Umar Mukhtar: Lion Of The Desert

June 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Umar Mukhtar (1862 – September 16, 1931), was born in the small village of Janzour, near Tobruk in eastern Barqa (Cyrenaica) in Libya. Beginning in 1912, he organized and, for nearly twenty years, led native resistance to Italian colonization of Libya. The Italians captured and hanged him in 1931.Umar Mukhtar

He was orphaned early and was adopted by Sharif El Gariani, nephew of Hussein Ghariani, a political-religious leader in Cyrenaica. He received his early education at the local mosque and then studied for eight years at the Senussi university at Jaghbub, which was also the headquarters of the Senussi Movement.

In October 1911, during the Italo-Turkish War, an Italian naval contingent under the command of Admiral Luigi Faravelli reached the shores of Libya, and demanded that the Turkish administration and garrison surrender their territory to the Italians or incur the immediate destruction of the city of Tripoli. The Turks and their Libyan allies withdrew to the countryside instead of surrendering, and the Italians bombarded the city for three days, then proclaimed the Tripolitanians to be “committed and strongly bound to Italy.” This marked the beginning of a series of battles between the Italian colonial forces and the Libyan armed opposition under Umar Mukhtar.

A teacher of the Qur’an by profession, Mukhtar was also skilled in the strategies and tactics of desert warfare. He knew local geography well and used that knowledge to advantage in battles against the Italians, who were unaccustomed to desert warfare. Mukhtar repeatedly led his small, highly alert groups in successful attacks against the Italians, after which they would fade back into the desert terrain. Mukhtar’s men skillfully attacked outposts, ambushed troops, and cut lines of supply and communication. The Italian army was left astonished and embarrassed by his guerrilla tactics

“I’m not a sweet bite of a meal anyone can swallow. No matter how long they try to change my belief and opinion, Allah is going to let them down” Umar Mukhtar

Umar Mukhtar’s struggle of nearly twenty years came to an end on September 11, 1931, when he was wounded in battle near Slonta, then captured by the Italian army. The Italians treated the native leader hero as a prize catch. His resilience had an impact on his jailers, who later remarked upon his steadfastness. His interrogators stated that Mukhtar recited verses of peace from the Qur’an.

In three days, Mukhtar was tried, convicted, and, on September 14, 1931, sentenced to be hanged publicly (historians and scholars have questioned whether his trial was fair or impartial). When asked if he wished to say any last words, Mukhtar replied with a Qur’anic phrase: “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” (“To God we belong and to Him we shall return.”). On September 16, 1931, on the orders of the Italian court and with Italian hopes that Libyan resistance would die with him, Mukhtar was hanged before his followers in the concentration camp of Suluq at the age of 82 years.

Today, Mukhtar’s face appears on the Libyan ten-dinar bill.

Umar Mukhtar

His final years were depicted in the movie Lion of the Desert (1981), starring Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, and Irene Papas. The Italian authorities had banned the film in 1982 because, in the words of the then Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, it was “damaging to the honor of the army”.

The last act of the government’s intervention against the film was on April 7, 1987, in Trento; afterward, MPs from Democrazia Proletaria asked Parliament to show the movie at the Chamber of Deputies.

The movie was finally broadcasted on television in Italy by Sky Italy on June 11, 2009 during the official visit to Italy of Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi (who wore a photograph of Umar Mukhtar hanging on his chest while on the state visit, and brought along Umar Mukhtar’s elderly son).

from the movie Lion of the Desert:
Umar Mukhtar: We do not kill prisoners!
Arab Warrior: They do it to us!
Umar Mukhtar: They are not our teachers!

With the Libyan uprising beginning February 17, 2011, Umar Mukhtar again became a symbol for a united, free Libya and his picture is depicted on various flags and posters of the Free Libya movement. Rebel forces named one of their brigades the “Umar Mukhtar brigade” after him.

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