A map of early 20th-century Awjila


Plan of Awjila from Scarin 1937 (insert between pp. 76 and 77).

Plan of Awjila from Scarin 1937 (insert between pp. 76 and 77).


This map of Awjila comes from a work by the colonial-era Italian “human geographer” Emilio Scarin on the oases of eastern Libya, focusing on Awjila, Jalu, Jaghbub, and Marada. The high density of mosques and tombs of marabouts that Awjila is famous for can clearly be seen.

The term “human geographer” is in quotes because Scarin was evidently a practitioner of the cranium– and lip-thickness–measuring type of fascist racial sciences (just check out his pamphlet “Le oasi del Fezzàn : ricerche ed osservazioni di geografia umana”). Not all of his works were of that type; thankfully the volume from which the above map is taken contains almost nothing of the sort and is full of detailed maps of the oases and plans of vernacular architecture.

Scarin, Emilio. 1937. Le oasi cirenaiche del 29 parallelo. Ricerche ed osservazioni di geografia umana. Firenze.

Ammud əglimǝn – the mosque of the leathered ones

Ibrahim Sultan, a member of the Awjila Berber community and resident of Awjila, recently posted an interesting story pertaining to local history on his Facebook. The story is about one of the older mosques of the oasis (see here for a short video showing such extremely old mosques there) given in Arabic, but the most important part is a few phrases in Berber, which provide a compelling climax to the tale. The Berber is of course written in Arabic script, and provides an interesting glimpse at how a semi-native speaker would write Awjila Berber. Ibrahim seems to have heard the story from an older, probably fluent, Awjila speaker and then written it down in somewhat summarized form using his own words. The fact that he does not speak Awjili fluently probably explains some of the oddities in verbal morphology, agreement, and syntax. Indeed, there are a number of interesting features of  Ibrahim’s idiolect, though I’ll only mention a few here (but there is a comments section for a reason!).

We’ve obtained Ibrahim’s permission to re-post and translate; the original Arabic is given first, as Ibrahim wrote it, followed by a translation, and rough transcription of the Berber based on the standards of Marijn’s new book. A line by line parse is after the jump.

‫امود اقلیمن …. یحکی ان غزاه جاءو لیغزو اوجله قبل عدة اعوام مضت .لباسهم من الجلد .. وعندما جاء المؤذن لرفع اذان الفجر تعرضو له لکی یوضح لهم الاغنیا فی البلاد والقاده لیبداء الغزاه منهم .. فقال لهم المؤذن .. دعونی ارفع الاذان اولا لکی اسهل علیکم الامر .. فالناس ستاتی لتصلی بلا سلاح وانتم یا غزاه اختبو تحت هذا الجدار .. ولا تتحرکو حتی تقام الصلاه .. فوافق الغزاه .. .. فاذن المؤذن الاذان التالی .. بالامازیغیه .

“ammud əglimǝn … It is said that some raiders came to raid Awjila a number of years ago. They wore leather clothes. When the muezzin came to call the dawn prayer, they presented themselves to him so that he could tell them who the leaders and rich people in the town were so that they could start with them. So the muezzin told them ‘Allow me to call the prayer first, that way it will be easier to show you. The people will come to prayer with no weapons, and you should all hide under this wall. Don’t move until the prayer starts.’ The raiders agreed, and so the muezzin called the prayer with the following words, in Berber:”

الله اکبر ..تقلیمن اوشندا . یغلینی کا غارکم حاجت یغلین یوغنتت سغارکیم . الله اکبر الله اکبر … وان غارص تان افیو ایقیدادس، ایاغید دتکم تان ابدار ابزالیم .. وناغارص کا وان افیو یتادت اید افیر الفلانی ..یصفصفین ‬

‫اید افیر ادفعات فلسین .الله اکبر الله اکبر

allahu akbar təglimən uša-n=da. yə-ġǝlliy-ǝn=a ka ġar-kim ḥažət yə-ġǝlliy-ǝn y-uġ-ən=tǝt sġar-kim. allahu akbar allahu akbar. wan ġaṛ-ǝs tan afiw iqidadǝs, a=yaġi=d dit-kim tan abdar əbẓalim…u na ġaṛ-ǝs ka wan afiw yǝ-tadǝt ayǝd afir alflani .. yǝṣǝfṣǝfin ayǝd afir adfǝʕat fǝll-ǝssin. allahu akbar allahu akbar.

Allahu akbar. Leathered-ones(?) came. They do not want you to have anything, they want to take it from you. Allahu akbar, allahu akbar. He who has a gun should bring it, and with you gunpowder. He who does not have a gun should come to such-and-such a wall. They should set themselves up in rows and push this wall over on them!”

