Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

The 1527 Spanish expedition headed by Panfilo de Navaez was intended to explore and colonize the southeastern portion of North America that now is part of the United States and Mexico.  It did neither, at least not in any way useful to the Spanish empire.  About six hundred people landed in Florida, but only four men, three Spaniards and a black North African slave,  survived an eight year treck across the continent.  One of the Castilians, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, wrote an account of the men's ill-fated journey which is the only version of what happened.  It is an account of virtuous Europeans (virtuous with the exception of the incompetent de Navez, who seems, according to de Vaca, to have doomed the whole enterprise by ignoring de Vaca's wise advice) set upon by vicious and inhuman Indians who exploited the white men for their metal implements and their unpaid labor.

De Vaca's self-serving account is a perfect set up for the novelist Lalami to tell the story from a different point of view, that of the Moor slave, whom she calls Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori.  That the slave can produce a longer moniker than even the proud Spaniards should alert the reader that this version of events will be very different.

It is, and in a surprising way.  Mustafa is a merchant who becomes improvised by war and famine and sells himself into slavery to feed his widowed mother and his brothers.  He knows what he's letting himself in for because he, too, in his more prosperous days dealt in slaves, rejoicing at their profitability.  He bears up well enough with the indignity and hopelessness of his situation until, with the collapse of the expedition on a storm ridden gulf coast, the survivors find themselves at the mercy of the indigenous peoples who first treat them with some kindness, then make them into virtual slaves.  Now the Castilians and the Moor become comrades, sharing the misfortunes of their situation together.  As the layers of European and Muslim civilization are striped away they discover that indeed they are brothers under the skin. Near the end of their strange journey they again encounter their own kind on the Pacific coast.  Mustafa dares hope that his one time master will, once they are returned to Spain, honor his promise to free him.

Lalami portrays the plasticity of the human character.  Faced with the demands and contradictions of an  alien culture and environment, human beings are capable of surprising adaptations. The proud Spaniards survive only because they can put pride aside and allow themselves to be used as beasts of burden, to be whipped, even killed by their Indian masters.  The Moor is able to combine his knowledge of healing from another continent with the indigenous methods and herbs and become something of a 16th century Park Avenue doctor.  In the end the four survivors are able to put their newfound lives behind them and pick up their old ways and roles with little effort.

What is constant throughout is the will to survive, no matter what privations, indignities, and horrors are forced on them.  And they retain what even slavery cannot take away:  hope.    

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