Omar Ibn Said, 1850s. (Public Domain)
On May 27, 2022, Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels debuted a new opera called Omar. The opera had its first performance during the renowned Spoleto festival in Charleston, South Carolina. The festival helps Charleston by bringing fans of European-style classical music to the city as tourists. But this opera confronts the visiting listeners with difficult truths about Charleston’s history.
The opera draws on historical documents to tell the story of Omar Ibn Said, an African man who was captured in the transatlantic slave trade and forced to work in Charleston. Ibn Said was remarkable in his time because he was able to write down his own story. Despite his Christian enslavers overseeing his writing, Giddens saw his resistance in the Quranic verses included. “What he chooses to quote, when, and in response to what – that’s telling you a lot about who he is,” she told the Los Angeles Times reporter. Gidden’s libretto attempted to capture his ability to speak truth to power. Abels then connected the libretto to the grand opera style inspired by classical Americana music, gospel music, and Arabic modalities.
Ibn Said was born in what is now Senegal to a wealthy father. He was a Fula Islamic scholar who taught before being captured, enslaved, and transported to the United States in 1807. He labored in the city of Charleston and on a nearby rice plantation. After three years, he escaped. In this self-liberation attempt, he walked from Charleston, South Carolina, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was captured when observing Islamic prayer rituals in a local church.
While he was in jail waiting for return to South Carolina, Ibn Said found charcoal and began writing on the prison walls in Arabic. A new captor, General James Owen of Bladen County, North Carolina, took advantage of Ibn Said’s abilities to generate publicity. After Ibn Said converted to Christianity, Owen did not free him, but did allow him to publish his story. The Life of Omar Ibn Said appeared in print in 1831.
Many people in Ibn Said’s time misread his narrative and misunderstood his conversion to Christianity. Ibn Said wrote his autobiography in Arabic. He incorporated memorized passages from the Quran throughout the text. He had not simply adopted the enslavers’ religion. Rather, the book used language as a tool of resistance and subterfuge. Ibn Said continued to adhere to a sense of self and an African identity through his writing. He criticized the West, Christianity, and the institution of slavery until his death in 1864.
While writing the opera, Giddens drew on rediscovered archival collections of Ibn Said’s writings at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Library of Congress. It is unclear whether she used Ibn Said’s Arabic Bible held at Davidson College, which contains Ibn Said’s notes in the margins. His annotations offered additional insights into the man who retained his faith and humanity despite his enslavement in North Carolina.
From the announcement of the project to its premiere at Spoleto Festival in Charleston, new audiences learned about Omar Ibn Said, the person, his writings and his novelty status during slavery and his life complicates our understanding of African American religious traditions, literacy, and resistance. Together, Gidden’s folk style and Abels’ orchestration added a richness and complexity to the aria sung by Julie in an Charleston, South Carolina scene while portraying Ibn Said’s spiritual journey.
Giddens reminds us of Ibn Said’s humanity, claims of dignity, and his strategies for surviving slavery in South Carolina and North Carolina.
Through this operatic performance, Omar Ibn Said’s story came full circle. Giddens’s use of historic storytelling introduced these new opera-going audiences and the Charleston elite to this remarkable individual.
Hilary Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press, 2016) as well as several essays and book chapters, public history publications, and scholarly blogs. Learn more…
Learn more about this topic
Tim Greiving, “How Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels turned an Enslaved Man’s Narrative Into an Opera,” Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2022.
A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said. Translated from the Arabic, edited, and with an Introduction by Ala Alryyes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011)