Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds

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An engrossing study of Leo Africanus and his famous book, which introduced Africa to European readers

Al-Hasan al-Wazzan--born in Granada to a Muslim family that in 1492 went to Morocco, where he traveled extensively on behalf of the sultan of Fez--is known to historians as Leo Africanus, author of the first geography of Africa to be published in Europe (in 1550). He had been captured by Christian pirates in the Mediterranean and imprisoned by the pope, then released, baptized, and allowed a European life of scholarship as the Christian writer Giovanni Leone. In this fascinating new book, the distinguished historian Natalie Zemon Davis offers a virtuoso study of the fragmentary, partial, and often contradictory traces that al-Hasan al-Wazzan left behind him, and a superb interpretation of his extraordinary life and work.

In Trickster Travels, Davis describes all the sectors of her hero's life in rich detail, scrutinizing the evidence of al-Hasan's movement between cultural worlds; the Islamic and Arab traditions, genres, and ideas available to him; and his adventures with Christians and Jews in a European community of learned men and powerful church leaders. In depicting the life of this adventurous border-crosser, Davis suggests the many ways cultural barriers are negotiated and diverging traditions are fused.

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About the Author:

Natalie Zemon Davis is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emerita at Princeton University. Her books include Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision and Woman on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpted from Trickster Travels by Natalie Zemon Davis Copyright © 2006 by Natalie Zemon Davis. Published in March 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Introduction: Crossings

In 1514 King Manuel I of Portugal presented Pope Leo X with a white elephant from India. Paraded through the streets of Rome in an elaborate ceremony and named “Annone,” or Hanno, by welcoming Romans, the elephant represented to the pope the king’s intention to bring the realms that extended from North Africa to India into the Christian fold. Hanno survived in his pen for three years, a presence at public events and festivities and a favorite of the pope and the Roman populace. He was written about by poets, mythographers, and satirists, and imaged in drawings, paintings, and woodcuts; in fountain ornament, bas-relief, and majolica platter. Raphael designed his memorial fresco.1

In 1518 a Spanish pirate, fresh from successful raids against Muslim ships in the Mediterranean, presented the same pope with a captured North African traveler and diplomat from Fez named al-Hasan al-Wazzan. He would serve as a useful source of information, it was hoped, and as a symbol in the pope’s desired crusade against the Ottoman Turks and the religion of Islam. Had not the Turks been an increased threat to Christendom since their conquest of Constantinople in 1453? The diplomat’s arrival and imprisonment were noted in diaries and diplomatic correspondence. His baptism at St. Peter’s fifteen months later was a grand ceremony. A librarian recorded his book-borrowing. But compared to Hanno, al-Hasan al-Wazzan’s nine years in Italy went unrecorded by those who saw him, his presence unmemorialized by those whom he served or knew, his likeness not drawn and redrawn, his return to North Africa referred to only later and obliquely. Only a shred of his life remained in the memory of Europeans interested in Arabic letters and travel literature, to be passed on orally and reported years later.

In North Africa there are also baffling silences. During the years when al-Hasan al-Wazzan was serving as agent for the sultan of Fez in towns along Morocco’s Atlantic coast, no mention of him was made by Portuguese military men and administrators in their chatty letters to King Manuel. During years when he had diplomatic duties in Cairo, no mention of him was made by a sharp-eyed observer who wrote in his journal of visitors to the court of the Mamluk rulers of Egypt and the Levant.

Yet al-Hasan al-Wazzan left behind in Italy several manuscripts, one of which, published in 1550, became a bestseller. Over the centuries his book attracted the curiosity of readers and scholars in many parts of the world. The mysteries about him and even his name began already with the first edition. Giovanni Battista Ramusio, the editor, entitled the book La Descrittione dell’Africa (The Description of Africa), called its author by his baptismal name, “Giovan Lioni Africano,” and included a brief biography of him in his dedication. So he was known in the several subsequent editions of the book that were published in Venice as the first volume in Ramusio’s series of Navigations and Voyages. And so he was known in the European translations that soon appeared: “Iean Leon, African [sic]” in French (1556); “Ioannes Leo Africanus” in Latin (1556); and “Iohn Leo, a More” in English (1600). Through the German translation (1805) of “Johann Leo der Africaner,” his book continued to shape European visions of Africa, all the more strongly because it came from someone who had lived and traveled in those parts.2

