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Secret Modernity


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At the start of his official state visit in June 2009, revolutionary leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, meanwhile the world’s longest-serving head of state, gave the Italian audience a lesson in matters of colonial history. He had a slightly retouched black-and-white photograph pinned to his uniform, and the entire country found out that depicted on it Omar al-Mukhtar, leader of the Libyan resistance against the Italian colonial regime. The famous photo shows the nearly seventy-year-old man after his imprisonment in September 1931, shortly before his execution in the Solluch concentration camp near Benghazi. Fascist magnificos proudly present the sheikh in chains as booty for the camera.

On the second day, at the entrance to the Palazzo Giustiniani, which has housed the Italian Senate since 1926, a few senators from the opposition party, Italia dei Valori, protested somewhat haplessly against the Gaddafi visit and current human-rights violations in Libya by holding up for television cameras a photocopied image labeled “Lockerbie 270 Victims.” It was a press photo of the wreckage of the Pan Am airplane destroyed by a bomb while flying over Scotland in December 1988. The explanation for it: everyone has the photo they deserve. This Italian version of image war has a long tradition. New relevance was added when in the spring of 1994, after the first victory of a center-right coalition led by Berlusconi, footage taken in 1945 by U.S. army cameramen at Milan’s Piazzale Loreto was broadcast on television. In debates surrounding Combat Film, anti-fascists were forced to register with great frustration as the corpses of Benito Mussolini and Claretta Petacci were equated with the 335 civilians murdered by the Nazis in the Ardeatine Caves. On the other hand, in the mid-1990s came the first admission by an Italian government of the long-denied poison-gas deployment in Ethiopia.

In Rome, Silvio Berlusconi also put his arms around the now eighty-seven-year-old son of the Libyan hero. Mohamed Omar al-Mukhtar had come along as part of Gaddafi’s entourage. Several days later, the pan-Arab daily paper Asharq al-Awsat published a telephone interview with him, “conducted under the supervision of Libya’s ambassador to Rome.” When asked if he believes that in the meantime all issues have been settled with the Italians, the elderly man answered, “Yes, of course. They are not how they were in 1911 under Mussolini. This is a new generation and we look forward to improved ties between Libya and Italy.”

Under Mussolini, in 1911? In the summer of 1911, young Benito Mussolini was still a socialist party functionary in Forlì and vehement critic of the campaign initiated by a nationalist elite and the liberal Giolitti government against the Ottoman Empire. The goal was to control the Mediterranean. At the time, Italy was a poor country with a high illiteracy rate and two small, rather unprofitable colonies in Eastern Africa: Somalia and Eritrea. Disastrous defeat at the hands of Menelik II’s army in Adwa had halted the greedy attack on Ethiopia in 1886. In a brutal war of conquest full of massacres and repression against the civilian Arab population, the Italians, with numerous Somali and Eritrean askaris in their army, took the two vilâyets Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as colonies.

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