Bridge over the 'Faithful Sea'

Trickster Travels
February 23, 2007

A life of dissimulation reveals fascinating crossings, finds Nabil Matar.

Trickster Travels is the first book-length examination in English of al-Hasan al-Wazzan, or Leo Africanus, who is known to English readers chiefly through the 1600 John Pory translation of Description of Africa , and the English translation of Amin Maalouf's dazzling French novel, Leo Africanus .

Al-Wazzan was born in Granada sometime between 1486 and 1488, a few years before the city fell to Castillian forces. His family fled to Fez, Morocco, where he acquired his education at the foremost academic institution in the Islamic West, al-Qarawiyyeen. He entered the diplomatic corps and served the Wattasid ruler, travelling as "emissary, servant, soldier, informant and ambassador" around Morocco, into sub-Saharan Africa and eastward to Egypt and Anatolia. In the summer of 1518, returning from Cairo to Fez, al-Wazzan was captured by pirates, who took him to Italy and presented him to the Medici Pope Leo X. A year and a half later, in January 1520, he converted to Christianity in "an ornate ceremony at St Peter's" and adopted the name of Joannes Leo de Medicis. He then took up a post in the Vatican library, translating, copying and editing Arabic manuscripts, and living, as Natalie Davis puts it, "on both sides of the Mediterranean".

Few scholars possess the intellectual breadth that Davis brings to the world of Leo Africanus. With her detailed knowledge of European history and literature, and with her study of the Magharibi legacy, she situates Leo within the world of early Renaissance thought. She shows the connections that the Muslim-turned-Christian built in cities such as Bologna and Viterbo, and the role he played in a Rome that had attracted Jewish and Maronite scholars who formed part of the circle of Medici-sponsored Orientalists in the city. Leo taught Arabic, and summarised and copied the work of Avicenna, al-Ghazali and others; at the same time, he learnt Italian and Latin. When he realised how he could be an intermediary between Muslims and his new coreligionists, he began writing biographies of Muslim and Jewish scholars in Italian and co-operating with Jacob Mantino on an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin-Spanish dictionary. He also wrote annotations to the Koran and transcribed the epistles of Saint Paul in Arabic. The most important work he produced in Italy was the Book of the Cosmography and Geography of Africa ( Libro de la Cosmographia et Geographia de Affrica ), which he finished in March 1526. Although the book had to wait a quarter of a century before it appeared in print, it was the magnum opus for which Leo has been celebrated.

One of Davis's chief achievements is her meticulous comparison of the original Italian manuscript with the modified edition published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio between 1554 and 1663, which became the foundation for all later translations of the Libro into European and non-European languages. In so doing, she reveals the editor's changes, deletions and alterations, especially in the loss of the "balance" Leo had shown. Davis focuses on the historiographical and cultural background of the book in the light of previous Arabic writers, from al-Mas'udi to al-Idrisi and Ibn Khaldun; she analyses Leo's observations about the communities he had met in Africa (Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Copts) and their sexual habits, about languages and diseases, skin colour and war brutality, eschatology and heresy. In writing about Africa, Leo had also revealed his views about Italy and Christendom - views that Davis uncovers with detective-like subtlety then situates in the context of the social history and adab (Islamic behaviour or etiquette) of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. Also important to her are the omissions: why did Leo not comment on the printing press? Why did he not use maps?

The close textual analysis of the Libro allows Davis to discern the author's familiarity with Italy - and the neighbourhoods, regions and dialects to which Leo became exposed. For he was very selective in writing about himself, leaving numerous lacunae, which Davis was compelled to fill with conjectures ("perhaps," "we can imagine" and "may have"). It may be that because Davis conducted her study of Arabic sources via translation, her exposure to the Magharibi legacy excluded manuscript material that could have been helpful. Still, she raises some challenging questions, one of which is the reason why Leo converted so quickly to Christianity, and how sincere was his conversion, since his allusions to Christian doctrine remained "reserved (and) limited".

