Saim Abd al-Samid, the young Turkish civil engineer, unwilling to wait any longer, was secretly baptized in Aintab, Syria, on 19 November 1901. Even before his baptism, he had made plans to emigrate to Utah to live openly with the Saints. By April, 1902, his plans were complete.
Unaware of Saim’s intentions, several of the Armenian Saints also made plans to emigrate that spring. Joseph Wilford Booth, who was returning to the U.S. at the end of his mission, purchased tickets for the Armenians, and for a German sister of Haifa who was also emigrating, to sail aboard a ship of the Prince Line from Naples, Italy (the nearest port with regular passenger accommodations to New York); he also arranged for their train travel from New York to Salt Lake City. Saim would purchase his own tickets, with his own funds, separate from the Armenian travelers.
The most difficult part was for the Armenians, and for Saim, to leave the Ottoman Empire. To do so legally required a passport, something that took more time and money than they had. Even Saim, with his government connections, would have to smuggle himself out without a passport. Later events prove that they did leave illegally, but I do not (yet) know the details. Perhaps they used the ruse that Elder Booth mentioned in his journal months before they left: It was possible for the emigrants to reach the port city of Haifa, where they could board a ship merely as visitors looking around. Then, with the cooperation of the crew (and no doubt payment of cash), they could simply remain behind, concealed as stowaways, when inspectors boarded to ensure that all local people had left the ship before it sailed. If this was the method they used, then someone (a crew member? someone who had accompanied them from Aintab but who was not leaving?) assisted them by sending a note to Elder Booth, telling him they had reached the harbor and boarded a ship bound for Naples.
Saim, traveling separately, and apparently a few days ahead of the others, reached Naples on his own.
Saim joined Elder Booth – traveling completely legally with his American passport – as soon as Elder Booth and the other emigrating Saints arrived in Naples on Monday, April 28. He and Elder Booth enjoyed a few hours together strolling through a pleasant park just west of the city.
Then the great blow came.
On Tuesday, April 29, Saim went to board his ship, intending to use his berth there as a hotel room for the next few days until the ship sailed. He had his ticket in hand and his luggage was aboard. Then he presented himself for his medical inspection.
Responsible shipping companies always employed physicians who gave all passengers a cursory medical examination. This was to prevent contagion aboard ship, of course, but also to screen out passengers who might be rejected at the American end of the route and denied permission to enter the United States. The blind, those with physical impairments that could prevent their earning their living through physical labor, those with obvious mental incapacities, would be rejected in New York, and the shipping companies who had brought them would then be responsible for returning them (and feeding them on the way) to the ports from which they had left. To prevent such expenses to the shipping companies, doctors tried to guess who would be rejected in New York and barred them from leaving Europe in the first place.
The ship’s doctor decided Saim was too great a risk, because his eyes were red. There was no sign of trachoma – an infectious eye disease still responsible for much of the blindness in the world – that was so carefully screened in New York, but Saim’s eyes were reddened – perhaps by the weariness of travel, perhaps by sea glare, who knows? – and the doctor, looking out for his company’s interests and unwilling to risk having to transport him back to Naples – refused to allow Saim to board.
Saim called on Elder Booth for help, and Elder Booth argued at length with the passenger office. The company’s officers were unmoved. Saim could not board their ship, and would not be emigrating with the other Saints. A disappointed, and perhaps worried, Saim accompanied Elder Booth back to the elder’s hotel and took a room there.
He made the best he could of the situation. Each day Saim went to the Naples market and purchased food for the Saints waiting for their ship to leave. He went with Elder Booth on an excursion to Pompeii. He accompanied Elder Booth on walks about town. And at dusk on Saturday, May 3, Saim stood on the pier – next to Artine Vezerian, one of the would-be emigrating Saints, who had also been rejected at the last moment on account of suspected eye trouble – and watched as the ship pulled out of the Bay of Naples. On the advice of Elder Booth, Saim and Brother Vezerian – who must have been told at this point that Saim was a brother Saint – would stay together, trying to help each other until something turned up to allow them to try again. “It is very sad for them,” recorded Elder Booth. “They will not be able to go back to their own land without danger of imprisonment on landing. … The only way I could see for them was to find a tramp steamer and come cheap to Liverpool, and from there get passage on the emigrant rates to Utah.”
