Have you ever heard of Omar Ibn Said? Many (most?) of us haven’t. Charleston’s Spoleto Festival, for the second year in a row, has postponed the world premier of an opera based on his life due to logistical challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
To see the Post & Courier article on the postponement CLICK HERE (If you’re not a P&C subscriber you’ll hit a paywall.)
The Spoleto Festival website has a great deal of information about Ibn Said and why his life story warrants an opera.
“Omar Ibn Said was an enslaved Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston in 1807. The opera’s story traces his spiritual journey from Africa to his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas. Much of what we know about Ibn Said comes from his autobiography, which he penned in Arabic in 1831. To create the opera, Giddens has also conducted extensive research and studied with numerous religious leaders and scholars to create a work that is historically and religiously informed and to augment parts of Ibn Said’s narrative that are unknown.
The opera opens in what would today be considered Senegal, where Omar Ibn Said was a member of the Fula ethnic group of West Africa (a region extending between Senegal and Nigeria). Born around 1770 and a scholar in his homeland, Ibn Said was captured at age 37 and transported to Charleston’s Gadsden’s Wharf in 1807—a point of entry for nearly half of all Africans forced to North America. Ibn Said arrived in 1807; by 1808—when the importation of slaves was banned—more than 100,000 West Africans had been brought through Gadsden’s Wharf. Today, as many as 60 percent of African-Americans are able to trace their roots to Charleston.
Upon arrival in the United States, Ibn Said was sold to a Charlestonian, a man called “Johnson” who he described as particularly cruel. A month later, Ibn Said escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he subsequently was recaptured and sent to jail in Fayetteville. He spent 16 days in jail, where he was discovered writing in Arabic on the walls of his jail cell. Eventually, he was purchased and taken into the household of Jim Owen and his brother John Owen, the Governor of North Carolina (1828-1830) with whom Ibn Said remained until his death in his late 80s.”
To see the entire Spoleto Festival website entry on Omar Ibn Said CLICK HERE.
Here are some more links to learn more about this man and his place in history: