Samira Benturki Saïdi is a prodigious Algerian intellectual, filmmaker, camerawoman, journalist, writer, and independent researcher in the field of history. She is also the founder and managing director of the publishing house and audiovisual production company WWW&I (Worldwide Words & Illustrations). She has written numerous books and articles and produced several television programs. Her interests include maritime history, art, photography, book illustration and communication.
She is dedicated to reconstructing the history of the Arab & Muslim civilization, as well as the Black African and Native American civilizations. Her field of research is related to the contribution of the Arab and Muslim civilization to the world as a whole, mainly in the maritime field, as well as to the knowledge transmitted to human societies on the five continents by Arabs before and after Islam.
She is preparing a collection of works on Arab-Muslim navigators that will allow today's and tomorrow's generations to gain an insight into international relations and geopolitics based on maritime exchanges and especially the control of seas and oceans. The aim is to restore our cultural, archaeological and historical heritage.
On the other hand, she is fluent in Arabic, English, Spanish and French and has a long professional experience in multicultural environments.
Majalla: What led you to this maritime research?
Samira Benturki Saidi: It was difficult for me to accept that the peoples of America were isolated from the rest of the world or to think that they did not have access to a divine Revelation. Moreover, I had noticed very early on that there was historical misinformation about the history of the Arab and Muslim civilization. I therefore chose to rely on my own research while taking into consideration the versions that were presented and comparing the data. I learned to distinguish between them while reading between the lines. It was then very easy for me to understand that it was all about historiography. As soon as we select other historical sources, we have access to a history that necessarily gives a different point of view.
Q. Why maritime research?
A. It was through maritime exchanges that I was able to reconstitute the routes taken by the Arabs because this was the means of transport for humanity for thousands of years. So there were elements to be analyzed that had not necessarily been taken into account by historians because they copied each other and did not always have the courage to question the official version. So I went back to the whole history of navigation and, paradoxically, everything converged on regions that had always been inhabited by Arabs. This prompted me to explore other disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and the comparative study of religions, including those of the peoples of America. I was surprised by the discoveries and I would even add shocked because I certainly did not expect to find Arabs on the American continent, before the advent of Islam and the Arab-Muslims, as early as the first century of the Hegira.
ARAB MASTERS OF THE SEAS
Q. You are preparing the publication of a series of books on the great Arab-Muslim navigators and among them the Corsairs of Salé, the Regency of Algiers and the foundation of the US Navy, and the Muslim Admiral Zheng He who commanded the Chinese fleet. There are many books already on these subjects, why did you decide to write more?
A. I have been researching the maritime field for about 30 years and contrary to popular belief, much remains to be written. On the other hand, challenging the existing narrative could not be done without proposing a new historiography, which I did. The European expansion swept away everything that had been achieved before the Europeans. Their version of history was bound to be biased.
Q. We know that the word Admiral is made up of the Arabic title Amir-al bahr ( أمير البحر) does this mean that we were the masters of the seas at one time?
A. One can get to the heart of the matter with this simple reference to the Arabic term Amir-al bahr, which is the highest ranking military officer in the Navy. While visiting the US Navy Museum in Washington D.C. as part of my research, the person at the desk did not understand who I was referring to when I asked about the Regency of Algiers and the part of the museum dedicated to it. When the man finally understood, his answer was surprising, "Ah, you mean the pirates?” He was equally surprised by my answer, for I immediately replied, "Speak for yourself. When you talk about your sailors you use an Arabic term 'Admiral' and when it comes to talking about ours you refer to them as pirates. I don't agree. They were great sailors and our naval officers.” He smiled and added that this was how they were taught.
A people or its navy is discredited when the geopolitics of the time underlined what most historians pretend to ignore, namely the maritime power of the Arabs before the advent of Islam and until the beginning of the 19th century, because we were the masters of the seas. Our navigators had explored the globe and reached as far as America and Australia, as has been shown by archaeology and linguistics, to name but two disciplines. This maritime knowledge goes back a long way and is indicated by the map drawn by the Ottoman Turkish admiral and geographer, Piri Reïs, in the early 16th century. He gave a map to Suleiman the Magnificent which indicates that even Antarctica was known to the Arab-Muslims.