Apostle Lyman, in Liverpool, watched for them, but finally reported that “I have heard nothing from those unfortunate brethren left at Naples. If they turn up here we may be able to send them on to Canada. … I hope they will turn up and be able to get through some way. Not having their language we shall be powerless to instruct them or to get them to understand anything. They would not dare to meet any of the Turks connected with the legation here …”
But they did not find a way to reach Liverpool, or the United States. I do not yet know the details, but Saim did return to Turkey. He found work as a civil engineer in Tokat, a city far to the north of his old home in Aintab, not too far from the Black Sea. He married a young woman named Seher, and they began to raise a family – first a daughter, Nigar; then a son, Ekrem. As these children were born, Latter-day Saint missionaries – calling as old friends, not as religious leaders – secretly blessed the babies.
In 1904, Elder Booth returned to Turkey on another mission and headed for Tokat. The very day he arrived there, he “sent a card to our dear Bro Saim who was soon in my room and talking over past events. He invited me to his home where I met his wife and two children – the father a member of the Church all unknown to even our own Turkish saints, and to his wife. Had supper there.” Saim called again the next morning, then took Elder Booth to be introduced to influential local people.
Over the next year or so, Saim kept in touch with Elder Booth by mail. In September 1905, Elder Booth returned to Tokat, this time with his wife, Reba, who had come to join him as a missionary. Saim and Seher made them welcome. One night, Saim had a private talk with Elder Booth and then, when the rest of the household had retired to bed, the two men knelt by the cradle of Saim’s youngest child, a daughter, Niluphar, and blessed her.
Later that month, Elder and Sister Booth traveled to Constantinople, where they called on Saim’s mother and two of Saim’s siblings. Their hospitality was as great as Saim’s – Sister Booth stayed overnight with the Turkish family, while Elder Booth and another missionary returned to their hotel rooms. While in Constantinople, Elder Booth was able to secure copies of the Book of Mormon, published in Turkish, and long held up at the customs office in Constantinople while the elders waited for permission to ship them to the Saints in Syria. Elder Booth sent a copy of the Book of Mormon to Saim on September 25, 1905.
And that, for now, is as far as I have been able to trace Saim Abd al-Samid, the pioneering Turkish Latter-day Saint.
Although I have found a number of letters and documents reporting parts of Saim’s story, Elder Booth’s journal is the only place where I have found his name recorded – in all other documents, he is unnamed, frequently with the caution from a letter-writer that the recipient must protect this Latter-day Saint by keeping his story quiet. But after all that concealment of his name, I was actually faced with another problem: too many names. Elder Booth refers to him both as Siam Effendi (sometimes with abbreviations), and also as Saim Abdul Samid (sometimes only by initials). Had I made a mistake in the research? Was I mixing up two different stories? I finally wrote to Dan Peterson, asking whether his familiarity with Middle Eastern cultures could provide an explanation. He responded immediately, recognizing Effendi as a title rather than a name, and explaining the meaning of the various parts of Saim’s name. At the risk of having to admit publicly that Dan Peterson might actually be, you know, a good guy – sometimes – I thank him both for his expertise and his courtesy in solving that puzzle.
The research for this story almost died at the beginning. The first clue I had that any story existed was the letter from Lester Mangum to Francis M. Lyman asking for advice on baptizing his unnamed convert. Without a name, without any indication of whether or not the baptism had actually occurred, there was very little I could do – I did read through year after year of the emigration records kept by the Church’s mission in Liverpool, hoping to find the name of some Turk who had passed through – but the only names I found with any connection to Turkey were the returning missionaries. Even the Armenian converts traveling with Elder Booth do not appear in those records because he had already bought their tickets from Naples to New York.
But a week or ten days after giving up on the story, I was reading the correspondence of Anthon H. Lund. Turkey was the farthest thing from my mind. My eye noticed the name “Ola Larson” on one letter, and I paused to try to figure out why that name was familiar – in comments on some past Keepa post, Bruce Crow had mentioned Ola’s name as a family member. So I skimmed through President Lund’s letter to Ola, in case it mentioned anything that Bruce might want to know. The letter discussed a Swedish immigration problem, about a young woman who had been denied entry into the United States. Then this: “We had a very sad case of this occur with a Turkish Saint, the only Mahomedan who has received the Gospel, and it is as much as his life is worth if his relatives find out that he is a Mormon. He had weak eyes and was sent back to Turkey.” Boom! I now knew that this mysterious “Mahemedan” had been baptized, which meant there had to be records of him somewhere in the Church History Library, and I had only a three-year window to search. Still no name, but I went into full bloodhound mode … and Saim has been found.