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Saim Abd al-Samid: “All Unknown” No More

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 28, 2013

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.



30 Comments »

  1. Fantastic! What a great story within a story. Thanks.

    Comment by David Y. — August 28, 2013 @ 7:39 am

  2. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Amira — August 28, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  3. What a remarkable find! Thanks, Ardis. And God bless the memory of Saim Abd al-Samid!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 28, 2013 @ 8:14 am

  4. This is why Keepa is the only blog I have “liked” on Facebook.

    Comment by Last Lemming — August 28, 2013 @ 8:23 am

  5. Ardis, this may be one of my favorite posts in the history of Keepa. It is so full of mystery and intrigue! I want more. I need this to be a novel or a movie. I feel like Saim is an old friend now and I want him to join the rest of the Saints. Perhaps it is the mystery that keeps it so exciting though?

    In either case, thank you for your research (and the insight of ol’ Dan Peterson)!

    Comment by Stan — August 28, 2013 @ 8:26 am

  6. You are astonishing in full bloodhound mode. Thank you for sharing the story with us.

    Comment by Jami — August 28, 2013 @ 8:28 am

  7. Wow! I couldn’t wait to read Part 2 this morning. What an amazing story! Thank you.

    Comment by Carl C. — August 28, 2013 @ 8:39 am

  8. Wonderful, Ardis. Thank you for this, and for allowing us to know and remember Saim Effendi. Congratulations on some amazing detective work, and also for the détente with Professor Peterson. : )

    This story does leave one wondering what his life would have been like if he had made it past that medical inspection.

    Comment by Amy T — August 28, 2013 @ 8:51 am

  9. Wow!

    Although the way this was going, I was half expecting him to turn out being one of my relatives! You do have an incredible ability to connect the dots!

    Comment by Grant — August 28, 2013 @ 8:51 am

  10. Thank you, Ardis, for a great, moving story!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 28, 2013 @ 9:18 am

  11. That’s one heckuva a bloodhound mode. Very rewarding.

    Comment by Adam G. — August 28, 2013 @ 9:21 am

  12. The footnote about the finding is just as fascinating as the rest of the story. Amen and Amen to all the other comments!

    Comment by kevinf — August 28, 2013 @ 11:30 am

  13. Bravo!! I love it when a story comes together. Of course now I have to ask if it turned out to be my Ola Larson or not.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 28, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

  14. Fantastic! Can’t decide if this should be filed under the genre of tragedy or triumph.

    Bloodhound mode, of course, is pure triumph.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 28, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

  15. Wow, what a fascinating story. I wonder if he ever shared the gospel with his wife or children.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — August 28, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  16. Yes, fascinating. Great job, Ardis.

    Comment by Carol — August 28, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

  17. […] http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2013/08/28/saim-abd-al-samid-all-unknown-no-more/#more-22814 […]

    Pingback by “Saim Abd al-Samid: ‘All Unknown’ No More” — August 28, 2013 @ 11:52 pm

  18. I’m commenting a little. This is really moving to me. Thanks again, Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 29, 2013 @ 7:25 am

  19. …a little late…

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 29, 2013 @ 7:25 am

  20. What a fascinating story. Thank you for this! My brother’s wife (her maiden name is Aposhian) has Armenian relatives who made great sacrifices to join the LDS church. They left everything behind to immigrate to Utah to worship freely. We take a lot of things for granted these days.

    Comment by Julianne Dehlin Hatton — August 29, 2013 @ 8:09 am

  21. It was awesome being able to talk to you and hear this story in person Ardis. I am glad that you have been able to publish it. Very cool.

    Thanks!

    Comment by andrew h — August 29, 2013 @ 9:20 am

  22. Loved the story, Ardis!

    Comment by Michael De Groote — August 29, 2013 @ 9:23 am

  23. Absolutely love this — thank you so much for your hard work and research. This is Mormon blogging at its best!

    I’ve known a Siam-like figure or two in my own time. People often risk a lot to accept the Gospel and be baptized. These days, more often than not, it occurs while they are furtively living in a country far from their homeland as illegal immigrants trying to find a better life. In many cases, they are only in the new country (the UK, Spain, Germany, etc.) for a few years before being “caught” living as undocumented residents and sent back to their homelands. My sense is that when this happens their conversion to the Gospel isn’t necessarily wiped out but they are so burdened with life there (and the danger of being a member) that even their own consciousness of their membership in the household of God is subdued and pushed back to a back-burner, of sorts.

    Others, of course, remain committed and enthusiastic and have contributed immensely to the Church’s growth in such places.

    Comment by john f. — August 29, 2013 @ 11:58 am

  24. I LOVED this story, and echo another commenter who said it’s his favorite Keepa post of all time! What a great movie this would make, along the lines of the church movie about the guy from Italy who discovered a Book of Mormon, converted, came to America, etc. I don’t remember the details, but it was very moving. Such a movie could be a wonderful tool for missionary work among people of Middle Eastern descent, or just anyone who’s culture is perhaps hostile to the west.
    But, putting movie-making aside-what an incredible, inspirational story of sacrifice. Makes our first world struggles with the church look very puny and insignificant.

    Comment by Nancy Hymas — August 29, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  25. Thanks for posting this fascinating story! Could you let me know what source you have for the Anthon H. Lund letter to Ola Larson? Like Bruce Crow, I am a descendant of an Ola Larson who may be the same person you mention. I would be very interested in what President Lund may have written to him.

    Comment by Steve Hollingworth — August 30, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  26. Thanks too for including the little post script procedural explaining the path your research took.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 1, 2013 @ 6:47 am

  27. I actually forgot about this…for a bit. But it was too good to be permanently obscured by my gradually (I hope I hope I hope) thinning brain fog.

    Tonight I remembered not reading the ‘rest of the story’ & came looking for it.

    What a tale! Yes, it would make a great movie, but it had to be so very very hard to live. I want so to hear more (because when I read your ‘stories’ i always hear them in your voice)

    Comment by Diane Peel — September 1, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

  28. Lester Mangum is my grandfather, and I was very interested to read about his mission experience in Turkey. Thank for your research and publishing the story.

    Comment by Gary Knight Mangum — September 2, 2013 @ 11:38 pm

  29. What a great story. I am grateful to have been lead to this site. This and some of the other stories I’ve read this evening have been very fascinating and I appreciate the effort exhibited to bring them to light.

    Comment by Chris M. — September 4, 2013 @ 12:32 am

  30. Wonderful story! Thanks.

    Comment by Rex Goode — December 19, 2014 @ 8:57 am

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