- Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Empire, by Eve Troutt Powell
In the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of trans-Saharan Africans were forced to migrate to Egypt after being uprooted from their homelands, families and cohorts and subjected to stark enslaved existences at the end of difficult desert treks. In the Sudan, a similar dislocation took place: in the middle of the 19th century, slaves constituted 60% of Khartoum’s population. A much smaller number of white slaves were also uprooted from the Caucasus. An account of the lives of these populations has always posed problems for historians, because until recently, the sources have been few and slave narratives are scarce. Eve Troutt Powell, a Middle East historian who has written about Sudan and Egypt history, uses existing narratives and “fragments of autobiography” from both ex-slaves and slave-owners not to write a history of slavery but to paint an effective and affecting portrait of the slave experience in the Nile Valley and parts of the Ottoman east.
Powell rightly begins by reminding us that tens of thousands of Sudanese are today [End Page 490] refugees in Egypt and subject to the legacy of those earlier trans-Saharan migrants. The words for “black” (sudani) and slave (‘abid) are interchangeable in the colloquial mindset, despite or perhaps because of centuries of rule by more privileged white slaves (mamluks). Discrimination is an ever-present and ongoing problem.
Powell starts her investigation with the great topographical work of ‘Ali Mubarak, the al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya, whose description of Egyptian towns and villages is replete with stories of slaves (white and black) that also provides an overview of 19th century Egyptian slavery. Cairene streets are full of monuments built by elite white mamluks; black slaves hover in the distance, occasionally obstreperous and usually unnamed. The exception is an Abyssinian slave Mubarak saw in his village as a child, who achieved a high administrative position and respect despite his color. Mubarak learned that he too could achieve such rank if he were educated in the new schools that Muhammad ‘Ali had established. For the voices of black slaves, however, historians must turn to sources other than this important work.
One source is the Sudanese educator Babikr Bedri’s memoir Tarikh Hayati (The Story of My Life), which highlights the essential role that slaves played in ordinary people’s lives in the northern Sudan, even when their pasts and sometimes their names are not revealed. This engagingly frank memoir records Bedri’s personal history from the Mahdist revolution to the early decades of Anglo-Egyptian rule. As Powell shows, Bedri clearly valued the contributions that slaves made to his life, yet he never thought to improve their status or help them achieve a better future, though he helped many young people, including girls, get an education. Once again, slaves do not have a voice, though they are everywhere present.
A voice can be found in the figure of Salem C. Wilson who was born a Dinka, enslaved, and eventually wrote his autobiography — three times. I Was a Slave was his final version, written in England where he settled. Collectively, they illustrate the difficulty of slaves writing about slave life in a foreign culture, where they are required to respond to foreign audiences with very different values. Powell’s analysis of his efforts is expert, offering valuable insights into how slaves interpret foreigners and how foreigners understand or misunderstand them. Powell uses several other “fragments of autobiography” to illustrate the point that narratives, where they do exist, are subject to the filters and prejudices of the translator, the interviewer, or the intended reader. Often they do not help and, on occasion, they can even degrade the person telling the story.
Powell then examines slaves in the households of two aristocratic women — Huda Sha‘rawi, the early champion of women’s rights in Egypt; and Halide Edip Adıvar, a member of...