الترجمه … وصف المؤذن ما یبغی الغزاه لناس وقال لناس ان غزاه لابسین جلود قادمین لسلبکم و من عنده بندقیه او بارود یحضرها معه للمسجد .. والاخرین یاتی لکی ندفع علیهم الحائط المختبیین تحته ..ووصف لهم الطریق التی یسلکونها بحث لا یشعر الغزاه بحضورهم وعدد الاهلی داخل المسجد .. فاستجاب الناس .. واسقطوا الحائط علی روس الغزاه.. ومن نجاء اطلقوا علیه النار وقتل الغزاه بالکامل .. وتم انقاد المنطقه من شرهم .. بقت هذه القصه سر من اسرار اوجله لکی لا تتعرض المنطقه تدعیات الانتقام .. … .. فکتیرین یستهین باللغة وفوائد اللغه .. … من قصص الاجداد..‬

The muezzin described what the raiders wanted from the people, and told them that raiders wearing leather were coming to rob them, so whoever had a rifle or ammunition should bring it to the mosque. And others should come to push down the wall the raiders were hiding under. And he described the way they should come so that the raiders would not sense their presence, or that of the number of families inside the mosque. So the people responded, toppled the wall on the heads of the raiders, and opened fire on whoever survived that. In this way they killed all the raiders, and the area was saved from that evil. This story has become one of Awjila’s secrets, so that it (Awjila) wouldn’t fall prey to revenge. Many people trivialize the language and interest in the language… but well, this is one of our ancestors’ stories.”

Ibrahim told me that the mosque (known these days as مسجد تونيت masjid tunit) has been abandoned for about 10 years now, and that its eastern wall is still of mud brick, while the western one (perhaps the one toppled on the invaders?) is now made of cement.

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Awjili negation and Facebook

Although Ethnologue lists Awjili as “moribund“, it turns out there is a surprising amount of Awjili being spoken on Facebook – and not just the occasional lesson, as at “Amazigh Awjila, Tmazight N Tenere“.  The group “Ašal-ənnax” contains too much conversation to analyse in one post even if I could understand all of it, but the point that especially struck me relates to negation.  Consider:

– قان كا حدي اشفا
gan ka ħaddi ašfa
EXIST not anyone today

We know that Awjili usually negates the verb just by putting –ka after it.  But the apparent double negative here is unexpected; normally, in Berber, you would expect an item like “anyone” to replace the postverbal negative.  Does this mean “There is no one here today”?  If so, then Awjila has lost the usual alternation along with the pre-verbal negator, rather like dialectal English “There ain’t nobody here today”.  Or is –ka here marking a question – “Is there no one here today?”  If so, that would fit rather well with a widespread Arabic dialectal usage of –ši, recently discussed by Wilmsen.  Either result would help us understand the development of negation better.

Looking further down resolves the question.  In fact, we find a comparable sentence accompanied by a translation, in a brief anecdote:

غارسين كا حتىىى ايواتن
ɣar=sin ka ħəttaaaaa iwatən
“at=3PL not any one.F”
They don’t have eeeven one (star).

In almost any other Berber language with a postverbal negator, this would feature only a preverbal negator.  We can conclude that Awjila has indeed extended postverbal negation to sentences with variables and negative polarity items, which in most Berber languages do not take it.

Another version of the Awjili “fire” story

Readers may recall that Aujila Text II presented the local saint Sidi Ahmed Zarruq as being of such sanctity that whatever had prayed behind him, even a piece of meat, would be forever immune from the Fire (of Hell).  Recently I accidentally found a much-abbreviated parallel to this charming but absurd legend rather a long way away – consider the following extract from a Sufi work written in Agadez (in Niger), Qudwat al-Mu`taqid fī Siyar al-‘Ajwād, attributed to Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ṣādiq ibn al-Shaykh Uwāyis al-Lamtūnī.  The original text and a translation are given in Norris’ (1990) Ṣūfī Mystics of the Niger Desert: Sīdī Maḥmūd and the Hermits of Aïr; I have taken the liberty of making the translation more literal.

وكان واحد من أصحابه يصلي ويصلي ونسي حمامة في رأس برنوسه وجعلها في النار ولم تاخذها وذكروا له ذلك فقال لعلك صليت ورائي قال نعم (p. 60)

“One of his companions was praying and praying, and he forgot a pigeon in the hood of his cloak (burnus) and he put it in the fire, but it did not burn it.  They mentioned what had happened to him (the Shaykh).  He said: ‘Perchance you had prayed behind me?’ ‘Yes,’ he answered.” (p. 62)

The shared motif may be much more widespread, for all I know, but its presence in this case is unlikely to be a coincidental similarity, though the shaykh to whom it is attributed here is Sidi Mahmud Al-Baghdadi.  According to Barth (1851:143), many people of the Agadez region claim Awjili ancestry, and the two areas were traditionally linked by trade.

