The Social, Political and Economic Stories of a north African dialect, the Libyan Dialect.
The lines above are simple standard Libyan Dialect, for those who speak Arabic, some words will be understood, some you may struggle with before you understand them, others, unfortunately, won’t speak sense to you, even though there’s only two non-Arabic words in the sentence. For those who don’t understand Arabic, I must be respectful to translate what is written, it’s not a literal translation.
“ Hi! Is everything good? Really good? Let me introduce myself, All the people except my family, call me Alnaas, My father named me Saddam, so; my family adopted the name, the government refused to register it, Brother Leader was having a bad relationship with Saddam Husayn, So Father registered me as Mohammed, I learnt English myself, and now I’m learning Italian”.
The reason I just wasted your time for, now, telling you about myself, was because I’m pretty intrigued by Language, from a young age I loved languages, years ahead before I start express myself properly with one, My father used to travel the world, he went to all those exciting places that I dreamt about: The states, Germany, Tunisia, Morocco, Italy, Egypt, Belgium, Turkey and others, he loved Tunisia and Germany, I specifically loved hearing German from him, “Alles gut?”, he used to say to the little kid I am, when he comes back home.
Back then I didn’t know what he was jabbering, I didn’t ask, I just loved how the words sound. When I hear German, I think of it being “cute” and funny. His For me, if Arabic feels like home, Libyan dialect felt like I’m in my room talking to myself, you may feel that It’s a normal feeling that one has towards his own tongue, in Libya; it’s not, there’s no really stated Study that supports my claim rather than this article, but I could comfortably tell you that there’s a good amount of Libyans who don’t prefer their accent, if you would ask them what’s the most beautiful Arab dialect there is? It properly won’t be Libyan First.
Their interactions with the people around them tells you that, in Libya and abroad, Libyans usually try to speak Tunisian with Tunisians, Egyptian with Egyptians, and Sub-Saharan Libyan dialect with Sub-Saharn migrants, they twist their words to imitate those people, they feel that their dialect is pretty hard to understand, so they choose the easier way, since, they were fed Egyptian, Tunisian and Levant dialects from TV shows and films.
For me, I loved my dialect, I like how the words from a mixture of languages could be turned into a musical dialect, how the words get to sound, the history and evolution they went through, the political, social, economic, ethnic backgrounds that they represent, one of my favorite hobbies is fetching the histories of a specific word, I research the word, trying to find the share root at any language its peoples are known to live in Libya: Arabs, Bedouin Arab Tribes, Punics, Greeks, Maltese, Sicilians, Moriscoes, Amazighs, Turks, Suljuks, Americans, Italians, British, Sub-Saharan Africans, Tuareg, Tabu and others.
Take for an example the word “Zofree”, it’s a variation of the French word “Ouvrier”, in French it means a worker, Zofree migrated to Libya somewhere between the 1970s and 80s with the Algerian workers, Algerians along other North Africans wanted to try their luck in the land of luck next door, in Algeria and Libya the word means “Shameless” too, which is a bad character that one could have in both countries, the Libyan dictionary contains other words that travelled through North African and Levant workers, they worked as Barbers, Chefs, Builders, Farmers, Mechanists, Bakers, they were everywhere in the country for good reasons, Libya was -and somehow still- a tax-free country, it wasn’t struggling economically as their countries of origins, the country had numerus opportunities, to work and get paid good enough to start a new life, the Libyans were a young nation that was totally poor before 1963, the state’s prime exports was peanuts before the production of oil. The political and socio-economic environments affected the way that a lot of Libyans between 1969-2012 they perceive themselves, they didn’t want to be Laborers, meaning they looked down on those professions.
When I think of the word “Zofree”, I get carried away like I did right now, that’s one word, it’s fascinating isn’t it? That’s what I love about words, everyday; I have this hobby, I just think of a word and try to get to know it, I take the word to a date, I let her tell me what she knows about herself while I’m drinking coffee and smoking my cigarettes, and think to myself “oh, I really love you, you are the best word ever”.
