Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

The Conscript
A Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War

By Gebreyesus Hailu
Translation by Ghirmai Negash
Introduction by Laura Chrisman

“Gebreyesus Hailu does Africa great service in recounting an all but forgotten and therefore all the more reprehensible chapter in African colonial history. In the same spirit, Ghirmai Negash’s superb translation brings back to world literature an Eritrean literary jewel of global and timeless relevance.”

Alemseged Tesfai, author of Two Weeks in the Trenches (2002)

“This translation from Tigrinya into English by Ghirmai Negash brings the slim, fascinating novel to a broad readership so that we might appreciate its value as a complex and moving reflection on Eritrean involvement in the Libyan anticolonial war. …The colonial encounter, as represented in Hailu’s novel, is messy and multifaceted, and this is, perhaps, the novel’s most important insight, one that could usefully be shared with students in African history or literature courses.”

Northeast African Studies

“A fine, nuanced translation.”

Themes in Modern African History and Culture: Festschrift for Tekeste Negash

The Conscript gives the Tigrinya novel its early framing contour, as it shows sophistication and maturity in the depiction of the inner turmoil and real-life characteristics of its characters. It is a novel that grapples with issues of identity, self-agency, war, and the traumatic effects of (de)colonization on the human psyche. Read it and see for yourself how canonical novels like Things Fall Apart, Weep Not, Child, Houseboy, The Bluest Eye, are eerily prefigured in an early African-language novel.”

Ali Jimale Ahmed, Professor and Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, Queens College, CUNY

Eloquent and thought-provoking, this classic novel by the Eritrean novelist Gebreyesus Hailu, written in Tigrinya in 1927 and published in 1950, is one of the earliest novels written in an African language and will have a major impact on the reception and critical appraisal of African literature.

The Conscript depicts, with irony and controlled anger, the staggering experiences of the Eritrean ascari, soldiers conscripted to fight in Libya by the Italian colonial army against the nationalist Libyan forces fighting for their freedom from Italy’s colonial rule. Anticipating midcentury thinkers Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, Hailu paints a devastating portrait of Italian colonialism. Some of the most poignant passages of the novel include the awakening of the novel’s hero, Tuquabo, to his ironic predicament of being both under colonial rule and the instrument of suppressing the colonized Libyans.

The novel’s remarkable descriptions of the battlefield awe the reader with mesmerizing images, both disturbing and tender, of the Libyan landscape—with its vast desert sands, oases, horsemen, foot soldiers, and the brutalities of war—uncannily recalled in the satellite images that were brought to the homes of millions of viewers around the globe in 2011, during the country’s uprising against its former leader, Colonel Gaddafi.

Gebreyesus Hailu (1906–1993) was a prominent and influential figure in the cultural and intellectual life of Eritrea during the Italian colonial period and in the post-Italian era in Africa. With a PhD in theology, he was vicar general of the Catholic Church in Eritrea and played several important roles in the Ethiopian government, including that of cultural attaché at the Ethiopian Embassy in Rome, member of the national academy of language, and advisor to the Ministry of Information of the Ethiopian government.   More info →


Table of Contents, Translator’s Notes by Ghirmai Negash, and Chapter One: “A Portrait of Youth”


Free PDF download of The Conscript in the original Tigrinya (1950). Courtesy Ghirmai Negash.


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To request instructor exam/desk copies, email Jeff Kallet at

To request media review copies, email Laura Andre at

Permission to reprint
Permission to photocopy or include in a course pack via Copyright Clearance Center


Retail price: $16.95, S.
Release date: January 2012
64 pages · 5½ × 8½ in.
Rights:  World

Release date: January 2012
64 pages
Rights:  World

Additional Praise for The Conscript

The Conscript is a harrowing journey into the experiences of an Eritrean man who, after being recruited into the Italian army, is forced to fight in its war to subjugate Libyans. This is a novel of great irony and power. Its translation into English is a gift to American readers.”

Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son

“This work was written in the author’s native language and it was only recently translated into English. I love the style and the power of this novel. One can see Hailu’s theology training and grooming in the pastoral style of his writing. But, the tremors of Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, and the Negritude Movement are inherent in this book too. I enjoyed reading this novel and being educated.”

“Negash has mastery of the two languages (Tigrinya and English) and he has done tremendous job in giving an accurate translation of the original.”

Ethiopian Review

“(N)ow another monumental achievement by Negash has dawned: one that will rewrite African literary history of the 20th century. He has translated The Conscript, a novel written in Tigrinya by Ghebreyesus Hailu, initially in 1927, and first published in 1950. The novel is remarkable, and its translation is momentous.”

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