Awjila Songs IV

Jā rijù lû rāit Bālǧu / Gān laḥbûb imriĵét

Phonetic: ya irìw lú rayt Balžu / Gan ləḥbùb əmriyìt

‘O child, if you could only see Balzhu / There the dates are so beautiful’

  • ya irìw Arabic vocative particle + Aujila word for child, or son.
  • lú rayt a codeswitch to Arabic, this construction is a very common poetic expression ‘if you could only see’
  • Balžu a date palm plantation near Aujila.
  • gan  locative adverb ‘there’
  • ləḥbùb ‘dates’, plural of əlḥəbb, an unusual loan from Arabic. This is the usual term for ‘edible date’ in Aujila, but the original Arabic word rather means ‘seed’ or ‘grain’.
  • əmriyìt pl. of the stative verb mri ‘to be beautiful’

Awjila Songs III

ġillîḫ kìra šaīnāt / ‘ali simeḥ diwîs uāmmi.

Phonetic: ġəllìx kìra šaynat / ʕəli səməḥ d iwì-s n ammi

I don’t want the ugly ones, (but I want) My handsome cousin Ali, who is the son of my uncle.

  • ġəllìx pf. 1sg. ‘to want’
  • kìra apparantly the negative particle. Surprisingly not -kra as in Text 1, nor ká as in Paradisi.
  • šaynat < ELA šeynāt ‘ugly ones’ (p.c. Benkato)
  • ʕəli Personal Name
  • səməḥ < ELA simiḥ ‘handsome’ (p.c. Benkato)
  • d predicate marker
  • iwi-s ‘son’ with the 3sg. kinship suffix.
  • n genitive particle, written as u in Zanon’s original text, the handwritten u was probably mistaken for n when set into type. Cursively written u and n can be quite close.
  • ammi ‘uncle’ < Ar. ʕamm-ī ‘my uncle’

The construction iwì-s n ammi ‘son of my uncle’ is reminiscent of Song II which had the construction wullì-s n ʕə̀mma ‘the daughter of my aunt’.

An early source of Awjila Berber words

Recently, I found a reference to a short letter by Moritz von Beurmann in which he describes 10 Aujili words. The interpretation of the data is difficult; Both the account of some of the words is surprising, and the transcription leaves much to be desired. Since this letter was published in Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gezellschaft in 1862, it means we can freely access it. Below follows a list of the ten words recorded by von Beurmann, with an analysis, and comparison to the forms that we find in Paradisi.

  • tignani ‘head’, by far the most interesting lexical item, as it is completely unknown in other sources. The usual word for ‘head’ according to Paradisi, and even Müller is tgîli. The Aujila word attested in Paradisi is unusual, as it does not have any connection with other Berber languages. Berber languages usually have a form iɣf. The word tignani like tgîli has no cognates in other Berber languages.
  • schahr, suf ‘hair’, as the editor points out, these words must be Arabic loanwords šaʕr ‘hair’ and ṣūf ‘wool’. Both words have original Berber words in Paradisi (aževû, tāft), and one wonders if Beurmann didn’t accidentally enquire about these words to an Arab speaking person, rather than an Aujili speaker.
  • fuss, fussum ‘hand’, this word is attested in Paradisi as afùs ‘hand’. It seems that von Beurmann interpreted the initial a as a separate word, and has not included it in his transcription. One wonders where the fussum form comes from. Most likely, it is the plural físsen.
  • imin ‘water’, a famous Aujili word also attested in Paradisi: imîn. Aujili appears to be the only Berber language that doesn’t have aman for ‘water’.
  • itfukt ‘sun’, a surprising word, not because it looks un-Berber, but because it looks un-Aujili. Forms similar to this noun are found in Many Berber languages, for example Tuareg təfukk (< *təfukt), and Zng. toʔf̣(f̣)ukt. But, unlike most other Berber languages, in Paradisi’s account of the language, we find tāfût, with the consonant k missing. It is difficult to interpret these two contradictory accounts. Perhaps von Beurmann recorded the form before the k was lost, something not completely unlikely, as the word was recorded almost a hundred years prior to Paradisi’s publication.
  • funas ‘cattle’, this is clearly the same as Paradisi’s afunâs ‘ox’, once again the initial a was removed.
  • logum ‘mountain’, the editor notes that von Beurmann originally wrote a small Arabic letter Ghayn on top of the g to indicate that this word should be read as loɣum. Which, certainly is not likely to mean mountain. As you can see in von Beurmann’s overview, the usual word for ‘Mountain’ in Berber is adrar. This word rather looks like Paradisi’s alóġom ‘camel’. This teaches us something interesting about the way von Beurmann collected his data. He clearly did not have a language in common with his informant, so instead, he drew pictures of the thing he was inquiring about. So he drew the picture of a mountain, seen from the side, his informant then recognized this shape as the hump of a camel, and promptly gave him the word alóġom.
  • tina ‘date’, this word for Data is unattested in Aujila, but widely known in Berber, but this form is very surprising. From Ghadamès taβēnawt ‘date tree’ and Tuareg tehăyne ‘date’ we know that this word contains a as its first root consonant. This root consonant is always reflected in Aujila as v, but in this word, it is absent.
  • lachbub ‘dried dates’, this word is also attested in Paradisi lḥabb pl. laḥbûb, it is in fact a loanword from Arabic ḥabb pl. ḥubūb ‘grains; seed’, which underwent a rather radical change in meaning.