tv American Artifacts Omar Ibn Said Collection CSPAN May 19, 2019 10:00pm-10:43pm EDT
created by cable in 1979, c-span is brought to you but your local cable or satellite provider. c-span, your unfiltered view of government. >> in 2017, the library of congress acquired a one-of-a-kind manuscript. in 1831 autobiography of a slave written in arabic. up next, a collection of documents bearing the name of omar ibn said. ms. deeb: i am mary-jane deeb, here at the library of congress. i'm here to tell you about this fantastic acquisition the library has made in 2017. it is only now available to the public digitally on our website. we would like to show you the items themselves and talk about them. the core of this collection is
the omar ibn said biography. autobiography, in fact. it is written in arabic. this autobiography was written in 1831 by a man who was enslaved a couple of decades earlier. he was asked to write his autobiography, which he did. >> you asked me to write my life. i'm not able to do this because i have much forgotten my own, as well as the arab language. neither can i write very grammatically or according to the true idiom. so, my brother, i beg you not to blame me because i am a man of weak eyes and a weak body.
ms. deeb: this autobiography has been well known since the time it was written. for the last almost 200 years, its existence has not been known. it is not a mystery. it has been passed on from hand to hand. it has been at certain times owned by people and disappeared from everyone's of you and then it reappears. the latest owner was derrick beard. he was an african-american collector of africana and historic documents. he bought it at an auction in new york at the swan gallery. this was in the early 1990's. he took it around. he realized it was important in changing the image that people have of who the people were that they had brought in as slaves. he realized its importance, and he wanted that autobiography to
get greater attention. in 2002, we at the library of congress organized a conference on globalization. one of the conferences was on islam and america. basically, we were trying to find out who were the first muslims who came to america? what were the different waves of muslims who came to america? the first wave was the african slaves who were brought in who were muslims. so, there is probably something like perhaps 10% to 15%, it is a guess, of the people brought in from west africa were muslim. in 2002, when we made the conference on islam and america, he was one of the people who was invited. he brought with him this
autobiography and he showed it to us. it was the first time with the library saw it and most of the people in the audience had never seen it or heard about it. they had no idea about it. so, he brought it to the front and his was the first talk. mr. beard: one of the most important remaining articles culture is a manuscript written by omar ibn said. this is a frontage slide of the manuscript which you can take a look at after the conference. it is in the display case here. ms. deeb: this was in and of itself a revelation. we all admired the manuscript. he said then in 2002, the manuscript should be at the library of congress because it should belong to all of america. i should be available for all americans to see and to read.
we all agreed and said yes, of course. but he was not ready yet to sell it and we were not ready to buy it yet. we did not have the funds. from 2002 through 2017, the manuscript was on the road. it went to various universities, institutions, it has been on the road for a long of a long time. then, derrick beard fell sick. he thought he was going to die and he wanted this manuscript to be here. so, he got in touch with us and he said, this manuscript, it is
up for sale at sotheby's. our africa specialist on west africa said to me, we have to get it. i said i agree, but where will you find the money? she said oh, we are going to find the money. for several months, we went around and the library a great with us but it was an important manuscript. they thought we should get the money toward the end of the year when we have end of year funding. so our acquisition office came up with the money. also negotiated with sotheby's and eventually we purchased it. now, omar ibn said was a scholar. he was born in what is now senegal, between the rivers of senegal and gambier.
this is one of the most important tribes of west africa. today, the number is about 14 million people. he was born in this region. he grew up, and went to school, we have to assume it was one of the mosques where he learned to read and write in arabic. but, in his autobiography, he talks about having spent over 25 years studying. >> my name is omar ibn said. my birthplace is futor, between the two rivers. i sought knowledge under the instruction of my own brother and others.
i continued my studies for 25 years, then returned to my home where i remained six years. ms. deeb: we're not quite sure what he was studying, but we do know he was studying with mentors. this is quite the traditional way of studying in both the middle east and in africa at that time. you had mentors. you went on and studied with scholars. his knowledge was expansive. he must have spoken at least two or three languages. but, he was in a region in which there was war, tribal warfare. this is not uncommon. at a certain point, at the age of 37, he was caught during a tribal conflict. he speaks about a large army having come in. >> they came to our place a large army who killed many men and took me and brought me to
the great sea and sold me into the hands of the christians who bound me and sent me on board a great ship. we sailed upon the great sea a month at a half. we came to a place called charleston in the christian language. there, they sold me to a small, weak, and wicked man called johnson, a complete infidel who had no fear of god at all. ms. deeb: we know from our scholars that he probably went out on the port of st. louis on the ship and sailed across to south carolina, to charleston. he was obliged to do hard work. he says, i am a small man, a weak man. that is not the work for me. so, he runs away. again, this is what he writes in his biography. >> i am a small man and unable to do hard work so, i fled from the hand of johnson and after a month came to a place called fayetteville.
