Improbable Journey

By Rubén MartínezSeptember 17, 2014

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

I CALLED HIM A BASTARD to his bones.

“Existimos por culpa de este cabrón,” I said, staring up at the sarcophagus holding the remains of Cristóbal Colón, a.k.a. Christopher Columbus, in the Catedral de Sevilla. We exist because of him.

Actually, I might’ve employed other, more vulgar, and much less politically correct nouns, such as “hijo de puta,” or “culero.”

At my side was Rocío Barajas, a savvy video producer from Mexico City. (If you can make video there, you can make it anywhere.) The rest of our crew was comprised of white Americans, affable and liberal, by no means ugly Americans, but to them Columbus still cut something of the old, vague “discoverer” figure — the ghost who gets fewer parades every year. And it must’ve seemed weirdly Catholic-imperial-baroque to my gringo friends to see the ornate tomb shouldered by massive statues of men representing the four kingdoms of Spain that existed during Colón’s lifetime.

For Rocío and me — mestiz@s who trace our roots to that first contact between “old” and “new” worlds — the encounter was, well, personal.

“Es cierto, si no fuera por este güey perdíendose mientras buscaba especias, no tendría esta chamba,” Rocío said, continuing the joke. She wouldn’t have gotten this gig if Columbus hadn’t gotten lost looking for spices.

We laughed, but the joke also took us by our throats. While Colón’s individual identity doesn’t really matter much (some other European would’ve stumbled on the Indies eventually, and guns, germs, and steel would’ve ensured a similar outcome), that moment of contact between civilizations set in motion one of the biggest transformations in human history. The decimation of the indigenous American population, the development of speculative economies and capitalism, the age of empire, and the rapid rise of new mixed-race identities and hierarchies all trace back to that encounter, and Rocío and I are its subjects. It is the absolutely unavoidable underpinning of our story as Latin Americans, not just an idea, but also the force of history out of which our very bodies emerged. And in spite of the fact that in the United States somehow we’ve come to regard our identity politics as uniquely American, of course we’re very much sons and daughters of Europe too. (Yes, I just claimed being both American and Latin American … born in America, I am the son and grandson of Latin Americans; American, if you like, in the Whitmanesque, the Bolivaresque sense.)

Standing beneath the old pendejo’s bones, Rocío and I had “returned” to “la madre patria,” as many Latin Americans, with great colonial gusto, used to refer to Spain, although not so much these days. The occasion was a film shoot for a documentary on — what else? — “Contact” between old and new worlds. Not “conquest,” mind you; our project, the PBS film When Worlds Collide, was very post-colonially correct, and we passionately avoided the old European triumphalist terms. Still, privately I had my doubts about whether we were striking the right balance — if in our righteous revision, declaring indigenous survival, we might be minimizing the historical trauma and its aftermath, the nightmare it seems we’re still trying to wake up from.

Identity politics half a millennium and more in the making. In 1492, Granada was “reconquered,” ending seven centuries of Moorish rule, the same year that the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and the indigenous peoples of the Americas became “Indians,” subjects of the Spanish Crown. How much had changed in 500 years? In Spain, Rocío and I were seen as “sudacas,” not exactly a benevolent term for the Latin-American immigrants (mostly from South America) that arrive to fill jobs, just like Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States, in the service economy. Or we were just lumped in with the “moros,” the Arabs, because we could pass. Rocío and I, bastard children, were looking up at our bastard of a father.

Hijo de puta!

When Colón stumbled onto the island that today is split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, it was populated by five Taíno kingdoms. He promptly named the entire island La Española (“the Spanish island”) in honor of his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella. The first act of occupation in the New World had nothing to do with guns but with the power of language, with erasure and inscription. For Europeans, the “new world” was a 1:1 scale raised-relief map waiting for every river and lake, every bay and valley and mountain range, to be renamed.

