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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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.:
TRICKSTER TRAVELS (Chapter 1)
Living in the Land of Islam
SITTING IN A ROMAN PRISON in 925/1519, a Muslim captive decided to write his three-part name in Arabic on a manuscript he had borrowed from the Vatican Library: al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan (figure 1). So we learn that his father was Muhammad and his grandfather Ahmad al-Wazzan. "Al-Fasi," he continued, showing his origins in the Arabic fashion, "from Fez," though elsewhere he inserted "al-Gharnati" to make clear he had been born in Granada and then brought up in Fez.1
Would that al-Hasan al-Wazzan had been as forthcoming about his date of birth. He gave only hints in his great manuscript on Africa, where he wrote that he had first visited the Moroccan town of Safi on the Atlantic coast "as a youth, twelve years old," and then again "about fourteen years later" (or has the scribe written "about four years later"?). Giovanni Battista Ramusio, who prepared the first printed edition of al-Wazzan's book, read the crucial number, either from context or from another copy of the manuscript, as "fourteen." On the second trip, al-Wazzan had carried an official message from two sultans to an important Berber from Safi, himself an officer of the king of Portugal.2
Al-Wazzan described the Berber's military actions and his tribute-collecting, which took place, according to the Portuguese authorities watching the Berber's every move, within the years 918-21/1512-14, most likely in the early summer of 918/1512.3 This puts our hero's birth to the wife of Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan in Granada about 891-93/1486-88, which fits well with other stories he told about himself.4
Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad had just a few years to take in the sights and sounds of Granada. The region of Granada fell within the ancient Roman province of Baetica, but the town itself--Gharnata in Arabic--became significant only after the Arab and Berber Muslims had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to conquer Christian Spain in the early seventh century. In the eleventh century, Granada was the center of a little Berber principality; in the thirteenth century, as the Christians began to advance in the reconquest of Spain and overall political authority foundered in Islamic al-Andalus, Granada became the capital of a kingdom under the Nasrid sultans, a last vigorous expression of Muslim culture on the Iberian peninsula. Two decades before al-Wazzan's birth, an Egyptian visitor had found "Granada, with its Alhambra, among the greatest and most beautiful cities of Islam," with splendid buildings and gardens, and a galaxy of illustrious poets, scholars, jurists, and artists. He bemoaned the infidels lurking nearby, who had seized so much of al-Andalus.5
When al-Hasan ibn Muhammad was born, Granada was a city of about fifty thousand people--mostly Muslims, but also Jews and Christians--its winding streets increasingly thronged with Muslim refugees who had fled Málaga and other Granadan towns when they were reconquered by the Christian Castilian forces in the 1480s. His family seems to have been well established, not so elevated as the entourage of Boabdil, the Nasrid sultan of Granada, but nonetheless with some property and standing. They would have lived in one of the busy quarters on either side of the Darro River, packed with the shops of artisans and traders and interspersed with mosques, including the beautiful Great Mosque, and shrines. From there they could look up the rocky hill to the imposing buildings of the Alhambra, with its palaces, fort, mosque, fine shops, and gardens, where the sultan and his family and high officials lived in splendor.
Al-Wazzan--that is, the weigher--seems to have part of the surname of both al-Hasan's father and grandfather. They may well have been aides to the muhtasib, the important magistrate who supervised everything from morals to markets in Granadan towns; if so, they would have stood at his side at the Al-Caicería market, ascertaining the weight of bread and other necessities.6
As a little boy, al-Hasan learned his mother tongue of Arabic, and his father may have started him off already on some Spanish. Colloquial Arabic of the Granadan streets and countryside was peppered with words and phonemes of Spanish origin, reflecting interchange between Arabic and Spanish. Notables, the learned, and people of high station also spoke and read classical Arabic and often knew enough Spanish to deal with Christian traders, captives, and political agents, writing that Romance tongue in Arabic characters.7 Meanwhile al-Hasan would have overheard whiffs of conversation among his parents and relatives: about the advancing Castilian armies and Granadan resistance, about the violent struggle going on at the same time between the sultan Boabdil and his relatives, about conversions to Christianity of a few prominent Muslims, and about the increasing number of Granadans leaving for North Africa.
Perhaps Muhammad ibn Ahmad packed up his family for departure even before the capitulation of Granada; or perhaps he stayed through the terrible early winter of 897/late 1491, when hungry beggars filled the city streets, and through January 1492, when victorious Castilians replaced the crescent on the Alhambra with a cross and instituted ceremonies of Christian purification in the mosque of al-Ta'ibin. Whatever the date, Muhammad ibn Ahmad wanted to raise his family in a land where governance was firmly in Muslim hands. As it turned out, the freedom of religious practice promised to Granada Muslims by the Christian monarchs was already in serious jeopardy within a few years. The family property was sold, and the al-Wazzans joined the flow of émigrés from Granada, many of them headed toward Fez.8
Al-Hasan al-Wazzan took with him some images--glazed tiles, which he recalled when he saw the like later in a mosque school in Marrakesh; the distinctive knee-length white veil that his mother would have wrapped herself in when she walked with him in the streets and that she probably continued to wear in Fez (figure 15)--and some memories. The account of his circumcision and the feast and dancing that went with it, he must have heard from his parents, for it was the usual custom in Granada and the Maghreb to perform it on the seventh day after the boy's birth.9 The rest--the past of Muslim al-Andalus, its celebrated men and women, its poets and religious scholars, its mosques and monuments--he learned about from stories, readings, and reminiscences in another land.
Some of the Andalusian émigrés complained bitterly about their new situation: they could find no way to make a living in Morocco and wished they were back in Granada. So vociferous were they that the learned Fez jurist Ahmad al-Wansharisi rebuked them for their weakness of faith. Other emigrés thrived. The religious scholars--the 'ulama'--of Granada had long had close connection with those of Fez, and distinguished émigrés in Fez became preachers not only at the mosque of the Andalusians, but also at the city's great mosque of al-Qarawiyyin.10
Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad's family was among those that did well. His uncle, presumably part of an earlier emigration, served as diplomat for Sultan Muhammad al-Shaykh, founder of the new Wattasid dynasty at Fez that had ended two centuries of Marinid rule. This highly placed relative must have eased the transition of the al-Wazzans to their new life. Perhaps Muhammad al-Wazzan became an aide to the officer of weights and measures at Fez; perhaps he went into the sale of European woolen cloth or silk, trades dominated in Fez by the Granadan refugees. Al-Hasan's father was able to purchase vineyards up north in the Rif Mountains and rent a castle and property in a mountain above Fez, but the family's base remained in the city.11
With a population of about one hundred thousand inside its walls, Fez was twice the size of Granada, its streets frequented by Arabs, Berbers, Andalusians, Jews, Turks, and slaves of European and sub-Saharan origin. Stretching out on either side of the Fez River, the city welcomed to its markets traders from a large surrounding region, bringing textiles, metals, and foodstuffs. The call to prayer issued from hundreds of mosques throughout Fez, the centuries-old mosque of al-Qarawiyyin on the west side of the river being the most celebrated. To its lectures and library flocked students and scholars from towns and villages throughout the Maghreb. To the west of the old city was New Fez, created as a center of government two centuries earlier, with palaces, stables, and bazaars. The al-Wazzan family presumably settled on the streets rising above the east bank of the river, in the Andalusian quarter, where emigrants and refugees from across the Strait of Gibraltar had been installing themselves for centuries. There the youth al-Hasan grew up all eyes and ears for the hills, buildings, gardens, and intense life of Fez.12
His studies began at one of the many neighborhood schools, where boys were taught to recite the Qur'an from start to finish and read and write. Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad later recalled the banquet that fathers put on in Fez when their sons had learned the entire holy book by heart: the lad and his fellow pupils arrived on splendid horses, singing hymns to the glory of God and the Prophet.13
Then he went on to more advanced studies at a Fez madrasa, a mosque school. Al-Wazzan seems to have attended lectures and discussions at al-Qarawiyyin mosque and at the elaborate Bu 'Inaniya madrasa nearby (figure 16). Grammar, rhetoric, religious doctrine, and fiqh (Sunni law and jurisprudence) were the heart of his curriculum, the last interpreted by the Malikite school of law, which prevailed in the Maghreb.14
Two major scholars were enthralling their listeners during al-Wazzan's student years: the polymath Ibn Ghazi and the jurist Ahmad al-Wansharisi. The latter was then completing his multivolumed compilation of the decisions of all the jurists of al-Andalus and the Maghreb. The former was writing and lecturing on topics ranging from the Qur'an, hadith (traditions ...
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