The Sahara Is Not a Desert: Re-Mapping Libya, Unravelling the State



“You have here the presidents of institutions that do not recognize each other […]. Each and every one denied the existence of the institutions that the others represented and their legitimacy. That is the difficulty of Libya’s current situation.” (“Libyan Factions Agree to Elections Despite Deep Divisions,” New York Times, May 29, 2018, quoting French President Emmanuel Macron.)

During a press briefing following a meeting hosted by the French President, he reflected on the defining characteristic of the contemporary Libyan condition. It has been almost seven years since the end of the February 17, 2011 Revolution. It was a revolution that was marked with a single-minded drive, in which the character of its now disposed dictator provided a strong bond and focus, a common enemy against which the population rallied. This would subsequently give reason for many to arrive at the logical explanation that there was optimism, a fertile ground from which a democratic state would take hold and flourish. This could not have been further from the case. With something close to national nihilism, there has been a nationwide unravelling of everything with even a semblance of unity. Today, Libya is governed by a wide variety of institutions. It hosts different competing governments, militia groups, and tribal leaders. There are no state institutions, there is no national unity that anyone can convincingly speak of. With even its flag serving as a contested object, the only remaining national marker resides in the country’s shape on the map, the representational boundary of its national extents. The map acting as the emblematic tool par excellence of the state as a singular identifiable whole.

Musbahi Funambulist (1)
This map shows Libya in the moment prior to the 1935 Franco-Italian agreement that decided the demarcation of the southern border. / Istituto Geografico Militare (1926), photo by Moad Musbahi.

The borders contained in this map have come to acquire a renewed significance. They have become sites of increased traffic for sub-Saharan immigrants destined for Europe. This has lead the European community, driven predominately by Italy and France, into a desperate drive to halt the inflow of migrants to its shores. Various military strategies designed over the past few years have focused on both the Mediterranean coast and the edge of the Sahara in an attempt to physically block the movement of bodies within these two fluid spaces; it has lead to thousands of deaths every year. Delivering little success, the new strategy of Western Europe has been to increase pressure upon the various influential political factions and actors in Libya to come together and form a stable state — a state that would then be bound to uphold its sovereignty through the policing of its national boundaries. Boundaries, it is important to remember, that was drawn through a series of negotiations by French and Italian imperial forces in the early 20th century as they constructed the map of Libya and the adjacent North African states. An act undertaken without the involvement of a single member of the local populations that it impacted. Boundaries that until this day are only visible on paper.

The meeting that occurred on May 29, 2018 in Paris had this aim of nation-building as its goal. At the invitation of President Macron, four Libyan dignitaries, their delegations, and a series of interested states came together at the Élysée Palace to discuss how statehood could be fostered and achieved. In a similar dining room to the one in which the map of Libya was agreed upon a century prior, these figures would come together in the same geographic location for the first time. The invitees included Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the United Nations-backed government, whose influence is mainly concentrated in Tripoli; Khalid Mishri, the newly elected head of the High Council of State, a group also influential in western Libya; General Khalifa Hifter, whose reach extends over the country’s east; and Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the eastern city of Tobruk’s House of Representatives. Before a largely approving international audience, each of these delegates were charged with either reaching a common agreement, to hold nationwide presidential elections before the end of the year or face the threat of individual sanctions. Yet none of these figures have risen to prominence by any process that could be recognized as democratic. In the absence of any alternative, the fate of the Libyan state, as engineered by the international community, has been given over to a group of figures characterized by their highly eccentric personalities and self-interested spheres of influence.

Musbahi Funambulist (3)
Wadi Megenin, 0 kilometer from the coast (December 26, 2017). / Photograph by Moad Musbahi.

By promoting individuals with no accountability, over trying to more carefully understand the Libyan people and the variety of spaces they inhabit, this diplomatic effort views the state as if it was a homogenous entity awaiting its inevitable unification. I would strongly argue that this comes at the expense of finding the real possibilities of regional stability. To insist on understanding the state through the current map of its territory is to continue to override the unique and heterogenous territorial formations that have constituted the various livelihoods that have resided here since time immemorial.

