13 June 2015

Ben Ali and the Arabic Diary (Part Two)

One of the earliest well-known encounters with the Ben Ali Diary dates from 1896, and was recorded by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the popular Negrophobic stories "Uncle Remus" and "B'rer Rabbit." A character in one of Harris' books calls the manuscript a diary, and suggests that Ben Ali was an "Arab slave hunter" who was himself taken into slavery, and goes on to state quite erroneously that the first few pages were said to describe the events of Ben Ali being taken into slavery (Harris 1896, p. 13). It is perhaps worth noting here that some of Harris' personal papers contained in the rare books library at Columbia University suggest that he was on the lookout for African stories from which to profit in his own literary endeavors. I cannot resist also noting here that his predilection to profit from the heritage of African Americans might implicate Harris in an attempt at selling the manuscript, or parts of it, which could explain the missing pages, though that would be difficult to prove at this point unless one could show that he actually had it in his possession and had not merely heard of it. In any event, Harris' account of Ben Ali's life and writing, although found in a work of fiction, proved to be very resilient and was often recounted, even as late as 1931 by Goulding, who had the Ben Ali manuscript in his possession for a number of years but seems to have used Harris' opinion as his primary source for interpreting it. By 1940 the notion that Ben Ali was an Arab was questioned by a university academic, Joseph Greenberg, who found the account "improbable" (Greenberg 1940, p. 373). In the same year, one of Ben Ali's great-grandchildren described him as "coal black" (Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p. 166). In 1984, Austin refuted the claim that Ben Ali as an Arab slave trader, and suggested as evidence that Harris' stories were "completely Negrophobic" (1984, p. 265), but by that time the notion had lingered for nearly a century.

The earliest academic mentions of the manuscript appears in a paper read by William Hodgson at the 1857 the Ethnological Society meetings in New York. While reporting on another Arabic manuscript left by a different slave, Hodgson mentions Ben Ali:
This Mohammedan, the trustworthy servant of Mr. Spalding of Sapelo Island, Georgia, died recently, at an advance age. He adhered to the creed and to the precepts of the Koran. He wrote Arabic, and read his sacred book with constancy and reverence. It is understood, that his numerous descendants who are Christians, buried him with the Koran, resting on his breast. He left various written papers, supposed to be ritual, which, I hope, may be preserved. There is, however, on this subject a great superstition and reverent secretiveness among this race. This sentiment, is still a great advance, in intellectual and religious progress, beyond the Obi practices and fetish worship, or the Pagan Negroes early imported into this country, and of which traditional traces may still be discovered.
Later in the same paper, Hodgson opines that "the pride of history may not descend to notice the fact, that a feeble wave of Mohammedanism and Koranic letters once reached these shores, from Africa, bearing with it some humble captives, and then sunk in the moving sands." He continues with some conjecture about where Arabic is taught in Africa and recounts some missionary exploits, noting that "the British government is steadily promoting the progress of Christian instruction by the civilizing influence of repeated commercial expeditions" and mentions other "powerful agencies now in operation, to elevate and Christianize Africa." Hodgson concludes, in a possible indication of his interest in Arabic among slaves, by suggesting that it may be beneficial to print the Bible in Arabic characters, the thinking being to introduce the Bible in a familiar alphabet. Earlier in the paper, he had discussed a slave who wrote pieces from the Bible in English by transliterating them into Arabic. Hodgson further suggests that an "additional mode of reaching the intelligence and heart of Africa" is to use Arabic to translate the Bible:
A strange alphabet is always repulsive; and the Roman letters are peculiarly so, to the oriental eye. The teacher of the Koran, has had ten centuries start of the Christian teacher, and has familiarized Central Africa, with the oriental letters and mode of writing, through the wants of commerce, the service of the mosque, and the teaching of schools. The manuscript before us, gives much support and confirmation to these views. An African, by his own unaided suggestion, has written the word of life, with the characters that he had learned in his native schools, and in the language of his adoption. Had he made a translation into his native Mandingo tongue, with the choice of letters, Roman or Arabic, he would have rejected the former, as useless or absurd. Roman letters will never prevail, or be read, in Mohammedan Africa. In southern, pagan Africa, the ground has not been preoccupied by an earlier instruction. There, the Roman alphabet may be taught, and engrafted upon Christian doctrine.
In Hodgson's view, academic study of documents like that of the Ben Ali Diary are useful for the ultimate goal of the Christian missionary enterprise and colonialism.

The first instance of what might be called "secular" academic attention toward the Ben Ali Diary was in 1940, by the American linguist Joseph Greenberg. After having taken a copy of the manuscript to Nigeria and consulting with some local Muslim scholars there, Greenberg concluded that "the major portion of the document could be identified as a series of excerpts from the Risalah of Qayrawani (also known as Ibn Abi Zayd), consisting of the title page, portions of the introduction and parts of the chapters dealing with ablutions and the call to prayer" (1940, p. 373). Greenberg also conjectured that "at the time of the writer's departure from Africa he was still a young student," and that Ben Ali was "unaware of the meaning of much of what he had written" (p. 374). He concludes that, beyond these initial findings, it may be impossible to pursue the matter further. Greenberg offered no actual excerpts, in translation or otherwise, from the manuscript to illustrate his conclusions, nor any explanation for not including excerpts. Several of Greenberg's assumptions seem hasty. For example, he based his conclusion partly on the notion that "among the African Negro Moslems Arabic is only used to copy existing works" (1940, p. 373). This statement is at best premature, because we now know of numerous examples of original writing using Arabic both in Africa and in the Americas. For example, Grant (1967), Alford (1977), and Austin (1984) give several examples of African Muslims in America using Arabic for writings other than copies of existing works. It is also well know that African Muslims in Africa used Arabic to compose original works of scholarship (cf., El Masri 1978, Bivar 1962).

Another caution regarding Greenberg's conclusions stems from geography. His field research was in Kano, Nigeria, whereas Ben Ali was from Timbo, Futa Jallon, a distance of 1500 miles across perhaps dozens of culturally and linguistically distinct regions. His hasty assumption here may be a variation on the Negrophobic sentiment that all Africans are alike, so it does not matter where one encounters them. Regarding Greenberg's conclusion that Ben Ali did not understand what he was writing, we have already shown this to be hasty as well, by noting above that Ben Ali seems to have recognized and corrected errors in his writing. Greenberg's conclusion that the manuscript was based on the Risalah of Qayrawani is somewhat more accurate, but is still open for speculation. A detailed comparison of the works is beyond the scope of the present article, but in general Greenberg's assumptions appear to rule out that Ben Ali understood anything he wrote, or that he was capable of nothing more than blind copying. Many books on the basics of Islamic law will contain the passages found the Ben Ali Diary, as these are the most rudimentary elements of Islamic ritual practice. Even so, there is little to suggest that the things Greenberg feels were copied from the Risalah actually were copied, except for the obvious, such as invocations, which one finds in any book, and the call to prayer, which is also more or less the same in any book, to name just two examples. These items are also those phrases that are most frequently memorized by practicing Muslims, and among the first taught to children as they are related to the ritual prayers. In asserting the relationship between Ben Ali's manuscript and the Risalah, Greenberg does not provide any references as to edition or chapters or pages from which he allegedly found Ben Ali's writing to be "copied." In my own examination of a later edition of the Risalah (Bercher 1968), I found that, indeed as expected, there are chapters on wudu'adhan and salat, but it is not apparent from where the "excerpts" may have been "copied." Simply locating phrases from Ben Ali's manuscript in the Risalah does not "prove" much, except perhaps that he may have been familiar with the book or someone who knew it. However, being familiar with and recalling portions of a book is different than making assumptions that Ben Ali had blindly copied or recalled these portions as abstractions only without actually understanding them. Furthermore, the "copied" portions are not distinctive of Qayrawani and could easily be found in most books and manuals formally describing Islamic ritual practice. In the absence of further evidence from Greenberg, or anyone else who has looked at the manuscript, showing that the phrases are exclusive to the Risalah, we have no alternative but to question these assumptions. It is more likely that such conclusions demonstrate an unfamiliarity with Islamic conventions and practices, or an unwillingness to consider various perspectives. While Greenberg was able to arrive at a few useful conclusions, there are some inherent flaws in his reasoning, which in turn have colored later readings. For example, Greenberg's conclusions about the Ben Ali Diary led Lydia Parrish (1942, p. 26) to believe that Ben Ali "was apparently a fanatical Mohammedan."