In chapter six, Davis takes this bull by the horns and explains his conversion in light of the hila , or ruse/trick, tradition he had encountered in the figure of the trickster of the maqamat , and in the taqiyya , or dissimulation, that constitutes a contested convention in Islamic theology. But conversions from Islam to Christianity and vice versa were common in the Mediterranean and did not need an Islamic justification.

Just over a century after Leo's conversion, Thomas D'Arcos was captured by Tunisian pirates, after which he converted to Islam, assumed the name of Osman and lived in North Africa until his death. In correspondence with his former coreligionists in France, he explained that he remained a Christian within but a Muslim without; furnishing exactly the same argument that the English captive in Algiers, Joseph Pitts, made in his letters to his father at the beginning of the 18th century. Converts had to lie and dissimulate whether they were Christian or Muslim.

Whatever the reason why Leo converted and stayed in Italy, he is for Davis a paradigm for a Mediterranean of Jewish-Christian-Islamic scholarship, co-operation and genius. In this respect, Trickster Travels serves as a companion - and corrective - to Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II . In his magisterial study, Braudel showed how extensive relations were between the Ottoman-Islamic East and the Christian West, but he subsumed the Maghreb under Turkish civilisation. It is to her credit that Davis shows the important role of Arabic thought in the Mediterraneanism that ended, according to Braudel, with the death of Phillip II in 1598. As she compares texts and genres, histories and biographies from the European legacy with their counterparts from North Africa and the Islamic West, Davis shows the many intricate intersections that contributed to the making of what has been called the "Faithful Sea".

Davis presents a vast portrait of intercultural and inter-political associations between Christendom and Dar al-Islam in the first half of the 16th century. There is little doubt that what attracted Davis to this project was the potential to explore a multireligious Mediterranean into which a Moroccan diplomat could enter fully, as Leo did after 1518. "Did the Mediterranean waters not only divide north from south, believer from infidel, but also link them through similar strategies of dissimulation, performance, translation, and the quest for peaceful enlightenment?" Davis wants readers to make up their own minds. But for her, the answer is a resounding "yes".

So why did that world of vast "crossings" end in 1598? In 1589, more than half a century after Leo was captured, a Moroccan ambassador travelled the same sea route and repeatedly declaimed against Christians. Abu Hasan Ali bin Muhammad al-Tamjruti had no place for "crossings" but for invective, exemplifying what Jamil M. Abun-Nasr has called the "spirit of intolerance" that prevailed in the Maghreb until the 18th century.

As Davis cogently shows, there were no structural reasons to prevent the Muslim from engaging Christian and Jewish thinkers, from collaborating with them in research projects or from establishing deep friendship with men (and possibly in the case of Leo, women) of different religious and historical backgrounds. After all, Leo had come from a land to which he, along with vast numbers of Jews, had fled, and had travelled into Muslim Egypt and other parts of the Ottoman Empire where native Christian populations were flourishing. One wonders whether Mediterraneanism ended not only because of the America-bound venture of Europeans, but also because of European imperialism against the lands of Islam, particularly Leo's Maghreb: did "intolerance" develop as a result of the conquest and the expulsion of Muslims from Tangier in 1471; Asila in 1471; Al-Araish in 1489; Anfa in 1469; Azammur in 1513; Al-Jadidah in 1514; Asfi in 1508; Al-Suwayra in 1506; and Aghadir in 1505; Melilla in 1497; and Ceuta in 1415 - the last two still in Spanish hands?

Trickster Travels raises some fascinating questions at the same time that it describes the literary, intellectual and religious crossings between Mediterranean Christendom and Dar al-Islam. The book ends with a beautiful quotation from the Koran about religious harmony among the three monotheisms - a harmony that Davis invokes her readers to celebrate through the life of al-Hasan al-Wazzan.

Nabil Matar is professor of English, Florida Institute of Technology.

Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds

Author - Natalie Zemon Davis
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Pages - 436
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 571 20256 X

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented