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Thursday, April 16, 2020

April 16, 2020: Arab American Stories: Muhammed Ali “Nicholas” Said

[April isn’t just National Poetry Month; it’s also National Arab American Heritage Month. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of the many compelling Arab American stories & figures I feature in the final chapter of my book We the People, leading up to a weekend post on contemporary Arab American writers!]
On how a striking life and book help us engage with a few key historical questions.
As every entry in this series has illustrated, for any 19th century (or earlier) historical figure to be remembered in the 21st century, they must have led a pretty interesting life. But even among this collection of interesting lives and stories, that of Muhammed Ali Said (1836-1882) is especially striking. Born into the family of a renowned general in the Central African Kanem-Bornu Empire (part of modern-day Chad and Nigeria), as a result of whose military exploits he learned Arabic and converted to Islam while still a teenager, Said was subsequently taken captive and enslaved, first to a Turkish diplomat and then to two Russian princes, Alexander Sergeyevich Menshikov and Nicholas Vassilievitch Troubezkoy. While enslaved to the latter Said was baptized as a Christian and given the new name of Nicholas, and was then granted his freedom, which he used to travel to the Americas in the late 1850s. He spent time in the Caribbean, New York, and Ottawa, before settling in Detroit where he worked as a teacher in a school for free African American students. Shortly thereafter the Civil War began, and in 1863 Said volunteered for the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first African American regiments. After that wartime service he moved to Alabama, possibly with a new wife (more on such ambiguities in a moment), and went on to write and publish The Autobiography of Nicholas Said, a Native of Bournou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa (1873).
Those details and experiences would be complicated enough if they were all straightforward and agreed-upon. But that’s very much not the case, and the reason, ironically enough, is Said’s own version of them in his autobiography. To cite the most prominent confusion: in the book Said does not refer at all to his Civil War service, possibly because he was writing while living in the Deep South during Reconstruction and did not want that side to his past known by the white (and especially the ex-Confederate) members of his new community; we know today of that service from such primary sources as an 1867 Atlantic Monthly article and a surviving photograph of Said in his 55th Infantry uniform. The 1867 article also refers to Said’s marriage to an American woman, with whom he had journeyed to that new Alabama home; but that significant detail is likewise not included in the autobiography (perhaps due to similar fears of communal reprisals), and thus that side of his life remains largely ambiguous and uncertain. Besides producing such gaps or ambiguities, this element of Said’s story opens up important questions about how we read and analyze personal narratives, about their relationship to the lives and identities on which they focus, and about them as fraught (but also in many cases crucial) historical documents and primary sources.
As with the story of Olaudah Equiano on which that last hyperlinked post focuses, however, both Said’s autobiography and his life open up other important historical questions regardless of the precise details of particular events. Like Equiano, Said’s life and identity were strikingly multi-layered, featuring significant shifts in culture, place, language, religion, and race among other elements; both men thus help us think about what remains continuous across such stages, but also about the fragility (or at least the breadth and variability) of categories like Muslim American, Arab American, African American, enslaved person, and so on. But despite those individual complexities and layers, I’m also struck by how much Said’s American experiences do link him to the broader community of mid-19th century African Americans. After all, each of the three communities I referenced above—the school for free children in Detroit, the 55th Massachusetts, and Alabama during Reconstruction—represents a hugely telling and important space and stage for African Americans, and one with which a newly arrived immigrant like Said could and apparently did connect. The relationships between individual American identities and broad cultural and social communities and categories are another fraught and vital question, and another one Nicholas Said helps us engage and analyze.
Last Arab American story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Arab American figures or stories you’d highlight?

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