by Laila Lalami
a 16th-century Moroccan-American?
Estebanico, a Moroccan from Azemmour, was part of the disastrous Narvaez Expedition in in 1527. A slave, his name only occasionally pops up in the historical records, although he was one of just four survivors of nearly 600 members of the original expedition. How would the southern United States, with its diverse tribes of American Indians, have looked to a sixteenth-century Moroccan? In her novel, The Moor's Account, author Laila Lalami imagines the expedition from the viewpoint of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave from Azemmour who was one of the expedition's few survivors.
In the fall of 2009, I was reading a book about Moors in Spain when I came across a brief mention of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave who was said to be the first African and the first Muslim to cross the American continent. Who was this man, I wondered. And why had not I heard of him before?
As it turned out, Estebanico was part of the Narváez expedition, which landed in Florida in 1528, with the goal of conquering it for the Spanish Crown. But from the start, the expedition faced unrelenting challenges: navigational problems, contagious diseases, poor rations, and stiff resistance from local indigenous tribes. Within a year, there were only four survivors—the famed Cabeza de Vaca, who was the expedition’s treasurer; a young captain by the name of Alonso del Castillo; a nobleman named Andrés Dorantes; and his Moroccan slave, Estebanico. Together, the survivors journeyed across America, living with Native tribes and reinventing themselves as faith healers. Years later, when they were found, the Spaniards were asked to provide their testimony about this epic journey. But because he was a slave, Estebanico’s experience was considered irrelevant or uninteresting.
And yet Estebanico’s experience was uniquely valuable. He was part of a conquering expedition, but was not himself a conqueror; he was neither a Spaniard, nor an indigenous American. These differences would have made of him a more neutral observer, someone who could have provided a nuanced account of the Narváez expedition.
The silencing of Estebanico in the historical record felt very modern to me. Open up the newspaper and look at the bylines. Whose perspectives do you find? Whose voices do you never hear? I was so immediately drawn to his story that I decided to write a novel about him.
Everything we know about Estebanico comes to us from Cabeza de Vaca’s travelogue, Naufragios (published in English as Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, part of the Penguin Classics Series.) He is described as “an Arabic-speaking black man, a native of Azemmour.” Because so little is known about him, I gave myself the freedom to invent him: his birth in Azemmour, his family life, his relationships with others, his many failings, and ultimately his redemption.
Writing this novel meant five years of research, not just on the Narváez expedition itself, but also on sixteenth-century Morocco, Spain, and America. I read dozens of sources in English, Spanish, and Arabic, about conquest in general and about this expedition in particular. I traveled to Azemmour, where Estebanico was presumably born; to Cuba, where the Narváez expedition stopped on its way to the New World; to Florida, where it landed; to Texas, where the four survivors lived with indigenous tribes; and to Zuñi pueblo in New Mexico, the last place where Estebanico was seen.
But in some ways, the research was not the hardest part of writing this book. The hardest part was writing about an episode of history whose bloodletting and complexities remained largely unmentioned in Cabeza de Vaca’s account. And I had to do this while maintaining the voice and the perspective of a sixteenth-century Moroccan man. To create this voice, I tried to withhold my modern views on race, gender, and religion, which would have interfered with the authenticity of the character. The travelogues of ibn Battuta and Hassan al-Wazzan were particularly useful to me in this regard. On a sentence level, I wanted my lexical choices to reflect sixteenth-century usage, but without weighing the text down with antiquated words.
For a novelist, the narrative possibilities of Estebanico’s journey were impossible to resist. But now that the book is completed, I see that the simple act of telling this story was a struggle against invisibility. Estebanico now feels as real to me as some of the people in my life.
For further reading:
Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account (Simon and Schuster, 2014).
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Chronicle of the Narvaez expedition (Penguin, 2002).
Meet Our Guest: Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of five books, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the longlist for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times. She has been awarded fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles.