09 May 2014

Ben Ali and the Arabic Diary (Part One)

In the early nineteenth century, an African Muslim was living out the rest of his adult life in chattel slavery on a plantation in Antebellum America. Before dying on the eve of the Civil War, he left a handwritten Arabic manuscript with an acquaintance of his slave master. Since then the manuscript has been the object of considerable study and debate by a wide range of characters, including a famous novelist, a state librarian and a prominent Africanist, as well as a number of academics and a host of curious enthusiasts. These characters have variously suggested (and in some cases have even hoped) that the writer of the manuscript was an Arab slave trader, a Moorish prince or a Muslim jurisprudent, who went by the name of Ben Ali, Bilali or Bu-Allah, and whose manuscript was a diary, a set of meditations, a plantation log, or an excerpt from a book of Islamic law. Opinions as to the importance of this manuscript range from writing it off as indecipherable gibberish to suggesting that it problematises the entire canonical structure of African American literary studies. Some of the above suppositions are certainly more defensible than others, but what is remarkable about this manuscript is that it has generated such an engaging and wide-ranging set of responses. Beginning with a chapter in my PhD dissertation and a subsequent journal article (Progler 1996 and 2000), I joined the ranks of those who have attempted to "decipher" the contents of this mysterious manuscript. In Part One, the first of a two part series, I recount and update my earlier efforts to describe its author and contents. In Part Two, I explore tangential questions of how and why people have come to see its origins and its significance in particular and self-serving ways.