Harold Glidden, another university academic who looked at the manuscript, "agreed with Greenberg's conclusions, but, unfortunately he has not found the encouragement to publish his translation" (Austin 1984, p. 306, n. 46). Glidden is reported to have said that the manuscript was the only piece of "American Arabica in the original" (Thornton 1955, p. 228). However, as Austin (1984) has shown, there are numerous documents extant which could be considered as examples of "American Arabica" (or, perhaps more accurately, "Islamica"). A copy of Ben Ali's manuscript has traveled to Africa at least twice, once with Greenberg as noted above, and another time with Gertrude Mathews Shelby (as reported in Austin 1984), but still no translation had been offered.

A Columbia University academic, appearing in the sources as Dr. Martinovich, was of the opinion that Ben Ali "had only an imitative visual memory of Arabic" (Austin 1984, p. 306, n. 46). It is not clear upon what grounds this conclusion was based, but it does not seem plausible either, for the reasons noted above. Despite these claims and conclusions, no one had yet published a single line in translation from the manuscript. Austin (1984, p. 267) does include a photo of pages 9 and 10 from the manuscript, which are the pages that contain the call to prayer, but there is no commentary or translation, a project which was not seriously undertaken until a detailed study of the manuscript by Judy (1993), who presses his conclusions into service of the larger project of questioning the literary canon of modern African American studies. An earlier round of conclusions by Austin (1984), are more sympathetic than those up until that point, perhaps because he had conducted more extensive research into the history of African Muslims in America. Austin suggests that Ben Ali was a "proud follower of Islam" (1984, p. 265) and that the diary was an attempt at "asserting identity" (1984, p. 272). More recently, Ahari noticed that Ben Ali wrote sakinah (which can be translated as "calmness") in several places throughout the manuscript, but that according to his reading of the available sources this word was not found in the Risalah of Qayrawani (personal communication, 2002).

On more than one occasion, among academics and enthusiasts alike, white Christian Americans encountering African Muslims who wrote Arabic needed to rationalize their findings as due to the supposed presence of Arab blood. Some even insisted that African Muslims were not Africans at all, but that they were Arabs, since in the white man's neat hierarchy of how the world worked, Africans did not write or have religion at all. A variation on this theme is what might be called the "prince syndrome," in which any African slave who demonstrated knowledge of Islam is automatically assumed to be of royalty. I do not wish to imply that Islam was somehow superior to other African religions--in fact, that is another white stereotype, with some missionaries seeing Islam as a useful stepping stone to Christianity. The point is that slaveholding whites seemed to be attributing behavior that did not fit stereotypes of "our Negroes" to imaginary biological factors, or some kind of royal privilege, or a combination of both (as in the common notion of Ben Ali as "Moorish Prince"). African Muslims confounded white rationalization for racial oppression by demonstrating literacy and knowledge of Abrahamic monotheism, which, within the Islamic framework, entailed reciting and writing Arabic and practicing rituals as taught by the Prophet Muhammad, but which also involved knowledge of other "peoples of the book," especially Jews and Christians. Islam is part of the great diversity in religion, culture and language found among the peoples of African descent. Denying this diversity, directly or indirectly, is a stubborn legacy of racism born of American chattel slavery.

Maybe Ben Ali's diary should be left as an enigma,  and perhaps it is not in need of definitive academic interpretation as a way to preserve its ultimate reality. Once it is fully explained, correctly or incorrectly, it will disappear into the world of the virtual, as Baudrillard (1994) has suggested of all encounters with the inexplicable. Judy (1993) suggests something similar, and I think there is a lesson in this for us all. Judy's point is that it is largely superfluous what the actual and correct translation may be, since with such a highly idiosyncratic use of Arabic anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's, especially regarding the pages that are barely legible. Maybe that is why this document has gotten so much attention among academics and enthusiasts alike, since it seems to defy rational "decipherment," and it is that inability on our parts to comprehend it that reveals the incapacity of our conceptual mechanisms.

While it may eventually be possible to do a word-by-word transcription and translation, I am less certain about what this would tell us that we already do not know. In other words, any further knowledge to be gained from the "meditations" or "diary" or what have you, may be more extra-textual, not hidden in the smudges of ink and alphabetic substitutions. That is, in a way, the beauty of the manuscript. Trying to fix some final exact translation may imply an end to the pondering of this important and cryptic text, and an end, of sorts, to the anomalous existence of African Muslims in antebellum America. The other Arabic texts left by African Muslims are more literal and so their authorial intention is easier to assume, but I think the unique character of Ben Ali's diary is more of an insight into our own cultural assumptions and ways of relating to knowledge that is not immediately apparent to our current frames of reference. Maybe it should not join the ranks of "deciphered" texts; it could retain its status as a conundrum, unknowable--even if some one can collate all the words--as a reminder of our own shortcomings and those of the rationalist project that insists on accounting for everything on its own terms. The "meditations" are our own as much as they are Ben Ali's. I also wonder, given this manuscript alone, if we can call it a work of jurisprudence. As several observers have noted, what it contains is the most basic and rudimentary points about the articles of faith and the form of prayer, but this hardly qualifies as jurisprudence. Most Muslims know this material in one form or another, so it is also entirely possible that Ben Ali was just an ordinary believer. In addition, describing him as a jurisprudent, which I believe began with Greenberg and was carried forth by enthusiasts and scholars who looked at the work, also feeds into a popular misconception that the only people who were Muslims in West Africa at the time Ben Ali lived were the elite and their court scholars. This view is propagated by Africanists, Orientalists and missionaries who argue that Islam had no popular base in West Africa, and that it was merely an imperial Arab incursion. In the absence of evidence suggesting a more elaborately developed legal treatise, I break from these ranks and hesitate to call this a work of jurisprudence. The fact that there are some parallel passages to the Maliki law books makes it tempting to cite the diary as a work of jurisprudence, but again the parallel passages are the most rudimentary parts that every such work includes and which any practicing Muslim would know. Therefore, to call the Ben Ali Diary a work of jurisprudence is unfounded speculation, a kind of wishful thinking, that is academically and politically suspect, at least in the absence of further evidence that Ben Ali had training in jurisprudence beyond the most rudimentary articles of faith he reproduced.

