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Ala Alryyes ’85, SM ’88

Yale professor translates slave’s Arabic memoir
February 21, 2012

In A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Ala Alryyes’s translation from Arabic of the autobiography of a 19th-century slave, Alryyes recovers a forgotten chapter in the more than 300-year history of Islam in the United States.

After studying electrical engineering, physics, and computer science at the Institute, Alryyes ventured to France for a six-month stay following graduation. During his time there, he decided to shift his focus to writing. Today, he’s an associate professor of comparative literature and English at Yale University and lives in Brooklyn.

“Perhaps it was a case of one passion overcoming another,” says Alryyes, who also holds a PhD from Harvard in comparative literature. “I’m still attached to my physics and math background, but I always loved language and history. I carried those competing interests with me until it became too difficult to pursue both.”

A native Arabic speaker raised in Kuwait, Alryyes both interprets Said’s narrative and explores his era’s societal contexts. The author, an educated man, was captured in what is today Senegal and forced into slavery in North Carolina around 1807. His autobiography, written in 1831, is believed to be the only American slave memoir written in Arabic. Lost for more than 100 years, Said’s manuscript was rediscovered in an antique trunk in Virginia in 1995.

A Muslim American Slave is Alryyes’s second book. His first, Original Subjects: The Child, the Novel, and the Nation, was published by Harvard University Press in 2001. Thanks in part to a 2011–’12 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he is currently completing his third book, War’s Knowledge and the Laws of Nature: Subjectivity, Conflict, and Worldmaking in Philosophy and the Novel, 1660–1798. His writing has focused on 18th-century British and French literature, the early 19th-century novel, empire and exploration, genealogies of modernity, the Arabic novel and film, and slave narratives.

Alryyes also served as lecturer on literature and history at Harvard from 1998 to 2000 and has taught courses on realism and the evidence of the senses, European philosophy, the 18th-century novel, and the literature of empire.

Despite moving from the laboratory to literature, he maintains a strong MIT connection through visits back to campus to see friends. “I have a lasting memory of taking my late father to visit Newton’s apple tree [in the President’s Garden]” he says. “I can close my eyes and still see the classrooms and hear Professor Lewin’s lectures.”

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