Many of the old-school narratives of discovery and conquest have been assiduously deconstructed over the last generation. Edward Said's theory of Orientalism showed us the way the West controlled the East in the textual sense, but that lens could also be turned around to see that even at the height of empire the “orientals” (any colonial other) were re-re-inscribing themselves with appropriation and inversion and purposeful hybridizing and all manner of aesthetic hijinks. Postcolonial studies can come across as a dour enterprise, but there’s actually plenty of fun to be had. Anyone remember all the rallying among indigenous communities and their allies back in 1992? Fond memories of museum visitors fondling Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco dressed as outlandish postmodern “natives” in their “Couple in the Cage” performance. Flash forward to the fabulously named Daddy Yankee, rapping in Spanglish, shaking those thick gold chains in the empire’s face. We can trace indigenous resistance all the way back to contact.

Vast social inequality between indigenous and mestizo or criollo Latin America remains, of course. But indigeneity is visible today in a way that would have been unimaginable in my youth, when my family sat down to watch the television broadcast of the Miss Universe Pageant, held at the Gimnasio Nacional de El Salvador in 1975. What pride there was among my half-Salvi family, our little invisible patria finally getting some respect out from under the shadow of the big Mexican sombrero! (Little did we know that a couple of years later El Salvador would achieve global notoriety once again.) The opening number featured an indigenous dance. “Indios!” my grandparents gasped. One of the tiniest countries in the world gets a shot in the global spotlight and we’re represented by dirty Indians?

Many of the old tropes are still with us, stories that we were told and that we tell ourselves, stories that hide others.


Laila Lalami’s mesmerizing The Moor’s Account presents us a historical fiction that feels something like a plural totality (yes, a contradiction in terms), a narrative that braids points of view so intricately that they become one even as we’re constantly reminded of the separate and often contrary strands that render the whole.

Lalami is a prolific literary blogger (she made her name initially as “MoorishGirl”) and thoughtful essayist. This is her third book publication in fiction. Her first was the short-story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which followed present-day North African immigrants in their odyssey across the Strait of Gibraltar and into a viciously racialized Europe. Her sophomore outing was the novel Secret Son, the portrait of a vulnerable young man recruited by a fundamentalist Islamist group in Morocco. Born and raised in Morocco, Lalami earned an impressive academic pedigree between Rabat, London, and Los Angeles, culminating with a doctorate in linguistics from USC. She lives in Southern California and teaches in UC Riverside’s rock-star creative writing program.

Lalami grew up in Rabat reading and writing largely in the colonial French, only arriving at Arabic literature in middle school and even later to specifically Moroccan authors. She began writing creatively at a young age, and received the usual admonition that literature was fine as an avocation but not as a profession. She persisted, but found herself increasingly alienated from French (her political conscience was awakened in London with the first Gulf War) and didn’t have the fluency to sustain literary Arabic on the page. In college she immersed herself in English literature. In this linguistic swirl, haunted by history and caught up in the fraught geopolitical moment, she came down with writer’s block, which led her to attempt writing in English. “Because English had not been forced upon me as a child,” she wrote in an essay, “it seemed to give me a kind of salutary distance. The baggage that, to me, seemed inherent in the use of French to tell a Moroccan story seemed to lessen when I used English to tell the same story.”

The irony here is that her move into English occurred just as the United States was embarking on a new era of neocolonial adventure. Lalami’s writing thus inevitably took on a layer of Conradian overtones. The move from French to English was from one empire to another, occupying yet another subject position within the vast colonial lexicon. Which is the perfect place for a writer like Lalami, preoccupied with representations of Arabness, to be. Writing of the monster from within, no? And also writing in a language inflected with so many other languages (including, of course, Arabic: azure, zero, sofa …), a language that undid empire with democratic vistas and that remade it at home and abroad by despising the difference in itself, the great contradiction of American English.

Why so much background on Lalami, Martínez? Well, because we’re not New Critics. And, because we like reading the stories alongside, above, beneath, to the side, or inside the Story. (And, because LARB lets us go long!) And, because Lalami’s position is crucial to discussing The Moor’s Account, which, when it comes down to it, is all about … positioning.

So it is in English that Laila Lalami approaches one of the great colonial tales of the Americas and teases out a heretofore largely invisible narrative thread to make it part of a new whole. Many of you are familiar with the story of the Narváez expedition, charged with colonizing Florida just a few years after the fall of Tenochtitlan to Cortés. Tropical storms, shoals, desertions, deadly encounters with indigenous tribes, and Narváez’s questionable leadership reduced a crew of several hundred down to only four survivors: expedition treasurer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Esteban; the first three Spaniards and the latter a Moorish slave owned by Dorantes.