This ought to not undermine its importance. According to Judy (1993), the Ben Ali Diary, along with other words by Africans in Arabic, is a landmark in Black History but which has been neglected or marginalized precisely due to its unintelligibility within a modernist scheme. This makes it possible to suggest that Ben Ali was not only inscribing his own identity but also ascribing himself to a community of believers. It is also possible to see, as Judy suggests, that this manuscript is the antithesis of the normative mode of "slave narrative" as defined by the canonical academic literature. The dominant explanation holds that African-American slave narratives are to be read in the context of literacy and freedom. But since the Muslim narratives do not focus on those points preferred by humanist literary scholars, they have ignored the African Arabic manuscripts and therefore have marginalized the history of Islam and Muslims in America, due largely the limitations of their own epistemologies. The Arabic narratives redefine and complicate these myths. Ben Ali is literate in a different way, and what he inscribes is not about individual freedom in the usual Enlightenment sense, but about being free as a servant of Allah. Given this point, the manuscript may be less useful in telling us something about the personality or history of Ben Ali, although it has been consistently employed toward these ends. Rather than obsessing on authorial intent, or seeing it as another episode in the overall quest for identity within the African Diaspora, it might be more useful to explore the possibility that the diary tells us much more about ourselves.

The Shifting Significances of Ben Ali and His Diary
In addition to preserving the Ben Ali Diary itself, curators at the Georgia State Library and University of Georgia maintained a file of correspondence from academics and enthusiasts who have expressed interest in this enigmatic manuscript. In this section, I would to explore these parallel narratives for what they tell us about ourselves. The cast of characters in the following survey of correspondence is broad and diverse. In 1857, William Brown Hodgson saw it and similar manuscripts as useful for missionary work among African Muslims by using Arabic script to transliterate the Bible. Joel Chandler Harris saw its value in terms of romance and exotica, literary currency at a time when the Arabian Nights was popular reading in America. Then, when Goulding brings it to light again in the early 1930s, during the Depression, it is about money, and how much this manuscript can fetch from collectors. When the librarian Ella May Thornton becomes its curator, the Diary gets intertwined with Georgia State identity and her hope there would be an "Arab Prince" in Georgia, as there had been in other slave states. From that point, the Orientalists begin to evaluate it in terms of philological paradigms, or whether it has any historical importance. When Arabs and Muslims come on the scene in the 1960s, it gets intertwined with remembrance and signification of their heritage in America. One common theme among all these various accounts is that many people want to somehow classify the manuscript, or use it to establish objective facts in one project or another. Some of the curious seem to initially have had high hopes, but were apparently disappointed when they saw how difficult it was to read. While some characters, like the prolific Georgia State librarian Ella May Thornton, dedicated many years to the manuscript, the correspondences can also be seen as a series of beginnings without endings, stemming from the desire of academics and enthusiasts to discover some elusive truth, but who were consistently confounded by the seeming impenetrability of Ben Ali and his manuscript.

Although he does not directly appear in the file of correspondences, the American author Joel Chandler Harris, of "Br'er Rabbit" and "Uncle Remus" infamy, figures importantly in the story that follows. Harris is worth mentioning here, because one his novels, Aaron, Son of Ben Ali, put forth the fiction that Ben Ali was an Arab slave trader, and perhaps even an Arab prince, who was mistakenly taken into slavery himself. Aaron, Ben Ali's son in the novel, has a book that his father left him, with Arabic writing in it, and he uses it to enchant the white children in the story. The notion that an ordinary semi-literate African Muslim was some how an Arab or a Prince, or both, was popular among Negrophobic writers in the 19th century, who could not come to grips with the existence of an African slave who knew about Christianity (albeit from an Islamic, and therefore heretical, perspective) and who knew how to write (though in Ben Ali's case a hybrid, beginner's Arabic), or even an African who had a sense of organized religion (which contradicted the white fantasy of Africans without language, culture and religion). Needless to say, all Africans had language, culture and religion, but it was the particular form of the language, culture and religion exhibited by Muslims that created the mythology of Arab princes and slaver traders. Harris is also important because his ideas became an enduring prism through which to view Ben Ali and his manuscript.

An essential document in the correspondence file is a 1931 sworn affidavit from Benjamin L. Goulding, son of Reverend Goulding the Presbyterian Minister who knew Thomas Spaulding and Ben Ali. The affidavit states that the "diary," or "meditations," was given to his father by Ben Ali, "as I remember in 1857." He notes that Ben Ali was "a particular friend of my father in the last years of his life," and that they had "numerous interviews." Echoing Harris, Goulding says that Ben Ali "was reputed to have been an Arab slave hunter, who himself became a slave." He then quotes a passage from Harris portraying Ben Ali as an Arab slave hunter, and suggesting that he was thirty years old when captured and who supposedly "fetched a very high price" in America. Goulding also mentions that Ben Ali "was reputed to have been a son of a Prince and educated," and that he "could speak, read and write the Arabic language." To Goulding, Ben Ali was a "spendid [sic] specimen of manhood, rather tall, strong and had a fine physique," who was "reputed to have been a Mohammedan in religion. He had four wives and left a numerous progeny. Later he became a Christian and died a member of the Baptist faith." Goulding obtained the manuscript in 1859 and kept it until his death in 1881, when he left it to his son, who had if for 50 years, during which time he showed it to Harris, "which aroused his interest and caused him to make investigations for himself and write the book" that became The Story of Aaron. He then quotes another passage from Harris, which at that point seems to have became accepted as "research" into the life of Ben Ali.

After the Goulding affidavit, the file contains a lengthy set of correspondences that are focused on trying evaluate the manuscript in order to sell it. Part of this phase of its interpretation involves attempts at determining the racial identity and origins of Ben Ali. This correspondence was initiated in October 1931 by Gertrude Mathews Shelby, who noted to a Judge Swaney that the Goulding affidavit "gives authenticity to this unsigned document." Shelby also mentions a "possible purchaser" who will want to know something about Ben Ali's origins, which is also "important to a certain projected study," suggesting there was perhaps by this time some academic interest in the diary. Shelby is eager to know what Ben Ali looked like, whether he was "black or yellow," if he had "brown eyes" and "a flat nose with thick, wide nostrils, or a rather aquiline nose with thin nostrils," and if he had "kinky hair" that was "short or long," and whether his lips were "full and heavy, or more like a white person's" and if he had "what is known as a prognathous jaw--heavy and protruding," and if he had a beard. Shelby also wanted to know if Goulding ever heard whether Ben Ali had been a "teacher for other negroes" and if he had any other name, noting that she heard from "two other sources, white and black" that his was "a corruption of an Arabic name" and if his descendants called him "Belali," which is "just as good an Arabic name as Ben Ali." She mentions an African named Bilali, who was a slave on the nearby Couper plantation and who was "also a Mohammedan, of Arabic derivation," and wonders if Couper had sold his Bilali to Spalding. Finally, she recalls that she has seen references in books to other Mohammedans on Sapelo Island, concluding that the "son of Belali" is "tawny-colored (light), has brown eyes, an aquiline nose with thin nostrils, no perceptible growth of beard or hair on arms, lips only slightly full--such as many whites have, a jaw not prognathous but like an Arab's, and a head shaped like an Arab type." In the end, Shelby insists that answers on these particular points will "enhance the sale of the document in at least two quarters, one where scientific interest in the negro types require that they get every fragment of data. And I myself want to know." Shelby had also "written to a possible buyer in Chicago," and added that "by next week I can see the person who is probably most likely in New York to buy or help make the sale." Judge Swaney, who had consulted with Benjamin Goulding, replies to Shelby's questions succinctly, that Ben Ali was "Mandingo" and "dark brown" with an "aquiline nose" and "short hair, not kinky" who had "thin lips," and that he "did not have a prognathous jaw" nor did he wear a full beard. Swaney also notes that, according to Goulding, Ben Ali was "a foreman or driver and had controlling influence over the slaves under him, and reputed to have kept the accounts for his Master in Arabic," possibly an erroneous reference to the manuscript, and that he often heard his father speak of him as Ben Ali, with "Ben meaning Sun, and Ali a corruption of Alah [sic], meaning God." Swaney adds that he never heard of Spaulding selling Ben Ali to Couper. It is ironic that just as Ben Ali's body had once been bought and sold, his diary was now facing the same fate.

