Farewell to Libya’s last lion

A news item we received from Libya in recent days got lost among the hot agenda topics again. A 110-year-old man had passed away in the country's eastern city of al Bayda. This man, who is remembered as “a true hero” by those who knew him, was the last living comrade in arms of the “Lion of the Desert,” Omar Mukhtar, who made history with his resistance against Italian colonialism. With his death, the last witness of an era has also left the world.

Abdulrazak Jilgaf al Barasi, who was born in al Bayda in 1907 as a member of Barasi, one of Libya's biggest tribes, joined the resistance organized by Omar Mukhtar at a young age. His tribe was famous for rising up against the Italians during the guerilla war that was actively taking place between 1923 and 1931. Like many Barasi members, Abdlrazak Jilgaf also played a role in the resistance by taking his place alongside Omar Mukhtar.

Abdulrazak Jilgaf al Barasi was one of the people who personally fought in the Omar Mukhtar-led Umm al Shafatir (1927) and Timbuktu wars against the Italians. Italy, which encountered grave losses in both clashes had to change its war strategy. Following this, Italy would start to gain the upper hand on the ground by activating warcraft and demoralizing the insurgents by collectively abducting the women. Eventually, Omar Mukhtar would be wounded and fallen slave to the colonial powers in 1931.

Those who see the photographs and video footage of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini's famous Libya visit in 1937, may be shocked at the scene right after the years of resisting against the Italians. The streets of Libya are filled with tens of thousands of people greeting and applauding Mussolini. Libyan youth are saluting the new leader of the country with the Arabic version of the Italian fascist march Giovinezza and, as a matter of fact, one of the prominent tribal leaders had even presented Mussolini the “Sword of Islam.”

Italy then quickly started to colonize Libya. The goal was to settle 500,000 Italians in the country as of 1950. However, this of course did not happen under the conditions of World War II. What's more is that in 1943, Italy had to completely withdraw from the Libyan lands it took over through bloodshed and leave its place to the British.

When Libya gained independence in 1951 and took its place in the international sphere, officially, as a “country,” Idris bin Mohamed of the Senussi tribe had become the leader of the united kingdom that was established. Since Abdulrazak Jilgaf's tribe, the Barasi, had close relations with the Senussis, the tribal members were assigned to top-level positions in the new term. Abdulrazak Jilgaf continued his humble life in the city of al Bayda as a former war hero.

When Libyan King Idris al Senussi was ousted on Sept. 1, 1969, by Moammar Ghadhafi and his team, another new and extraordinary term had begun in the country's history. Ghadhafi, who was aware that he needed the support of the tribes to keep Libya under control, turned the tribal alliances in the former periods into a gigantic confederation and founded the political system that took its place in recent history as the “People's Jamahiriya.” The system that is mentioned in some sources as the “first direct administration in the Arab world,” provisioned the direct connection of tribes to the center through small assemblies. This system continued until 2011 generally without any problems. Ghadhafi would frequently state that he is taking Omar Mukhtar and the resistance he organized as an example. Both Mukhtar's family and comrades in arms saw close attention from the ousted Libyan leader throughout his term in power. Ghadhafi had also financed Syrian producer Mustafa Akkad's cult film “Desert Lion” and hence, ensured that Omar Mukhtar was known by millions.

The stories told by the film's leading actor, Anthony Quinn, in relation to the film in his memoir titled, “One Man Tango,” are interesting and funny. Accordingly:

Mustafa Akkad takes numerous photographs of Quinn, whom he dressed up as Omar Mukhtar with the help of old clothes and make-up. He has them printed in black and white and places them in a folder. In a meeting with Ghadhafi, the folder is under his arm. They engage in small talk and just as he is about to leave through the door, Akkad drops the folder “by mistake” and the photographs spread everywhere. Ghadhafi is shocked at what he sees; there is a special collection of all the Omar Mukhtar photographs in the world, but he is seeing these ones for the first time in his life. He asks Akkad where he found all these. Akkad says, I am planning to produce a film about Omar Mukhtar. While doing research on him I found the photographs at a street seller in Paris and bought them.”

You can guess what happens next. Ghadhafi immediately embraces the project and finances it. A gigantic stage with swimming pools and even a tennis court is built in the desert. The film is shot with a crowded crew of Americans, British, Italians and Arabs. Ghadhafi is so pleased with the result that he “buys” the film stage from Akkad for $30 million.

In recent times in which Libya is raided by invaders once again, may peace and greetings be upon Omar Mukthar and his comrades in arms.

+