The word Zofree tells you a lot about people’s values, how do they perceive others too, and how open-minded they are in accepting new words into their communication, they pick a word that belongs to other people’s and start claiming it their own, I didn’t know until this year that the word Zofree had Algerian origin, I was reading an article about the “Worker” class in Algeria from an Algerian Writer Salah Badis who I admire, I was enjoying the article until Badis mentioned the word itself, I became intrigued, here is another Libyan word that I found its root, here’s a story.
I love Libyan Rap music, for me, it is one of the truest forms of expression that represents the Libyan dialect, the words the Rappers use, I can simply utilize to build his character in my head, MC Zofree, a raising rapper who I enjoy his music occasionally, first time I listened to him was just because of his name, I wondered why he would be proud to call him MC Zofree, it was an unusual name for a rapper. In an interview with MC Zofree he said the reason was “ they were calling me that in the street”. 5 days before writing this essay, IlZofree uploaded a diss-track against an Algerian Rapper,Il Zofree was dissing the rapper telling him, that he should go work as barber not as a rapper, because it was “an Algerian thing to do”, along with other unplesent personifications of Algerians, I was listening to these words first time while writing these words, what a coincidence, right?
It’s not in my mind to go “Politically correct” to say that MC Zofree shouldn’t have said most of he wrote, I’m not interested in opinions, I’m interested in stories, that’s why; while listening to the song, I recalled the first time I hear an Algerian-Libyan Rap Beef, it was in 2011; an Algerian Rapper publishing a disstrack calling Libyan rebels terrorists and traitors, Libyan rappers replied back calling Algerians “Zofrees”, people who come to eat from the Libyan pie, barbers, mechanics and builders were the words that were selected to spit a diss-track.
Look where we are now. Didn’t I tell you? I just get carried away, from a story to a story. To tell you that truth, I’m not sure that the root of “Zofree” was in the 70’s and got smuggled in the Libyan soil by Algerian Workers, I’m like 90% sure, the 10% comes from the fact that the words is not registered in any other source but my analysis and speculations, but the 90% comes from my own experience and looking back to my history and regular people’s history to connect the dots, For instance 1975 Colonel Gaddafi published this phrase in his Green book “Partners not Employees”, the phrase got applied as a law, Libyan Laborers: mechanics, Farmers, Barbers, Bakers would rise on their “Masters” and share the goods with them, they were no longer masters. “The people own your Booming Business, we are just like you, managers”. That what they did; people lost their businesses from all kinds, it didn’t matter was it small, medium or large; the ones that survived found a loophole, the law only applies to Libyans, Non-Libyans were not allowed to share the loots of the state of the people, so it meant they were allowed to be employees, the surviving business owners chanted, they threw their Libyan laborers, and encouraged the work of non-Libyans, and that’s how; I think the word “Zofree” came through.
Aljamahirya, The Brother Leader’s idea of a state, I would say, had an effect to the Libyan dialect more than other political system of the Libyan history, Brother Leader himself, had an obsession with language like I do, language played a big role of his philosophy, ideology and personality; for example, the brother leader studied English in the UK while he was a young soldier, there are rare occasions that you can see him speak some words of it, in an interview he talks to a foreign Journalist, The journalist asks him why doesn’t he speak English since he knows it, Gaddafi told her in Arabic “ It doesn’t concern me anymore, it is a language I forgot, we banned it from school, it’s the language of the Barbarians”. In 1986 until 1996, the English language was banned out of public schools, however; it survived through the Libyan Dialect, well, some words survived.
