Libya, a Country Study (Google Books)


Successive waves of Arabs arrived during the seventh, ninth, and eleventh centuries, imposing Islam and the Arabic language along with political domination. The spread of Islam was largely complete by 1300. Arabic replaced the indigenous Berber dialects more slowly, but in the late 1970s native Berber speakers remained in only a few communities.

Initially many Berbers fled into the desert, resisting Islam and leaving it as a town religion. In the eleventh century, however, tribes of the beduin Beni Hilal and Beni Salim invaded first Cyrenaica and later Tripolitania and were generally effective in imposing their Islamic faith and nomadic way of life. This beduin influx disrupted existing settlements and living patterns; in many areas tribal life and organization were introduced or strengthened. A further influx of Arabic-speaking peoples occurred in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as a result of the upheavals accompanying the fall of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain to the Christians. Forced to choose between baptism and exile, many Spanish Jews chose the latter and fled to North Africa. A few years later the Muslims remaining in Spain were confronted with the same choice, and a large number elected exile in North Africa where they, like the Jews, settled primarily in coastal cities.

Authorities estimate that the total number of Arabs who arrived in North Africa during the first two migrations did not exceed 700,000 and that in the twelfth-century population of 6 or 7 million they did not constitute more than 10 percent of the total. Arab blood later received some reinforcement from Spain, but throughout North Africa Berber background heavily outweighed Arab origin. Because Libya lies closer to the Middle East than do a number of other North African countries, the waves of Arabs reached it at somewhat earlier dates. Arabization of the Berbers advanced more rapidly in Libya, and in the 1970s relatively fewer Berber speakers remained. In Morocco and Algeria, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia, Berbers who had yet to become arabized continued to form substantial ethnic minorities.

In the countryside traditional Arab life, including customary dress, was still predominant at the time of Libyan independence. The subsequent discovery of petroleum and the new wealth that resulted, the continuing urban migration, and the sometimes extreme social changes of the 1970s, however, have made progressive inroads in the traditional ways. In the cities, already to some extent europeanized at the time of the revolution, men and some younger women frequently wore Western clothing, but older women still dressed traditionally. In the countryside men regularly wore loose cotton shirts and trousers covered by a wool barracan, which resembled a Roman toga. Country women wore a tentlike garment, also called a barracan.

Among the beduin tribes of the desert transhumance (seasonal shifts to new grazing lands in pursuit of rainfall and grass growth) remained widespread. Some tribes were seminomadic, following their herds in summer but living in settled communities during the winter season. Most of the rural population was sedentary, living in nuclear farm villages; but often the nomadic and the sedentary were mixed, some members of a clan or family residing in a village while younger members of the same group followed their flocks on a seasonal basis.

The distinction between individual tribes was at least as significant as the distinction between Arab and non-Arab. Tracing their descent to ascribed common ancestors, various tribal groups have formed kinship and quasi-political units bound by loyalties that override all others. Tribal ties remain important in some areas, but the revolutionary government has taken various measures to discourage the nomadic way of life that was basic to tribal existence, and in the late 1970s it appeared that tribal life was fast becoming a thing of the past.

Much of the wealth amassed in Libya after the discovery of oil was through establishment of trading companies, and university students in the 1970s showed a pronounced interest in careers in merchandising (see Higher Education, this ch.). Some trading companies were nationalized in 1973, however, and at the end of 1978 Qadhaafi announced the forthcoming abolition of what was left of free trade. Noting critically that “trade is an exploitation phenomenon” and that “a merchant is not a consumer,” he stated that merchants should look for jobs in productive fields, such as industry, agriculture, or housing construction.

This action struck at the heart of the Arab system of social values, for the process of person-to-person trading and bargaining over prices—which will have no place in the state supermarkets foreseen by Qadhaafi—has a value of unique importance for the Arabs. It is both a social process and a form of entertainment, and it serves to allay suspicion toward the individual with whom bargaining is regularly practiced. A few trading operations concluded with mutual satisfaction serve to establish a valued relationship between the individuals making the bargain (see Revolutionary Trends, 196979, this ch.).


Once dominant throughout North Africa, Berbers of Libya today live principally in remote mountain areas or in desert localities where successive waves of Arab migration failed to reach or to which they retreated to escape the invaders. Berbers, or native speakers of the Berber dialects, probably do not constitute as much as 3 percent of the total population, although a substantially larger proportion is bilingual in Arabic and Berber. Berber place-names are still common in some areas where Berber is no longer spoken. The language survives most notably in thejabal Nafusah highlands of Tripolitania and in the Cyrenaican town of Awjilah. In the latter the customs of seclusion and concealment of women have been largely responsible for the persistence of the Berber tongue. Because it is used largely in the public sphere, most men have acquired Arabic; but it has become a functional language for only a handful of modernizing young women.

Cultural and linguistic, rather than physical, distinctions separate Berber from Arab; the essential touchstone of Berberhood is the use of the Berber language. A continuum of related but not invariably mutually intelligible dialects, Berber is distantly related to Arabic, but unlike Arabic it has not developed a written form and as a consequence has had little literary culture.

