Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Between two worlds: Leo Africanus

The Financial Times
January 12 2007

Between two worlds
Review by David Hongimann

Of TRICKSTER TRAVELS: In Search Of Leo Africanus,
A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
by Natalie Zemon Davis
Faber £20, 435 pages
FT bookshop price £16

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan was born in Granada in the late 1480s, in the dying days of the Muslim Al-Andalus. When Granada fell to the Castilians, he and his family decamped to Fez. Here he became a roving diplomat for the Wattasid sultans, travelling as far afield as Timbuktu and Cairo. And then, abruptly, returning from Cairo to Fez, he was captured by Spanish pirates, taken in chains to Rome, and presented as a prize to the Pope.

How this scholarly man spent the next nine years in Europe, what he made of his captivity, and how we are to interpret his words and actions, are the subject of Natalie Zemon Davis’s book Trickster Travels. It is not so much a biography - as there is not enough material for that - as a social history of this turning point in the life of the Mediterranean as seen through the eyes of someone moving between worlds.

Al-Wazzan converted to Christianity and was baptised by Leo X. He took the name of Joannes Leo, or in Arabic Yuhanna al-Asad (Latinised to Leo Africanus). He then worked on a series of documents, first helping with a Latin-Hebrew-Arabic dictionary and then writing a series of books interpreting his home culture for Europeans, of which the best known is the Libro de la Cosmographia et Geographia de Affrica. The book details the physical geography, culture and history of Africa, some of it from his own first-hand witness and memories, some from half-remembered travellers’ tales.

Full review here.

For an essay on the life of Leo Africanus, see Leo Africanus: The Man with Many Names.