- A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said by Omar Ibn Said
With A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Ala Alryyes provides a valuable and richly contextualized English language translation of the only extant US slave autobiography written in Arabic. Omar Ibn Said was born around 1770 in an area of West Africa between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, known then as Futa Toro, where he attended school, learned Arabic, and, eventually, became a teacher. He reports that he was captured during a military campaign and sold into slavery in 1807, ending his Middle Passage in Charleston, South Carolina. After escaping from his first master, Omar was recaptured and imprisoned for sixteen days near Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he shocked local residents by covering his cell walls with “piteous petitions to be released, all written in the Arabic language” (209). He was subsequently purchased by General James Owen, brother of North Carolina’s governor, John Owens. Although his ability to read and write in Arabic made him something of a local celebrity, Omar Ibn Said lived and died enslaved.
Alryyes’s edition provides readers with black-and-white facsimile images of Omar’s original handwritten Arabic manuscript accompanied side by side with English translations of each manuscript page. Although many readers of this text will not read Arabic, the inclusion of the manuscript pages allows one to glimpse Omar’s handwriting, his use of the page space, and the emotional moment when he resolutely rejects a slaver’s request to return him to Charleston (the location from which he has just escaped). He writes, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no—I will not walk to the place [End Page 583] Charleston” (64–65). Although Omar does not speak out openly against slavery and his autobiography feels spare in relating the details of his experiences as a slave, the emotion of his insistent “No” is visible and present on the manuscript page.
Readers daunted by the Muslim and Arabic contexts requisite for studying Omar Ibn Said’s narrative will find an ample survey of the field in A Muslim American Slave. Alryyes’s thoughtful introduction provides the critical and interpretive context for recognizing the ways that Omar’s use of the Arabic language and his citations from the Qur’an work against dehumanizing nineteenth-century racist evaluations of Africans and African Americans. Furthermore, Alryyes situates Omar’s Arabic writings in the familiar landscape of antebellum African American writing by Fredrick Douglass, Nat Turner, and David Walker, as well as the less familiar terrain of Arabic writing by Africans and non-Africans in early America. The introduction similarly expands discussions of US abolitionism and the solicitation of slave narratives by detailing how Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography was produced at the behest of the American Colonization Society, a southern group whose members encouraged slave owners to free their slaves so that they might emigrate and establish a colony in what is now Liberia. A Muslim American Slave valuably deepens our understanding of the varieties of enslaved peoples and their experiences in the United States as well as illuminating the at times contradictory aims of northern and southern antebellum abolitionist rhetoric.
Following his introduction and translations, Alryyes includes a 1925 edition of Omar’s autobiography published in the American Historical Review, originally translated by Isaac Bird and introduced by J. Franklin Jameson. This material highlights the work of editors and translators in framing Omar’s text for different historical moments and underscores how the value and meanings of this text change over time. Five contextual essays deepen and extend the geopolitical and interpretive frames for considering Omar Ibn Said, including discussions of Muslims in early America (Michael Gomez), contemporary contexts (Allan Austin), Barbary Coast slavery (Robert Allison), the transatlantic slave trade (Sylvaine Diouf), and coded resistance in Omar’s use of the Qur’an (Ghada Osman and Camille Forbes). Finally, supplemental primary materials gathered in the appendices provide a...