Q. Is it true that Arab-Muslims discovered America before Columbus? Are there any traces?
A. This is as true as the fact that Christopher Columbus never discovered this continent. The information about America was available in the library in the friary where he lived for several years, the Monastery of La Rabida in southern Spain. For 150 years before the so-called discovery of the American continent, a Franciscan monk made a transatlantic voyage with the Arabs of the Maghreb and visited several Caribbean islands. On his return to Spain, he wrote a book entitled "El Libro del Descubrimiento" (The Book of Discovery), in which he recounts his journey.
Moreover, Chinese documents dating from the 12th and early 13th centuries underline these transatlantic voyages made by Arab-Muslims at the same time, while specifying that they accomplished them on board very large ships. During my research, I found an old text written by a French historian that referred to the great size of the Arab ships that sailed along the French Atlantic coast.
Thus, from a material point of view, the Arabs had the means to cross the ocean and made their crossings on board boats of various sizes. Moreover, we must add that contrary to what is propagated in many history books, they were not afraid to set sail for the high seas and were not content to dabble in the coastal waters. They were the inventors and builders of the caravels, whose Arabic etymology can be seen in "Al Qarib." They were also the inventors of most navigational instruments, including the compass, which is in no way a Chinese invention. In fact, the Chinese themselves admitted that they were not the inventors.
As for the traces, they can be seen in different parts of America.
Q. You have an atypical background. You work in the audiovisual field as well as in publishing. How come?
A. Indeed, I have a background in film and culture in general, but the history of Arab-Muslim civilization has always attracted me to the point that I have made it the fundamental basis of my work in my two favorite fields. It is a passion that I follow or that I pursue... In addition, I have experience in the film industry because I love art and the seventh art in particular. I have had the opportunity to work with big names in cinema and song, such as Anthony Quinn and Warda El Djazaïriya. I must admit that the American actor is the only one I enjoyed working with. He exuded an undeniable respect and aura. He lived up to his myth and was very humble. The film industry does not reflect the image it projects on the screen and I have distanced myself from it over time. I founded my production and publishing company with the aim of exploiting this art to transmit knowledge.
Q. What attracted you to the historical field?
Since the age of ten, I have been interested in the Arab-Muslim version of history because the one we are taught at school is biased. We are referred to as "barbarians", as "newcomers to France and Europe," we are described as backward, the Muslim woman is described as a slave of the man, as being mistreated by the religion. But all these descriptions did not correspond to my point of view as an Arab-Muslim woman, belonging to the East and the West of this world because my ancestors came from the south of the Arabian Peninsula as well as from Iraq or Turkey. I am Algerian and I live in France, I am African and Asian while being European because the word "Europe" comes from the name of Princess Europa, daughter of King Agenor. Europa is none other than “Uruba,” and means “a loving Arab woman” in Arabic. In fact, when some people insist on their European origin and say "We are Europeans,” they don't know that they are asserting their Arabness at the same time, which has always made me smile...
Q. Tell us about your aim to restore our cultural, archaeological and historical heritage. How can this be achieved?
A. This will be done through scientific publications as well as through the publication of popular works for the general public. However, many years ago I created a board game composed of several thousand questions on the history of Arab-Muslim civilization. The game will be available in its French version in the first quarter of 2022 as it has finally found an investor in the person of Zakaria Nana, founder of the Nana 1807 House, Mint Tea For Peace, who is interested in disseminating knowledge of our history and who will be the partner in several initiatives aimed at highlighting our heritage.
These include the Caravel of History and the World Day for the Restoration of Arab-Muslim and African Historical and Archaeological Heritage. Incidentally, the term "restore" was inspired by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane, former foreign affairs advisor to President Richard Nixon, with whom I have been working since 2019 to bring an alternative historiography to the general public and researchers. Dr. Crane is also the grandnephew of one of the last Imams of the Cherokee Nation, Franklin Joseph Bever, who was therefore of the Muslim faith like some of the Native Americans before the fateful date of 1492.
Some of this transmission is already beginning to take place through the sharing of projects in order to prepare the next generation. For example, among the new generations, the author Amira Benbetka Rekal is working to unearth our heritage for young people by taking inspiration from the Thousand and One Nights, or Kalila wa Dimna, while writing books that highlight this literary heritage that we have ignored. I hope her books will be adapted for the big screen. We must work on the heritage to be transmitted to the youth, in order to bring within reach of children this Arab-Muslim heritage that all the American studios have exploited except us. We are re-appropriating our heritage to bequeath it to them.
It must be emphasized that research in the field of historical heritage is intended to link, and not to oppose. With Zakaria Nana, through Mint Tea For Peace, we are trying to link the continents by organizing cultural events with a fundamental historical background to show that the continents and peoples were not isolated, as has too often been claimed. This perspective is purely Christian and is based on the limited geographical knowledge of Europeans. As long as we do not understand that this version of history, which has taken possession of our memory and only takes into consideration European expansionism, we will continue to spread historical misinformation and not history. History with a capital "H" highlights the superior maritime knowledge of the Arab-Muslims while the history books ignore it. As long as the lion has no historians, it is the hunters who will write its history.
Q. How important would it be to dig up this historical version of the past of Arab-Muslim civilization? Shouldn't we be thinking about the future?
A. The version that has been served up to us has had many side effects because it is based on an ideology that some would like to spread as an incontestable truth. However, scholarly research is a medicine without side effects, which broadens horizons if we grasp its civilizing principle by respecting the commitments made as scientists with the responsibility of transmitting knowledge. There is an oath that every historian should take to not only authenticating sources, but also to the criteria that he or she must respect when writing. They should exercise their profession in accordance with the founding principles of their profession by submitting to a code of ethics, like a doctor.
Q. You talked to me about slavery in Arab-Muslim societies and you made a point that I had never heard before, could you tell us about it?
A. I think it's important to go back to history, the real version of history, and then we'll realize that racism was not as widespread in the Arab-Muslim world as it is made out to be. Take the case of North Africa, where history tells us that Slavic families dreamed of seeing their children enslaved by the Arabs because they were assured of a better life. On the other hand, many of the corsairs in North Africa had fled their Christian lives to choose Islam, as they were assured of a better life in North African societies. Many slaves stressed that they were treated better by Muslims than if they had been taken by Christians.
In the same vein, with regard to the pursuit of research on the Qur'anic text, there is the example of Dr Safi Kaskas, a Lebanese-American who founded IQRA (International Qur'anic Research Association) in Washington D.C. with the aim of updating our reading or interpretation of the Holy Qur'an on a daily basis and in the light of the advances of science. The aim of this association is to bring together Arab-Muslim researchers from all over the world, in order to offer to the readers of today and tomorrow, a unique "translation" on which these specialists in linguistics, various sciences, archaeology, history and comparative studies of monotheistic religions will work. Dr Kaskas would like to pass on to his grandchildren and future generations a knowledge of the Qur'an that scientific discoveries are constantly updating, and therefore a digital text that can be modified as soon as a discovery calls into question the past or previous interpretation.
Q. Why do you think there is a rise in Islamophobia in Europe, especially in Hungary and France?
A. I have been saying for a long time that a lack of knowledge of history is at the root of many ills. He who has no past has no present and no future. He has no right to make pronouncements. If we ignore the importance of our heritage, it has a devastating effect on the very personality of the child and then the young adult who will be part of today's multicultural society. Let me explain, taking the example of France. Most of the French population is unaware that the Arabs were present in several regions of France and that they even founded cities such as Marseille, which means the port of God, Marça-El. They ignore the fact that Arab-Muslims were part of its inhabitants as early as the 8th century and that they were present there even before the foundation of the Frankish Kingdom.
Q. What are your future projects?
A. The ATHAR Foundation, whose objective is to implement cultural actions or initiatives aimed at the creation and promotion of Arab-Muslim civilization by encouraging the creation of cultural bridges between peoples, which will contribute to improving mutual knowledge.