The Life of Omar Ibn Said: New Edition

Paul Harvey

From the latest edition of Choice, a quick review of a new edition of the indispensable short autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, together with a collection of essays on the history of Islam among American slaves; looks to be indispensable for your university library, so I'll reprint the review. Below the review is some more information about the book, from the University of Wisconsin Press website:

The cover of Alryyes's translation of Said is dark brown, with some Arabic script and an oval photo of Said.

Said, Omar ibn.  A Muslim American slave: the life of Omar Ibn Said, ed., tr., and introd. by Ala   Alryyes.  Wisconsin, 2011.  222p afp; ISBN 9780299249540 pbk, $19.95; ISBN9780299249533 e-book, $14.95. Reviewed in 2012feb CHOICE.
In 1966, Derrick Bell acquired an enormously important manuscript, the life of Omar Ibn Said, written in 1831. Said was a Muslim scholar captured in the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. Ala Alryyes (comparative literature, Yale) translated this Arabic text, described as "consisting of 23 pages of quarto paper, of which pages 6 through 13 are left blank." However, Alryyes does more than translate. He says that this "text is a critical study of the text and contexts." To frame this work are debates over its importance by scholars Michael Gomez, Allan D. Austin, Robert J. Allison, Sylviane A. Diouf, Ghada Osman, and Camille F. Forbes. Alryyes contextualizes the work in literary conversations of other slave narratives, general Muslim Qur'anic understandings of the suras used by Said, and 19th-century US literature. Omar Ibn Said's manuscript is of singular importance because it is the only extant autobiography written by a slave in Arabic in the US; it permits comparison with slave narratives by escaped slaves; it contributes to the multilingual history in all genres of American literature; and it offers an opportunity to analyze various ways of reading a text. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Graduate students, faculty. -- A. B. McCloud, DePaul University

From the book's website:

"Then there came to our country a big army. It killed many people. It took me, and walked me to the big Sea, and sold me into hands of a Christian man."
—Omar Ibn Said 

Born to a wealthy family in West Africa around 1770, Omar Ibn Said was abducted and sold into slavery in the United States, where he came to the attention of a prominent North Carolina family after filling “the walls of his room with piteous petitions to be released, all written in the Arabic language,” as one local newspaper reported. Ibn Said soon became a local celebrity, and in 1831 he was asked to write his life story, producing the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic. 

In A Muslim American Slave, scholar and translator Ala Alryyes offers both a definitive translation and an authoritative edition of this singularly important work, lending new insights into the early history of Islam in America and exploring the multiple, shifting interpretations of Ibn Said’s narrative by the nineteenth-century missionaries, ethnographers, and intellectuals who championed it. 

This edition presents the English translation on pages facing facsimile pages of Ibn Said’s Arabic narrative, augmented by Alryyes’s comprehensive introduction and by photographs, maps, and other writings by Omar Ibn Said. The volume also includes contextual essays and historical commentary by literary critics and scholars of Islam and the African diaspora: Michael A. Gomez, Allan D. Austin, Robert J. Allison, Sylviane A. Diouf, Ghada Osman, and Camille F. Forbes. The result is an invaluable addition to our understanding of writings by enslaved Americans and a timely reminder that “Islam” and “America” are not mutually exclusive terms. 

“Expertly introduced, edited, and translated from the Arabic by Ala Alryyes, A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said offers the fullest historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious contexts for an understanding of this fascinating American slave narrative.”
—Werner Sollors, Harvard University 

Ala Alryyes is associate professor of comparative literature and English at Yale. He is author of Original Subjects: The Child, the Novel, and the Nations. He lives in Brooklyn.


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