We have long had the story told from Cabeza de Vaca’s point of view, via La Relación (also known as Naufragios, or shipwrecks), an account considered a classic of colonial literature. Published under various titles in English, Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación tells of an improbable journey from the Tampa Bay area as far west as southern Arizona and then south to Culiacán, where, eight years after setting sail from Cuba, the survivors finally made contact with Spanish soldiers lusting after the riches of the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola.

Cabeza de Vaca is an inversion of a conquest tale, more a captivity narrative of imperial subjects who survive by going native. Their authority bleeds away the deeper they go into indigenous America, until they become virtual slaves to the Indians. In an unlikely plot twist, they eventually regain power by playing the role of medicine men to the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca is the historical celebrity because he was the highest ranking among the survivors and his Relación became the definitive telling, although an additional text, the “joint report” filed with the Spanish Crown, included the voices of his fellow Spaniards Dorantes and Castillo.

In the colonial version of the story, Esteban is all but invisible. No one thought to invite him to give testimony for the joint report. Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación dedicates all of one sentence to the Moor’s background (“[un] negro alárabe, natural de Azamor,” a black Arab from the city of Azemmur, on the Moroccan coast). But a generation of revisions has begun to render a stirring portrait of Esteban, placing him not just on equal footing with the Spaniards, but also casting him as their probable savior.

The stakes in this retelling are obvious, reaching beyond academe and into popular representations of the Southwest. I lived in New Mexico for several years, not far from Zuni Pueblo, where, by some accounts, Esteban died in a violent encounter while serving as an advance scout for a new Spanish expedition searching for Cíbola. Among cultural activists in the region there has been great interest in Esteban, whose figure could add nuance to the generally reductive romance of all things “Spanish.” Estevan Arellano, a highly regarded writer from Embudo, a village on the “low road” between Santa Fe and Taos, enthused to me about Esteban, conjecturing that he had children with native women and thus introduced a Moorish/African bloodline, the first in American history. In other words: the first native-born African American could have appeared in the 1520s, a century before Plymouth Rock. That birth can symbolically stand for one of the missing links in the American origin myth: Moorish history, whose influence was deep in the cultural DNA of every Spanish soldier, missionary, and settler that arrived during the colonial period, and which remains not just as palimpsest, but also in the bodies and knowledge of Hispano and native peoples in the region.

Lalami establishes Esteban’s point of view directly, assuming his first-person voice. One can’t help think about Lalami’s own journey, how she follows, five centuries after Esteban, the same basic itinerary from North Africa to Europe to the Americas, eventually settling in the “new world” of California just a few hundred miles from the westernmost point of Esteban’s route. Here, then, is the colonial subject filling in his/her own erased profile. Lalami begins the proceedings with the primordial justification, the fact that Esteban has been written out of history: “[…] I was never called upon to testify to the Spanish viceroy about our journey among the Indians.” Not only that, but the other three survivors, angling for political advantage as they re-entered Spanish colonial society (and under suspicion that they’d become turncoats) were

led to omit certain events while exaggerating others, and to suppress some details while inventing others, whereas I, who is neither beholden to Castilian men of power, nor bound by the rules of a society to which I do not belong, feel free to recount the true story of what happened to my companions and me.

The novel, then, is a full-on immersion in Esteban’s point of view, an inherent critique of the “story” in history, the power of one perspective to render another invisible. There is a profound desire here to heal historical wounds — after all, Lalami has inherited them.

The healing begins with taking up the same power of representation that did so much harm: naming. Since we’ve only ever known Esteban by his Christian moniker, Lalami restores his identity with a fictional Moorish name, Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. She also fills in the biography missing in historical accounts. The novel alternates between backstory chapters set in North Africa and Europe prior to the expedition setting sail for the Americas and the “present” in which Esteban tells his story after reestablishing contact with the Spanish and embarking on his last known journey to Zuni.