In June of 1934, Shelby wrote again to Swaney, noting "with regrets that my efforts in regard to it did not result in a sale that would benefit Captain Goulding," but also reporting that "I took the MSS to South Africa with me and consulted experts while there, in the hope of getting a word-for-word translation. Only that, I long ago became convinced, may warrant asking any considerable price." She also reports that no South African scholar could read the dialect, "nor even establish whether it was one of the forty-odd African-Arabic forms" and that it had no date or signature is on it. In fact, she continues, "the only information about its contents was the recognition by a Persian student at Columbia of certain phrases common to Holy Writings, and bits which indicated that the last part was the directions from those Writings for Ablutions before prayer." Regarding the potential sale of the manuscript, Shelby regrets that "without name, date or original composition, the document has more sentimental than historic value, and, in my judgment, no great price can be expected." She also showed it to a Dr. Martinovich, who held that "the writer might have possessed only an imitative visual memory of Arabic, rather than knowledge by which he could write anything he chose." Nevertheless, she suggests there still may be a possible buyer in Georgia, who might take it "if the price was low enough." She notes further that, "Dr. Martinovich hazarded a guess that this dialect was Maghribi a North African form, if it was more than a feat of visual memory or scratches" and that she also consulted the head of the documents division at New York Public library, "who raised the points of date, signature, and word-for-word translation: without these, the document, while undoubtedly a curiosity, was of slight historic importance." Shelby offers two suggestions, that the Carnegie Institution in Washington "having research afoot re the history of slavery" might be interested to at least establish whether it is "written in any known dialect," and secondly "whether there is sufficient evidence, when deciphered, to warrant the assumption that Ben Ali was a person of any education in the academic sense," and third if they can "dispose of or support the contention that this is a diary or merely a transcript of Holy Writings." Shelby forwarded this letter to Georgia State Librarian Ella May Thornton, to whom we will turn below, commenting on a newspaper clipping of an article in which Thornton opines that the manuscript is perhaps "a journal of adventures in Ben Ali's native Arabia," which she supposes is due to "journalistic inaccuracy." Alluding to the controversy that would follow the document throughout most of its history, she then adds: "There is so much legend and so little positive fact about Ben Ali aka Belali that the 'native prince' and the 'slave hunter' traditions, romantic as they are, should, I believe, be most guardedly referred to in connection with this document." On the other hand, she would be "personally delighted if facts prove this myth," but noting that with all the time she spent she found only "hearsay evidence of the sort which lacked authenticity" and concludes by admitting that "in setting this down, I do not disparage either the document's interest, nor the pleasing folk-lore about these characters: I am concerned only with historic value, in the hope that I may be of genuine service." At this point, Shelby, apparently still without a buyer, exits the story.

The tale is then picked up by Thornton, who would subsequently spend several years working on trying to interpret the contents of the manuscript, and who consistently entertained the notion that Ben Ali was an "Arab Prince." Thornton responded to Shelby with thanks, noting that "the 'Diary,' as Joel Chandler Harris calls it, has interest in this collection more from its sentimental and simple literary connection with Georgia than from a philological standpoint" and that "quite a few Syrians have been in to see the document and of course have been completely at sea" except for the woman noted only as a Damascus high school graduate, who "deciphered a few words and phrases which accord with the translations of the Persian student whom you mention," concluding by noting that she might send it to the Carnegie Institution, and if she does she will let her "know of their verdict." An undated list, presumably by Thornton from around the same time as this initial correspondence, is included in the file and mentions items received by the Library from Goulding, and which refers to the manuscript as "Meditations." Despite Shelby's reservations, Thornton persists that Ben Ali himself was "reputed to have been a native prince of high birth and education" and "was a slave hunter himself," who was sold as a slave in a "surprise encounter" and the "romance" of whose life was purportedly preserved by Harris. She notes that with no translation having been made, these notes are early in her quest, and it will "be a task indeed to find the person who will be able to decipher its hieroglyphics." Finally, Thornton concludes, Until such an end is reached the traditions and speculations surrounding the little volume are rich for the lover of fanciful tales and of mystery. Maybe it is an ancient Mohammedan prayer-book, perhaps a diary of Ben Ali's life in America, possible a journal of strange adventures in the East." At this point, Thornton becomes the main enthusiast in the quest for the diary's decipherment. It is through her work that many of the formative questions leading to better understanding of the manuscript emerged, although she also consistently persists in the hope that Georgia would also one day have its own Arab Prince.

In the summer of 1934, Thornton received a letter from Charles Matthews, an Alabama professor of religion who heard about the manuscript from a newspaper article, and was asking the Library to "permit a study and edition of this interesting document," requesting a photostatic copy of the first and last pages "to learn of its general character, clarity, and dialectic connections," noting some of his credentials in editing Arabic manuscripts, and his trips to Syria and Palestine, and providing the prominent Arabist Philip Hitti as a reference. Thornton replies with a history of the manuscript to date, including the above remarks that "it was sent to South Africa for experts there to take a look at it, but they found no identifying marks, and could not establish its dialect." She repeats that "a Persian student at Columbia recognized certain phrases common to Holy Writings and bits which indicated that the last part was the directions from those Writings for Ablutions before prayer," that Martinovich "thought it possible that the write possessed of only an imitative visual memory of Arabic," and that he thought "the dialect might be Maghribi." She concludes by noting that "newspaper write-ups of the document have been considerably colored by tradition and folk-lore but I have not abandoned the hope that facts of real historic value may yet be uncovered."