there, i saw some great houses, churches. on the new moon into a church to pray. a lad saw me and rode off to the place of his father and informed him that he had seen a black man in the church. a man named hunter and another with him on horseback came, attended by a troupe of dogs. they took me and made me go with them 12 miles where they put me into a great house from which i could not go out. i continued in the great house, which in the christian language they called jail 16 days and nights. ms. deeb: apparently, he starts writing on the walls. what was he writing, we are not sure. it might have been a prayer asking god to help him. but, whatever it was, it drew the attention of the jailer, who then eventually calls on the governor of north carolina to come and see this person who is
in jail, but seems to be writing on the walls and seems to be a respectable man. so, the governor and his brother come to the jail and they meet with him and eventually they take on omar ibn said to the house of the brother of the governor of north carolina, where he eventually spends the rest of his life. it is this story that he tells in his book. it is very brief. his autobiography is brief, but it is written in a way that humanizes the experience of being caught, of being enslaved. and then of finding people who, although he is enslaved and in the house, who respect him. so, he is highly admiring of the
family he has been put in. >> ye people of north carolina, ye people of south carolina, ye people of america, all of you, have you among you to such men as jim owens and john owens? these men are good. what food they eat, they give to me to eat. as they clothe themselves, they clothe me. they permit me to read the gospel of god, our lord, savior, and king. ms. deeb: he is offered at a certain point to go back to senegal, or to west africa, and chooses to remain in america. he converts to christianity and there are records of him going to church, reading the bible, but he also impresses everyone around him. omar ibn said becomes famous in his own lifetime. there are articles written about him.
there are people coming to meet with him, who praise him. there are people interested in what he is thinking, asking him to write this autobiography. so, it is a new way of looking at really what happens to some of the people who are brought into the united states. it sort of tells us that the story that we usually hear about slavery is much more complex in terms of the people who are brought in, and in terms of the people who are here. now, with respect to the rest of the collection, this autobiography then becomes part of a larger collection.
we have an abolitionist, the founder of the american ethnographic society, theodore dwight, who decides he wants this autobiography to be made known to others in america. he is challenging the conceptual framework, if you want, of people at that time about who they were enslaving, who they were "civilizing." he is basically saying you better find out about islam, about west africa. this is an introduction, if you want, to the study of islamo-west africa. he really wanted people to know about the history of the region.
so, he sends this autobiography to a number of missionaries who were in the near east at that time, one of whom is very well known, daniel bliss, founder of what is now the american university of beirut. at that time, it was a college. he knew arabic, he spent years in lebanon, in fact there is a whole street in lebanon called daniel bliss. he also approaches another colored missionary, somehow or other related to yale
university, issac bird, who is also an arabist in a sense that he knew arabic, studied islam, and he was a missionary in the near east as well. those two men begin translating, if you want, the autobiography. some of the documents that we at the library acquired are part of their correspondents between theodore dwight and people like daniel bliss and isaac bird, who are there, fascinated by the manuscript, wanting to translate it. theodore dwight also writes to the presidents of liberia what they think of this manuscript.
they say yes, we are very familiar with arabic writing, in fact, in liberia some of the indigenous people are also writing in arabic. some of the people who are freed from the united states and who went back to west africa are writing and they are writing in arabic as well. and so, this unique collection brings to the library a whole array of things, the core of which is the autobiography of omar ibn said. for example, we have a fascinating document here which is on the origin of men, written by one mohammed decker who
describes a history of the way the world was created. this is an example of the manuscript in arabic, and this is a an example of the translation of this manuscript. it is an absolutely original, unique item. he writes about how the world evolved. it is a mixture, if you want, of islamic conventions, of christian, biblical stories, and of some african stories as well.
it is -- he speaks about seven heavens, he talks about one god, but also brings some women, important women who don't appear either in the bible or in islam and seem to be more part of african beliefs. so, you find an absolutely fabulous description of origins of the world. as you know, every country, every nation and the world has these original ideas of how the world was created and who were the major figures in it. so, we have here a document which is completely unique. i have never seen a document that describes the origin of men in the same way.
it combines muslim beliefs, christian beliefs, and also indigenous african beliefs. it is translated too and it is a product of this omar ibn said, because with his autobiography, a lot of people got interested and started saying, there are others who are writing. the others are either in west africa, or left the united states and went to west africa. among the items that we acquired are standalones, items written by people who spoke arabic and they are part of this collection. we are not quite sure how they came to be part of this collection.
