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The Moor's Account: A Novel

Overview

A New York Times Notable Book

In this stunning work of historical fiction, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America—a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record.
 
In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a crew of ...

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The Moor's Account: A Novel

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Overview

A New York Times Notable Book

In this stunning work of historical fiction, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America—a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record.
 
In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a crew of six hundred men and nearly a hundred horses. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and famous as Hernán Cortés.
 
But from the moment the Narváez expedition landed in Florida, it faced peril—navigational errors, disease, starvation, as well as resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year there were only four survivors: the expedition’s treasurer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; a Spanish nobleman named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; a young explorer named Andrés Dorantes de Carranza; and Dorantes’s Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori, whom the three Spaniards called Estebanico. These four survivors would go on to make a journey across America that would transform them from proud conquis-tadores to humble servants, from fearful outcasts to faith healers.
 
The Moor’s Account brilliantly captures Estebanico’s voice and vision, giving us an alternate narrative for this famed expedition. As the dramatic chronicle unfolds, we come to understand that, contrary to popular belief, black men played a significant part in New World exploration and Native American men and women were not merely silent witnesses to it. In Laila Lalami’s deft hands, Estebanico’s memoir illuminates the ways in which stories can transmigrate into history, even as storytelling can offer a chance for redemption and survival.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 09/15/2014
Lalami's second novel (after Secret Son) is historical fiction of the first-order, a gripping tale of Spanish exploration in the New World set in the years 1527 to 1536, as told by a Muslim slave. Meticulously researched, the novel is told in the first-person by a Moor, Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by his Spanish master, Andres Dorantes, recounting the disastrous Narvaez expedition into Florida, the Land of the Indians. Estebanico is an educated man, sold into slavery years before, now struggling to survive in an inhospitable land, beset by hostile Indians, disease, and starvation. Greed and the lust for gold leads to unwise leadership decisions on the part of the Spanish, resulting in the deaths of most of the expedition members. Four survivors, Estebanico and three Spaniards, wander for eight years, from Florida and Texas to New Mexico and Arizona, under the constant threat of death and living on the scant generosity of various Indian tribes. Eventually, Estebanico and the Spaniards develop skills as healers, earning respect and powerful reputations, even marrying Indian women and embracing Indian culture and lifestyle. As Estebanico dreams of his freedom from slavery, he clearly understands that explorers Cortes and Coronado are only interested in conquest and empire. This is a colorful but grim tale of Spanish exploration and conquest, marked by brutality, violence, and indifference to the suffering of native peoples. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Feels at once historical and contemporary . . . For Lalami, storytelling is a primal struggle over power between the strong and the weak, between good and evil, and against forgetting . . . Lalami sees the story [of Estebanico] as a form of moral and spiritual instruction that can lead to transcendence.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Assured, lyrical . . . Certainly the most extensive telling of the tale from ‘the Moor’s’ point of view . . . Adding a new spin to a familiar story, Lalami offers an utterly believable, entertainingly told alternative to the historical record. A delight.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“In 1527, Pánfilo de Narváez set out for the Americas. Laila Lalami reimagines his story in her stunning historical novel, through the eyes of one of his crewman’s Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori. The Moor's Account sheds light on all of the possible the New World exploration stories that didn’t make history.”
Huffington Post, “Best Books for Fall 2014”

“A deeply layered, complex portrait of all-too-familiar characters in an unfamiliar world . . . A totally engrossing and captivating novel that reconsiders the overlooked roles of Africans in New World exploration.”
Booklist 

“Laila Lalami has fashioned an absorbing story of one of the first encounters between Spanish conquistadores and Native Americans, a frightening, brutal, and much-falsified history that here, in her brilliantly imagined fiction, is rewritten to give us something that feels very like the truth.” 
—Salman Rushdie
 
“A beautiful, rousing tale that would be difficult to believe if it were not actually true. Lalami has once again shown why she is one of her generation’s most gifted writers.”
—Reza Aslan, author of Zealot

“Tremendous and powerful, The Moor’s Account is one of the finest historical novels I’ve encountered in a while. It rings with thunder!”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Little Failure

“Laila Lalami’s radiant, arrestingly vivid prose instantly draws us into the world of the first black slave in the New World whose name we know—Estebanico.  A bravura performance of imagination and empathy, The Moor’s Account reverberates long after the final page.”
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University

“¡Qué belleza! Laila Lalami has given us a mesmerizing reimagining of one of the foundational chronicles of exploration of the New World and an indictment of the uncontainable hubris displayed by Spanish explorers—told from the point of view of Estebanillo, an Arab slave and Cabeza de Vaca’s companion in a trek across the United States that is as important as that of Lewis and Clark. The style and voice of sixteenth-century crónicas are turned upside down to subtly undermine our understanding of race and religion, now and then. The Moor’s Account is a worthy stepchild of Don Quixote de la Mancha.”
Ilan Stavans, author of On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature
 
“A novel of extraordinary scope, ambition and originality. Laila Lalami has given voice to a man silenced by for five centuries, a voice both convincing and compelling. The Moor’s Account is a work of creativity and compassion, one which demonstrates the full might of Lalami’s talent as a writer.”
—Aminatta Forna, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and Hurston Prize Legacy Award-winning author of The Memory of Love, Ancestor Stones, and The Devil That Danced on the Water
 
“Laila Lalami has created an unforgettable drama of wonder out of the gaps and silences in the master narratives of colonial conquests. She gives name to the unnamed; agency to the sidelined; she takes them from footnotes into the footprints that make up the pages of this remarkable novel. Lalami gives voice to the silences of history.”
—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-08-28
Assured, lyrical imagining of the life of one of the first African slaves in the New World—a native, like Lalami (Secret Son, 2009, etc.), of Morocco and, like her, a gifted storyteller. The Spanish called him Estebanico, a name bestowed on him after he was purchased from Portuguese traders. That datum comes several pages after he proudly announces his true name, "Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori," and after he allows that some of the stories he is about to tell may or may not be quite true owing to the vagaries of memory and—well, the unlikelihood of the events he describes. The overarching event of this kind is, of course, the shipwreck that leaves him, with a body of Spanish explorers whose number will eventually be whittled down to three, to walk across much of what is now the American Southwest. Led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, "my rival storyteller," the quartet encounters wondrous things and people: cities of mud brick, maidens draped with turquoise, abundant "skins, amulets, feathers, copper bells," and always the promise of gold just beyond the horizon. They provide wonders in return: Estebanico is a source of exotic entertainment ("It was harmless fun to them, but to me it quickly grew tiresome"), while his fellow traveler Andrés Dorantes de Carranza sets broken bones and heals the sick. Lalami extends the stories delivered by Cabeza de Vaca himself in his Naufragios, which has been rendered in several English-language editions (e.g., We Came Naked and Barefoot; Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America; Castaways), but hers is certainly the most extensive telling of the tale from "the Moor's" point of view. As elusive as gold, she tells us, is the promise of freedom for Estebanico, who provides the very definition of long-suffering. She has great fun, too, with the possibilities of a great historical mystery—namely, whatever became of him? Adding a new spin to a familiar story, Lalami offers an utterly believable, entertainingly told alternative to the historical record. A delight.
Library Journal
07/01/2014
Lalami's meticulously researched yet extraordinarily readable account of the first black man to explore the New World begins in Azemmur, Morocco. Mustafa ibn Muhammed was born into a devout, professional family, but he eschewed schooling for the excitement of the souks (African marketplace) and the lure of easy money working the slave trade. But when drought and famine decimate Azemmur, Mustafa sells himself into slavery in a desperate bid to save his family from starvation. His enslaver, Andrés Dorantes, gives him the Castilian name Estebanico. Together they set sail under the leadership of Pánfilo de Narváez on a quest to claim the southeast coast of what's now the Gulf Coast of the United States for Spain. A man named Estebanico was actually one of four survivors out of 600 men and women who planned to settle in La Florida. This fictional account of his eight-year struggle to earn his freedom, survive the inhospitable climate, battle the hypocrisies of his own countrymen and the suspicions of the various native tribes they relied upon for food and shelter, rings of authenticity. VERDICT Lalami, whose novel Secret Son was nominated for an Orange Prize, offers readers a marvelous piece of old-fashioned storytelling rife with contemporary themes, from greed and plunder to cross-cultural understanding and assimilation. [See Prepub Alert, 3/31/14.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL
The Barnes & Noble Review

To the excited fancy of the Spaniards the unknown land of Florida seemed the seat of surpassing wealth," wrote Francis Parkman in his magisterial France and England in North America, and Pamphilo de Narvaez essayed to possess himself of its fancied treasures. Landing on its shores . . . he advanced into the forests with three hundred men." Of those men, about whom Parkman wrote that "[n]othing could exceed their sufferings," a mere four survived. One, Cabeça de Vaca, wrote a popular account of the ordeal. Another, an African slave, is barely mentioned in that work (and absent even from Parkman's footnotes), but he has escaped oblivion as the narrator of Laila Lalami's novel The Moor's Account.

The slave, a Moroccan Muslim, introduces himself to us as Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, but soon enough he is simply Estebanico, a chattel of the Castilian hidalgo Andrés Dorantes. He has been through a hell of slavery, shipwreck, and wandering in the Land of the Indians; the conceit of Lalami's book is that Estebanico has written his own true relation to correct the Joint Report of his fellow survivors. He is no longer beholden to Castilian men of power, nor bound by the rules of a society to which [he does] not belong," and thus is at liberty to dispense truth in the guise of entertainment." Whether his chronicle is entertaining or terrifying will depend on the reader's temperament.

No one who has read about the Spanish conquest of the New World will be surprised by the course things take. The Spaniards are after gold, first and foremost, and are willing to engage in cruelty, masochism, and self-delusion in doomed pursuit of it. In search of the Kingdom of Apalache, an imaginary paradise along the lines of Cibola or El Dorado, they find only the brown of thatched roofs, the red of doorway blankets, the green of ripening corn." Disappointed, they torture the natives into confessing" that, though the conquistadores have reached the vicinity of Apalache, they have yet to reach its glittering capital. Thus are they sent on a fool's errand that is also, for most of them, a death sentence.

The early New World chapters alternate with ones describing Mustafa's childhood and young manhood in Azemmur. My father," he tells us, wanted me to learn how to read, memorize the Holy Qur'an, and later attend the Qarawiyin, in the hope that I might take up the same profession as him. . . . This image of me as a dutiful recorder of events in other people's lives did not particularly inspire me." What does inspire Mustafa — to become a merchant, and occasionally a slaver — is the mystery of the souq, or marketplace:

There, I watched fortune-tellers, faith healers, herbalists, apothecaries, and beggars. They promised a healthy child, a painless life, a pliant husband, a dutiful wife, or a path to heaven, perhaps different versions of the same things, but the stories they told or foretold comforted people, inspired them, allowed them to imagine a future they had denied themselves.
Mustafa inhabits a world, it turns out, in which such stories are often all that stand between one and despair. Drought and invasion by Portuguese caravels create conditions of poverty and panic that lead Mustafa to sell himself into slavery. Reborn as Estebanico, he is passed from master to master in payment of a gambling debt. The eight years of his travels in the New World, from what is today Tampa Bay, Florida, all the way to Mexico City, are recounted by Lalami in such exhaustive detail that they take on a hypnotic, hallucinatory quality; it is difficult to believe the journey could have ended in anything but death. The manner in which Estebanico secures his survival among the Indians, working as a "healer" who relies as much on storytelling as on medical knowledge, is the stuff of fairy tales.

The Moor's Account is filled with brutalizing hardship and sudden, stunning violence. Mosquito swarms, stomach afflictions, thirst, and dwindling rations reduce men to grizzled brutes. Spaniards and Indians alike are whipped, beaten, shot with arrows, bled from slashed throats like butchered animals. When men drown fording rivers or piloting rafts, their deaths seem relatively peaceful. The image of a captive with his nose cut off, whose bound hands prevent him from brushing away flies, is hard to put out of memory. As adventure stories go, this one is short on swashbuckling, long on savagery so casual and expedient that it borders on the infantile, like one child biting another for snatching away his toy.

If life is cheap in "La Florida" and the New World, autonomy is expensive, and Lalami's depictions of coercion — up to and including slavery — are on balance more disturbing than her vivid scenes of torture or murder. She is adept at evoking helplessness and humiliation in forms both monstrous and subtle. A hidalgo becomes, almost without realizing it, the slave of an Indian tribe; a yet more degrading fate awaits when incompetence at hunting gets him relegated to "women's work." The removal of Estabanico from his homeland and family is easy to pity; the emasculation he suffers at the loss of his birth name — "A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions" — is more abstract but, in its way, more affecting.

The power of storytelling is Lalami's most insistent theme, but her approach to it can be off-puttingly of the present day. Though she strives with great success to draw complex and compelling characters, she often seems to be talking not of storytelling as such but of what our news media call, without a trace of self-awareness, The Narrative: control of the facts and the power inherent in it. Lalami demonstrates a conviction, familiar to fans of Howard Zinn, that the dominant cultural voice can only lie. So, though the conquistadors come off badly enough, by today's standards, in their own narratives, we are given to believe that since they have not confessed to rape or cannibalism, they must therefore have committed rape or cannibalism.

The problem with this is not that it is unfair to Spanish conquistadors. It is that it is far too fair to mankind in general. Lalami is willing to present a villainous Indian, or to steep Estebanico in guilt for having traded slaves, but it is tiresome nevertheless to read a book in which only the designated underdog is capable of grasping and repenting his moral failings. One decent man is too few for a credible book; indeed, none would be more plausible. Men of all times and places have been capable of hating injustice not because it is unjust but because they are its victim. Estebanico's smooth moral transformation, along with his unfailingly superior expertise, insight, and wisdom, ever threaten to pull The Moor's Account down to the level of a didactic YA novel.

Threaten, but do not succeed. Though the book's realism suffers some weaknesses of characterization, it is in other respects triumphantly authentic. Estebanico's voice is lively, optimistic, and attentive to beautiful details as well as ugly ones; as is so rarely the case with historical fiction, it is almost completely devoid of the anachronistic phrasings and modern thought patterns that can jar a reader out of his time-travel reverie. Consider the simple but arresting imagery of this spellbinding moment:
The rays of the setting sun colored the walls of Hawikuh an orange color, the color of the gold that the servants of empire so desperately sought and so rarely renounced. Of all the places I had visited in the Land of the Indians, none looked to me so much like my hometown in Barbary, with its houses huddled together against the light. I thought of Azemmur in the spring, when the fig trees bloom and the fields are a sea of green and white. How I longed to see those fields again, to lie in them and listen to the humming of the bees, to swim in the Umm er-Rbi' again, to sit on a boulder at the edge of the river and watch the shad swim against the current. How I longed to lay eyes upon my mother, to visit my father's grave and whisper a prayer for his soul . . .
The most fascinating and challenging aspect of the book's realism is this: We are witnessing the subjugation and forced conversion of a people, as told to us by a man whose own prized identity and faith are the result of a subjugation and forced conversion. We are reminded that though conquest may seem like a dusty, embarrassing fact of our past, the human drive to freedom is likely to struggle with the human drive to dominate others until the end of time.

A writer living in Hudson, NY, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at www.stefanbeckonline.com/tpm/.

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307911667
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/9/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 31,075
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize long list. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian, and The New York Times, and in many anthologies. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship and is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

8.
 
The Story of Seville
 
All around me, voices rose and fell. Shackled slaves spoke in an overlapping multitude of languages, this one asking after an uncle, this other comforting a child, and yet these others arguing about a piece of moldy bread, their cries periodically interrupted by the bleating of goats from the animal stalls. But for a long time, I kept to my silence, wrapping myself in it like an old, comfortable cloak. I think I was still trying to apprehend the consequences of what I had done. For hours on end, I revisited the long sequence of events that had led me from the soft divans and rhythmic guenbris of my graduation feast to the timber bench and jangling chains of the caravel Jacinta, sailing with frightening speed toward the city of Seville. I had played my part in these events—I had made my decisions freely and independently at each juncture, and yet I was stunned by the turn my life had taken. The elders teach us: give glory to God, who can alter all fates. One day you could be selling slaves, the next you could be sold as a slave.
 
The hunger I had felt so keenly in Azemmur was tamed now, if not satisfied, by the hard bread the sailors distributed once a day, though it was quickly replaced by a renewed acquaintance with all of my body’s other senses and needs. My head itched from the lice my neighbor, an old man with pockmarks dotting his face, had given me. My soiled clothes stuck to my skin, because I could not bring myself to use, on command and with little notice, the bucket that was passed up and down the gallery twice a day. My limbs grew stiff from sitting in damp and narrow quarters. My throat hurt, my feet swelled, my wrists bled. Above all, my heart ached with longing for my family.
 
My family. They had, all of them, learned to accept their fates. Without complaint my sister had spent her girlhood watching over our twin brothers, and without protest she had returned home after her divorce. My brothers went to school every day hoping to fulfill my father’s dreams, dreams I had cruelly broken and then bequeathed to them. My mother had left her beloved people and her distinguished hometown in order to follow my father to Azemmur.
 
As for me, I had made a habit of defying my fate. Perhaps I could do that now and find a way back to my old life. I thought of the elder al-Dib, my employer in Azemmur, who had been born to a slavewoman, but had earned his freedom as a youth. Perhaps I could do the same. Perhaps my talent would be recognized by my master, who would let me purchase my freedom; or perhaps my misery would touch the heart of an Andalusian Muslim, who would free me from bondage in order to earn the favor of our Lord. To overcome my fear, I shackled myself with hope, its links heavier than any metal known to man.
 
Having convinced myself that my condition was temporary, I set about trying to survive it. I taught myself to ignore the stench of excretions, the moans of delirium, the sight of private parts. I learned to push back into my throat the rising taste of vomit. I tried to watch out for the rats. I slept only when my exhaustion overpowered my discomfort. And I passed the time by listening to the stories the women told their children, after the guards had left and the doors were locked for the night. In the darkness of the lower deck, the women brought to life a world entire, a world where sly girls outwitted hungry ghouls and where simple cobblers saved powerful sultans, so that at times it seemed to me I could see the ghouls’ sharp teeth or the sultan’s embroidered slippers.

Then, early one morning, the anchor was dropped, its tug faintly resonating through the varnished wood under my feet. I listened to the footsteps on the upper deck. Did the customs officer come aboard to greet the captain? Was that the stevedore inquiring about the merchandise? Then at last the deck door was flung wide open. A rush of cold air blasted into the lower deck, where it met with the suppressed heat and terrified silence of two hundred slaves. Row by row, we were unshackled and led up the stairs.
 
When I reached the upper deck, the blinding white light made me recoil in pain and I staggered like a drunkard, but after three weeks in closed quarters I was so hungry for the untainted smell of open air that I took my hands off my face. Seville reeked of fried fish, but its air was not briny, and there was a whiff of smoke coming from somewhere in the port. The morning chill gave me goose bumps and I put my arms around me, all the while steadying myself on my feet. Finally, I opened my eyes.
 
All around me were men whose faces were covered in brightly colored kerchiefs, with openings for the eyes. They carried long sticks, with which they prodded me to the way out. As I went down the ship’s rope ladder, I saw that I was on a wide river. It ran fast, just like the Umm er-Rbi’, and yet its sound, the particular melody it made as it rumbled beneath the ship, was different. Later, when I would learn that this river was called the Guadalquivir, the Arabic name would at once delight me with its familiarity and repulse me with its reminder of my personal humiliation. The city of Seville did not have a pier like the one in Azemmur, so we had to be taken by rowboat to the riverbank. The sky above was a turquoise blue, cut through by the black masts and white sails of the ships around us.
 
On the shore, a man whose face was hidden behind a yellow kerchief was separating the healthy from the lame, the sturdy from the weak, the young from the old. He jabbed me with a stick, and then pointed me to the first line. All around me, the port hummed with the sounds of sailors, officers, porters, and scribes, each hurriedly going about his business. Two men standing next to a tall stack of crates were having a loud argument, I remember, and one of them seized the other by his collar. Beyond the port, the city’s white, square homes were slowly rising from their slumber. Carts creaked on the cobblestone. Horses clopped in the distance. Somewhere, I knew, a father was sitting down for a morning meal with his family. Somewhere, a child was receiving her bowl of milk. Somewhere, a brother was closing the door of his house behind him as he went to work. And I was here, at the port, ready to be sold once again.
 
A man with a red kerchief grouped a dozen of us together, the way farmers collect their eggs or bakers their loaves, tied our hands to one another with thick rope, and led us away from the port. It was a long and painful walk, because we were all weak from hunger and idleness. Periodically one of us fell and had to be helped up, but our wretched procession drew no stares of interest or curiosity from the many people we passed. Each one went about his business without the slightest pause. At a bend in the road I caught the first glimpse of an imposing tower, which looked very much like the minarets at home. What is the name of that tower? I asked the man with the red kerchief. La Giralda, he said without turning. I had heard of La Giralda years earlier—it had been built by the Almohad sultans as a replica of the Kutubiya in Marrakesh—and I had even fantasized of seeing it someday, but never under these circumstances.
 
