I finished Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account two days ago and I am still trying to wrap my head around my reactions to this remarkable novel. Lalami focuses on a person only mentioned in the official account of a disastrous voyage to Florida undertaken by Spanish explorers, soldiers, and settlers, in 1527. This history was offered by one of the few survivors of this voyage — Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who mentions a black slave named Estabanico, In Lalami’s book it is Estabanico who takes center stage, rather than his Spanish owners. He tells his version — a compelling narrative which alternates between his pre-slave life in North Africa, and the arduous trek he and others make from Florida to Mexico.
attention — there are some spoilers ahead:
Estabanico’s status keeps on shifting in the novel. First he’s a young man with great ambitions, and he has a completely different name: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamorithen. Mustafa is an ambitious person and — believe it or not — he himself becomes a slave-owner because of the large amounts of money he can make from the slave trade. Then, ironically, it is his turn to be enslaved and he is shipped off to Spain, before traveling to the New World.
At the outset of the voyage, among the European travellers, Estebanico/Mustafa is triply other — a slave, a black man, and a Muslim. But as soon as the explorers make landfall and a series of disasters hit, his personal power ebbs and flows in surprising and interesting ways. At some points in the novel Mustafa is the only person who knows what to do, and his facility with languages empowers him to make contact and connection with the various indigenous tribes that the group encounters. Some of the tribal members regard him with confusion; he looks different than his other companions, and he looks very different from the tribespeople themselves. Through these encounters Lalami keeps on asking us “who is the Other? Who is the Alien?” and the answer is always “it depends on who is looking and it depends on who is telling the story.” I would add to this a wonderful comment made by the scholar Sander Gilman in one of his books: “You aren’t WHO you are, you are WHERE you are.” Aka your identity shifts depending on your surroundings and on how you are seen by others. Lalami is continually making us think about this issue.
As Mustafa’s knowledge, confidence and practical abilities grow, his relationship with his master becomes more equal, and the pressure on his “owner” to free him also grows. This part of the novel was gripping and deeply distressing to me. You can FEEL the danger Mustafa is in, and you can FEEL the complete lack of power that Mustafa has to change his master’s mind. Because Lalami makes it clear to us that once a human being thinks he owns another, he will not ever willingly let that person go. Mustafa’s realization that he must own his life and insist on his freedom is moving and challenging.
Reading about slavery in the Americas from a different historical perspective than that of the Southern States plantation forced this white reader to think about how deep and complex the historical roots of enslavement are. And how imbricated the European culture of imperialism is with that practice. But Africa, Lalami suggests, is not uninvolved in this historical development. Her shrewd decision to have Mustafa become the victim of his own participation in the victimization of others is one of her more powerful political comments about how we may conspire knowingly in oppressive practices in order to make a $.
The novel’s insistence on the importance of the story and the vantage-point of the story-teller made me think of how most of the world history that I have learned I understand only from a very narrow, Eurocentric, Christian perspective. What would the history of the US look like from a different point of view? Lalami’s novel contributes to such a history and invites all of us to think and learn more about the world we think we know.