Engaging with these formations begins by challenging the Western cartographic method, and the ways in which it does not account for seasonal and cultural specificities. The Saharan wadi is one example of a territorial formation which has made the plethora of non-sedentary modes of living possible. A wadi in Arabic literally translates as “valley” or “dry river bed,” yet its real meaning is more nuanced. The series of photographs accompanying this article capture the moment immediately following the annual flash storm of 2017/2018 which flooded Wadi Megenin. This valley is part of the environmental system which has determined the location of modern day Tripoli. By feeding the water table under the city for millennia, allowing many historical civilisations to flourish, it continues to provide for the current inhabitants of the city. Its name “Megenin” derives from the Arabic “the crazed,” and refers to the unpredictability of its movements each year. Within these photographs we see the traces it has left behind, and their precise reading unlock the possibilities it has for sustaining life. It is these varied traces that are not so easily subsumed within the cartographic method. The Wadi is one example among many I would argue that require a more careful revisiting if the territory of Libya is to achieve any form of stability today.

The State as a Map ///
It can be understood without much explanation that all states are abstract entities. As political forms, they have risen from the various (though exclusively Western) treaties and agreements. These treaties forming the foundations for modern international law and the institutions that enforce and cement this law. Yet, to better understand the May 2018 meeting, we need to be more critical and unpack the current situation through looking at the specifics of how Libya came to be in the first place.

Musbahi Funambulist (4)
Wadi Megenin, 6 kilometers from the coast (December 26, 2017). / Photograph by Moad Musbahi.

In what Hélène Blais refers to as the “colonial library,” (in Mirages de la carte: L’invention de l’Algérie coloniale), the Italian colonial project in Libya arrived with a set of atavistic preconceptions and subsequently attempted to construct a colonial space based on them. Through research into the Ancient Empire of Rome and to a lesser degree Greece, which Western Imperial European powers laid claim their lineage from, and alongside a skewed form of scientific ideals and information gained from individual European explorers, they build the colonial library as a toolset. A toolset of ideas and understandings that they amass before utilizing abroad without any consideration for the actualities of the region and the people they colonize.

The colony that preceded the modern state of Libya was a portion of the African continent collaged from remains of the Ottoman empire and adjacent regions inhabited by non-sedentary tribes of the Sahara. The Italian colonial project started in 1911 on the coast, the Quatro Sponda. This coast was first understood as an island caught between the Mediterranean and the great sand seas of the Sahara. The sea border had already been codified by international law. It stems from, an even then outdated measurement, the distance covered by a cannon ball fired from the coastline. Rounded up to five kilometers, this logic gives a universal condition to sovereign maritime space, which, applied everywhere, overrides the specificities and localized characteristics of the sea in favour of generalized cartographic abstraction. A similar tactic was applied by the Ottomans to the desert. They had defined mawat (dead) land as beginning at the point at which a sound made at the edge of a cultivated area could no longer be heard. Taking a similar logic, the Italians began to resurface the Sahara, attempting to alter this “dead” land on a territorial scale and “make the desert bloom again.”

“The far-seeing eyes of Mussolini looked way beyond the waste-lands that had been abandoned for more than a thousand years by all but fighting Arabs when he made a triumphal journey through the colony […] the frontier of cultivation moved 35 miles from the coast […] acreage of barley has been quadrupled, hundreds of thousands of new olives trees have been set out.” (Fazal Sheikh and Eyal Weizman, The Conflict Shoreline, 2015, quoting J.R.W, “Will the Libyan Desert Bloom Again?”)

Musbahi Funambulist (5)
Wadi Megenin, 15 kilometers from the coast (December 26, 2017). / Photograph by Moad Musbahi.

A key characteristic of colonial projects has been making “unknown” territories more knowable. Colonizers would chart and map lands, using their repertoire of notations, to make them comprehensible to them. This double move not only provided practical information for planning the means through which expansion could occur, but also legitimated the expansionist sentiment itself. One of the key elements of the Italian colonial project was its various academic and scientific bodies. The three most important of these were the Institute of Military Geography, the Institute of Colonial Agriculture, and the Geographical Society of Italy, which worked in tandem surveying, mapping, and cultivating land, with a drive that formed an integral policy objective of the Fascist regime once it took power in 1922.

