The Birth of the New World from the Unexpected Perspective of its First Arab Explorer

The Moor's AccountThe Moor's Account by Laila Lalami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fall of the tiny Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492, marking the consummation of the Spanish reconquest and the division of the Iberian peninsula under Spanish and Portuguese rule, generated a ripple whose shock wave ultimately resounded throughout the world, not least in Spain's neighbor the Sultanate of Morocco. As the last remnants of the glittering kingdoms of El Andalus fled across the straits to North Africa, Ferdinand and Isabella were able to employ the fruits of victory in financing an obscure Genoan adventurer on a desperate voyage to the Indies. In one of history's greatest accidents, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, setting off a chain reaction of disease, conquest, and exploitation that swiftly overturned the established order in the New World to the unimaginable enrichment of the Spanish empire. The dazzling success of Cortes in Mexico spurred the Spanish nobleman Panfilo de Narvaez to mount an expedition to la Florida in the buoyant expectation of outdoing his predecessor on the shores of the vast unexplored North American continent. After all, there was every reason to believe that the untold riches of the New World had barely been tapped, and the unmatched superiority of the Spanish fleet at sea and the Spanish cavalry on land had allowed relatively small forces to melt all resistance from the Native Americans like wax in a blast furnace.

It is a commonplace of classical tragedy that the hero is brought low by hubris born of overconfidence in his great strength – whether it be Achilles rushing forward into battle, Odysseus taunting the Cyclops, or Oedipus slaying the king his father and marrying the queen his mother. This story of the Narvaez expedition melds a fast-paced adventure story with the arc of a Sophoclean drama. Abandoning its ships and plunging headlong into the swamps of Florida, the Narvaez expedition drives all resistance before it only to find itself stranded without either gold or food, and its dwindling number of survivors – ultimately only four – find themselves at the mercy of the very Indians they had hitherto so cavalierly murdered and tortured in their monomaniacal– but futile – search for gold. In the end, the only four survivors were three Spanish noblemen – one of whom, Cabeza de Vaca, wrote the definitive account of the ill-fated voyage – and a Moroccan slave known only by his Spanish diminutive – “Estebanico.”

In her richly imagined novel, Laila Lalami recreates the disastrous expedition from Estebanico's perspective, interspersing flashbacks to his upbringing in the Portuguese-dominated Moroccan city of Azzemour with a fast-paced narrative of hardship and danger as the desperate Spanish seek to cut their way out of the trap of their own making in what is now the Southeastern United States. Told from the perspective of a man gradually emerging from slavery in reliance upon the good will of the native tribes, the novel simultaneously offers an empathetic view both of the disastrous impact on native culture of the Spanish incursion and of the ruthless invaders undone by their lust for gold.

Lalami's deft narrative not only conveys a sense of the sixteenth century down to the very diction of the narrator but also creates an impression of scrupulous historical accuracy. In so doing, it provides a kaleidoscopic insight into the intersection of Arab, Spanish, and Native American cultures in the age of exploration from a refreshingly different point of view. Quite apart from being a page-turner, this novel offers a fascinating insight into the devastation of old civilizations and the birth of the modern age.

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