Slave to History: A Moor in the New World

By Lynne Rogers

The Moor's Account
By Laila Lalami
Pantheon Books, 2014, pp. 324.

In her new novel, Moroccan American writer Laila Lalami, turns to the 1500’s Spanish conquest of the New World for “The Moor’s Account.”  Filling an empty space in the historical narratives of Spanish imperialism, Lalami recounts the story of Mustafa’s arduous journey of survival from Morocco to Spain, and ultimately, to America’s frontiers.  Born into a respectable Moroccan family, Mustafa first rebels when he refuses to follow his father’s footsteps and become a notary.  Instead, the flash and the excitement of the market place draws the young and successful Mustafa into the world of deals that even includes a slave trade which he later comes not only to regret, but to also understand. When his father dies, drought and Portuguese taxes reduce the family to poverty, and Mustafa, in a noble gesture designed to save his family, sells himself to the Christians despite his younger brother’s tearful protests.  In one Faustian instant, Mustafacements the hardships of international politics and economical flux ] as he states that his signature has “delivered me into the unknown and erased my father’s name. I could not know that this was the first of many erasures.” Christened Estebanico and armed only with his facility for languages, he becomes part of the expedition to the New World, a victim to the caprices of those who control his fate.

Once the Narvaez expedition arrives in Florida, Lalami further widens her narrative scope as she explores the diverse receptions afforded the conquistadors by the various tribes, as well as the multitude of variables that influence those receptions. In addition to the colonist/indigenous dichotomy, Lalami’s historical account also works as a complex microcosm of the Spanish conquistadors as their political, economic and religious fraternity disintegrates and reorganizes under the threats of disease, starvation and hostile hosts.  Tormented by the thought of dying unknown in a foreign land, Mustafa becomes a different type of notary, and discovers not only his own will to survive, but the beauty of his new environment and its people. Deservedly, he assuages his longing for home with his new family, a new profession, and the knowledge that ‘a good story can heal.” For her fans, Lalami delivers more than a ‘good story’ as she shines her lively and maturing prose on one rediscovered sliver of the multifaceted history of the United States. 

This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68. 

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