How to Bring the Moors to Life, by Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami/Photo © Alexander Yera
Laila Lalami/Photo © Alexander Yera

Editor’s Note: Morocco-born author Laila Lalami is the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian, and The New York Times, and in many anthologies. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship and is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. In her latest novel, The Moor’s Account, Lalami channels the voice of the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave named Mustafa al-Zamori, who was called Estebanico.

In the fall of 2009, I was reading a book about Moors in Spain when I came across a brief mention of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave who was said to be the first African and the first Muslim to cross the American continent. Who was this man? I wondered. And why had not I heard of him before?

As it turned out, Estebanico was part of the Narváez expedition, which landed in Florida in 1528, with the goal of conquering it for the Spanish Crown. But from the start, the expedition faced unrelenting challenges: navigational problems, contagious diseases, poor rations, and stiff resistance from the indigenous tribes. Within a year, there were only four survivors – the famed Cabeza de Vaca, who was the expedition’s treasurer, a young captain by the name of Alonso del Castillo; a nobleman named Andrés Dorantes; and his Moroccan slave, Estebanico.

Together, the survivors journeyed across America, living with native tribes and reinventing themselves as faith healers. Years later, when they were found, the Spaniards were asked to provide their testimony about this epic journey. But because he was a slave, Estebanico’s experience was considered irrelevant or uninteresting.

And yet Estebanico’s experience was uniquely valuable. He was part of a conquering expedition, but was not himself a conqueror; he was neither a Spaniard, nor an indigenous American. These differences would have made of him a neutral observer, someone who could have provided a nuanced account of the Narváez expedition.

The silencing of Estebanico in the historical record felt very modern to me. Open up the newspaper and look at the bylines. Whose perspectives do you find? Whose voices do you never hear? I was so immediately and so powerfully drawn to his story that I decided to write a novel about him.

Everything we know about Estebanico comes to us from Cabeza de Vaca’s travelogue, Naufragios. He is described as “an Arabic-speaking black man, a native of Azemmour.” Because so little is known about him, I gave myself the freedom to invent him: his birth in Azemmour, his family life, his relationships with others, his many failings, and ultimately his redemption.

Writing this novel meant doing several years of research, not just on the Narváez expedition itself, but also on sixteenth-century Morocco, Spain, and America. I read dozens of sources in English, Spanish, and Arabic, about conquest in general and about this expedition in particular. I traveled to Cuba, where the expedition stopped on its way to the New World; to Florida, where it landed; to Texas, where the four survivors lived with indigenous tribes; and to Zuñi pueblo in New Mexico, the last place where Estebanico was seen.

But in some ways, the research was not the hardest part of writing this book. The hardest part was writing about an episode of history whose bloodletting and complexities remained largely unmentioned in Cabeza de Vaca’s account. And I had to do this while maintaining the voice and the perspective of a sixteenth-century Moroccan man. To create this voice, I tried to withhold my modern views on race, gender, and religion, which would have interfered with the authenticity of the character. The travelogues of Ibn Battuta and Hassan al-Wazzan were particularly useful to me in this regard. On a sentence level, I made sure that my lexical choices reflected sixteenth-century usage, but without weighing the text down with antiquated words.

For a novelist, the narrative possibilities of Estebanico’s journey were impossible to resist. But now that the book is completed, I see that the simple act of telling this story was a struggle against invisibility. Estebanico now feels as real to me as some of the people in my life.