Meanwhile a scholar at the Escorial library in Spain, himself a Maronite Christian from Syria, came upon an Arabic manuscript on another topic by al-Wazzan. It bore both his Muslim and his Christian names, which the librarian included in his published catalogue (1760-70). A century later, when the Description was enshrined in the Recueil de voyages (Collection of Voyages) by the important French Orientalist Charles Schefer, an Arabic name appeared in the introduction; and in the classic Hakluyt Society series of travel literature in England, the title page proclaimed: “by Al-Hassan Ibn-Mohammed Al-Wezaz Al-Fasi, a Moor, baptized as Giovanni Leone, but better known as Leo Africanus.”3

Still its author remained a shadowy figure. Then in the early decades of the twentieth century, a few scholars approached the book and the man in new ways. In the context of the new French “colonial sciences” concerning the geography, history, and ethnography of Africa, the young Louis Massignon did his Sorbonne thesis on Morocco in the early sixteenth century as it had been described by “Léon l’Africain.” From a close reading of the text (a technique that would flower in his later great publications on Sufi mysticism and poetry), Massignon extracted what he could not only about the geography of Morocco but also about al-Wazzan’s life and travels, especially about his sources and methods of observing and classifying. The frame of al-Wazzan’s book was “very Europeanized,” Massignon opined, but “its core was very Arabic.” Massignon’s study was published in 1906, an important moment in France’s steps toward establishing its protectorate of Morocco.4

The historical geographer Angela Codazzi knew Massignon’s book well and took seriously his hope that an original manuscript of al-Wazzan’s book would one day be found. Close to the collections in Italy’s libraries, in 1933 she could announce that she had located an Italian manuscript of The Description of Africa, and it did indeed differ from the later printed edition of Ramusio. At the same time, Giorgio Levi della Vida, a remarkable scholar of Semitic languages and literatures, was making discoveries as well. Excluded from university teaching in 1931 as an antifascist, he was invited to catalogue the Arabic manuscripts at the Vatican Library. He left for the United States in 1939—an act of safety for a Jew—but not before putting the finishing touches on a book about the creation of the Oriental collections at the Vatican. Among its many riches, it had much to say about the reading, writing, and signing practices of al-Hasan al-Wazzan. Back in Italy after the war, Levi della Vida helped Codazzi interpret two manuscripts on other subjects that she had found by “Giovanni Leone Africano.”5

The last important colonial presentation of Jean-Léon l’Africain was a new French translation and commentary prepared by Alexis Épaulard. During years in Morocco as a physician and military officer with the French protectorate, Épaulard had become impressed with “the exceptional value,” both historical and geographical, of The Description of Africa. His book built upon the work of Massignon and Codazzi, without following their spirit. Épaulard used the Italian manuscript in Rome in 1939—and applauded Codazzi’s plan to publish it one day (alas, unfulfilled)—but his Description is an amalgam of translations from Ramusio, occasional translations from the manuscript, and a modernized version of the sixteenth-century French translation. He ignored the possibility that the differences between the texts could reveal larger differences in viewpoint and cultural sensibility.

Like Massignon’s book, the Épaulard edition confronted assertions made in the Description with evidence from outside its pages—from the distance between places to the unrolling of historical events—and corrected al-Wazzan when necessary. Geographical names were clarified, and Arab authors he cited were identified. To achieve this, Épaulard assembled a team of French scholars in sub-Saharan studies, two of them then based in Dakar at the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire, and consulted specialists in North African folklore and historiography. The notes are useful, but they did not address the question raised by Massignon about where the text or its author was positioned in regard to the world he was writing about and the world he was writing for. Differences were smoothed over again: Épaulard liked to think that “Jean Léon” had never left his Christian life in Italy.

Épaulard did not live to see the fulfillment of his project. The team finished it up, and the Description was published in Paris by the Institut des Hautes Études Marocaines in 1956, three years after Morocco became an independent state.6

The Épaulard team had particularly envisaged their readers as historians of Africa, and soon scholars of sub-Saharan Africa began to have their say about al-Wazzan’s reliability as a witness. In the late decades of the century, specialists from Europe, Africa, and America compared his pages on Black Africa with other evidence and later accounts: some claimed he gave convincing, precious detail on little-known societies and kingdoms, others that he was reporting tall stories picked up in Timbuktu and had never traveled beyond its borders. Here a ruler verified, there a conquest found false, here a trading practice confirmed, there a fire mentioned by no one else but al-Wazzan. All these approaches—in worthy pursuit of “scrupulous care in handling” a primary source—broke the Description into fragments, rather than considering it as a whole or its author’s literary practices.7

While the Africanists were arguing, a new generation arose of post-colonial readers of al-Hasan al-Wazzan. Most important was Oumel-banine Zhiri, whose own travels took her from her native Morocco to France to the United States. Her 1991 book, L’Afrique au miroir de l’Europe: Fortunes de Jean Léon l’Africain à la Renaissance, sh...

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