I picked up The Moor’s Account after listening to the Ramadan Reading episode of The Reading Women podcast where it was recommended by Sumaiyya.
The Moor’s Account is a fictionalised narrative about the real story of 5 Spanish ships that set sail in 1527 to explore Florida, the group being led by Pánfilo Van Narváez. The expedition was a disaster with only four survivors – three of the Spanish and a Moorish slave by the name of Estabanico, described by Cabrera de Vaca as ‘an Arab Negro from Azemmour’. Lalami became interested in this amazing story when she discovered the transcripts of the survivors tales of what had happened on this disastrous journey. While the stories of the three Spanish men were recorded merticulously into history, the story from the point of view of the first African man to explore the Americas is completely omitted. (This summary is from Sumaiyya’s description of the book with some additional details from this article from the Guardian.)
Let me get the gushing out of the way first. Lalami’s writing is beautiful and poetic, insightful and just so powerful. The characters and the horrors they experience leap off the page at you. But also, as Kendra and Sumaiyya discuss in their follow up podcast, there is so much to unpack in this book. I’m going to concentrate on the telling and power of stories, otherwise this will turn into a huge post.
One of the things I loved about the book was the focus on storytelling and the importance of stories to us as individuals and as groups of people. Mustafa starts with his own stories, the stories of himself and his parents, and over time he becomes more of a listener, soaking up the stories of those he meets, and telling the stories of the people he is with in his strange new life. This change is due to his change in status as well – as a slave sharing any aspect of yourself is generally unwelcome. But also when he becomes a healer with one of the Native American groups he joins he recognises that the role of being heard and understood in the healing journey.
If I was confronted by an illness I did not recognise, I listened to the sick man or woman and offered consolation in the guise of a long story. After all, what the sufferers needed most of all was an assurance that someone understood their pain… This too was something I had learned in the markets of Azemmur: a good story can heal. (Page 231)
Mustafa’s personal circumstances see him sell himself into slavery to save his family from starvation. During this process, Mustafa loses not just his name, but he is baptised and forbidden from practicing his religion, cutting off his identity and basic rights as a human.
When I fell into slavery, I was forced not just to give up my freedom, but the name that my mother and father had chosen for me. A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world. (Page 7)
Despite this, one of the things that really struck me during the book was the strength of Mustafa’s faith. It is in his language and the way he expresses himself right to the last line of the book. While his physical ties and any show of his religion needed to be silent, it felt to me that internally his faith was as strong as ever, and was possibly even stronger by the end of the book.
History, as we know, is told by the “winners”, with the “winners” being the ruling culture at the time, and this is, of course exactly how the rescue and the recording of the expedition plays out. Logically Mustafa must have played an integral part in the survival of the party as Lalami imagines in the book – surely three desperate men who had lost so many others would not be dragging a liabilty along with them in those circumstances. Mustafa must have been a valuable asset.
Mustafa reflects on the leaders’ need to cast themselves as the heroes of the expedition, giving themselves much higher status in their rescue and survival than they actually had. He says particularly of Cabrera de Vaca:
He had always loved to tell stories, but now his memories of the expedition were entered into the official record, invalidating all others. I realised with a start that I was once again living in a world where written records were synonymous with power.
[A little aside here: one of the things that those of us from the majority culture need to remember when reading outside our usual experience is that different cultures tell stories differently, and those differences can add or detract value (usually detract, let’s be honest) where that story sits in the majority culture. We see this with Black, Native American and Latinx stories in the US (and probably plenty of others). Here in Australia, there are huge differences in the way Aboriginal stories are told and valued when placed alongside the white cultural narrative. The way these stories are treated by editors, publishers and the marketing machine are important, and impact on sales and the acceptance of those narratives into the majority culture. It also means that cultures of oral story telling are dismissed as unimportant and even untrustworthy when they are placed alongside a written tradition. These imbalances of power in the telling of stories are still with us.]
As a slave, Mustafa was not allowed to write. He was not even allowed to speak. Sadly, his actual story has been lost to us, but I am so glad that Lalami has brought him to life in this wonderful book, and I am incredibly grateful for Sumaiyya and The Reading Women to have brought it to my attention. I do hope you will pick it up – this one will stay with me for a long time.
[…] The Moor’s Account by Leila Lalami – I’ve already raved about this one on the blog. This is one of those books that I’m sad I will never read again for the first […]