Understanding the Early Mediterranean Through the Life of the Moroccan Polymath Ahmad bin Qasim al-Hajari

Cover Art for the book Beyond Orientalism Ahmad ibn Qasim al-Hajari between Europe and North Africa by Oumelbanine Nina Zhiri.

When I first encountered the fascinating Moroccan polymath Ahmad ibn Qâsim al-Hajarî (c. 1569 – c.1640), I realized how the many threads of his life and career formulated a different understanding of the early modern Mediterranean, unsettling some of the assumptions of Orientalism.

As I chronicle in my new book Beyond Orientalism: Ahmad ibn Qasim al-Hajari between Europe and North Africa, this Morisco, also known in Spain as Diego Bejarano, fled his homeland and its persecutions of Moriscos in 1599, a decade before this minority of Muslim origins was expelled. In Marrakech, his linguistic skills help him find a position in the government of the Saadi Sultan Mûlay Zaydân. There, he translated diplomatic correspondence for the Sultan and his successors. The cultured Zaydân also tasked him to Arabize European cultural texts, mostly in the fields of geography and cosmography.

Ahmad al-Hajarî traveled through Europe in 1611-13, where he represented Moriscos who had been robbed by ship captains in the French courts, and where he met with Maurits of Nassau, the Stathouder of the Dutch Republic in the Netherlands. During his time in Europe, he befriended and assisted famed intellectuals, especially scholars of Arabic who were in the process of laying down the foundations of this field in the academic and publishing worlds. In 1634, he left Morocco to accomplish the hajj—the pilgrimage to the holiest cities of Islam—and stayed in Egypt, where he became friends with a famous scholar who urged him to write an account of his travels and encounters. This autobiography is a principal source on his life and career. Returning from his travels in the East, he settled in Tunis, where he continued to be intellectually active, revising his main text and translating religious and technical texts.

Studying the rich life and career of Ahmad al-Hajarî helped me think through the development of Orientalism in the early modern period. A full account of his travels and work shows how many subjects of non-European countries helped the Orientalists of their time acquire a better knowledge of the language and the cultures. I also had to address the relation between Islam and Christendom, as al-Hajarî was raised as a crypto-Muslim and outwardly Christian subject of the Spanish Empire. One important moment was his participation in deciphering the Lead Books of Granada, a fascinating forgery situated on the frontier between religions.

Beyond this, the story of al-Hajarî is an example for studying travel narrative as a cultural form—and its connection with autobiography. For examining the vast question of the awareness of the early modern European expansion in the other parts of the world, and of its influence on non-European cultural productions. For translation studies, of course. And for observing the shared material culture between Europe and North Africa, through the lens of science and technology studies.

What is remarkable to me in retrospect, is that all these different topics could be brought together by following the career of this one, admittedly exceptional, individual, Ahmad ibn Qâsim al-Hajarî. He was a man of so many different facets and skillsets that he became an unvaluable guide to explore how the borders of the early modern world were quite porous, allowing for deep cultural connections even between antagonistic regions. To follow Ahmad al-Hajarî in his many trajectories was a long, complex, and wonderful journey.

Oumelbanine Nina Zhiri is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego. She has published books and articles on Leo Africanus and François Rabelais and on the cultural history of the connection between Europe and North Africa in the early modern period. She is the author of author of Beyond Orientalism: Ahmad ibn Qasim al-Hajari between Europe and North Africa.