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The Moor's Account
Cover of The Moor's Account
The Moor's Account
A Novel
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PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK • The imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America—this "stunning [book] sheds light on all of the possible the New World exploration stories that didn’t make history” (Huffington Post).
In these pages, Laila Lalami brings us the invented memoirs Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. The slave of a Spanish conquistador, Estebanico sails for the Americas with his master, Dorantes, as part of a danger-laden expedition to Florida. Within a year, Estebanico is one of only four crew members to survive.
As he journeys across America with his Spanish companions, the Old World roles of slave and master fall away, and Estebanico remakes himself as an equal, a healer, and a remarkable storyteller. His tale illuminates the ways in which our narratives can transmigrate into history—and how storytelling can offer a chance at redemption and survival.
PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK • The imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America—this "stunning [book] sheds light on all of the possible the New World exploration stories that didn’t make history” (Huffington Post).
In these pages, Laila Lalami brings us the invented memoirs Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. The slave of a Spanish conquistador, Estebanico sails for the Americas with his master, Dorantes, as part of a danger-laden expedition to Florida. Within a year, Estebanico is one of only four crew members to survive.
As he journeys across America with his Spanish companions, the Old World roles of slave and master fall away, and Estebanico remakes himself as an equal, a healer, and a remarkable storyteller. His tale illuminates the ways in which our narratives can transmigrate into history—and how storytelling can offer a chance at redemption and survival.
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  • From the book 8.
     
    The Story of Seville
     
    All around me, voices rose and fell. Shackled slaves spoke in an overlapping multitude of languages, this one asking after an uncle, this other comforting a child, and yet these others arguing about a piece of moldy bread, their cries periodically interrupted by the bleating of goats from the animal stalls. But for a long time, I kept to my silence, wrapping myself in it like an old, comfortable cloak. I think I was still trying to apprehend the consequences of what I had done. For hours on end, I revisited the long sequence of events that had led me from the soft divans and rhythmic guenbris of my graduation feast to the timber bench and jangling chains of the caravel Jacinta, sailing with frightening speed toward the city of Seville. I had played my part in these events—I had made my decisions freely and independently at each juncture, and yet I was stunned by the turn my life had taken. The elders teach us: give glory to God, who can alter all fates. One day you could be selling slaves, the next you could be sold as a slave.
     
    The hunger I had felt so keenly in Azemmur was tamed now, if not satisfied, by the hard bread the sailors distributed once a day, though it was quickly replaced by a renewed acquaintance with all of my body’s other senses and needs. My head itched from the lice my neighbor, an old man with pockmarks dotting his face, had given me. My soiled clothes stuck to my skin, because I could not bring myself to use, on command and with little notice, the bucket that was passed up and down the gallery twice a day. My limbs grew stiff from sitting in damp and narrow quarters. My throat hurt, my feet swelled, my wrists bled. Above all, my heart ached with longing for my family.
     
    My family. They had, all of them, learned to accept their fates. Without complaint my sister had spent her girlhood watching over our twin brothers, and without protest she had returned home after her divorce. My brothers went to school every day hoping to fulfill my father’s dreams, dreams I had cruelly broken and then bequeathed to them. My mother had left her beloved people and her distinguished hometown in order to follow my father to Azemmur.
     
    As for me, I had made a habit of defying my fate. Perhaps I could do that now and find a way back to my old life. I thought of the elder al-Dib, my employer in Azemmur, who had been born to a slavewoman, but had earned his freedom as a youth. Perhaps I could do the same. Perhaps my talent would be recognized by my master, who would let me purchase my freedom; or perhaps my misery would touch the heart of an Andalusian Muslim, who would free me from bondage in order to earn the favor of our Lord. To overcome my fear, I shackled myself with hope, its links heavier than any metal known to man.
     
    Having convinced myself that my condition was temporary, I set about trying to survive it. I taught myself to ignore the stench of excretions, the moans of delirium, the sight of private parts. I learned to push back into my throat the rising taste of vomit. I tried to watch out for the rats. I slept only when my exhaustion overpowered my discomfort. And I passed the time by listening to the stories the women told their children, after the guards had left and the doors were locked for the night. In the darkness of the lower deck, the women brought to life a world entire, a world where sly girls outwitted hungry ghouls and where simple cobblers saved powerful sultans, so that at times it seemed to me I could see the ghouls’ sharp teeth or the sultan’s embroidered slippers.

