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In This Issue

Classroom Guide

For students: We hope this guide will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles.

For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers at any level, whether working in a classroom or through home study.


Class Activities

This issue of Saudi Aramco World includes two articles about unusual books. “Sons of the Wind” describes a 1940 book, Sons of Sinbad, about the last days of commercial sail in an Arabian dhow. In that book, Australian writer Alan Villiers documented his travels with an Arab captain and crew who sailed from Aden to East Africa and back around the Arabian Peninsula. The second article, “The Life of Omar ibn Said,” describes an 1864 autobiography written in Arabic by an African–American slave. In the 15-page manuscript, Omar ibn Said described his life as a Muslim in Senegal and as a slave in North Carolina.

When they were written, the two books were unusual for different reasons. Today they offer insights into two moments in the past. In the activities that follow, you will look at the books in some depth and use a variety of tools to analyze them.

Reading Strategies

Who wrote the book? Why did he write it?

A first step you can take to analyze a book is to ask, “Who wrote the book?” and “Why did the author write it?” It’s challenging to try to figure out the motives of someone who lived a long time ago, and we can never actually do it. We can only make educated guesses based on evidence that we find, and based on our own way of understanding the world.

Let’s try to figure out Omar ibn Said’s motivation. Read the article called “The Life of Omar ibn Said.” (Except for the spelling of his name, Said’s booklet has the same title as the article.) Think about Said’s life. He was in his 30’s when he was captured, put on a ship, sent to another country and sold into slavery. Given his experiences, why do you think he wrote an autobiography? As you ponder how to answer the question, think about some of the specifics about The Life of Omar ben Saeed that made it unusual, such as the fact that Said wrote it himself, rather than dictating it to someone else, and that he wrote it in Arabic. How do those characteristics of the book affect your thinking about why Said wrote the story of his life?

To answer all these questions, imagine you’re Said. Write a paragraph explaining why you’ve decided to write your autobiography. (To get you started, read the excerpt from the actual autobiography on page 37.) Compare your paragraph with other stu-dents’ paragraphs. As a class, list the different reasons you’ve come up with that Said might have written the story of his life.

Now turn your attention to Sons of Sinbad. Read “Sons of the Wind,” and ask the same questions you asked about The Life of Omar ben Saeed: Who was Alan Villiers? Why did he write Sons of Sinbad? As you answer the questions, think about the fact that Villiers was Australian and decided to travel with Arab sailors. Why did he decide to do that? And why do you think he decided to write about his experience?

What did people think of the book when it was first published?

Another step you can take to analyze a book is to look at how people received it when it was published. To do that, you need to understand what was going on in the world at the time the book was written. Because books are written at a particular moment in time, whatever is going on in the world at that time affects how authors understand the world and themselves—and consequently affects what they write.

One way to look at both The Life of Omar ben Saeed and Sons of Sinbad is to think about power: Who had it, and who did not? In other words, who was powerful, and who was less powerful, or even powerless? Literary analysts call the relationship between powerful and powerless “power relations.” Apply this idea to each book and think about what was happening when it was written. Said was a slave. The power relationship is clear: He was forced to come to the United States, sold to a white man and enslaved for the rest of his life. Certainly his status as a slave affected his autobiography. Yet if he had had a cruel master, could he have written the book at all? And what about his religion? Said appeared to his contemporaries to have converted to Christianity. But the article says that people familiar with his story don’t think this was true. Think again about Said’s possible motivation. Let’s say today’s historians are right, and Said remained a Muslim, but he was willing to let white Americans think he was Christian. Why might he have done that? Are there situations in which it makes sense for someone like Said to be less than completely honest about himself?

“The Life of Omar ibn Said” identifies some specific individuals and also describes a more general audience that read Omar ibn Said’s autobiography when it was published. What did these readers think of the book? Take the role of someone who read Said’s book when it was published—Francis Scott Key, Frederick Douglass, Jim Owen or another slave owner, for example. What would that person have thought of the book? How might the timing of the book’s publication have affected their opinions? Think again about the fact that the book was written in Arabic. How would one of Said’s readers think about that? What would it lead them to think about Said? In the role you chose, prepare a review of the book in which you answer three questions. It can be a written review, or one that you present orally for television or YouTube. Find examples of book reviews on which you can model yours. Have volunteers present their reviews. Discuss the differences among the reviews.

Kuwaiti sailors climb without footropes as they work on the green lateen yard, or spar.Now think about Alan Villiers and the context in which he wrote Sons of Sinbad. Australia, Villiers’s homeland, had been a British colony. Villiers himself was a westerner traveling with and writing about easterners. At the time he was writing, the usual western attitude was that western ways of life were superior to eastern ones. How did Villiers’s point of view differ from what readers in 1940 might have expected from an Australian author writing about Arab sailors?

For evidence to answer the question, consider Villiers’s photographs of his experiences on the Sinbad. His photos, like his words, provide two kinds of information: First, they show readers what life was like on the ship. At the same time, they reveal Villiers’s attitudes just as clearly as his words do. Consider the photo on page eight. Recall that “Sons of the Wind” says that Villiers respected his Arab crewmates in a way that was unusual for his time. How does this photograph support that idea? Here are a few questions to help you out: What are the men in the photo doing? According to the caption, what is particularly skilled about what they’re doing? What image in the photo reveals that skill? (If you knew a lot about sailing, you would know the answers to the last two questions without the caption!) Where is the photographer, relative to the people in the photograph? What effect does the angle from which he’s taking the picture have on you as a viewer? Imagine Villiers taking the photo from other locations. How would the resulting photos affect your thinking about the men who are pictured?

Thinking about motivation again, what do you think motivated Villiers to write about and photograph his Arab crewmates the way he did? Why didn’t he use the stereotypes that were typical in his day? Keeping the evidence in mind, take the role of Villiers, and write a paragraph in which you answer these questions.

How do people today think about the book?

Today people understand Omar ibn Said’s book very differently than people did when it was first published. Some historians today would look at Said’s book and ask how he, as a slave, managed to maintain a sense of his own humanity when he lived under a system that oppressed him so thoroughly. Find and underline the parts of the article that explain how historians today interpret the fact that Said’s book was written in Arabic. How do they make sense of the fact that Said, who identified himself as a Christian when he wrote the book, included Qur’anic verses in it?

Compare the way people in the 1800’s understood Omar ibn Said’s autobiography and the way people today do so. Complete the chart below to help you clarify your thinking.

How did they
People Today
…that Said wrote
an autobiography?
…that he had a cordial, even friendly relationship with his owner?    
…that he wrote in Arabic?    
…that he identified himself as a Christian and included verses from the Qur’an?    


Discuss with a group: What do you think accounts for the differences in interpretations of Said’s book? Think about both attitudes and available evidence. Share your answers with the class.

Remember that the authors of the articles you have read about these two books are among those who are analyzing these two historical books today. The authors of both articles say that their subjects—Said and Villiers—were ahead of their time. Jonathan Curiel says that Omar ibn Said was calling for an interfaith dialogue. William Facey says that Villiers wanted to harness the power of the wind. What evidence suggests that that’s true?

Putting it All Together

To recap what you’ve done so far: You’ve addressed what motivates a writer to write a book. You’ve thought about the context within which he writes the book and within which readers receive it. You’ve compared how readers in the present respond to a book to how readers responded when it was first published. As a final activity, you’re going to have a roundtable discussion in which all of these perspectives can be ex-pressed and debated.

Divide the class into groups of six or seven. Assign each person a role. One will take the role of Omar ibn Said. Two or three people will take the roles of different people who read Said’s book when it came out. One person will be a reader of today. Two people will be moderators. One person will be the scribe.

To prepare for the roundtable: Moderators will come up with questions they can ask the different people in order to get a good discussion going. The contemporary readers of Said’s book (that is, those who read it when it was first published) need to decide who each of them will be and what he or she will want to say about Said and/or the book, plus generate questions to ask Said or others. The person taking the role of Said will think about what he wants people to know about him and how he will tell them. The person who is a modern-day reader will want to prepare questions for Said and for the others in the discussion.

Moderators will facilitate the roundtable discussion. Each person will have a chance to participate. The scribe will take notes and prepare a summary for the rest of the class. After all the groups have finished, have the scribes present the key points their group discussed. As a class, discuss what conclusions you can draw about Omar ibn Said, about his book and his motivation for writing it, and about different ways that people understand books at different times.

Curriculum Alignments

McRel Standards

Risotto’s Roots

Standard 11.  Understands the patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface
Standard 17.  Understands how geography is used to interpret the past

World History
Standard 13. Understands the causes and consequences of the development of Islamic civilization between the 7th and 10th centuries
Standard 19. Understands the maturation of an interregional system of communication, trade, and cultural exchange during a period of Chinese economic power and Islamic expansion

The Life of Omar ibn Said

Historical Understanding
Standard 2. Understands the historical perspective

World History
Standard 29. Understands the economic, political, and cultural interrelations among peoples of Africa, Europe, and the Americas between 1500 and 1750

US History
Standard 5. Understands how the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas
Standard 10. Understands how the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed American lives and led to regional tensions

The Living Desert

Standard 7. Knows the physical processes that shape patterns on Earth's surface
Standard 8. Understands the characteristics of ecosystems on Earth's surface
Standard 18. Understands global development and environmental issues

Shodo Arabi

Standard 9. Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth's surface
Standard 10. Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics

Visual Arts
Standard 4. Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

Sons of the Wind

Standard 7. Knows the physical processes that shape patterns on Earth's surface
Standard 9. Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth's surface
Standard 11.  Understands the patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface
Standard 15.  Understands how physical systems affect human systems

Historical Understanding
Standard 2. Understands the historical perspective

World History
Standard 46. Understands long-term changes and recurring patterns in world history

Standard 3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual

Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Eliot, Maine. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies. Her company, Unlimited Horizons, develops social studies, media literacy, and English as a Second Language curricula,and produces textbook materials.