While growing up, Mustafa’s family maintains relative stability in the face of momentous geopolitical instability (the Spanish reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, Portuguese imperial ambitions in North Africa). He is able to finish his studies, his parents hoping he will follow in the respectable tradition of his father’s notary business. But the young Mustafa starts playing hooky and is drawn to the bustle of the souq:

There, I watched fortune-tellers, faith healers, herbalists, apothecaries, and beggars. They promised a healthy child, a painless life, a pliant husband, a dutiful wife, or a path to heaven, perhaps different versions of the same things, but the stories they told or foretold comforted people, inspired them, allowed them to imagine a future they had denied themselves.

Note the “story” theme, and the voice — its obvious nod to what the reader, in English, can imagine as “Old World” dialect, the elevated diction of an educated Moor, a narrator with a flair for storytelling that is further embellished by a novelist’s eye for lyrical description. It is a remarkably consistent performance throughout the book, striking a balance between our expectations for the difference of historical period and culture and Lalami’s drive to reinvent her subject beyond contemporary Arab stereotype while fulfilling the aesthetic necessities of the genre.

Mustafa goes on to have a spectacularly successful career as a merchant — so much so that he comes to own slaves, as a rich merchant would. But Azemmur has fallen to the Portuguese and endures a calamitous drought and famine that forces desperate debtors to sell their children — or themselves — into slavery to pay off debts. His parents and siblings on the verge of starvation, Mustafa sacrifices his freedom to ensure their survival; he winds up at the port of Sevilla, the beehive from where everyone heading to the New World departs and through which all imports arrive. Here Mustafa undergoes the same violent textual transformation as the Indians in the Americas. He is brought before “an imam of the Christian faith,” and moments later he is musing that:

I had entered the church as the servant of God Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori; I left it as Esteban. Just Estaban — converted and orphaned in one gesture … When I fell into slavery, I was forced to give up not just my freedom, but also 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. Losing it meant losing my ties to all those things too. So I had never been able to shake the feeling that this Estebanico was a man conceived by the Castilians, quite different from the man I really was.

Lalami’s revisionist passion leads her to invent characters to feminize what has always been an overwhelmingly “manly” tale of musky, musket-bearing dudes. In Sevilla before his voyage to the New World, Esteban lives as a slave in a Spanish household where he develops a tender platonic relationship with a fellow slave, Ramatullai, and the two survive the indignities through solidarity.

We began to look for ways to strike back at [their master]: Ramatullai by tainting his food and drink, or I by dropping a crate of merchandise on my way back from the port. Small, discreet measures of vengeance, as reprisals by the weak tend to be. […] [Ramatullai] was the only one I could speak to, the only one who shared the pain of exile and servitude with me.

With Ramatullai — and in a fully realized romantic relationship with an indigenous woman later in the book — Lalami portrays Esteban as a kind of proto-feminist man, in keeping with his sympathy for the subjected from whence he came. Here Lalami’s desire to heal the wound is transparent, which would rankle those who believe that historical violence must be emphasized — or at least never avoided and certainly never rewritten. One version of Esteban that arrives to us through the speculative accounts holds that he was killed by the Zuni as the result of demanding turquoise and women, which would not jibe with the respectful, monogamous lover Lalami represents. Some years ago I would’ve sided with rigid materialists and against Lalami’s “soft” depiction, held up the violent and violated figures as indictment, the rallying point for redress. But today I receive Lalami’s version at face value, and gratefully. Is it middle age, or that I became a parent, or that I myself yearn to heal the wounds of history I’ve inherited? Probably all of these. And certainly spending the last few years confronting the spectacle of ritualized violence on a mass scale in Mexico’s drug war has led me to believe that the victims are revictimized by reducing them solely to images of their traumatized bodies.

Good historical fiction is organically allusive, and Lalami doesn’t have to dress up the narrative much. When Mustafa/Esteban tells us that his father received the news that the town of Melilla “had fallen to the Crown of Castile,” we can’t help but hear the echo — Melilla, on the North African coast south of Spain, remains a Spanish colony, and a major staging ground for undocumented immigrants seeking passage into Western Europe. The ghosts have bodies.

