By Laurie Paolicelli
What does it mean to tell a story? How do we reckon with the gaps in our history? These questions animate the February 2023 North Carolina premiere of Omar, an opera from Southern Futures Artist-in Residence Rhiannon Giddens and acclaimed composer Michael Abels.
The work draws inspiration from the 1831 autobiography of Omar Ibn Said. It begins long before the West African scholar was forced to board a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina — the site of his initial enslavement. Pulling from a wealth of sources — including historical texts found in Carolina’s Louis Round Wilson Library — Omar tells a profound story of strength, resistance, and religious conviction in the face of harrowing circumstances.
Carl Ernst is co-author, with Mbaye Lo of the forthcoming book, I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar ibn Said’s America (scheduled for publication in August 2023 by UNC Press.) Mbaye Lo is Associate Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and International Comparative Studies at Duke University.
Ernst is an academic specialist in Islamic studies at UNC, with a focus on West and South Asia. He has received research fellowships from the Fulbright program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His research, based on the study of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, has been devoted to the study of three main areas: general and critical issues of Islamic studies, pre-modern and contemporary Sufism, and Indo-Muslim culture.
This is the first comprehensive study of Omar ibn Said (1770-1863), a Muslim scholar from West Africa who was enslaved in North Carolina for over fifty years, based on the first complete and accurate translation of his 18 surviving Arabic documents. While jailed there, he began writing on the walls in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. His literacy in Arabic and his religious piety became objects of fascination to his second owner, a plantation owner named Jim Owen, whose brother John became the governor of North Carolina.
“The Arabic writings of Omar Ibn Said fascinated his enslavers despite their complete incomprehension of the documents,” explains Ernst. “The white slave-owning elite invented racist fantasies, distortions, and outright lies about him, claiming that he had converted to Christianity as a way of justifying slavery. This is our history. Newly discovered quotations in Omar’s writings, from Arabic works that he had memorized on Islamic law, theology, and Sufism, reveal his deep engagement with those sources.”
Ernst says that this book aims to restore the voice of Omar as an African Muslim teacher and healer, and to explore the role of Arabic as an American language.
In the Carolina Performing Arts upcoming production of Omar, the acclaimed musician Rhiannon Giddens uses her art to excavate the past and reveal bold truths about our present. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens co-founded the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. She most recently won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album for They’re Calling Me Home, which she made with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. Giddens is now a two-time winner and eight-time Grammy nominee for her work as a soloist and collaborator.
Giddens is multiracial in ancestry, from her European-American father (David Giddens) and her African- and Native-American (Lumbee, Occaneechi, and Seminole) mother (Deborah Jamieson), who met as college students in the city of Greensboro, North Carolina.
The opera premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA, less than a mile down the road from where the man was sold into slavery, and where he spent five decades on plantations, one of which where he wrote his autobiography — the only known, surviving slave narrative written in Arabic.
Though ibn Said’s memoir ends some 30 years before his eventual death in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar transcends bare biographical facts to fully realize the record of his life and his steadfast Muslim faith. The rich, bubbling score combines West African traditions and traditional opera instrumentation to illuminate the lives of Omar ibn Said and those who came into his orbit.
Sung in English with some Arabic; English supertitles.
February 25 & 26, 2023
Tickets from $10–$69. See details below.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.
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