Mahdaoui, Ahmad Rafiq al- (1898–1961)

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Mahdaoui, Ahmad Rafiq al-

Ahmad Rafiq al-Mahdaoui (Mahdawi) was a Libyan poet called the "Poet of the Homeland" because most of his poetry was dedicated to the cause of liberating his country from Italian colonial rule.


Al-Mahdaoui (sometimes known just as Rafiq al-Mahdaoui) was born in 1898 in the village of Fissatu in the western, mountainous part of Libya, and was thirteen years old when Italian military forces invaded the country in 1911. His father was a civil servant with the Ottoman administration, and had moved from Benghazi, the city of his origins, to western Libya. Subsequently he was transferred to Misrata and to Zawiya, and during this period Ahmad Rafiq obtained his primary school certificate in Turkish primary schools.

In 1910, al-Mahdaoui moved with his family to the city of Alexandria in Egypt, where he stayed until the prime of his youth. He obtained his secondary school certificate and composed his first poems, influenced by Egyptian poets of the era such as Ahmad Shawqi and Hafiz Ibrahim. In 1920 he returned to Benghazi where he was granted a post as secretary in the city municipality.

Al-Mahdaoui continued working and writing until the Italians took notice of the patriotic approach in his poetry. The Italian government was taken over by the Fascist Party in 1922, and with the more coercive rule that followed, al-Mahdaoui was fired from his job. He traveled to Turkey where he worked as a merchant before returning to Libya in 1934, a few years after Libyan resistance to Italian rule had been halted and the country pacified. The Italians were not happy with his homecoming, as he was not ready to remain silent. His epic poem "Ghayth al-Saghir" ("Little Ghayth") condemning Italian rule was circulated secretly. The poem depicted a boy named Ghayth expressing his intention of taking revenge upon the Italian official who had killed his father. A decree was issued ordering al-Mahdaoui to leave the country, and he returned to Turkey, joining the Turkish civil service and climbing the career ladder to become mayor of the famous town of Adana in southeastern Anatolia.


Name: Ahmad Rafiq al-Mahdaoui (Mahdawi)

Birth: 1898, Fissatu, Libya

Death: 1961, Athens, Greece

Nationality: Libyan

Education: Secondary school, Alexandria, Egypt


  • 1910: Moves to Alexandria
  • 1920: Returns to Benghazi, works in municipal government
  • 1922: Fired from municipal job by Italian Fascist authorities; goes to Turkey and works as merchant
  • 1934: Returns to Libya
  • 1946: Again returns to Libya
  • 1951: Appointed senator in Libyan parliament
  • 1961: Dies in Athens while seeking medical treatment

In 1946, a year after World War II came to an end and three years after the British defeated Italian forces in Libya and established a military administration there, al-Mahdaoui returned to Benghazi from exile. He remained there for the rest of his life, taking a very active part in the cultural and political life of his country during those formative years of its history. Upon the declaration of the country's independence in 1951, he was appointed a senator in the upper house of parliament and remained there until the end of his life. He died on 6 July 1961 while on a visit to Athens for medical treatment, and his body was brought back to Benghazi for burial.


Al-Mahdaoui's poetry mirrors the destiny of Libya and the lives of its people in the first half of the twentieth century. Although he wrote poetry covering most aspects of life—social, emotional, and otherwise—his main topics were political and patriotic. He also wrote some essays, as well as poems in the local Libyan dialect to be put to music and sung at weddings and other social occasions, thereby adding a modern flavor to the lyrics of oral, traditional, folkloric literature.

In al-Mahdaoui's poetry we see a poet who abides by traditional rules of Arabic poetry as they had been established by his artistic forebears. Although one of his poems shows how fed up he was with these traditional measures and rhymes and rules that imprisoned the soul and talent of the poet within their walls, he never ventured in his poetry to break with, or even deviate from, these rules.

Al-Mahdaoui's long work "Ghayth al-Saghir" was considered one of his best poems and was dramatized by other poets and playwrights, and introduced on stage and screen. One of the most successful dramatizations was done by the Libyan poet and prose writer Muhammad Ahmed Oraieth, and was published in book form. Khalifa al-Tillisi commented in his 1965 biography of al-Mahdaoui, Rafiq: the Poet of the Homeland, that he had a very sharp sense of humor, and wrote very satirical political poems. He gave as an example the poem about a watermelon the poet bought from the market, finding to his disappointment when he opened it at home that it was as rotten as the head of a Libyan government minister. Al-Mahdaoui's antigovernment poetry circulated secretly even after independence, attacking the king and the government of the day in very harsh language.


Al-Mahdaoui's poetry was hailed and praised by prominent Egyptian writers, two of whom—the poet Aziz Abaza and the thinker, scholar, and novelist Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid—introduced one of the three volumes of his Diwan Rafiq (Rafiq's diwan; in this context, "Diwan" refers to a poetry collection). The first volume was published in 1962, one year after his death, while the other two were issued in 1965 and 1971. A small book about his life with selections of his poems was published during his lifetime by an Egyptian school teacher, Muhammad Sadiq Afifi. In his introduction to al-Mahdaoui's poetry, Abaza described how al-Mahdaoui was able to unify his personal pain and agony with that of his country and his people, lending his poetry authenticity. In his introduction, Abu Hadid named some of the works of the Libyan poet that had caught his attention as the most remarkable and excellent.

Al-Mahdaoui's poetry was given unlikely praise by the thinker and critic Abbas Aqqad, who had previously attacked the poet Ahmad Shawki for his traditional style and for being a mere servant to old modes and molds who was not keeping up with the times. Aqqad said in an article published on 15 October 1954 in the prestigious Egyptian journal Akhbar al-Yawm that his duties as a writer compelled him to draw the attention of his readers in Egypt to this greatly talented poet who could express himself in the most powerful poetic terms, communicating with other suffering souls and planting in them a redeeming effect. In later years the Egyptian philosopher Abd al-Rahman Badawi recalled in his memoirs his days in Libya when people used to express their admiration for a poet like Ahmad Rafiq al-Mahdaoui, in whose poetry he found no sense of poetry at all.

Modern-day critics think that the high position al-Mahdaoui enjoyed in the minds of the older generation was due not so much to his merits as a poet—and his talent is modest compared to highly talented poets—as to the content of his poetry and its message at a time of struggle and colonial rule. This view has been expressed in many papers and seminars on modern Libyan poets, and even the major book that hails him as a poet, that of al-Tillisi, indicates that this is so.


Despite the classical form of his poetry, and despite the passage of more than five decades since the end of colonial rule, al-Mahdaoui is remembered as the "Poet of the Nation" in Libya.


Ward, Philip. "Contemporary Art in Lybia." African Arts 4, no. 4 (1971).

                                          Ahmad al-Fagih