The Moor’s Account
In 1527, conquistador Narváez sails from Spain for Florida with an armada of 600 men. His objective is to capture that region for the Spanish crown and become rich and famous like Hernán Cortés. After landing, they decide to divide into two groups: one to sail along the coast to a port, and the other to march northwards onto native Indian lands. The inland unit encounters many hardships. They have to endure swamps, disease, starvation, and skirmishes with hostile Indians. With dwindling numbers and supplies, they desperately wander for eight years westward, attempting to sight their ships. Eventually the party is reduced to four: three Castilians and an African Moorish slave, Mustafa/Estebanico.
While the chronicle written by Cabeza de Vaca (one of the survivors) narrated the story of the ill-fated Narváez expedition, surprisingly it contains only a one-line mention of the African slave: “The fourth is Estavanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.” Laila Lalami, using the tools of historical fiction, has superbly rectified this omission by penning an account of Mustafa/Estebanico’s experiences. Furthermore, Lalami – as mentioned in an interview she conducted with Radius of Arab-American Writers (RAWI) – had noted certain silences in Vaca’s text with respect to relationships with the natives, particularly women.
This novel explores, through Mustafa/Estebanico’s first-person voice, the moments of contact and interactions between the Spanish and Indians. The brutality on both sides is evenly recited. The flora and fauna are evocatively presented, as are the lives of the natives. This is indeed a “brilliantly imagined fiction… that feels very like the truth,” as Salman Rushdie has written. Lalami, an acclaimed novelist, has scripted this book sans quotation marks, a style that feels appropriate for this intimate narrative. In particular, the added glimpses of Mustafa’s Moroccan life and family—to whom he constantly longs to return—make us root for him and turn the pages wishing for their reunion. Highly recommended.