After leading the Italian army to defeat against the British in Western Egypt and Cyrenaica during Operation Compass in 1940-1941, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani resigned his position as the Commander of Italy’s 10th Army. Following this defeat, on February 24th 1941 a small news story featured in three British newspapers. The Daily Record and Mail, The Belfast Telegraph, and the Press and Journal all reported on the publication of a series of extraordinary war documents in Egypt. The first of these documents was a charge sheet issued by an Italian Gestapo spy against an Italian soldier who was overheard disclosing information regarding the death of Italo Balbo to fellow passengers aboard a train, alleging that the Italian Marshal was deliberately shot down while flying over Tobruk in June 1940. The second document was a French officer’s statement on oath. The officer had escaped to the UK from a Nazi prison and reported on the improved treatment of British soldiers by the Nazis in anticipation of German defeat.
In the third document the Azhari, writer, and secretary of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo, Sheykh Abdul ‘Aziz al-Bishri writes an open letter which he signs Omar al-Mukhtar. Omar al-Mukhtar was captured in Cyrenaica in September 1931 after him and his men were hunted by Italian forces under the command of Graziani. The Italian general presided over al-Muktar’s farcical trial and summary execution a fews day later. It has been said that the corpse of al-Mukhtar was later thrown from a plane (certainly there is evidence that other prominent figures of the Libyan resistance suffered this fate during Graziani’s brutal reign of the territories). Al-Bishri’s letter, which was originally published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Thakafah, made front page news across the Arab world from Baghdad to Khartoum. Addressing General Graziani directly, al-Bishri’s letter begins:
I am sure you have not forgotten me now. My phantom must be haunting you day and night. I remember the day when I was bought in chains before you, when you ordered your men to drop me from an aeroplane flying at a great height. People allege that your airmen cannot hit an objective. They do so out of ignorance or sheer malice. Your aeroplanes can carry a man from this world to Paradise in ten minutes. Your airmen never miss their objective if their projectile is an old man and the objective the vast desert. God is patient, but never forgets.
After Italian victories in Somalialand and the Western Desert, Italy was dealt stunning blows by the British forces. Al-Bishri taunts Graziani with Italy’s losses in quick succession of cities and forts they had occupied, and the surrendering of their troops to Allied Forces. Celebrating the spectacular disintegration of the African Fascist Empire, the writer expresses the hatred and derision against the Italians which swept through much of the Arab world at the time. A decade after Graziani’s brutal offensive against the Libyan resistance in Cyrenaica, and the summary execution of the leader of the resistance, Omar al-Mukhtar, al-Bishri remarks on the greater punishments now suffered by Italian forces. Before signing the letter with al-Mukhtar’s name, and including the dateline, The Garden of Eden, Muharram 2, 1360, the shrewd al-Bishri gloatingly asks Graziani to pass on his congratulations to the Roman Caesar, Mussolini:
Now what has God done to the Roman Empire? I seek to excuse the Italians and the Fascists, because they were anxious to conquer Africa to save the people from ignorance and to bring the light of civilisation. I am sure your conduct towards me was an ideal of your rule and a justification of your desire to spread your power to other lands and thus restore the story of the Roman Empire. I write without rancour- you are suffering ten times more than I am everyday. There cannot be greater punishment than the blows you are now receiving, blows that are shattering the hope of an African Fascist Empire. May I ask you to convey my congratulations to Mussolini, the great Roman Caesar.
Al-Bishri’s letter was later published as part of a collection of his work in Qutoofh al-Bashar in 1998. If you would like to read the complete letter in the original Arabic, please drop me a message.