Soon thereafter, in 1936, Lydia Parrish, the wife of noted artist Maxfield Parrish, who was researching her book Slaves Songs of the Georgia Sea Coast (1942), wrote that she was "keen to know what the Bilaly diary--or account book, from Sapelo Island contains" but "nobody knows the dialect." She then introduces the famous Africanist Melville Herskovits, "who knows more about the Negro of West Africa and the background of our slaves than any other writer on the subject," requesting that Thornton send him a photostat "of one of the best pages" since "if he cannot decipher it, he will know some one who can," and that "it is possible the page will need to go to England to a Dr. Ward who specializes in the 'Tone' languages of the Gold Coast and lectures at the School of Oriental Languages." Thornton answers with information on a number of pages, noting that "Arabic readings I understand run from back to front," and gives an estimate of the cost of making photostats. She mentions that "the little book" was taken to South Africa "several years ago but no scholar there could decipher it," and recounts the attempts to date at its interpretation. In November of 1936, Parrish requests that copies of the entire manuscript to be sent to Herskovits, noting that Katy Brown, a descendent of Ben Ali on Sapelo Island, had said that "Bi-lal-y was her great grandfather," and then speculates further on the relationship between the two Bilalis. Parrish thanks Thornton for sending the photostat of the "Arabic Diary" to Herskovits, who she notes is "one of the most important anthropologists in this country and is an authority on the Negro and his background," having written books on the "Bush Negro" and the tribes of West Africa, and whose work "is so sound that the customs of the primitive Negroes in the States fit into the pattern he indicates." Herskovits later replies that "he has just the man to translate the Diary" and that "Bi-lal-y" may be Fulani or Hausa. It appears at this point that a doctoral student of Herskovits, the academic Joseph Greenberg who we met above, seems to be "making headway" but that it is a "difficult job because the writer is almost illiterate." Thornton concludes that the news from Herskovits is "most interesting," and she again suggests that Martinovich "was not far wrong in his surmise that it was perhaps a 'feat of visual memory only.'"

Writing to Thornton three years later, Parrish suggests that their "cooperation has borne satisfactory fruit," reporting that Herskovits' student will publish his translation, "which he was able to make through the aid of certain learned men in Nigeria" and that on his trip to the Gold Coast what "he discovered is a most interesting contribution to our knowledge of the Mohammedans who were captured in war and sold into slavery." Parrish adds that she hopes to include the story of two such slaves in her book on slave songs, in a section on "African survivals," and wants to know if she can use a page from the manuscript, "which is definitely not a diary or a religious affair," asking Thornton's help in selecting the "clearest and least defaced of the pages and have a shiny print made for me." Perhaps revealing some interstate rivalry, Parrish adds that Georgia is richer than South Carolina in such historical treasures, but that Georgia has "not advertised her wealth," while she has "done all in my power to keep out the commercial exploiters," speculating that her book will be better than all others. Thornton found this news "gratifying beyond words" and considers it "the most interesting and exciting event in the literary history of Georgia," adding that Gone with the Wind had her feeling "demoralized."

Thornton wrote to Herskovits again in early 1940, saying that she was "most anxious" since "the accomplishment has attracted much attention here" and that she is "particularly eager to be able to give out something definite upon the birthday of Joel Chandler Harris, close at hand, who told the story of the 'Diary' in one of his books." Herskovits replies that Greenberg is preparing his findings, and asked for "as full a documentation as possible as to the nature of the manuscript itself and what is known historically of it and its author." He inquires in particular about the oft-cited Harris, and that Greenberg wants to acknowledge Martinovich, "whose deduction from the writing that the dialect was North African seems to be quite valid." Thornton replies with news about Harris and a "rough biographical outline about the slave," and that there were two slaves but that descendants would likely "be completely confused as to which was their grandfather." During the summer of 1940, a number of brief rather bureaucratic letters were exchanged between Thornton and Herskovits, regarding requests for a copy of the article, which eventually culminated in her receiving a copy of the journal in which Greenberg's article was published, to which she replied that the "deciphering of the MSS is certainly a real achievement and much appreciation is due to all those who furthered the undertaking," and expressing to Herskovits her "admiration of learning such as yours which enables you to attack so baffling a problem as this" and for his "contribution to knowledge."

Between 1942 and 1945, Thornton, somewhat downplaying the work of Greenberg and persisting in the myths of Ben Ali's royal provenance, corresponded with the Library of Congress, noting that she had "a very old document written on parchment and bound in a skin" that was "said to have belonged to a slave on a Georgia Sea Island reported to have been an Arab prince, Ben Ali or Bilali by name, and was reputed to be his diary," and then, after recounting some of its travels and decipherments, concludes that it is the "only Arabic manuscript" they have. She does refer to Greenberg in saying that, "to discover the origin and status of the writer is the really difficult task in connection with the document," noting her idea that some one should analyze the skin covering the manuscript, which some have now speculated might "be that of a lion," and requesting the best authority in this line. She also requests a translation of the Risalah, "with which the document is identified," two French works on Islamic law, and a novel by Caruthers entitled The Kentuckian in New York (1834), which included similar Arabic writing on its frontispiece.

During the same period, Curtis Davis, a PFC in the US Air Force, wrote for information on "the so-called Diary of the Mahomedan slave, Bu Allah (Bilali)" to learn its "date of composition" and "terminal dates for Bu Allah himself," and the "location of the Diary" during those years, in connection with his biographical study of Caruthers, author of The Kentuckian in New York, which "includes a few lines of Arabian script, forming a call-to-prayer, which he expressly declares to be genuine," so he is "keenly desirous" to see whether Caruthers ever met "Bu Allah." If this can be proven, "it would be a very interesting example of the influence of an exotic phase of real life on an American novelist," noting that he wants to use it for a scholarly edition before the "war wholly engulfs me." Thornton replies regarding the "so-called Arabic diary" and invites Davis to examine books "dealing with this relic," noting that "such proofs would be a real contribution to the literature," adding that "there were two Arab slaves in that section, known variously as Ben Ali, Bu Allah, Bi-laly, Bellali and Bellaly" and suggesting he will "catch all these points" in the works listed by "authorities," including Harris, Parrish and Greenberg. In a follow up letter, Thornton suggests that she wants to visit the "Cloister and bring with me the Arabic manuscript of Ben Ali," but with her librarian pay and taxes may not be able to afford it so she hopes that "as care-taker and nurse maid to the manuscript some concession might be made" for her to accompany the manuscript, perhaps to an exhibit. She also suggests making "an exact reproduction" with "parchment and cover," perhaps even "in the rather provocative format of a miniature," since it is "surrounded by as much romance and literary association as any writing at all connected with Georgia," recommending that it may even have wide appeal as a "souvenir or gift." Thornton later writes to Davis' publisher, restating the request to identify whether the Arabic script was from "an Arabian document" and inquiring on news "if Mr. Davis has come safely out of the war," and then asking if the new edition of The Kentuckian in New York has been printed. Thornton later informs Davis that she had examined this book and "compared its Arabic passage with the script of the 'Arabic Diary'" but notes that "my eye is not sufficiently trained to determine if the former was an excerpt from the latter but it might easily be." She also suggests that, "it seems almost certain to me that Caruthers would have known the slave Ben Ali." A handwritten note by Thornton attached to a copy of The Kentuckian in New York suggests that the script Caruthers reproduced may have been copied from "The Arabic Diary." Thornton informs Davis that Greenberg examined that writing, and based on that she thinks "it almost certain" that Caruthers knew Ben Ali and had seen his manuscript, "as all visitors did," adding that, "it may be that he thought an approximation of the scratchings was sufficient." In a 1950 reply, Davis reports that his doctoral dissertation on Caruthers has been accepted, and also that Greenberg has concluded that the Arabic writing included in The Kentuckian in New York is not from "Ben Ali's so-called diary," and so from "whence it comes nobody knows."

