Stories wrapped in stories generate yet another story. Interwoven, layered tales are a feature of Arabic culture, epitomized in the extraordinary Persian story collection 1001 Nights from which it draws. So beguiling and versatile is the tradition, it’s inspired both ancient and contemporary literary endeavors. Salman Rushdie applies the eponym to his latest novel (Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight (1001) Nights). Of course the format is effectively employed in films too.
Laila Lalami has produced a marvelous new novel drawing on this, her own Arab storytelling heritage, and advancing the reputation she established in her first two novels, with a tale whose pages I’ve pursued with anticipation: The Moor’s Account. Lalami, already an established interpreter of the entangling of dissimilar worlds—North African and American– offers us an unparalleled interpretation of 16th century encounters between African Muslims and Native Americans. Within a single narrative Lalami’s Moor exposes us in a way we’ve not previously experienced, to opposing peoples’ responses to invasion, enslavement, colonialism and fellowship.
Following successful African American historical novelists, Lalami demonstrates that finally an Arab Diaspora writer can negotiate centuries back in time. This is the first novel of its kind to emerge from the substantial body of Arab American narratives penned over the past quarter century where our writers return only to the latest war (we are still so engulfed and traumatized by these events), or we embrace a history of merely three generations. This habit is hard to comprehend for a people with a recorded heritage of five millennia. Never mind; someone had to break the mold, and Lalami has.
This award-winning novel is the autobiographical account of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. (He regularly invokes his linage to assert a proud family identity as did the driver I spoke to on my first visit to Baghdad in 1989; when we parted and I asked his name, he responded: “I am Kamal Abbas Hussein; Hussein us my grandfather; Abbas is my father; and I am Kamal.”)
The Moor’s Account covers eight years of Mustafa’s survival in La Florida in New Spain”, with flashbacks to his youth. Hardly out of his teens and already a successful trader in Azemmur, Mustafa (born in Hegira 921; 16th Century AD in present-day Morocco, Northwest Africa,) nobly commits himself to servitude to save his family during the Portuguese siege of his homeland. He finds himself renamed– “…Estebanico, converted and orphaned in one gesture”— then rudely transferred from a slave-owning family in Seville to serve Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, an officer of a Castilian armada in the ill-fated Narvaez expedition to the Americas. Castaway with several hundred others –officers, settlers, priests and servants—forced to struggle by foot through swamps and mountains, their numbers dwindling sometimes by violence, sometimes by disease, sometimes by madness, Mustafa emerges undeclared leader, although legally still bonded to Dorantes, now his friend and companion. After eight years in the forest, he is one of four survivors of collective despair, fear, strife, friendships, accommodation with their Indian hosts… and shared stories.
Mustafa maintains his dignity throughout the ordeals of this diminishing band of lost men. He’s inspired both by hope of winning release from servitude to Dorantes and of returning to his mother’s home in Africa. (Both dreams are unrealized.) Eventually, just as today’s revolutionaries conclude that “freedom is won, not given”, he contrives a story to escape the Castilians and strikes out with one companion, his wife.
Lalami employs flashbacks to introduce us to 16th Century Muslim Africa. Mustafa’s world view summons images of African experience we are rarely privy to. As in African American historical novels Lalami’s Mustafa captures the overwhelming experience of subjugation, not only with his enduring dream of freedom but in his interpretation of enslavement: “a rebirth into an alien world” where “I had to learn all the things I was not permitted to do …”. Where Mustafa’s story differs from most modern African slave accounts is in his Muslim identity, skillfully painted by Lalami as quiet backdrop to his character. Lalami builds our Muslim Mustafa as perhaps only a co-religionist could, with unpretentious yet unequivocal imagery, recalling for example the sounds of his home neighborhood in “…the afternoon prayer refreshed me after a long nap, dusk prayer delivered me from my workday to my family, evening prayer commended my soul to God.” Of his home in New Spain he realizes “…why it felt so quiet and empty: I had not heard the call for prayer.” Mustafa refers to time by his Muslim calendar: Hegira 929 (1522 AD) was the year he sells himself, and Hegira 945 the year he escapes his Castilian masters and leaves Tenochtitlan to cast his lot with Oyomasot and her people.
The healing power of shared stories is invoked in each stage of our Moor’s chronicle. Stories aid the lost, frightened men who humor and succor each other with tales from their homelands. Later, when Mustafa is called upon to care for Indians, his stories build trust with his patients and they ease the dying of those he can’t save with medications. Renowned and sought out for his healing potions, Mustafa moves from village to village, taking his wife Oyomasot and three surviving Spanish companions on a journey in which they establish a new co-operative equilibrium with one another, with the land and with its inhabitants
This idyllic period ends abruptly when they stumble on a party of Castilian soldiers. They embrace those men as liberators and follow them to the palace of the governor who, applying his own storytelling skill, lures them into supporting his expansionist designs. While Mustafa’s companions succumb, Mustafa is able to devise a story to outwit his masters. In the final scene, having taken his own freedom, Mustafa is dictating this chronicle to the now pregnant Oyomasot, conscious that at least his descendants should know their own history. Unlike Sheherazade, Mustafa weaves his tales not to escape death but to heal.
And then there’s the story’s teller, Lalami. From Mustafa’s introductory invocation, she has you in her grip, anxiously following the fate of her hero page by page.