my guess again is that it probably came from liberia, written by muslim scholars as well. but, this particular item is an example of a common practice. whereas this one, the one on the origin of men is quite a unique document, this one, on the other hand, is a magic square. it is more a talisman. it is written in arabic and it is a square. really, it is a prayer of so is god, so it begins, in the name of god, the merciful and compassionate. basically, it asks god's
protection for camels. why camels? well, because west africa is very close to the sahara desert. apart from the shore, you move from west africa in turn of the inside, and you are in the sahara. that went on between the north and the south of west africa, but between west africa and east africa, and certainly the middle east, and more particularly the arabian peninsula, there was trade. the trade was by caravan. the caravans were driven by the camels. so, the caravans had to be protected. they were the lifeline between different regions of west africa. those caravans carried goods.
africa was always very wealthy, very rich in terms of gold, materials, cotton materials, foodstuffs, and they traded with the arabian peninsula and drove goods from there, such as coffee and other goods. of course, with the goods came the books, medicine, ideas, came islam. what was important in the travels across the desert was the camel. without the camel, people would die. because, it is a camel that carried, transported the merchandise. it was a camel that provided milk, meat, that provided even shade during long travels.
people who traveled long distances in the sahara could be attacked by other wandering tribes, by thieves, and robbers. there could be sand storms. the livelihood of the people in that region who were traders depended very much on the camels. in arabic, there are 75 or 80 words for the camel. baby camel, mother camel, camel sitting, camel standing, camel sleeping, there are a huge number of words because the camel was essential to the people in the desert. this is actually a prayer and it shows the square with the middle of it is a station where all the
camels meet and that they go off in different directions to the trade posts. so, you have the prayers around sending them good travels, may god help you and protect you, but rather than focus on individuals, this is a talisman to protect the animal itself. again, this is not unusual, but it is a wonderful representation that we have here. giving us a sense of where omar ibn said came from. that is the important thing. these documents all provide a framework for the autobiography. it gives us a sense that he came from an area of scholarship. you have scholars writing. it also came from an area where there was business and trading.
he does speak about being himself a wealthy man. >> before i came to the christian country, my religion was the religion of mohammed, the apostle of god, may god have mercy upon him and give him peace. i walked to the mosque before daybreak, washed my face, head, hands, and feet. i prayed at noon, prayed in the afternoon, prayed at sunset, prayed and the evening. i gave alms every year. gold, silver, seeds, cattle, milk, rice, wheat, barley. i gave tithes. i went every year to the holy war. i went on pilgrimage to mecca as all did who were able. ms. deeb: you realize he was a man of wealth. where did the wealth come from? he was probably a merchant.
you have the supporting evidence to give a sense of the people who lived in west africa. those who were eventually caught and brought into the united states as slaves. they had a whole civilization behind them. went back hundreds of years. it is not difficult to understand it because, after all, they belong to a monotheistic faith, they did business. by translating the works, making those works available, you in a way begin to rewrite history. they were not what was often described as people that were taken in who had no religion, they were pagan, no civilized nation, etc. that is not the case. therefore, omar ibn said, this little autobiography is able to make us think in a different way.
to make us rewrite history. the history of that period. so i was very excited to see that when we brought in students, high school students, they looked at that and said i didn't know that. >> for us, it was just a whole journey of learning about something we had no background knowledge about omar ibn said. i was really surprised to hear a lot of the things i heard including how there was such a large population of muslims who were brought to this country. i'd never heard a voice from that population before. ms. deeb: but this is what history is about. rediscovering a history that has not really been written fully. we have some scholars who have written about it and we actually had a program on february 5 and one of the scholars has written extensively on that. her own great-grandfather is
from senegal and was a great scholars of that region who himself had been a major scholarly institution to teach about islam, but also about astronomy. >> you also had and the united states this idea that the muslims were not african, that they were arabs who had been taken by mistake. that those muslims, those arabs despised the rest of the africans. so there were sometimes these attempts at putting people one against the other. ms. deeb: we did a podcast, and someone asked the lady from
senegal what she saw in the picture and she said, i saw a muslim scholar from senegal. what i can say is that i see a man with great dignity, and at -- and a man very sure of himself, very confident. very confident in a way almost as if he had a mission to tell people about his past and to inform others about who he is, not only for himself but for all the people who are behind. there are a number of intriguing things in this autobiography. if you would like me to say a few words about why think it is intriguing, one thing is he never gives us his full name. omar ibn said simply means omar the son of said. said had, from his own
now autobiography a number of sons. but said who? he never gives us his family name. although he talks about his father and mother, he never talks about a personal family, a wife, children. again, the question is why. i think, again, it's a personal opinion, that he was protecting his family by not giving a family name, he was protecting them. by not speaking about wife, children, whatever, he was protecting them. because he did not want probably that they suffered the fate that he suffered himself. he comes to the united states and never gets married. so he has no progeny. again, the question is why. others did. he did not.