Meanwhile, throughout 1945, Thornton persists in her quest by contacting Dr. Alexander Wetmore, Director of the National Museum in Washington DC, mentioning "an interesting Arabic manuscript, famous in Georgia history and literature" and noting Greenberg's "decipherment" and his admitting the difficulty of determining "the origin and status of the writer, purportedly a slave living on Sapelo." She then introduces the novel idea of having experts examine the leather cover, paper and ink, from which "a great deal could be learned." Wetmore replies that if the manuscript is "on some undetermined subject" written in Arabic "by a Negro slave" she should forward the original to Dr. Harold Glidden, Chief of the Near East Section, Oriental Division at the Library of Congress, who may be able to "throw some light upon its subject matter and origin." Thornton replies regarding the manuscript that it is "in my official possession" but regrets not making herself clear that what she was asking was not about the text, which has been successfully "deciphered" by Greenberg, the results of which were "very persuasive," but that what she was interested in now was the paper, cover and ink and what it can tell her about the "origin and status of the writer," who was "a reputed native prince," noting that "his story and the romance of the booklet are woven deeply into the folk-lore and literature of Georgia," and that she believes that the paper and binding will "lead to a solution of the mystery." She then mentions that it has been suggested to her that Dr. Remington Kellog, Division of Mammals, and Dr. F. L. Lewton, Division of Industries "could throw light on the subject" and asks permission to forward it to him "for the purpose described above," adding that she will take care with the postage since there is perhaps "no more interesting document in our State." Wetmore replies assuring her that they will "furnish you with any information at our disposal concerning it" but that Kellog may not be available so he will submit it to members of the Smithsonian staff for information. Thornton replies by promising she will forward a copy of the manuscript, but once again reminds him of Greenberg's "very plausible and persuasive article" and that she is interested only in the "origin and status of the writer." In a subsequent letter to Wetmore, Thornton reports that she will soon be making a trip to Washington DC and New York on "official business" and that she will bring the manuscript in person, but again reminds Wetmore that she would like to see "specialists in skins, textiles and writing fluids" and insists upon some kind of assurances that some one will be there to meet with her when she arrives.

In early 1946, Thornton deposits a "Memo about Arabic Document coming to the State Library," in which she recounts her mission to Washington and her meeting with Division Directors Kellog and Tolman who opined that nothing could be determined from the paper or fluid, and that the Chief of Manuscripts concurred. Thornton then met Glidden, who "showed much interest" and who requested that it be left with him for study. Instead, she promised to send him photographs upon her return to Atlanta, noting further that "Dr. Glidden, of course, accepted as legend and romance the stories of the document frequently appearing in Georgia literature and he stated further that a tentative examination did not, in his opinion, sustain the conclusions arrived at by Greenberg." Three years later, Glidden writes to Thornton, recalling her visit with an "Arabic manuscript which had been written by a Negro slave," and announces that, "I have now been able to translate sufficient parts of the document to establish its nature and I am preparing it for publication," asking for permission to do so in the Journal of the American Oriental Society as "an interesting sample of Arabic written by a non-Arabic person and as such contains a number of phonetic peculiarities which would interest students of African languages," and also for further info on the document and its writer. Thornton replies noting that she already gave him the background material and does not have the time to assemble it again, although she suggests Greenberg and a book on Spalding as references to "provide adequate background," and that she will "secure the Governor's permission for you to publish your study provided reference is made to the legends and traditions that have surrounded the document for a hundred and fifty years and to the Greenberg findings" in order to preserve the "sequence of events." Glidden answers Thornton, thanking her for information on the "so-called 'journal' of Bu-Allah" and noting that he read the story of Spalding and asking about the Greenberg article, adding that he had been in Egypt for two years and lost the data she gave him on her visit to Washington. Thornton again provides the reference for Greenberg, and also adds that Harris "weaves the folk-lore and legends surrounding the document into his delightful book," and that Ben Ali is mentioned in a number of other sources from travellers who visited the Spalding plantation, and also that Caruthers, in The Kentuckian in New York, has noted talking with an Arab slave," although Caruthers himself had assumed Ben Ali was an African.

Thornton further inquires about Glidden's publication, noting her "considerable interest," adding that she recently had a "visit from a very intelligent University woman from Ankara" who was "extremely interested in the booklet and was able to decipher some portions of it." Thornton concludes the letter by suggesting that, "I, myself, could almost wish that the very delightful tradition had become the real answer but, of course, realize that is positively out," apparently losing some hope that Georgia would have its "Arab Prince." Glidden replies on his progress with the manuscript, that he has "completed work on the actual text" but needs to "clear up" its history, having read Greenberg and Harris and noting their discrepancies, but now seeming to take the Harris folklore as factual. He also notes that "Greenberg's statement must be doubted on chronological grounds," since Ben Ali could not have lived long enough to give the diary to Goulding. He also wants to know how Parrish obtained the document in 1937 and who has the information on "its submission to the various learned institutions" mentioned by Greenberg, in order to "present the history of the manuscript as clearly as possible" appreciating in advance "any light you may be able to throw on the matter." Thornton complies with some of Glidden's requests, noting that "a photostat was made in 1936 from the MS in my official possession and sent to Mrs. Maxfield Parrish" who sent it to Herskovitz, who in turn made it available to Greenberg for his trip to Africa. In other letters, Thornton provides some chronology, noting that Gertrude Mathews Shelby of New York "speaks of having taken the manuscript with her to Africa to consult experts, without success" and that Shelby "also submitted it to Dr. Martinovich" who informed her that "he thought the writer had only an imitative visual memory of Arabic," adding that the Harris story "is one version" but that the Goulding affidavit is another. Thornton concludes that "many interested persons and students have sought to clear the line of genealogy and various theories are held, but none I think is air tight," even though Parrish "has gone deeply into the matter," along with a variety of academics.