Unlike the Arabs, who see themselves as a single nation, Berbers find their identity in their own particular group, typically a clan or section of a tribe residing in a small village or a quarter of a larger settlement. Traditionally Berbers recognized private property, and the poor often worked the lands of the rich. Otherwise they were remarkably egalitarian. A majority of the surviving Berbers belong to the Kharidjite sect of Islam, which emphasizes the equality of believers to a greater extent than does the Malikite rite of Sunni Islam, which is followed by the Arab population (see Religious Life, this ch.). Young Berbers sometimes visit Tunisia or Algeria to find Kharidjite brides when none are available in their own communities.

Most of the remaining Berbers live in Tripolitania, and many Arabs of the region still show traces of their mixed Berber ancestry. Their dwellings are clustered in groups made up of related families; households consist of nuclear families, however, and the land is individually held. Berber enclaves also are scattered along the coast and in a few desert oases. The traditional Berber economy has struck a balance between farming and pastoralism, the majority of the village or tribe remaining in one place throughout the year while a minority accompanies the flock on its circuit of seasonal pastures.

Berbers and Arabs in Libya live together in general amicability, but quarrels between the two peoples occasionally erupted until recent times. A short-lived Berber state existed in Cyrenaica during 1911 and 1912. Elsewhere in the Maghrib during the late 1970s, substantial Berber minorities continued to play economic and political roles of notable importance. In Libya their number was too small for them to enjoy corresponding distinction as a group. Berber leaders, however, were in the forefront of the independence movement in Tripolitania.


A few thousand Tuareg nomads live scattered in the southwest desert, wandering in the general vicinity of the oasis towns of Ghat and Ghadamis. They claim close relationship with the larger Tuareg population in neighboring Algeria and with other Tuareg elsewhere in the Sahara. Like other desert nomads, they formerly earned their livelihood by raiding sedentary settlements, conducting long-distance trading, and extracting protection fees from caravans and travelers. The ending of the caravan trade and pacification of the desert, however, have largely deprived this proud people of their livelihood and have reduced many to penury.

The Tuareg language derives from a Berber dialect, and the Tuareg adhere to a form of Sunni Islam that incorporates nonorthodox magical elements. Men—but not women—wear veils, and the blue dye used in the veils and clothing of nobles frequently transfers to the skin, causing the Tuareg to be known as “blue men.” Marriage is monogynous, and Tuareg women enjoy a high status; inheritance is through the female line, and as a general rule only women can read and write.

Black Africans

Groups of descendants of sub-Saharan Africans live in desert and coastal communities, mixed with Arabs and Berbers. Most of them are descended from former slaves—the last slave caravan is said to have reached Fezzan in 1929—but some immigrated to Tripoli during World War II. A majority work as farmers or sharecroppers, but some have migrated to urban centers, where they are occupied in a variety of jobs considered menial. There is a tendency to look down on dark-skinned people, the degree of discrimination increasing with the darkness of the skin.

Jews and Italians

Jewish colonies were firmly established in both Cyrenaica and Tripoli before the Christian era. The Jews lived amicably with the Muslim community until increasing pressure for a Jewish homeland after World War II caused violent anti-Jewish reactions throughout the Arab world. In 1945 an attack on Jews in Tripoli caused more than 100 fatalities and spread to other towns. Within two years most of the Jewish population had departed, many to take up residence in the new state of Israel. Further anti-Jewish violence erupted in Tripoli in 1967, and in 1970 the revolutionary government confiscated most of the remaining Jewish property, subject to compensation in government bonds.

In the 1970s fewer than 100 members remained of a Jewish community that had numbered 35,000 in 1948. The extent to which the ousting of this ancient community had been motivated by resentment over the establishment of the state of Israel—rather than by intrinsic anti-Semitism—was made clear in 1976 when Libya offered to grant passports to members of the Neturei Karta, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that opposed the existence of Israel. The offer was made at an international symposium on Zionism and racism held in Tripoli.

A residual Italian community of nearly 30,000 continued to live in Libya during the 1960s, a majority in Tripoli and most of the remainder on farms in the surrounding area. A 1960 law had discouraged foreign residents by prohibiting their acquisition of additional land, and immediately after the 1969 revolution they were prohibited from practicing certain professions. Certain other restrictions were also imposed on them at the same time.

In 1970 the revolutionary government issued a declaration that it would “restore to the Libyan people” the properties taken by Italians during the colonial period. Assurances of personal safety were given the foreigners; but nearly all of the Italian community departed immediately, although some returned at later dates, and a few other Italian migrants took up residence in the country.

The departure of the Jews and Italians left a void in the skill-short Libyan economy and contributed to the urgency of the need to recruit skilled expatriate workers elsewhere. Most of the skilled non-Arab professionals recruited were Europeans; among the nationalities represented by groups of 1,000 or more in the mid-1970s were American, British, Italian, Yugoslav, German, French, and Polish. Among the non-Arab Muslim nationalities the most numerous were Turkish and Pakistani.

Other Peoples

About 1,500 Tebu who live scattered in small groups in various localities in the southern desert belong to a race of unknown origin made up of slender, dark-skinned people. Their language is related to a Nigerian tongue. Having become Muslim through Sanusi proselytism during the nineteenth century, they retain many of their earlier religious beliefs and practices. They earn their living mainly by breeding camels and staffing the occasional remaining caravan, and some cultivate date palms. As among the Tuareg, the men but not the women are veiled.

A few hundred Duwud, negroid people of unknown origin, are known as the “worm eaters.” They are despised because of their fancy for “worms,” which are in fact a species of red crayfish found in the salt lakes of western Fezzan.

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