Book Review: ‘The Moor’s Account’ gives a Moroccan slave his voice

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Laila Lalami
Updated 26 May 2017

Book Review: ‘The Moor’s Account’ gives a Moroccan slave his voice

“The Moor’s Account” by Laila Lalami is a fictionalized memoir of a Moorish slave from Morocco named Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam Al-Zamori. Known as Estebanico by his Spanish master and conquistador, Andrés Dorantes, he travels with a Spanish fleet in 1527 to settle in La Florida for the king and queen.
Of the five ships and 600-strong contingent that land on the shores of the New World, only four manage to survive and one of them is Mustafa. Lalami’s book is based on real accounts of the expedition through Mustafa’s eyes and it reads as hauntingly as it does correctly in terms of details and times we know so little of. This is Lalami’s third book and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015.
The story begins with Mustafa arriving in La Florida as part of Governor Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition. At 30 years of age, and five years as a slave, Mustafa floats between two planes: On the first he clings to his past, longing for Morocco, his old life and the old world, and second, his present state and status. Mustafa dreams of being back at home in Morocco where he was free and known by his real name. After he is enslaved and sold to Dorantes, he is given a new name and identity, stripping him of his history.
“A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world.” It matters little to those who enslave him that “Estebanico was a man conceived by the Castilians, quite different from the man I really was.”
But he finds himself in the West, a slave, where freedom is a very remote possibility. He is witness to the discovery of the New World and sees his future there, no matter how much he wishes to be back home. “The ambition of the others trained you, slowly and irrevocably.”
Mustafa’s memoir accounts all that transpires after landing in the New World. He serves to partially authenticate the accounts of his companions, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
“The first was my legal master; the second my fellow captive, and the third my rival storyteller.” Beholden to rules and laws, the three men leave much out of their accounts when they tell their stories later. Mustafa leaves nothing out of his story because he is “neither beholden to Castilian men of power, nor bound by the rules of society to which I did not belong;” he was “free to recount the true story of what happened to my companions and me.”
The moment the expedition begins, the Spanish discover gold in an abandoned Indian village. With a thirst for wealth and after capturing a few Indians, Narváez decides to march farther inland in search of more treasure. He renames the Indian village Portillo and allows the notary Jerónimo de Albaniz to declare the land which is now the property of Spain’s king and queen. The scene reminds Mustafa of when the Portuguese took over his hometown in Morocco, changing his destiny and separating him from his family. “Now, halfway across the world, the scene was repeating itself on a different stage, with different people.”
It is then that the expedition splits; 600 people were felt to be too large a group to march together. Narváez sends 300 people — women, children and those unable to march — to the ships, which will eventually meet them at Pánuco; he and all the able-bodied men march to Apalache. With riches hoped to match those of Montezuma, the expedition begins with overzealous attitudes but soon becomes a journey that not only tests the physical vigor of men but their mental stability and luck. They meet some tribes that are kind and helpful and others that are hostile, but because of limited resources, dangerous animals, mosquitoes and fever, only four survive, and the definition of survival in the New World is different from the one they are used to.
Lalami’s book is moving from the first page. The parallels between being enslaved in one land and traveling thousands of miles to conquer another are disturbingly similar with the viciousness of the captor and the hostile environment. The conditions in which Mustafa travels and all that he endures, as well as details of the Spanish conquerors and the native population, are all meticulously told. Lalami’s words are carefully crafted to depict a complicated and heartbreaking history of conquerors and conquests.
The book tells all as seen by Mustafa who sees everything from interaction among the Spanish to meeting the indigenous population, to himself, a black slave among white masters, in the land of the “red-skin” Indian. The book moves between Mustafa’s present and past, as a slave and as a free man in his home town of Azemmur, the son of a notary and a clever merchant. Lalami writes of Mustafa’s life in Morocco with an ease and a gentleness like the breezes there. She writes of calls to prayer, roasting lambs and bustling souqs, which contrast starkly with the untamed wilderness of the New World, the tattooed people, the swarming mosquitos and the desperate will to survive.
Mustafa adapts to his surroundings, moving through the land and his own predicament. In the New World, he soon realizes that there is neither master nor slave when survival is at stake. Here, he can be the equal of Dorantes and the captains; he even becomes a healer and a storyteller, acting in the same way as he once saw in the crowded souq in Azemmur when he was a boy.
Lalami’s research into this book was extensive as she shaped her characters around real events that occurred 490 years ago. It is also an enormous accomplishment when we realize she bases her protagonist on one line she read in Cabeza de Vaca’s diary, “The fourth (survivor) is Estebanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.” Nothing is known of Estebanico, and no other account mentions him. We long in vain to know more about him but hundreds of years later, it is Lalami who finally puts into words what life may have been for him as she beautifully brings him into being.
“After all, what the sufferers needed most of all was an assurance that someone understood their pain and that, if not a full cure, at least some respite from it lay further ahead. This too was something I had learned in the markets of Azemmur: a good story can heal.”
— Manal Shakir is the author of “Magic Within,” published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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What We Are Reading Today: Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy

Updated 07 April 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy

Author: Katherine Ludwig Jansen

Medieval Italian communes are known for their violence, feuds, and vendettas, yet beneath this tumult was a society preoccupied with peace. Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy is the first book to examine how civic peacemaking in the age of Dante was forged in the crucible of penitential religious practice.
Focusing on Florence in the 13th and 14th centuries, an era known for violence and civil discord, Katherine Ludwig Jansen brilliantly illuminates how religious and political leaders used peace agreements for everything from bringing an end to neighborhood quarrels to restoring full citizenship to judicial exiles.
She brings to light a treasure trove of unpublished evidence from notarial archives and supports it with sermons, hagiography, political treatises, and chronicle accounts. She paints a vivid picture of life in an Italian commune, a socially and politically unstable world that strove to achieve peace. Jansen also assembles a wealth of visual material from the period, illustrating for the first time how the kiss of peace—a ritual gesture borrowed from the Catholic Mass—was incorporated into the settlement of secular disputes.
Breaking new ground in the study of peacemaking in the Middle Ages, Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy adds an entirely new dimension to our understanding of Italian culture in this turbulent age by showing how peace was conceived, memorialized, and occasionally achieved.