The sea has stories to tell. Ravenous greed, lost lives and unfettered ambition all tumble among its waves, and, somewhere in between its tumultuous rage and eerie calm, is the story of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori.
He was among the crew of 600 men that voyaged from Sanlúcar de Barrameda port to the Americas as a part of Pánfilo de Narváez expedition in 1527. Five ships set sail towards the Gulf Coast in hopes of claiming it for the Spanish crown and, after a series of navigational errors, rampant diseases, starvation and violence, Mustafa emerged as one of the only four crew members to survive, becoming the first African Muslim, and even believed by to be the first African explorer to navigate the New World in the process.
Although his testimony is absent from historical archives and the story has gone largely unmentioned, author and University of California, Riverside professor Laila Lalami has unearthed both in her new novel, “The Moor’s Account.”
But she has done more than just piece together a lost narrative. Instead, she has seamlessly wed historical fact with an ornate fictional memoir to create an eye-opening dialogue that is at the same time grounding and immersive in its exploration of identity, the black experience in the 16th century — through the power of storytelling.
In the book, although he is born a free Moroccan Muslim, al-Zamori is sold into slavery in 1522 and sent to a Portuguese-controlled town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, where he is stripped of his name and religion. He then joins Narváez’s voyage as Estebanico (alternatively Estevanico), a Roman Catholic, commonly identified by his crew as the “arabanized black,” “moor” or simply “the fourth of us.”
Through his journey, Lalami brings to life the presence of Islam in the lives of African slaves and their unseen roles in the age of exploration.
“I often lamented the wicked turns my life had taken, but I rarely considered how much I had to be thankful for, how I had survived so long where so many others had perished,” Mustafa’s character relates to the reader. “I had been so intent on counting all the miseries and humiliations I had endured that I neglected to thank the Almighty for the blessings he had bestowed upon me.”
Lalami, of Moroccan heritage herself, described the birth of “The Moor’s Account” during an interview with NPR. “I came across this mention of this expedition and of the fact that this Moroccan slave was said to be the first African explorer of America,” Lalami said, “And I was Moroccan and I thought, ‘Well, how come I’ve never heard of him?’”
A few years, a pulitzer-prize finalist and best seller later, Mustafa has regained his identity as the first ever African Muslim explorer, showing that white is not the only shade of skin that this country was founded on; the black experience — however unchronicled its early history may be — has been a part of this nation’s fabric as early as the sea-braving men of the 16th century, a sentiment “The Moor’s Account” only punctuates.
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