When he arrives in the new world and is faced with a kind of native mirror for himself, Mustafa/Esteban’s subjectivity is shot through with cutting irony, due to the ambiguous relations he finds himself in as the first African American, standing between the Spaniards and the Indians: “How strange I must have seemed to [the Indians]: not a conqueror, but the slave of a conqueror.” He gradually learns to work this liminality in his favor, and in doing so he ultimately gains agency far beyond his official subjugated status.

The heart of the narrative sees Esteban forced, again and again, to consider his position relative to the others. (Lalami is clearly asking us to do the same, today, with our others.) Early on in the journey across the continent, when the Spaniards still wield some power over the Indians, Esteban witnesses interrogations — and torture. (The reference to America performing torture in the Arab world is implicit.) In one brutal scene, Esteban remarks:

I wish I could say that I protested. I wish I could say that I enjoined the governor to leave the poor man alone. But I was afraid to speak. I am a slave now, I told myself, I am not one of them. I cannot interfere in matters between the Spaniards and the Indians.

But Esteban does ultimately “interfere,” in the sense that he consciously occupies his liminal position and carves out a space not just to survive, but also to enact his own will, deep in the American wilderness, far from the empire.

The novel takes its revisionist cue from recent research on Esteban that assigns him a central role denied him in the contemporaneous accounts. He was likely trilingual when he arrived in the Americas, speaking Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese — in other words, he was much more “cosmopolitan” than the Spaniards, busy as they were purging themselves of Jewish and Moorish difference. (Which makes me think of today’s cosmopolitans, such as, say, trilingual indigenous migrants from Oaxaca living in California.) This may well have afforded Esteban a facility at learning indigenous languages that the Spaniards did not have. As Cabeza de Vaca himself noted, Esteban had “always spoken to the Indians, gathering all the other information they needed. He found out about the trails that they wanted to follow and what nations, tribes, and settlements might be thereabouts”(Robert Goodwin, Crossing the Continent 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South).

For someone standing with one foot on each side of the border between the United States and Latin America, I was constantly reminded of the distinct ways in which my American-ness and Latin American-ness regards (or, just as often, does not regard) Arab-ness. I’m writing as an American at a time when we continue to reap what we sowed in the 20th century, the progeny of the extremists we supported in the Middle East when they were the enemies of our “friends.” And I am ashamed by the durability of Arab stereotypes in Latin America, inherited, of course, from the Spanish. My grandmother used to tell me I “slept like an Arab” when I had my futon on the floor. You can still order “moros y cristianos” at restaurants in much of the Caribbean and Central America, black beans and white rice — and you know that white is right. “Un morro” in contemporary Mexican slang means “boy,” not as racialized as “boy” referring to a black man in America, but the wound is in the etymological DNA. Colonial baggage remains in everyday language, even as the Moorish cultural legacy remains concealed. (Even as the Arab subject remains demonized in today’s geopolitical scheme.)

The latter pages of the book follow Esteban as the plot turns yet again. After the reunion with the Spanish garrison near Culiacán, he is suddenly among the subjected once more, and the alternative history of Spaniards-assimilated-by-Indians vanishes as Cabeza de Vaca, del Castillo, and Dorantes are deposed by the authorities, the testimonies that began to weave what would become the official story, the one that would erase Esteban. Lalami, though, allows Esteban one more chance, with an ambiguous ending that picks up a thread of some recent speculative research — the possibility that his story doesn’t end the way we’ve been told across the centuries. To remedy the elision of the official story, Lalami makes up another one.

Which is what makes Laila Lalami’s language-portrait of Mustafa/Esteban so compelling, so necessary. The colonizers might have been aided by guns, germs, and steel, but they knew that their ultimate weapon was to impose their will through language one name at a time, obliterating the other with the naked power of representation. This novel rescues the subject by naming it anew, and it takes its place along those brave speech-acts that ensure survival in the shadow of power. Like Esteban, Laila Lalami has taken what Gilles Deleuze called a “line of flight,” a poetic leap alongside, above, beneath, to the side, or inside the Story. She wrote us her own.


Rubén Martínez is Fletcher Jones Chair of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of several books including, most recently, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West.

LARB Contributor

Rubén Martínez is a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author, most recently, of Desert America: A Journey Across Our Most Divided Landscape (Picador, 2013).


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