Around the corner from La Giralda, we stopped in front of a tall edifice, with large wooden doors and an imposing facade. As we ascended the marble steps, an older man in our group slipped and fell and we all tumbled in a pile over him. The slave merchant clicked his tongue at the delay we were causing him—his long day, already filled with labor, was made more difficult by our clumsiness. The fallen man stood up, his palm over his broken tooth and bloodied lips, even as the merchant pulled roughly on the rope and led us toward the entrance.
 
We were brought before an imam of the Christian faith, a man of freckled complexion and colorless eyes, who spoke an ancient tongue I did not understand. I could detect no pattern to the words that poured like a river out of his mouth, but I listened nonetheless, to distract myself from my thirst and my hunger. He wore a robe of immaculate white, with carefully embroidered edges. Behind him, a stained glass window colored the morning light in various shades of red, yellow, and blue. Though I had been taught to distrust pictures of the human form, I could not help staring at the white woman with a babe in arms and the brilliantly attired men gathered around her. They seemed removed from our untidy and disgraceful world, engaged in their own story, unconcerned about the scene unfolding beneath them.
 
Being the tallest man in my family, I was used to lowering my head when I passed through the doorway of our house and to seeing my knees stick out when I sat on my heels next to my uncles. Yet here, in this high-ceilinged church, I felt small and helpless. My hands were tied together and bound to the slaves on either side of me. If one of us moved his hands or feet in order to find a more comfortable stance, the slave merchant pulled on the rope to force the insurgent back in line. With a snap, the priest closed his book and laid it carefully on a table beside him. He nodded to the merchant, who nudged the first in our group forward, a woman with wide, protruding eyes. The priest’s fingers traced a cross in the air, over her face and chest. I looked at him unblinkingly, all the while wondering what the action meant and why he repeated it with each one of us. It was not until much later that I understood the significance of the sign on our bodies. I had entered the church as the servant of God Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori; I left it as Esteban. Just Esteban—converted and orphaned in one gesture.
 
The slave merchant led us out of the cathedral. He pulled his red kerchief back up over his nose to protect himself against the smell of his charges. Walking with the swiftness of a man determined to make the most of his day, he led us back to the port and to a holding pen guarded by dogs. In truth, there was no need for them since we were all so tired and hungry we would not have had the power to run far. The four women in our group went to huddle together on the far side of the holding pen. I had trouble speaking to them, on account of the fact that they spoke a different variety of Tamazight than I did, but by and by I gathered that they were the daughters of farmers who had suffered great hardship during the drought. Two of the men told me they were from Guinea and had been sold on the slave markets there, then transported to Azemmur, and from there to Seville. Just before nightfall, a man brought us bowls of cold soup. We called the name of God over our food, each in our own language and custom, and ate hungrily.
 
I lay down on the pallet that, by the following morning, would give me a terrible rash, and tried to go to sleep. But sleep eluded me. In the distance, I could hear the Guadalquivir, and my thoughts drifted to Yahya, who, despite my repeated efforts, had not learned how to swim. He had never been able to conquer his fear of water long enough to wade into the heart of the Umm er-Rbi’. How Yusuf would tease him! I tried to protect him from the taunts of the other boys as they swam in the river, but he always ended up in tears. Sometimes, during the mating season, a shad would fly out of the water, and I would try to catch it so that Yahya, seeing my feat, would finally want to leave the safety of the shore. But the fish were always too slippery for me and I was never able to pull off the trick. Would Yusuf teach him what I had not been able to?
 
Despite the faint sound of the river, this strange city filled me with dread. I tossed and turned for a long while before I realized why it felt so quiet and so empty—I had not heard the call for prayer. In Azemmur, I had heard it five times a day, every day of my life. The morning prayer woke me; the noon prayer told me that it was time to eat and rest; the afternoon prayer refreshed me after a long nap; the dusk prayer delivered me from my workday and to my family; and the evening prayer commended my soul to God. Now I was alone in the world. All I could do to contain the tears that welled in my eyes was to lie in the dark and call silently upon God until I fell asleep.

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