Thornton writes to Glidden again in 1950, in her "eagerness to hear more about your decipherment of the Ben Ali manuscript" and including a brief article she wrote that mentions the manuscript. Glidden replies, "I have to work on it in my spare time" having "completed a first draft of the article as well as a complete translation (or rather as complete as possible) of the manuscript," but that he is hindered by distance and was also unable to find references to it in the authors she recommended, requesting their full titles. At this point, one cannot help suggesting that Glidden has perhaps been careless and inconsiderate in his work, and that he seems to expect Thornton to do the bibliographic legwork a second time for him. Nevertheless, Glidden feels that "establishing the correct name of Ben Ali is another problem," discounting Bu Allah, as Father of God, "which would be blasphemous to any Moslem" and that the name "Bilali must be a corruption of something else," while "Ben Ali is also not too satisfactory, since it represents an incomplete name (it means son of Ali) which is preceded by a given name," still wondering whether his "given name might not have been Aaron," which "in the form Harun, does occur as a given name in Arabic." All of these hypotheses, he adds, "would need to be substantiated," and that at this point he wants to know if any record exists recounting what name Spalding used, and if she could provide the measurements and other descriptive features of the manuscript. Thornton replies, still insisting that Ben Ali was an Arab, and that she has "reviewed the writings here relative to the Arab slave who owned the document" and believes that Parrish will help clarify his uncertainties, and notes that some of the references she supplied refer to the other Bilali, but that the additional references were "from memory" and may be "at fault." She provides bibliographic data for Parrish and Hodgson, as well as measurements and a physical description of the manuscript, and concludes by quoting one of her own memos:
In December 1945 I went to Washington taking the document with me in the hope of having it deciphered by specialists and of reaching, through other specialists, some conclusion as to the status and origin of the writer. I kept appointments with Dr. Remington Kellog and Dr. Tolman, each a division director of the National Museum. They went carefully into the matter of whether or not anything could be determined by examination of the skin covering the paper and of the writing fluid. Their findings were in the negative. I then consulted with Dr. Sioussat, Chief of the Manuscripts Divisions of the Library of Congress, and he declared that he could add nothing to the subject.
Glidden soon replies, saying that he is enclosing a copy of his article (although at the time of this writing no article by Glidden was to be found in the file of library correspondence), and seeks permission for its publication in the American Journal of Oriental Studies, "one of two leading journals in this country dealing with oriental affairs" and that he also wants a photo of page 10 to make a plate for the article, but notes that the pages were numbered in the reverse of their actual order." He concludes that work on "this document, though difficult, has had many interesting facets for me" and promises to send her the complete translation after he checks it over, and asks her to keep the photostats she sent. Thornton next sends the requested photo to Glidden, along with the Georgia Governor's permission to publish his findings, noting that "I have read the article with great interest and am gratified to know that this library owns something so rare as a piece of American Arabica. I assume that the Caruther's piece is not known in the original." Thornton laments that she is "a little sorry that the legend is exploded," adding that "I know of no more delightfully whimsical and imaginative writing in any literature than Joel Chandler Harris' Story of Aaron and Aaron and the Wildwoods. But I suppose, in the interest of scholarship, I should be content." Thornton writes again to Glidden in 1953, announcing that she is preparing an article about the manuscript for the Law Library Journal, "because of its connection with legal literature" but that she has not heard of his "purpose to publish" since their last correspondence and asks for a copy or reference if his paper has been published. With this letter, the correspondence between Thornton and Glidden appears to cease, and Thornton seems to have abandoned the project, perhaps once it was clear that no Arab Prince could be found for Georgia.

Glidden re-appears in the file of correspondences in the 1980s, in an exchange of letters with an unnamed genealogist who inquired about his translation of the manuscript "written in Arabic by a Muslim slave," and who had been hired by the State of Georgia to write family histories of Sapelo residents. The genealogist remarks that, "One of the most fascinating aspects of this research has been the discovery of the remarkable slave, Ben Ali, in the family background of hundreds of people with Sapelo Island family roots, though I can only identify three of his children with any certainty," noting that they "were born in Guinea with Ben Ali having been born in Timbo according to a letter written before 1844 in which his birthplace is given and which seems the most authentic source to date." Glidden replies "about the so-called Ben Ali 'diary'" insisting that it "is not a diary, but an attempt to reproduce from memory certain sections of the Risalah of Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani, a 10th-century Arabic work on Maliki Islamic jurisprudence. There is absolutely nothing of a personal nature in the text and no information about 'Ben Ali' himself can be derived from it except that he had studied the aforementioned work, was a Muslim, and was capable of writing extremely corrupt Arabic." Glidden then admits, "I have never published this material because at the time I was dealing with it there was little interest in it. The situation has changed in this respect and perhaps the time has come to put it into print." However, despite repeated efforts by other enthusiasts well into the 1990s to convince him to do so, Glidden had still not published his reputed translation. It might be worth noting here that Glidden, in addition to his work at the Library of Congress, served as a US diplomat in Iraq in the 1960s and that he was known for his Islamophobic and psychologically reductionist view of Arabs and Muslims (Little 2002), which might help to explain what appears to be an obstructionist attitude toward understanding the manuscript.

With the departure of Thornton from the story, the file thins out considerably, though the influence of her work continues well into the 1960s. For example, her persistent hope that Ben Ali was an Arab seems to have made an impression on Adele Younis, a historian from Salem State College who visited the library in 1967. In a letter of thanks to Thornton after a recent visit to the Library, Younis notes that she did "wish that Ben Ali had left us some personal recollections" in addition to the "manuscript written by Ben Ali and so neatly put together by this able Arab slave." Younis, as well as subsequent inquiries, begin to reflect the themes of the times, for which the manuscript takes on new meaning at a time when Black Pride and multiculturalism are emerging in America, creating spaces for Africans, Arabs and Muslims to explore and assert their own identities. Their interest in the diary breathed new life into an inquiry that had gotten mired for a time in the conflicting interests of philologists and folklorists. One of this new breed of enthusiast, Qutaiba El Dhuwaib, after a visit to the library in 1970 to see the manuscript, managed to clear up a few points missed by the experts, that what he refers to as the "alleged diary" has "at least two pages missing" although he "did not see any mention of this in the correspondence file," and that there is "no way of telling whether it is two pages or two hundred." He continues that he will try to get help in translating it, but "the handwriting is very poor," and offers a tentative solution to the appearance of Arabic writing in The Kentuckian in New York, suggesting that Caruthers "might have possibly had part of this manuscript from which he copied the sample of Arabic writing." In 1978, Allan D. Austin, at the time Assistant Professor in the Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who was inspired Alex Haley's famous book Roots on the African American heritage, wrote to request copies of and further information about the manuscript, asking whether it had been translated, if Thornton could be reached, and if anyone had yet done a biography of Ben Ali, suggesting that it will provide "a beautiful finishing touch to my study of African Muslims in Antebellum America." A librarian answers Austin, providing details about obtaining copies, and noting that Thornton is deceased but that she left "a large amount of correspondences regarding the diary." Austin's work, published in 1984 as African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook, remains an indispensable resource for understanding the legacy of Muslims in America.

Correspondences about the manuscript continue into the 1980s. Librarians sent a letter along with photos of the manuscript to Mary Jo Brown, Professor of Social Science at the University of Georgia, recounting Thornton's writings and the Glidden affair. The increasing presence of international studies in American universities begins to play a role in the story, as evidenced by a letter from Mary Jo McGee, who had "Sudanese and other Arabic foreign students translating the pages," to see if it will "be of any help in the research that I am conducting," noting, rather naively, that they can conclude this "over the weekend." In a review of Austin's sourcebook, Terry Alford proudly refers to Ben Ali as a "redoubtable African, formerly a student of Islamic law" and "a calm hero" who left a "manuscript exposition of Islamic legal principles." There is also a letter from notable scholar of religion Victor Danner, Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Language and Culture at Indiana University, requesting microfilm of "a document in Arabic written by a certain Ben Ali" that "seems never to have been researched by any scholar of Arabic studies" and wanting to "see if it is of value or not as far as Arabic scholarship is concerned." A reply from the reference librarian to Danner suggests that he request an interlibrary loan of the photos, noting that "this document has attracted attention" and enclosing recent letters from the file, with an invitation to examine the document at the library.