    Then, early...
About the Author-
  • Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize long list. Her essays and opinion pieces have 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. She lives in Los Angeles.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from September 15, 2014
    Lalami's second novel (after Secret Son) is historical fiction of the first-order, a gripping tale of Spanish exploration in the New World set in the years 1527 to 1536, as told by a Muslim slave. Meticulously researched, the novel is told in the first-person by a Moor, Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by his Spanish master, Andres Dorantes, recounting the disastrous Narvaez expedition into Florida, the Land of the Indians. Estebanico is an educated man, sold into slavery years before, now struggling to survive in an inhospitable land, beset by hostile Indians, disease, and starvation. Greed and the lust for gold leads to unwise leadership decisions on the part of the Spanish, resulting in the deaths of most of the expedition members. Four survivors, Estebanico and three Spaniards, wander for eight years, from Florida and Texas to New Mexico and Arizona, under the constant threat of death and living on the scant generosity of various Indian tribes. Eventually, Estebanico and the Spaniards develop skills as healers, earning respect and powerful reputations, even marrying Indian women and embracing Indian culture and lifestyle. As Estebanico dreams of his freedom from slavery, he clearly understands that explorers Cortes and Coronado are only interested in conquest and empire. This is a colorful but grim tale of Spanish exploration and conquest, marked by brutality, violence, and indifference to the suffering of native peoples.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from September 15, 2014
    Assured, lyrical imagining of the life of one of the first African slaves in the New World-a native, like Lalami (Secret Son, 2009, etc.), of Morocco and, like her, a gifted storyteller. The Spanish called him Estebanico, a name bestowed on him after he was purchased from Portuguese traders. That datum comes several pages after he proudly announces his true name, "Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori," and after he allows that some of the stories he is about to tell may or may not be quite true owing to the vagaries of memory and-well, the unlikelihood of the events he describes. The overarching event of this kind is, of course, the shipwreck that leaves him, with a body of Spanish explorers whose number will eventually be whittled down to three, to walk across much of what is now the American Southwest. Led by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, "my rival storyteller," the quartet encounters wondrous things and people: cities of mud brick, maidens draped with turquoise, abundant "skins, amulets, feathers, copper bells," and always the promise of gold just beyond the horizon. They provide wonders in return: Estebanico is a source of exotic entertainment ("It was harmless fun to them, but to me it quickly grew tiresome"), while his fellow traveler Andres Dorantes de Carranza sets broken bones and heals the sick. Lalami extends the stories delivered by Cabeza de Vaca himself in his Naufragios, which has been rendered in several English-language editions (e.g., We Came Naked and Barefoot; Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America; Castaways), but hers is certainly the most extensive telling of the tale from "the Moor's" point of view. As elusive as gold, she tells us, is the promise of freedom for Estebanico, who provides the very definition of long-suffering. She has great fun, too, with the possibilities of a great historical mystery-namely, whatever became of him? Adding a new spin to a familiar story, Lalami offers an utterly believable, entertainingly told alternative to the historical record. A delight.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    August 1, 2014
    In her acclaimed previous work, including Secret Son (2009), Lalami depicts in exquisite prose the tumultuous, complex lives of contemporary Moroccans. In her second novel, she delves into history, landing among treacherous Atlantic voyages and the lavish, imagined riches of New Spain in 1527. In this tale of adventure narrated by a Moorish slave called Estebanico by his master, the opportunist Andr's Dorantes, Lalami reimagines one infamous expedition to Florida led by the Spanish conquistador, Pnfilo de Narvez. The ill-fated journey results in hundreds of men obsessed with promises of gold and glory dying horribly by disease, hunger, and brutal clashes with indigenous tribes. Only Estebanico and a few others survive the initial incursion, and they are soon taken captive by natives. Estebanico's account alternates between this disastrous mission and his past as a merchant, with the two threads combining to create a deeply layered, complex portrait of all-too-familiar characters in an unfamiliar world. The result is a totally engrossing and captivating novel that reconsiders the overlooked roles of Africans in New World exploration.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    July 1, 2014

    Lalami's meticulously researched yet extraordinarily readable account of the first black man to explore the New World begins in Azemmur, Morocco. Mustafa ibn Muhammed was born into a devout, professional family, but he eschewed schooling for the excitement of the souks (African marketplace) and the lure of easy money working the slave trade. But when drought and famine decimate Azemmur, Mustafa sells himself into slavery in a desperate bid to save his family from starvation. His enslaver, Andres Dorantes, gives him the Castilian name Estebanico. Together they set sail under the leadership of Panfilo de Narvaez on a quest to claim the southeast coast of what's now the Gulf Coast of the United States for Spain. A man named Estebanico was actually one of four survivors out of 600 men and women who planned to settle in La Florida. This fictional account of his eight-year struggle to earn his freedom, survive the inhospitable climate, battle the hypocrisies of his own countrymen and the suspicions of the various native tribes they relied upon for food and shelter, rings of authenticity. VERDICT Lalami, whose novel Secret Son was nominated for an Orange Prize, offers readers a marvelous piece of old-fashioned storytelling rife with contemporary themes, from greed and plunder to cross-cultural understanding and assimilation. [See Prepub Alert, 3/31/14.]--Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • The New York Times Book Review

    "Feels at once historical and contemporary . . . For Lalami, storytelling is a primal struggle over power between the strong and the weak, between good and evil, and against forgetting . . . Lalami sees the story [of Estebanico] as a form of moral and spiritual instruction that can lead to transcendence."

  • Kirkus (starred review) "Assured, lyrical . . . Certainly the most extensive telling of the tale from 'the Moor's' point of view . . . Adding a new spin to a familiar story, Lalami offers an utterly believable, entertainingly told alternative to the historical record. A delight."
  • Booklist "A deeply layered, complex portrait of all-too-familiar characters in an unfamiliar world . . . A totally engrossing and captivating novel that reconsiders the overlooked roles of Africans in New World exploration."
  • Salman Rushdie "Laila Lalami has fashioned an absorbing story of one of the first encounters between Spanish conquistadores and Native Americans, a frightening, brutal, and much-falsified history that here, in her brilliantly imagined fiction, is rewritten to give us something that feels very like the truth."
  • Reza Aslan, author of Zealot "A beautiful, rousing tale that would be difficult to believe if it were not actually true. Lalami has once again shown why she is one of her generation's most gifted writers."
  • Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Little Failure "Tremendous and powerful, The Moor's Account is one of the finest historical novels I've encountered in a while. It rings with thunder!"
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University "Laila Lalami's radiant, arrestingly vivid prose instantly draws us into the world of the first black slave in the New World whose name we know--Estebanico. A bravura performance of imagination and empathy, The Moor's Account reverberates long after the final page."
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

    "Laila Lalami has created an unforgettable drama of wonder out of the gaps and silences in the master narratives of colonial conquests. She gives name to the unnamed; agency to the sidelined; she takes them from footnotes into the footprints that make up the pages of this remarkable novel. Lalami gives voice to the silences of history."
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