Fundamentally the method employed by these three institutes understood the territory and its spatial/social formations only by the tools explicitly foreign to local and indigenous knowledges and their local understanding of the territory. The “far-seeing eyes” of Mussolini perceived this land as a deserted wasteland by colonial standards, and he attempted to expand the coastline Italy had captured. The intention was to engineer a change of the very regime of representation of the ‘empty space’ of the desert and to construct the colony as a recognizable territory through the image of its map — the “accurate” cartographic map as both a marker of Western progress (legitimizing the colonization) and a colonial canvas for violent domination.

Fezzan is the region to the south of the Libyan coast. It waged the longest resistance against the colonial power, and its subjugation came about only through a massive detention of bodies in one singular and easily locatable position. These Italian concentration camps were tools that overcame the logistical problem of access into this Saharan region and the migratory modes of living practiced by its inhabitants — a type of forced urbanization for a people who did not conceive of Fezzan through its current boundary, but through a more nuanced and ever-evolving testimonial geography. An indigenous geography that would place it, approximately, between the Sudan in the east and the River Niger to the west. Its southern limit is defined by the seasonal and varied agricultural production of the Sahel region, with the shores of Lake Chad acting as a quasi-border to the region.

Pragmatically, to draw a national line through such a seemingly formless body of land, whose shifting volumes of sand and migratory population have never witnessed the fixity of a Westphalian system of division, the Italian regime had to alter the region’s essential characteristics. This was achieved through the establishment of small agricultural properties, which were also called by the Institute of Colonial Agriculture in the 1920/1930s “colonial farm property.” Though no conclusive number has been publicly compiled, the figures attached to some of the documents I have found in the Institute’s archives indicate that the properties numbered in the hundreds.

Musbahi Funambulist (6)
Wadi Megenin, 35 kilometers from the coast (December 27, 2017). / Photograph by Moad Musbahi.

These “agricultural properties” provided essential points of triangulation, from which the Institute of Military Geography generated the necessary maps the colonial project required. The colonial project set up a cycle in which, through agricultural cultivation, greater cartographic accuracy was attained. The agricultural land features gave rise to seemingly greater accuracy in the plan through their visibility as fixed points in the landscape. This cartography in turn opened the possibility of greater agricultural activity, in addition to the rendering of colonized space legible through Western notation. The visibility of this triangulating vegetation was two-fold: these plants were not only an intervention which necessitated the presence of workers tasked with their continual maintenance, but they could also, due to their root systems, move in relation to the wind-blown sand, meaning that instead of being covered by the dunes like a concrete wall or fence, they would remain visible. By replicating these systems, the Italian colonizers attempted to resurface the desert, to make it a non-desert.

The idea of the desert is one of the most essential tools in the colonial library, and one of the most problematic of tropes. I would argue that it is a crucial lever in understanding the problems of modern Libya as a nation-state. It is fundamentally a problem of cartography, a place which has yet to be successfully translated into the repertoire of legible signs that can be consumed by the West, and so is literally lost in translation. “Desert” from the Latin deserere refers to desertion, it has come to denote the wasteland, colonial appropriation, and a literal emptying of indigenous rights, while the equivalent term in modern Arabic, “Sahara,” finds it root in an aesthetic and observational logic, its semantic root, stemming from the Ancient Egyptian, shr as “to make yellowish red” or the Ancient Syrian, ashar “to blush.” The “Desert” and the “Sahara” are competing terms.

The method in which indigenous population of the Sahara have inhabited this land, making it viable and amenable for different forms of habitation, defies the common understanding of it as a waterless region, what science categorises as “hyper-arid.” This seemingly objective narrative of a scientific environmental determinism disregards the cultural specificities that are present, specificities in which: “The adaptive strategies of contemporary pastoralists are underwritten not so much by a sense of the ‘harshness’ of the environment (as it appears to Western eyes) as by a culturally inflected mode of perception that is attuned to local variations and to the possibilities they afford.” (Stefano Biagetti and Jasper M. Chalcraft, “Imagining Aridity: Human-Environment Interactions in the Acacus Mountains, South-West Libya,” 2012).

Musbahi Funambulist (7)
Wadi Megenin, 65 kilometers from the coast (December 28, 2017).

Of course, water matters, but this homogenous and undifferentiated concept of aridity, of the desert, applied across vast tracts of land does not account for local topography, hydrography, and unique cultural forms. The respective adaptations of these forms, which show in the simplest terms that water matters differently, heterogeneously, and is varied across place and according to individual values. It is this variety that can be read by the local population, giving insights to the territory that act as an alternative to reading the landscape through the cartographic maps introduced by the colonial powers.

Cartography is only successful if it can articulate the qualities of the territory it represents. The map of the state is operative only in being able to define its border with clarity and precision. A border’s legibility depends on its integrity, its continuity, its ability to effectively encircle and demarcate one land from another. Its power only exists in the absence of opening; any leakage of the map’s regions undoes the notion of the territory as a singular entity, unravels the concept of the state. From 1926, we see a map which remains disturbing to this day. The spillage of this map’s regions into one another highlights the problematic role of the Sahara, in which by lacking any geographic features that could historically have been conceived of as borders, and because its matter is constantly shifting, it resists the easy demarcation and the practical form of policing that a map attempts to provide. This was resolved through the 1935 Mussolini-Laval Treaty by using the straight, geometric lines that still currently denote the country’s borders.

Re-Mapping the State ///

“[…] the rushing waters abated and the thirsty wadis began to absorb them. Thousands of years of thirst had caused the land to do away with the rivers […]. It was as though the seeds strewn in nothingness, in the folds of the sands, among the massive rocks, had been waiting for that moment, eager for the sky to meet the earth. And when that consummation came, the seed buried in nothingness quivered and breathed out its relief.” (Ibrahim Al-Koni, The Bleeding of the Stone, 2013).

One tool that can begin to deconstruct the map, an example of a unique cultural form or territorial formation, is the Saharan wadi. A wadi in Arabic literally translates as “valley” or “dry river bed,” yet its real meaning is more nuanced. Through annual flash floods that last only a few days per year, rainfall flows down the numerous plateaus of the Sahara. Water rushes across the sand and floods the regions it encounters. This phenomenon does not follow any simple mechanics; it is a highly complex combination of an intense period of rainfall, over a short period of time, onto very dry and loose sand. This water then either filters to a body of water or sinks down into ancient artisanal aquifers in which water is stored in the deep impermeable strata.

Musbahi Funambulist (8)
Wadi Megenin, 70 kilometers from the coast (December 28, 2017).

The path this flood water takes is radically altered every year, as the wind constantly changes the distribution of the sand. The Wadi is then defined by what it leaves behind, as the varied and multi-layered trace of its passage that can be read for a moment before the phenomenon happens anew. Made visible by these signs, encoded and only legible to those who are able to read them. It is then utilized by those who have over time acquired an intimate knowledge of its behavior, and have made what is read by Westerners as an inhospitable landscape into one which is both accommodating and rewarding.

To look at these images contained in this article requires a perception attuned to the territory. The direction of the trees, the way their roots are exposed or not, the sand formations on the surface, and the tell-tale dashes of green all tell a story about what was present and what is yet to come. A story about a way of life that has existed as long as the Sahara itself. These images of Wadi Megenin follow its path from the coast line, almost vertical and totalling 75 kilometers in length along a South-North axis. Originating in the Sahara it travels to the sea.

The wadi challenges the common understanding of non-Western, post-colonial regions. In the diplomatic event Macron organized to discuss the future of Libya, its sovereign borders and their traversal by sub-Saharan African was addressed without any input from the various groups that reside in the south. It was neighboring states that were charged with containing Libya within the arbitrary map of the globe as enforced by the European and the international community’s world-view.

For a future state to exist in this place based on fair and equitable principles, the territory of this entire region needs to be evaluated anew and its logics and formations reconsidered in careful detail and afforded their due significance. Only when there are new markers and revitalized social and spatial knowledges will it be possible to more reasonably understand and map the unity of Libya outside of forms of colonial geography. Otherwise, to confuse the reinforcing of colonial borders as a form of sovereignty, as the country is currently mapped, does not affirm a sense of independence or self-determination, but rather gives legitimacy to the ongoing colonial violence witnessed today. A violence that began by the ill-founded mapping of the state, and the criminalizing of their contemporary traversal.