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Ghislaine Lydon
Ghislaine Lydon and Caravan in Jalu

Ghislaine Lydon

For Ghislaine Lydon, 2006 was the year of travel.

For Ghislaine Lydon, 2006 was the year of travel. It started with her participation in the annual conference of the American History Association in Philadelphia, where she gave a paper on Muslim women’s rights in nineteenth-century Senegal. In February she joined her colleagues Ned Alpers and Andrew Apter at a conference on slavery on the serene Costa Rican coast. Lydon prepared a paper based on Mauritania sources that reveal the “hidden transcripts” of Saharan slaves, which is forthcoming in the International Journal of African Historical Studies. A few weeks later, she was presenting a paper on international families and trade networks at the European Social Science History Conference in Amsterdam, on one of a series of panels organized by UCLA colleague David Sabean.

Lydon quickly returned to the Netherlands for a three-month period as part of the UCLA-Utrecht University faculty exchange program. Lydon taught the first African history course at Utrecht with an encouraging enrollment of 35 Dutch and international students (Professor Chris Ehret will follow suite when he goes on the exchange in spring 2008). Her sojourn coincided with the scandal surrounding Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian Ayan Hirsi Ali, which made for interesting discussion with undergraduate students about Muslim Africa. In the Netherlands, Lydon enjoyed meeting with Dutch scholars, she gave lectures at Amsterdam University and at the famous African Studies Center at Leiden University. She gave a public lecture on the role of women in trans-Saharan trade at Utrecht University, where she also participated in the very dynamic economic history workshop of the Research Institute for History and Culture. Later in the summer, Lydon met up with Utrecht colleagues in Helsinki (Finland) at the International Economic History Association meeting.

In November 2006, after attending ASA in San Francisco, Lydon participated in a conference on Caravan Trade organized by the Libyan Studies Center for Historical Research (Markaz Jihad al-Libyin lil-Dirasaat al-Ta’rikhiya). This is an impressive government-sponsored research institute dedicated to the study of history. Located in Tripoli, it publishes no less than four multi-issue journals and about 15 historical monographs yearly. It is headed by Dr. Mohamed Jerrari (Ph.D in history, Wisconsin University-Madison) who has directed this dynamic center for several decades. The Libyan Studies Center contains a department of primary sources engaged in the preservation and digitization of Libyan and colonial archives. It also has an oral history department actively collecting since the 1970s oral history through over 8000 interviews that are currently being transferred to MP3 format. Incidentally, the oral history department was set-up by no other than the celebrated Africanist and oral history specialist, Professor Jan Vansina (Wisconsin University-Madison) who spent close to a year in Tripoli in the late 1970s.

The international conference on Caravan Trade (Tijarat al-Qawaafil) was held in the town hall of the Saharan town of Jalo, located next to the ancient trans-Saharan city of Awjila (home of the earliest mosque built in Africa west of Cairo). There were 42 participants in the conference, mostly Libyan historians, but also a Tunisian, a Sudanese, several Egyptian scholars, one Belgian, two Italians and a group of German cartographers from Freiburg University.  On the last day, a panel of retired caravaners was invited to discuss their experiences and answer questions about trade routes and the business of organizing caravans. Lydon delivered her paper in Arabic and gave her first Powerpoint presentation entitled “Contracting Caravans: Partnership and Profit in Nineteenth-Century Trans-Saharan Trade” (“ÇáÑÈÍ æÇáãÔÇÑßÉ Ýí ÇáÊÌÇÑÉ ÚÈÑ ÇáÕÍÑÇÁ ÇáÛÑÈíÉ Ýí ÇáÞÑä ÇáÊÇÓÚ ÚÔÑ). The paper is based on a chapter of her forthcoming book (On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Western Africa, Cambridge University Press).  After the conference, Lydon traveled for a month throughout Libya. She spent time in Ghadames, once a very important trans-Saharan terminus directly linked to Agadez (Niger), Kano (Nigeria) and Timbuktu (Mali), via the southern town of Ghat. In Ghat, Lydon was the host of the very generous district governor, Shaykh Mahmud, who organized visits with elders, brought her to a Twareg wedding and took on a tour of the Akakus Mountains to see rock-paintings. While Hausa is spoken by many in Ghadames, further to the North, it is Ghat’s main language, before Targi (or Tamacheq).

This coming year, Lydon’s travels continue. She will be in Yemen from June 2007 to March 2008 on a Fulbright Scholar Grant by the Council for International Exchange Scholars. She will be teaching two African history classes in Arabic at Sana’a university and doing research on Islamic legal history in preparation for her second book.

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