Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thoughts on Omar Ibn Said, Saudi Aramco News and Academic Boycotts

With nauseating regularity, the subject of anti Israel economic boycotts comes up. Even in subjects like medicine and other sciences, there are those who do not want Israeli professors to be able to present their case. The reason for this strategy is to close any avenues in which individual Israelis are seen in a human light as individuals. It is far easier to demonise those one has not met than it is to demonise those with whom one has enjoyed close working relationships.

In subjects like history and sociology, it would make sense to broaden one's circle of colleagues in order to broaden the knowledge base. Boycotting Israel in academia narrows the knowledge base and weakens academic research. It is a cunning political strategy that creates a corrosive precedent for other conflicts,

To me, a bookstore, a magazine stand and a university are neutral zones where dissimilar minds can meet. Reading a magazine of an ethnic or ideological adversary is a chance to mingle with people who are physically absent from one's circle of friends. It is critical for political evolution and for the evolution of knowledge that such "mingling places" exist and that any restrictions on their existence be resisted.

To me as a Jew, Saudi Arabia is the heart of "the other side". It does not freely allow Jews within its borders, and it does not allow the existence of non Muslim houses of worship. It finances groups that are dedicated to wiping Israel off the map. If I were to follow the rules of the boycotters, I would not read or study anything from there. This would cut me off from a chance to be a "fly on the wall" and to listen to the concerns of those who do not think as I do.

This week, my "open door" policy towards knowledge paid off in a big way. As I do regularly, I read the latest issue of the Saudi Aramco World, a cultural magazine put out by the oil company of the same name. Its focus is on the Arab and Islamic world as well as Arab and Islamic history and culture. Despite its omissions and bias in matters of Jewish history, I consider it to be a valuable source of information.

The latest issue of Saudi Aramco World shook my conception of African American and American history. I had always thought that Africans deported as slaves to the New World were polytheistic. Saudi Aramco World presented in its latest issue a story that puts this myth to rest. It turns out that between 10 and 20 percent of all Africans shipped as slaves to America were in fact Muslims. One of them was Omar Ibn Said, a literate and practicing Muslim who maintained connections to his faith as a slave in America. Saudi Aramco World presented his story in their latest issue.

Omar ibn Said was a slave from Senegal who was literate in Arabic. While in America in 1831, he wrote an autobiography in Arabic in beautiful calligraphy that he remembered from his youth. The book was short. It was only 15 pages. It has a poetic quality in English translation.

Said was born in 1770. He was deported in 1807 at the age of 37 and ended up in the hands of a man from South Carolina who he described as evil. Within a month, he escaped and stopped in a church to rest and pray. From there, he was taken to jail, where he stayed for 16 days. He ended up in the care of a man named Jim Owen, who recognised Said's regal bearing and educated background. He treated Said as a member of the family for the rest of his life. Said honoured his kindness and eternalised his memory in his autobiography.

There was debate over whether or not Said truly converted to Christianity or whether he maintained an allegiance to Islam. Despite its allusions to Jesus as a saviour in the Christian sense, Said's autobiography is heavily interspersed with Koranic references. He seems like an ecumenical Muslim who advocates peace with the non Islamic world.

It is an irony absent from Said's biography that many of the slave traders who handed human cargo over to European traders were fellow Muslims. Muslim traders brought not only the Muslim faith but provided payment to warring African nations who sold their defeated enemies into slavery. Said's autobiography does not present a detailed picture of the local conflicts at the time of his deportation. That is a job for those in African and Islamic studies, one of the many unanswered questions in the young discipline of Pan African studies.

Monotheism had many adherents in Africa. It was not a European import. I met a Tutsi from Rwanda who said that the original faith of his people prior to the arrival of Christianity was strictly monotheistic. He expressed a desire to recover and return to that monotheistic and non Islamic faith.

I am intrigued and fascinated by the story of Omar ibn Said. I intend to explore it further. Had I responded in kind to those who boycott Israel, I would have remained ignorant of Said's existence and its historical implications. I thank Saudi Aramco World for opening my eyes to Omar Said's life story. It is a facet of American and African American history that deserves far more attention and study. Sphere: Related Content

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