Over the next several years, there are numerous letters pertaining to the manuscript, mostly short requests to see it. It was also shown at an exhibition entitled "On Record: Documenting African-American Family History in Georgia," and there was another request to loan the "diary of Bu Allah, head Driver for Thomas Spalding of Sapelo Island" for an exhibition on coastal island plantations. Permission to lend the "slave diary," with a note that Ben Ali was a slave and his "diary" is "owned by the State of Georgia," was granted for a 1987 exhibit "Cotton Planters and Plantations, 1784-1812." An exhibition form lists a manuscript written by "Ben Ali" and "Bu Allah" in "an Arabic dialect" that was insured for a value of $5000. A thank you letter for the loan calling it the "Diary of Ben Ali" effuses that it is "beautiful," and that they are "elated and grateful" to have exhibited it but they are also wondering how its value was set. The Georgia Librarian replies that the Ben Ali diary is "the most valuable item in our exhibition," the value of which does not compare with other loaned items and that it is "a very distinguished part of the exhibition," which was put on display with other possessions of Mr. Spalding, including "a handsome 1971 National Geographic photograph of a black from Sapelo, perhaps one of his descendants," as well as more recent photos of "blacks who are descendants of Ben Ali and still living on Sapelo."

In 1988, Michael Id-Deen of the Atlanta Mosque wrote a note of thanks after a recent visit to the Library "to study the manuscript written by the African Muslim Slave Bilali," requesting copies of the manuscript photographs because it "represents an ethnic connection with our African heritage." Ronald Judy, whose work would push research on the manuscript into uncharted territory, appears on the scene at this point. A letter to him from the Reference Librarian dated 23 June 1988 confirms sending copies of the Thornton-Glidden correspondence, and other documents from the file. A 1989 essay by Muhammad Ahari on "Arabic Literature by Slave Americans" refers to the manuscript as "literature" and briefly recounts its story, as well as the work of Greenberg, who "dispelled" the myths, adding that its contents are from "First Fruits of Happiness," otherwise known as the Risalah, from which it includes excerpts on ablutions, adhaniqamahas well as reflections on "the pains of slavery." This last, more or less unfounded, part suggests that Ahari was perhaps looking for a humanist literary connection, even though he seems to have more or less known of its contents. A student at the American Islamic College in Chicago, Ahari referenced Greenberg, Austin, Alford and other sources in his study. There is also a letter from Ahari addressed to "brothers and sisters," which for the first time, and rather presciently one might add, is directed at those who may be perusing the correspondences about the manuscript. In it, he introduces the manuscript and offers a "critique of attempted translations of the writings of the notable Fulani Muslim scholar from the Senalgambia [sic] named Belali Mohamet" whose "extant writings" are found in the 13 page manuscript. Ahari continues that the "Orientalist Melville" [sic] gave the manuscript to Greenberg, whose "cataloguing" was published in 1940 and which "dispels" the myth of it being a slave diary, but that there are "no indications" of further attempts to translate the work. In summarizing Greenberg, Ahari notes that although the analysis "seems reasonable" he "fails to compare" it to "other writings by New World slaves." He then provides his own translation of the first few lines, promising that a complete translation will "be ready by the end of summer," and that he may be contacted through the Final Call, a newspaper published by the Nation of Islam. Some of Ahari's notes follow, with a table of contents for a proposed book about "Belali Mahomet," which is to include a section with its "correct Arabic" and "transliteration." A few pages from the Risalah in Arabic and French conclude the correspondences from Ahari, who would later go on to become one of the most eager enthusiasts in the ongoing quest for further evidence of African Muslims and Arabic writings in the Americas.

While there have surely been continuing additions to the file of correspondences after the above surveyed entries from the 1930s to the 1980s, since then there have also been quite a number of relevant academic studies published, from a variety of perspectives, on the stories of African Muslims in the Americas (e.g., Diouf 1998, Bailey 2001), many of which continue to highlight Ben Ali and his manuscript, and so it is likely that today's academics and curious enthusiasts are now mainly consulting those published works. Whatever can be learned from the manuscript itself, I believe that the correspondences have told equally important stories, because they provide a cultural history of views from the amazingly diverse cast of characters who have looked at this peculiar manuscript. As my own reading concurs, it is not an easy manuscript to understand, even though several academics have attempted to explain it with varying degrees of success. Perhaps, in a sense, Ben Ali himself is having the last word, having provided us with the ongoing enigma of his existence. While the opinions and analyses expressed in the above correspondences may be dismissed or overlooked by those only interested in the factual truth or literary importance of the manuscript, I have found value in what they tell us about evolving 20th century representations of Africans, Arabs and Muslims in America. Ben Ali, through his "diary," has revealed to us our own perceptions and prejudices as we negotiate the value and utility of his existence, as seen through the lens of our own assumptions about literacy and identity, as well as our own fears, hopes and dreams about Islam in America.

Alford, T. (1977). Prince among slaves: The true story of an African prince sold into slavery in the American south. New York: Oxford University Press.

Austin, A. D. (1984). African Muslims in ante-bellum America: A sourcebook. New York: Garland Publishing.

Bailey, C. W. & Bledsoe, C. (2001). God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island, Georgia. New York: Anchor Books.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). The illusion of the end. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bercher, L. (1968). Ibn Abi Zayd al Qayrawani: La Risala. Alger: Editions Populaires de L'Armee.

Bivar, A. D. H. (1962). The Arabic literature of Nigeria to 1804, a provisional account. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 25.

Caruthers, W. A. (1834). The Kentuckian in New York. New York: Harper Brothers.

Diouf, S. (1998). Servants of Allah: African Muslims enslaved in the Americas. New York University Press.

El Masri, F. H. (1978) Bayan wujub al hijra 'ala al 'ibad. Sudan: Khartoum University Press.

Georgia Writers' Project, Savannah Unit (1940). Drums and shadows: Survival studies among the Georgia coastal Negroes. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Grant, D. (1968). The fortunate slave: An illustration of African slavery in the early eighteenth century. London: Oxford University Press.

Greenberg, J. (1940). The decipherment of the 'Ben Ali Diary': A preliminary statement. Journal of Negro History, 25(3).

Harris, J. C. (1896). The story of Aaron (so-named), the son of Ben Ali. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hodgson, W. B. (1857). The Gospels, written in the Negro patois, with Arabic characters by a Mandingo slave in Georgia. Paper delivered at the regular meeting of the Ethnological Society of New York (13 October).

Judy, R. A. T. (1993). (Dis)forming the American canon: African-Arabic slave narratives and the vernacular. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Little, D. (2002). American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Parrish, L. (1942). Slave songs of the Georgia sea coast. New York: Creative Age Press.

Thornton, E. M. (1955). Bilali--His book. Law Library Journal, 48.

[This is the second of a two part series on the Ben Ali Diary, the first part of which is available here. While Part One focused mainly on the manuscript itself, I discussed several examples of how the manuscript was read by others. In Part Two, I review more carefully some of the conclusions reached by others who have worked with it, and how these conclusions continued to inform the ongoing interpretive project, by looking at correspondence referring to the manuscript kept by the Georgia State Library along with the manuscript itself. I initially saw these documents as additional data for understanding Ben Ali the person and analyzing his manuscript. But as I studied the letters, I came to realized that they told another important and in many ways more interesting but mostly neglected story. Comprised mainly of letters exchanged between a fascinating cast of characters ranging from scholars to enthusiasts, and spanning most of the twentieth century, these documents portray the shifting ways in which the Ben Ali Diary takes on varied meanings for different people in different times and places. While the manuscript itself continues to receive the attention of scholars and enthusiasts alike, I hope that my analysis of the connected correspondences will help to see ourselves as part of this story, and that the tale of Ben Ali is also a broad cultural history of which we are all a part.]

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