This summer, with no writing project to occupy my mind, I allowed myself the luxury of novel reading. I can’t remember where I first read the review of The Moor’s Tale, a Pulitzer Prize finalist by Laila Lalami, but it caught my attention both for the style and for the subject matter.
I liked the way the back story and front story engaged itself in chapter following chapter until, finally, and seamlessly, only the front story remained. The chapters of our lives are like that, the past intruding on the present, until, finally and seamlessly, only the present remains.
“In 1527, the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and a crew of 600 men sailed from Spain to the Gulf Coast of the United States to claim ‘La Florida’ for the Spanish crown. Laila Lalami recounts the voyage from the perspective of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave of one of the explorers.” The New York Times.
It’s historical fiction and offers an account not found in the official version given by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors out of an initial group of over 600 in three ships; however, a Moorish slave is mentioned in the account. Ms. Lalami has done impeccable research.
Estebanico, his Christianized name, was born in Morocco and like all boys, studied the Holy Qur’an. His father wanted him to be a scholar and a transcriber as the father was, but the boy wanted to be a merchant. And he became a successful one, buying and selling goods, including slaves. When a long drought came to his province, Estebanico sold himself into slavery to provide for his family, and eventually, was sold again to the Spanish explorer, Andrés Dorantes who also survived the voyage. And he survived because of the watchful eye of his slave.
Laila Lalami, author, was born and raised in Morocco and the richness of description begins there in a country where sounds and life and colors and food are not set apart in restaurants and homes, but rather in the everyday streets. She’s currently a professor of writing at UCLA, Riverside.
Many things captured my interest: the beautiful writing, yes, but the understanding that comes to Estebanico as he travels in Spain and into the New World and meets Native American tribes, and discovers people worshiping or paying tribute to that beyond knowing: God, as we in the western culture name it, as others, in other cultures give it another name.
“…it never occurred to me when I was a young boy memorizing the Holy Qur’an, but as I spent time with the Indians I came to see how limiting the notion of one true faith really was. Was the diversity in our beliefs, not their unity, the lesson God wanted to impart? Surely it would have been in His power to make us of one faith if that had been His wish. Now the idea that there was only one set of stories for all of mankind seemed strange to me.”
From the New York Times book review: “Some might argue that a good historical novel should peel back the past to reveal what at the deepest level we already know: that black or white, rich or poor, woman or man, Muslim or Christian, we all are capable of being monsters. But “The Moor’s Account” asks something else of fiction. Lalami sees the story as a form of moral and spiritual instruction that can lead to transcendence: “Maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth.”
“…the only thing at once more precious and more fragile than a true story,” she reminds us, “is a free life.”
Having lived in Mexico, I’m quite familiar with the stories of Spanish conquistadors. The Florida expedition came after Cortez had enthroned himself in Mexico, and these Florida explorers were in search of gold, the same as Cortez in Mexico. And were as ruthless as Cortez. It was as easy then as it is today to define religions not Christian as pagan. It’s easy to see them as others. I am familiar with much of the terrain they crossed along the Gulf Coast and with the native tribes in New Mexico, having also lived in those places.
Another through line that captured me was Estebanico’s rumination on the value of stories: “Dorantes listened to me with such curiosity and patience that I wondered if he would tell this chronicle to other people someday, to his wife, say, or his children, so that it might continue to be told, even after my death. Telling a story is like sowing a seed—you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree, with firm roots and branches that soar up in the sky. But it is a peculiar sowing, for you will never know whether your seed sprouts or dies.”
Dorantes evades giving Estebanico his freedom once they reach Tenochtitlan, as he’d promised to do, and so Estebanico takes his own freedom.
This story of The Moor’s Account offers the sprouted seed. Our freedom, in whatever way we look for it, is ours if we choose to take it.