A specific one I recall is quite offensive, but as I said, for the sake of the story, I will tell it. “Pooftah”, it is pronounced, it’s a guys’ only word, meaning it’s street language, the word pooftah is equal to “Faggot” in American English, I heard it once on South park and I was amazed that there are other people outside Libya say the word, so I googled it, I found it was derived from “Poofter”, this time it was English, This time I didn’t take it too far, because it felt an impossible mission to research, I didn’t think of any Libyan books that may include the word; until this March, I was reading a book called “Children of Allah”, by Mrs.Agnes Keith, an American Woman lived in Tripoli in the 50’s and 60’s, I loved the book. Mrs Agnes had a Libyan House-Boy, his name was Mohammed, like me, Mohammed wasn’t a good servant in the means that he didn’t do much in the house, she would have trouble teaching him how to clean the toilets, but he wasn’t a good student; but Lady Agnes loved him as a son to her, he, she said, had a certain glamour about him, he was open to communicate, open to learn the English language, to learn the American way of life “When you go to America, take me with you” Mohammed would say to her. One day, she says he started to get to know some American Soldiers in Wheelus Airbase, a used to be The Tripoli Grand Prix stage and what is now known as Mitiga Airport, she started to hear him saying some “Dirty words”, she says, she told him not to mix with the American Troops, because all what they knew were “Dirty words”. She didn’t say any of these bad words, but the story she told led me to a revelation about the word “Pooftah”, it might flew to Libya with the Americans and stayed in the country after they left it in June 1970.
Americans were a big deal in the 50’s and 60’s, they were experts in Oil production, forestation, farming, Business and War, so the soldiers and their families lived in Wheelus Airbase, the other experts lived outside in the city, in Giorgimpopoli neighborhood (What is now known Hay Alandalus) along with the British experts, The word Giorgimpopoli is Italian, it means the city of Giorgini, Giorgini was an Italian priest who was granted the area from The Italian Governor of Tripoli, so as any Libyan District, it was to be called by its owner’s name, like Floropoli, the other half of Hay Alandalus, was named because it belonged to a Florist.
Gaddafi changed the name, because it wasn’t Arab, before he did that, you could walk around the area and find shops with the names “The Sheriff Shop”, “ Uncle Sam Stores”, “Carmen Beauty Salon”, “Guy and Joe Snack Bar” written in perfect American style, however, in the 70’s everything was Arabized, those shops along with the names of towns, streets and sometimes cities were turned into Arabic. The Libyan Parliament in the 50’s discussed the same, they wanted every shop to have Arabic name along with its English or Italian name. They didn’t succeed.
The Arabization of street signals, shop names went for 40 years from Gaddafi’s regime, in the early 2000’s the shop owners found a loophole, they started writing the English, Italian and Turkish names in Arabic letters. Today and after 40’s years of enforcing a single language, Most shops after 2011 held the names they were banned to hold, sometimes, in some high economic areas in the City of Tripoli, it is bad to name your shop in an Arabic name, you won’t sound hip.
I did it again, I’m really sorry, I just get carried away, the words “Zofree” and “pooftah” are bad words, I know, they may have given you bad impression about the Libyan people, and the Libyan dialect as well, you might not want to learn it, but I will make it up for you two times as well, let me start by telling you there are hundreds of Italian Origin Libyan words, there are some dirty words, some neutral ones, some beautiful ones: Ciao, Bene and Bella for instance.
A Bella wearing a Sciarpa in Libya was something new in the 1950s, Bellas were wearing Farrashiya for decades, a white one-piece Hijab that covers the women when they’re out of the house and leaves nothing interesting to show to Zofrees but a one eye. Sciarpa is what the Sicilianas used to wear, it’s an Italian Word means head Scarf, Libyan women once liberated from the Farrashiya started wearing them to go out and Study in school first time in the 50s, My mother would tell me a fine story about her “Scuola” years in the 60’s, she used to go to school with a uniform consisted of sciarpa, Long Gonna (Italian for skirt) and la blusa, once my uncle caught her, he dragged her by her hair and told her to never go to school without wearing Farrashiya, so she did, next day she wore it, but she too found a loophole, she wore it only on the road, when she gets to school, she would put it in her bag and not to wear until the ride home, My grandfather saw her in one of those days, while he was walking by the school, he saw her getting ready to wear her Farrashiya, he caught her, he dragged her by the hair, and told her not to wear Farrashiya to school, “But my brother Mahammed!” she protested, “ He told me to do so”, she added fearing her father’s wrath, but also her brother’s, Grandpa would go to his son and teach him a lesson, telling him that as long he’s alive, he would be the one who decides what his daughter is wearing, what a story huh?