then, his autobiography has a number of interesting parts to it. he is said to have converted to christianity, to have gone to church, to have read the bible. he speaks about christ. he speaks about christianity in very positive terms. and yet, when he starts his autobiography, he begins with a verse from the koran. he begins with a chapter of the koran in fact. a chapter that has 33 verses. it is written from memory, i guess. i wanted to check how good his memory was because you have to remember, he was from west africa. he was not an arab. arabic was not his first line -- language. of course, he learned arabic and
he wrote in arabic. after all those years, 1831, he was writing in his 60's, since he was born in 1770. in 1831, he was already 61 years old. so how much can you remember from what you learned in school? , a copy ofmanuscript the manuscript and the koran to see how accurate he was. it is remarkable. he remembered 33 versus, which the length of that chapter. he wrote it completely. there is only one verse he seems to or three lines appeared the rest, he remembers the whole thing. again, why did he put that verse? it means that chapter of dominion. but in arabic, it also has the
concept of ownership. he chooses, of all the chapters in the koran, the chapter on ownership. it is in that chapter the statement of those who do not learn from their mistakes. those who do not learn from their mistakes are punished. those who learn, who are guided by the wisdom of god go to heaven. it is almost as if he is saying, just by this choice of verse, ownership in islam is god's only. we really do not own anything. the only owner is god. and he owns the whole of the universe. but, no individual has the right to own, and therefore, in other
words he is saying you do not have the right before god to own another person. this is the message that comes to me as i read through the work although it never says that. , it simply says those who will learn will be rewarded, those who do not learn will be punished. i think he sees himself through his work as really a missionary to some extent. bringing the truth to the world through his writings. again, this is something that scholars have to work on. have to be able to analyze. there are a lot of interesting questions with respect to the collection and with respect to the autobiography. this is what is called in arabic, in terms of the style of
these manuscripts, a style of writing. it is simply the style of the writing. the words are in arabic. this is more square, thicker in lines than the arabic written in egypt or syria or saudi arabia, which is more slanted. it is in the style written for example in manuscripts written in morocco and nigeria, and mali. it is a specific style, a beautiful one, but quite distinct. this is a very distinctive style of writing. but, completely intelligible to anyone reading it.
there is no mystery in terms of the meanings or in terms of the words or the structure of the sentences. it is just the design. arabic calligraphy is very decorative. this is why you find it on walls and designing of walls on mosques, on palaces. you see it on designs of plates and pottery and ceramic and copper. and gold and silver. the designs are very often calligraphic designs. this is simply a special sign which is very distinctive of north and west africa. the important thing here is that it is a miracle that it survived for 200 years. as i said, it traveled, it went
from hand to hand. people thought it was important enough to carry it on. they were probably others written by people who were enslaved but this is the only known existing manuscript in arabic written by a slave in the united states. it is the only one. now, someone might find and please contact the library of congress and tell us that you found some magnificent manuscript somewhere. but there may have been others. they were destroyed or fell by the wayside. the chances are that there were others. that there were many others, but only this one survived. so, it is this story. it is as if for 200 years it has been carried and moved from one to the next to the next
generation. each one thinking it is important that people know about it. that people understand that in africa, people had a long and ancient civilization. that there was a written culture , that people were scholars. that they were businessmen, that they were warriors and a whole fabric of society. which often in the tail that is told, the history that is written, seems to disappear. so, this brings it to life. it tells a story which is absolutely vital to our understanding of what africa was like 200 years ago. the moment i leave you i will take up -- take a paper
and get everyone signing off. i am chief of division until the end of the day and that i go into oblivion. i have to say that i have a feeling of complete satisfaction of a job done, completed, and finished. i was starting to retire a year ago, but i decided to extend my stay here until this collection was made public and the job was completed. when one decides to retire, at least when i decided to retire, there were things that i needed to complete. this was certainly one of them. i wanted this collection to be made available to everyone. it was as if it was an end of a journey for this collection. it had been on the road for 200 years and finally it had come home to the library. this belongs to the american people because it comes from taxpayers' money. so, everyone has contributed one way or another to the purchase
of this collection. this is why it had to be here. it had to here because it belongs to everyone and everyone could come and look at this and use it. use our website and digital collection and download stuff. they can download the whole manuscript from our website if they wish. so, when it came home, it was my time to say goodbye and to say, now i am on to do other things. once, tv was three giant networks and pbs. in 1979, a small network rolled out a big idea. let viewers decide on their own what was important to them. c-span opened the doors to washington policymaking for all
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