompetence of the Libyan occupation that the best-known film about the debacle, Lion of the Desert starring Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud and Irene Papas, was actually censored in Italy for twenty-eight years following its global release in 1981. Yes, the Italian Republic was still banning movies in the 1980s and, in effect, banned this one until June of this year. The official reason for this was that the Italian army, never particularly distinguished for its competence whether against the Africans, Russians, Americans or British, was "portrayed in a negative way."

None of this seemed to embarrass prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and for a very good reason: Italy lusts for a much-coveted permanent seat on an enlarged United Nations Security Council so desperately that she can practically taste it, and such a petition could easily be scuttled by an objection from an offended nation like Libya if seconded by Russia, China or even France. Some Italians lament that their country is relegated to "second class" status by past events (having been an Axis nation),
"Few Italians know very much at all about the Libyan War or its consequences."
but many of those same people don't even know that the Italian Republic was admitted as a full member of the United Nations only in 1955. Italy's aspirations to a more important role in the world begin in Tripoli.

What actually happened in 1911 and 1912?

Briefly, an Italian invasion against Turkish and Libyan forces was begun in September 1911 with the Italians knowing that substantial reinforcements were unlikely to arrive from Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire in its death throes being pitifully overextended. To the Italians' surprise, the Turks, Arabs and Berbers fought back remarkably well. Among them was a young Kemal Ataturk. In November the Italians used aerial bombardment, the first time in history this tactic was applied, in an attempt to defeat the enemy. The bombings had only limited military effect but killed many civilians.

Despite a naval blockade, military equipment continued to arrive overland from Tunisia and Egypt to assist the Libyans, while a few of Italy's more outspoken Catholic bishops called for a "crusade" against Islam. The Libyan people themselves showed no inclination toward Italian domination. In the end, the Turks accepted a peace settlement in October 1912, though more out of fear of potential hostilities in the western Balkans (stirred to resistance by the Libyans' fervour) than out of fear of the incompetent Italians, and Libya was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. The Italians also occupied the island of Rhodes.

Historians consider the circumstances of the Libyan War, combined with its implications for the Balkan states, one of the immediate precursors to the First World War. As Italy, following months of indecisive delay, sided with the victors in that conflict, while the French and British had their own colonies in Africa, little was said of Italy's Libyan occupation in the two decades to come.

The Lion of the Desert in chains.Unfortunately for our Italians, the conflict really did not end in 1912. A guerilla war continued until 1930, led by the teacher-turned-warrior Omar al Mukhtar (1862-1931). While the Italians regularly massacred civilians and prisoners alike, the Libyans were generally reluctant to follow suit. When an Arab soldier suggested to Mukhtar that he should authorise the killing of a prisoner, the leader refused, saying "We are their teachers, they are not ours!"

Colonisation was attempted, and from 1920 a Sanusi emir was allowed to rule the small desert enclave of Kufra (described by Idrisi) for a time. Graziani's forces all but destroyed Kufra in 1931. But the Sanusi brotherhood, as a Muslim religious and social reform group, strongly opposed Italian rule in any form. Indeed, during the Second World War, many of the Sanusi fought the Italians alongside the British in Egypt.

Some hundred thousand Sicilians and other southern Italians settled in Tripoli and its environs, but relatively fewer could be induced to do so than was hoped even as many thousands arrived on American shores. In The Fall of the House of Savoy, Robert Katz observes that, "the colonial governors built roads, and those were the roads on which the Italians fled when the British chased them home in World War II." Particularly in its earliest phases, the Libyan War was not without geopolitical implications, but it soon became an ugly side-show, and the likes of Rodolfo Graziani clearly were not up to the task of fighting the "rebels" they so disdained.

Later, they negotiated (obviously in "bad faith") with Mukhtar's representatives even as they sent more troops to quash the rebellion. Even before the advent of Fascism (1922), summary executions (usually hangings ) without formal trials were the norm, and under Graziani's administration (beginning in 1929) vast concentration camps for civilians were introduced. Mukhtar's trial was itself ridiculous by any acceptable judicial standard. The Italians eventually managed to suppress the "rebels" by exterminating as much as one-fifth of the total Libyan population or possibly as many as 150,000 civilians --a little like burning an entire town to kill one stray dog. Precise census data are lacking but there were probably some 900,000 Libyans in Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, Fezzan and other Libyan territories circa 1912, and possibly 100,000 fewer by 1944. The victims died through starvation or sickness in the camps, or in the hinterland through the same kind of military reprisals that today's Italians are quick to note were perpetrated upon them in Italy by the Germans from late 1943 to early 1945. This was not the only Italian innovation later adopted by the Germans; in Libya Graziani was the first military commander to use tanks against an enemy in the desert.

An astounding amount of documentary footage exists, including aerial films of the concentration camps as well as burned villages. That's because, following their humiliating defeat at the hands of Ethiopia's Menelik II decades earlier, the Italians were anxious to prove to other European colonial powers that, despite all appearances to the contrary, they too could play at being imperialists. Functionaries in the Fascist government were too shortsighted to realise that these same films would be woven into the rope that would hang them as effectively as they themselves had hung the Libyan "rebels."

Omar Mukhtar, the "Lion of the Desert," was eventually captured and executed, and he is a national hero today. Italy's new treaty with Libya may bring a new name to the "Day of the Expulsion of the Italians," until now a national Libyan holiday, but this means little to most Italians (and especially most Sicilians), preoccupied with more prosaic and immediate concerns like horrendous unemployment and, in larger cities, the social problems of a huge underclass. Italians barely understand the meaning of their own national holidays, let alone anybody else's, and precious little regarding Italy's colonialist misadventures is taught in schools. (That's why the average 40 year-old Italian university graduate knows so little of the events described on this page.)

Released in 1981, "Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert," directed by Moustapha Akkad, was a joint Libyan-Italian production and reputedly one of the costliest films made until that time, eclipsing Star Wars and Superman in that regard. The total budget is said to have been around thirty-five million dollars. Because it was underwritten by the Libyan government, which had poor diplomatic relations with the United States and other nations, it was not reviewed for Academy Award consideration, and it was shown theatrically only in a limited release, mostly in Europe and the Middle East. It was not a profitable production, nor was it ever meant to be. The film is strikingly accurate, right down to the details of Italian weaponry, protocol and military decorations, and the actors' performances are solid, as is the musical score by Maurice Jarre, best-known for composing the Academy award-winning music of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

In 1982, at the urging of Christian Democrat politicians, the version dubbed into Italian was denied the cinematic rating which would have permitted the film to be shown commercially in theatres around Italy. (The equally unflattering 1989 BBC documentary Fascist Legacy, directed by Ken Kirby and based on historical research by Michael Palumbo, suffered a similar fate, though it was finally aired in Italy on satellite television a few years ago.) Comical though it may seem, at one point Giulio Andreotti ordered police to sequester the copy of the film screened at a cinema in Trent. However, importation of the movie was permitted, and it was eventually shown non-commercially to some audiences before being aired nationally in June 2009.

Yes, it is difficult not to see the bizarre comedy in the efforts of Italy's politicians to prevent Italians from seeing this film. What did they fear?

While it is clear that few Italians know very much at all about the Libyan War or its consequences, it is equally clear that in the Arab world it has never been forgotten. It isn't easy to erase from collective memory a genocide campaign that kills as much as twenty percent of a country's population. Were it not for lingering ill-feeling on the part of the Libyans and other Arab peoples, and of course Italy's nagging absence on the Security Council while France enjoys a place there (a fact painfully annoying to Italy's few nationalists), the tragic events of the Libyan occupation would be long-forgotten and certainly not very relevant to Italians today.

In retrospect, one is struck by the Arabs' quiet dignity, even in defeat. At Benghazi on 30 August 2008, Prime Minister Berlusconi apologised to the son of Omar Mukhtar and the Libyan people. "It is my duty to express to you, in the name of the Italian people, our regret and apologies for the deep wounds that we have caused you," said the Italian premier. Yet this new agreement does not reflect reparations, which were formally remitted a decade ago to the tune of 200 million euros. At the March 2009 observances for the new treaty's ratification, the Italian prime minister stated: "The past that with this treaty we wish to put behind us is a past that we, children of the children, are guilty of and for which we beg your forgiveness."

Many young Sicilians met their deaths in Libya between 1911 and 1943, even if most of today's Sicilians are blissfully ignorant of that fact. But the new treaty brings an end to an old story, relegating it to the realm of a history which, if belatedly, should be studied.

About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written for various publications, including this one.

Top of Page

© 2009 Luigi Mendola