When I think of this story, I think of the word “Sciarpa” and how it got smuggled to the language, I think of other Italian words, why the Libyans, among the vast vocabulary of the Italian language, why did they choose the words that they still use today in their daily life? What does that mean? Linguistics offer the help, peoples around the world borrow words because, they either sound better for them than others they have, so they abandon their words, or, they didn’t have the subject in their culture, in this case the “Sciarpa” was not native to Libyan women, it was a new product, so they didn’t know what to name it, sometimes they invent a name, others the subject gets introduced by its own language. Using this method of thinking, you know not only the history of the word itself, but you also get to know the story behind the people and their process of evolution.
Italian language wasn’t introduced in the Italian Colonial Libya between 1912 and 1945, that is a common misconception, the language was introduced by Venetian Merchants in the Nineteenth century, “The Libyan Diaries” a Book written in Tripolitanian Lahja – The Dialect- written by Mr.Hasan Alfageeh Hasan archives for the history of the City of Tripoli during 1830s, he kept track of everything in his business, the imports and exports, what happened to the Bey, ruler of Tripoli, and the news of the ships coming in the country, he kept a good record of Italian Words that he uses daily, words that he learned from the Venetians.
In 1912 the Italians came again to Tripoli, not as merchants, but as rulers, they came to settle, so they built schools for their children, they didn’t target the local population in their strategy, so they left them to their own means of education, they would occasionally welcome some of the Locals who want to live the Italian way, but that was it, The Local population on their part didn’t want the Italian Education, Mufti of Tripoli, issued a Fatwa Forbidding learning in Italian schools, it was Haram, so most people didn’t do so, instead they learned the language from the necessity of working with the new masters. My Maternal Grandfather learned Italian too, he was growing Tobacco, he was one of the farmers that “Ilrregia” the Italian tobacco company, used to buy the fresh plants from. He made friends with them. My paternal Grandfather on the other hand didn’t like the Italians, however, he found himself obliged to learn some words.
Libyan Car Mechanics, who were be amazed by the racing cars of The Grand Tripoli Prix, a yearly competition from 1930s to 1940, they learned the Italian words for the car parts, every single one of them, the plumbers, the farmers, the bakers, the barbers, the carpenters, all did so. So, now, the Libyan Dialect is full of Italian words that only describe the screw-driver, the car’s steering wheel, its mechanic arms, ice-cream, door handles and Il Comodino.
The Turks ruled Tripoli for more than 400 years, it’s probably the second biggest language used in the Libyan Dialect, the trick in Turkish words, sometimes, they sound Arabic, the words that mostly used to this day, describe Furniture, Kitchen tools, Cutlery and people, the word “Bey”, Now Turkish for Man, used to describe the elites, the Turkish ruling families and their selected few, it’s still used today in Libya to mean a wealthy man. Kashik, another Libyan Turkish word, it means “Spoon”.
My Grandfathers, and some good amount of Libyans, to this day, don’t like to eat with a spoon, I knew good amount of people that always use their hands, so; it is safe to say that before the Turks arrived, the majority of Libyan people didn’t have the spoon in their cutlery, “ Forchitta”, an Italian for Fork, is another cutlery that gives you a good guess on when the people started to use the fork.
The past weeks, I had a quick conversation with my 10 year old niece, she heard me requesting a Forchitta from my mother, she asked me what was it that I said, she didn’t understand, “Forchitta you know”, I said, figuring out that she most know it but didn’t hear me well, “ What is that?”, she asked me, “ Shooka”, I explained her using the Arabic word, an idea that was playing with my mind that period, presented itself again, I said to myself “ Brother leader really changed the language we speak”. A second factor of using certain words by abandoning others.
