Books on GIF #49 — 'The Moor's Account' by Laila Lalami
This Sunday's book is 'The Moor's Account' by Laila Lalami.
This book is fantastic. Move it to the top of your summer reading list right now. 'The Moor's Account' tells the story of the first African to explore the Americas. Estebanico was a Moroccan slave who was part of the 1527 Narváez expedition in Florida that sought to conquer land for Spain and, of course, to find:
Three hundred people set out on the journey that began near what's now Tampa. Four men — three Spaniards and Estebanico — survived and were found in Mexico nearly a decade later. Estebanico was given just a passing mention in an account of the journey written by one of the surviving Spaniards. In her acknowledgements, Lalami includes the single sentence that mentions the narrator and protagonist: "el cuarto [sobreviviente] se llama Estevanico, es negro alárabe natural de Azamor," which is translated to "the fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor." That snippet was enough to provide Lalami with a jumping off point for this novel, sort of like how half a sentence in the opening crawl of 'Star Wars' inspired:
The book tells the story from Estebanico's perspective, and is framed as his own account of the journey that counters the official version given by a fellow survivor by being more honest and unvarnished. His story begins in Morocco, where we learn his real name is Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, in Azemmur (as it's spelled in the book) before he is forced to sell himself into bondage to provide money for his struggling family. From there, he journeys via slave ship to Seville, where he's baptized by a priest, given the name Esteban and sold to a local merchant. Money troubles force the merchant to sell Mustafa-now-Esteban to a would-be conquistador named Dorantes, who calls him Estebanico (a child's name), and takes him to the New World. Shortly after they arrive in Florida, the expedition starts to have problems, and they are faced with a dilemma: But they don't realize that both options lead to the same conclusion: disaster. The Europeans believe they are off to a good start on the path to glory using murder, rape and enslavement as tools of conquest. But karma has its revenge on them through animal attacks, bowel disease, deadly weather, native ambushes and cannibalism. Estebanico and the three others, Dorantes included, must band together to survive. As they make their way through the Land of the Indians, Estebanico is no longer treated like a slave. In fact, the Europeans call him their brother. Yet, once they are back among the Spaniards in what's now Mexico City, the old master-slave dynamic resumes. Estebanico realizes he cannot trust Dorantes to uphold his promise to draw up paperwork affirming his freedom, and crafts a plan to escape. While I was reading this brutal yet beautiful book I couldn't help but think of the cartoon from the 1980s called 'The Mysterious Cities of Gold":
(Am I the only one who remembers this cartoon?) It followed the story of a kid named Esteban and his two native friends as they searched for gold and had other adventures — I think they even flew around on a mechanical condor made out of gold. I thought about how that cartoon trafficked in the myth that European conquest wasn't so bad and that people of color are happy to be sidekicks to white people (I mean look at how Esteban is standing), and it reinforced for me how important and relevant books like 'The Moor's Account' are. Because all myths, particularly the destructive and racist kind most of us have read in history text books, need to be shattered. Though this book is a work of fiction, it feels like a truer and more necessary version of events than we usually get. So please, read this book.
'The Moor's Account' by Laila Lalami was published in 2014 by Pantheon Books and in 2015 by Vintage Books. 321 pages.
What's next? Books on GIF is taking a summer break to relax and get caught up on some reading. See you in July!
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!