Frontiers

Overcoming Anonymity

Associate Professor of History Eve Troutt Powell uses intimate accounts of slavery to chronicle the history of the trade in the Middle East.
December 2012

The stories of those without a voice are often the most telling. As difficult as it is to bring the struggles of the disenfranchised to the light of day, it’s even more daunting when the accounts are centuries old—many only available as oral histories. It’s a challenge Associate Professor of History Eve Troutt Powell met head on in her new book, Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Empire, in which she works to resurrect the personal narratives of slaves and slave owners in the Middle East.

“I was spending time with a friend of mine, a Southern Sudanese student and refugee in Cairo, Egypt,” says Powell, who took an internship at the American University in Cairo after graduating from college in 1983, and has been travelling back and forth ever since. “Her legal and political status had deteriorated because of changing conditions in the relationship between Sudan and Egypt and because of the civil war in Sudan, and I witnessed people referring to her by the Arabic word for slave: abid. I became very interested in the history of the word—what significance it had in the Nile Valley and larger Middle East.”

“There’s not the same kind of proud acceptance of the slave past as you would find among African-Americans. In the United States, the legacy of African enslavement has been reclaimed to a degree, but that’s not been the case among these communities.” - Eve Troutt Powell

The majority of the accounts in Tell This in My Memory derive from experiences in the late 19th century. Powell had first set out to write a book about Saint Josephine Bakhita, a renowned Sudanese-born former slave. She interviewed refugees in churches in Cairo and eventually went to the headquarters of Bakhita’s order, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, in Rome. There, she pored over archives and conducted face-to-face interviews with the nuns.

“They liked to talk about her, but they didn’t like to talk about their own domestic work,” says Powell.  “There’s not the same kind of proud acceptance of the slave past as you would find among African-Americans. In the United States, the legacy of African enslavement has been reclaimed to a degree, but that’s not been the case among these communities.”

Powell soon expanded her research beyond missionary archives and began to investigate how those with power in the Middle East at the time looked at enslavement in their own households. A key resource was a late-19th-century genre of literature written in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish that dealt with themes surrounding slavery.

“In the Ottoman Empire, it wasn’t just Africans who were enslaved. It was a multiracial system of slavery that included Circassians and others,” says Powell. “In these books, figures of authority spoke, wrote and thought quite candidly about slaves—what slavery meant for marriage, and other cultural implications. I thought it was important for the book to put the narratives of the slaves’ owners into a kind of dialogue with the narratives of the slaves.”

One of the most harrowing accounts from the book involves former slave Father Daniel Sorur, who after gaining his freedom became fluent in Italian, Arabic and German, and wrote about his emancipation. Sorur recounts how his former “owner” visited his mission in the capital of the Sudan. With him was Sorur’s mother, who had been enslaved alongside him. He writes how she begged him to come home and how he refused. Then, according to the narrative, she cursed him.

“People wondered for decades what that must have felt like for him,” says Powell. “Did his mother really curse him, or did she do that for appearances? Was she finally quite proud of him? Where was her heartbreak? It’s these little moments of the interactions between the enslaved, as they’re trying to negotiate without being able to speak freely, that are so poignant.”