Another Libyan words have a quite funny origin, “Sheel”, “Yoga” and “Kleenex” for example, are Libyan words meaning Gas station, a 200ml can of juice, and napkins, when introduced to the Libyan culture, they were introduced in Brands, “Sheel” is Libyan spelling of the Anglo-Dutch Oil Company “Shell” that was active in the 60’s, Shell gas stations were the primary gas stations around the country, so, Libyans started to call every gas station Sheel. The same goes for Yoga, an Italian juice company and Kleenex and others.
If brother leader didn’t like the English language, he hated the Italian and the Turkish ones, they were both in the oppressor’s team, whether Fasicist Roman oppression, or Islamic Turk one, the state of the people, worked in a systematic way to alternate the language of the Libyan people, sometimes, in clear direct ways, you could see it in daily products such as beverages, for a quite good time in my childhood years, I would drink from re-cycled glass bottles named Sa’ada, Kawthar named after the River of Alkawather in Heaven, Mrada named after Libyan City Mrada, Tibr as the Arabic word for Gold; written in fantastic modern Arab letters, Sa’ada (Happiness) was my favorite, the glass bottle looked like a Pepsi’s glass bottl in Arabic. I remember, the first time I drank Pepsi I thought of it as an English Happiness. Tibir, on the other hand, The regime made a tough creative job on renaming it making it sound like the original. I didn’t like it, it had a bloodish red color, and a bitter taste; it’s to this day, the most famous local soft drink, so if you come to Tripoli, make sure to buy it from any grocery store, tell the cashier you want “Bitri Soda”, meaning Bitter Soda.
What Gaddafi did against the Italian language, is to evacuate the Italian Settlers, some of whom, their kids didn’t know about Italy, they only knew Libya, they ran away from Italy to find a new home, poor farmers from Sicilia were the main settlers, he then banned the language in public schools for more than 40 years, it used to be the second spoken language in the country after Libyan Arabic, For Turkish, he didn’t do much, for Gaddafi, the Turks already stole the Arabic language, what he did against it, as he believed, was replacing religious language that he thought were inherited from the Turks; “Dating” was the first Turkish communication tool he wanted to replace, the language of numbers, he replaced the Islamic Hijri dating, dating back from the Hijra of Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Madina, to a more “Islamic” date as he believed, in school, we would write and memorize two dating systems, the “Efrenji” meaning Western, and the how many years have been since the death of the Prophet Mohammed, so year 1999 Efrenji; was I used to drink Sa’ada exchanging it for an empty Bitr Bottle from the grocery store next door, was 1367 Waw.Ra (Wafat Alarasool-Death of The Prophet). Names of months were also changed, we had Libyan month names, based on the old Libyan farmers and Shepherds calendar; when I say we had them, I mean we really did, they were used in official papers, Bills of policies and laws.
If the brother leader hated Western and Turk ways of lives, their languages, and saw them as cultural imperialists that imposed their own culture on the Libyan people, he on the other hand, looked down on other Libyan languages, Tamazight, the Amazigh language; had his biggest share of disgust, looking at it as another variation of the Arabic language, he never believed that they different from Arabs, he believed that Tamazight was another dialect of Arabic. He personally, encouraged a beloved Libyan writer of mine, Mr.Ali Bu-Khashem, to write a series of books called “ Safar Alarab Alamazigh, on the Dialect of The Arab Amazigh”, Ali wrote about the origin of old Libyan words in the Libyan dialect, the words that proved to be no Italian nor Turk, in his book, he simply follow the historic origin of the word, discovering its Arabic relatives, since both languages share a common ancestor language “The Afro-Asiatic” Family. Amazigh activists didn’t like what Gaddafi was trying to do, to erase their history and language, they led one of the greatest long term resistance movements in Gaddafi’s era, protected their language and their way of life against the system; some of these activists even tried to kill the colonel.
