Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account

September 12, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 2 4 min read


Christopher Columbus, the once venerable explorer of the New World, seems to have fallen out of favor. In April of this year, Minneapolis declared the second Monday in October, his signature holiday, as Indigenous People’s Day. His eponymous voyage on the Santa Maria has inspired the irreverent and biting term “Columbused,” to describe white people’s discovery and appropriation of another group’s culture, practice or tradition. And though school textbooks continue to laud Columbus as a hero and credit his bravery, other descriptors like slave trader and murderer have soiled his once impeccable reputation.

His questionable legacy sets the stage for Leila Lalami’s stunning new novel, The Moor’s Account. Like criticism about Columbus, the vibrant testimony of former slave Mustafa al-Zamori underscores the notion that history often dismisses crucial voices, and in doing so, provides only a fraction of the truth.

Mustafa’s birth on a barge crossing a Moroccan river gives rise to his mother’s prophesy that he will someday become a world traveler. Her prediction, though dead on, included no inkling of the brutal forces that would fulfill it. Crippling drought and famine afflicting their hometown of Azemmur force Mustafa, a once wealthy merchant, to sell himself into slavery to save his family. In 1527, his fifth year as a slave, he sails with 600 men from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. In the New World, disease and starvation decimate the crew. Only four survive the first year — Mustafa, his master Andrés Dorantes and two other Castilians. They spend seven more years among the Indians in La Florida, before their rescue.

coverWhen Mustafa’s account of the fateful expedition is left out of the official records, he decides to record his memories himself. “I intend to correct the details of the history that was compiled by my companions…But unlike them I was never called to testify to the Spanish Viceroy about our journey among the Indians.” This arresting narrative alternates between his adventures in the Land of the Indians and his life before slavery. As in her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, elegantly unspools the agony of a fractured life, and the psychological and physical costs of a doomed journey.

Lalami artfully conveys the politics and power dynamics of bondage. Despite his own horrific subjugation, Mustafa humbly assumes responsibility for his own role in the suffering of others. When his discovery of gold brings about the torture of four Indians, he observes the devastating consequences. “I had to pretend, like my master, not to hear the cries that had begun to emerge from the storehouse. Within moments, they had turned into howls, so long and so filled with pain that I felt they were echoing in the depths of my own soul.” He later regretfully recalls the time when, as a money-hungry merchant, he traded fellow Moroccans into slavery. “I had sent three men into a life of bondage without pausing to consider my role in this evil.” Rather than dwell in self-pity, anger or bitterness for his own predicament, Mustafa graciously acknowledges his past and present privileges.

Lalami, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics, eloquently examines the subjectivity of narrative, and the creation and manipulation of the truth. Throughout the book, Mustafa comes to understand the power of words, and how intent and motivation shape stories. “I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.” And as the doomed procession traverses the swamps of La Florida, Mustafa considers how language feeds the pride and arrogance of the Spaniards. “So they gave new names to everything around them, as though they were the All-Knowing God in the Garden of Eden.”

covercoverHomesickness and regret haunt Mustafa, and Lalami poignantly expresses his ache to reunite with his family. His cerebral account recalls the contemplative, haunting voices of Solomon Northrup in his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, and Sethe of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “Memories of my hometown came to me at odd moments, just like this, when I least expected them, as if my grief liked to ambush me.” And later, when Mustafa senses the awkward relationship between Senior Dorantes and his younger brother Diego, he writes, “Oh, what I would not have given to be with my own brothers…it was my desire to know and my yearning for them that dictated everything I did in those days…” Mustafa’s heartfelt sorrow and palpable anguish fuel his drive to survive.

As does his steadfast belief in God. A devout Muslim forced to convert to Christianity upon enslavement, Mustafa experiences enlightenment of another kind, one where he comes to value diversity in worship and appreciate the many, equally worthy paths to salvation. “Surely it would have been in His power to make us one faith if that had been His wish. Now the idea that there was only one set of stories for all of mankind seemed strange to me.” Mustafa the Moor exhibits a level of sophistication, compassion, and reverence that few of his other companions possess.

Above all else, as a memoirist, Mustafa’s penetrating narrative affords him the power, visibility, and autonomy he lacks as a Moor. He becomes the master of his own story, the notary of his own destiny, and through evocative, exacting language, breaks loose from the shackles of censorship. “Maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of truth.”

And with this magnificent novel, Lalami, through fiction, has penned a revelation and tribute to truth.

is a former attorney, organizer, and journalist based near Atlanta. She is the author of Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change and The Parted Earth. Her other writing has appeared in Oxford American, The Bitter Southerner, Poets & Writers, Harper’s Bazaar, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher’s Weekly, and elsewhere. A former board member of the National Book Critics Circle, she teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University.