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The Autobiography Of Omar Ibn Said: The Only Known U.S. Slave Narrative Written In Arabic

The life of Omar ibn Said, called Morro, a Fullah Slave in Fayetteville, N.C. Owned by Governor Owen. (Courtesy the Library of Congress)
The life of Omar ibn Said, called Morro, a Fullah Slave in Fayetteville, N.C. Owned by Governor Owen. (Courtesy the Library of Congress)

The autobiography of Omar ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, is now on  digital display at the Library of Congress.

The manuscript and more than 40 other related documents were obtained by the library in 2017 and provide a unique perspective on the history of slavery in America.

Said was an educated Muslim man living in West Africa before he was captured by a large army and taken to the U.S., where he was sold in Charleston, South Carolina, according to  Ala Alryyes, a professor at Queens College CUNY. Said escaped and ran north, where he was arrested near Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was purchased by the governor’s brother.

“His first few years of slavery in South Carolina were miserable,” Alryyes tells Here & Now‘s Lisa Mullins, “but after he escaped, his life became easier.”

Said isn’t an anomaly because he was a literate Muslim slave. In fact, Alryyes notes, it’s possible that about 10 percent of slaves in the U.S. were literate and from Muslim regions.

Alryyes says the  American Colonization Society — a group that believed slaves should be manumitted and sent back to Africa — encouraged Said to write his narrative in 1831. In August of that year, Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, led a bloody rebellion that killed as many as 60 people and instilled fear throughout the South.

Said opens his autobiography with a chapter from the Qur’an, which describes God as having possession of all things — including people, according to Alryyes.

“It’s a chapter of the Quran that seems to go against the very premise of slavery,” he says. “But the way in which his owners dealt with his religion was to frame it as someone who has converted to Christianity. So his autobiography itself says things about, ‘Before I came here, my book was the Quran and now it’s not.’ ”

Alryyes says although Said attended church and read the Bible, he doubts Said ever converted to Christianity — a narrative his owners wanted to support.

And while Said describes his masters as good people, says Alryyes, “there are many moments in the narrative where he seems to be offering a sort of double utterances or speaking in a double language in order to speak against slavery.”

Ciku Theuri produced and edited this story for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.