I recall, in the early years of 21st century, after Gaddafi’s abandonment of Pan Arabism and Turning to be Pan-African, rumors in school were circulating saying that we might learn Hausa language, a language that is not native to Libya, the Language was even added in the “Sahifa”, the certificate of the year, the language wasn’t thought, but it would appear in every grade I take, meanwhile, even in Amazigh only cities, Tamazight was not spoken in schools, Amazigh people could not name their kids with Tamazight names.
I discovered, along with my peers Tamazight language after 2011; I got interested, so I tried to learn some of the words; not knowing, the I already know them in my own daily speech, take the word “ Karmoos” for example, it means “Figs”, a fruit I love to eat, other ones were name of traditional Libyan food, my favorite part of the Libyan culture, “Bazin” means “Cone” is another Amazigh word, for the Libyan main dish; a dish most Western Minsters these days like to take pictures eating it, smiling and not knowing how to eat it. They don’t know that they need to take big chunks of the cooked barely dough in the middle, shaped like a cone, dip it in the Tomato sauce, and start the “Tarfees” process, which is; dipping your dough into the sauce in rapid motions, while crumbing it, to make a mixture of barely and sauce; then you eat it.
Tarfees is Arabic, a multi-meaning word, in Standard Arabic it means a horse’s kick, in Libya it also means to “Ruin things up”, there’s this joke, I recall from my childhood, my father used to tell it to me, it’s a political joke, my father’s only weapon of resistance against the absurdities in the Gaddafi regime, the joke goes like this:
One day, Brother leader was in Bani-Walid (A city south-east Tripoli, home of Warfalla tribes), he was hosted by one of the tribes of Warfalla, now; Warfallians are the best to make Bazin in Libya, it’s a nationwide fact, they take pride in their Bazin craft, so; they thought to host the Leader for a Bazin feast, he sat along with four tribe leaders, and they started to eat from the Bazin dish in front of them, Bazin feasting is a team’s play, one need to collaborate with his fellow setters on the ground, Gaddafi while eating, didn’t do much, he went on and on about Aljamahirya values, talking about the real revolution, the people’s revolution, one of the tribal men was mad, he saw that the Leader is not collaborating in the process, he told him “ Erfess Ya Qayed”, the phrase could be translated into its two meanings: Crumb the Barely Dough like we do and “You’re missing it up, brother leader’.
Well, since I don’t want to miss this essay up any more with stories, I would like to discuss this one last topic, objectively speaking, the Libyan dialect is not special, all human languages underwent political, socio-economic, religious, and ethnic changes, languages are our primary means of communication, identification and figuring out our place in the word, however, the last ten years made me learn something about how Libyans communicate. The 17 February era itself had its share on the evolution of the Libyan Vocabulary. Civil Guerilla war, Economic and Political Crises kind of vocabulary.
“ Thair”, Arabic for “revolutionary” is a clear example of the Libyan vocabulary, after 10 years of instability, the word underwent number of meanings, I would say, that Libyans don’t agree yet, on its meaning, it is used as a tool of expression to joke and mock the militiamen, the young people who rose to power and starting to act freely, a killer is a “Thair”, thieves, heroes, Islamic extremists, traitors, liberators, troops of the revolution, Martyrs and others. Depending on who says it, how she says it, when and why, it takes its meaning. For me, a “Thair” is a militiaman, a “Zofree” with guns, for AbdulHamid Aldabaiba, the Libyan prime minster, and another Libyan Leader who uses language to connect with the people like Gaddafi did, to him a militiaman is “Shalafti”, another Libyan word means “Backward”, It’s used as a depriving people from their Civilized manners, in cities like Tripoli, it used to be said to people who came to live in the city for the first time and cling into their Tribal traditions, like Gaddafi did, I didn’t figure out what it’s origin yet. But I know, there’s a story behind it. A Libyan one, an interesting one.