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Originally published Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘The Moor’s Account’: a slave’s far-flung American adventures

Laila Lalami’s new historical novel, “The Moor’s Account,” retraces the travels of the real-life explorer Estebanico, the slave of a Spanish conquistador who traveled far and wide in the America of the 16th century. Lalami reads Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Seattle Public Librar


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Laila Lalami

The author of “The Moor’s Account” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).

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‘The Moor’s Account’

by Laila Lalami

Pantheon, 321 pp., $26.95

History is written by the victors. Good thing for those left in the shadows of the official record, and for readers who enjoy alternative accounts, that a clever novelist can tweak it.

In her meticulously researched and inventive historical novel “The Moor’s Account,” Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami (“Secret Son”) retraces the remarkable true-life trajectory of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, aka Estebanico. The slave of a Spanish conquistador, he was one of four survivors of the Narváez expedition, which landed hundreds strong around what is now Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1528.

At the start of the first-person “Account,” the courtly Estebanico states his intention “to correct details of the history that was compiled by my companions, the three Castilian gentlemen known by the names of Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and especially Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca ... ” , three characters based on the real-life Estibanico’s traveling companions.

Born to a comfortable life in Morocco, Estebanico is seduced by the wonders of the souk to seek his fortune as a merchant — even dealing in slaves. In his late 20s, when his family’s financial security faltered after drought and Portuguese occupation, he sold himself into slavery.

Forcibly baptized and renamed on the way to the auction block in Seville, he laments: “I had entered the church as the servant of God Mustafa ... I left it as Esteban ... converted and orphaned in one gesture ... A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world. Losing it meant losing my ties to all those things too ...”.

Estebanico’s odyssey with the Spanish includes eight years lost and wandering first through “La Florida,” with its “diabolically persistent” mosquitoes; across the Gulf of Mexico on makeshift rafts with sails made of the tattered remnants of expedition members’ clothing; then by land along the Colorado River to the Spanish empire’s crown jewel, Mexico City.

Hunger, disease and violence are constants, but for Estebanico the journey has a silver lining. The ragtag survivors, at times enslaved by Indian tribes, hang on by their wits far from civilization, and Estebanico and his masters become equals. He even holds higher social status in “The Land of the Indians” as he absorbs native languages and practices and becomes a respected healer among friendly tribes.

The travels among the Indians in the Southwest, while initially intriguing, become repetitive in the second half of “The Moor’s Account.” Better are the vivid accounts early in the novel of life in Morocco: “We lived with my uncle Abdullah and his family in an old house with whitewashed walls and a creaky blue door, down the street from the gates of the medina. The air inside smelled of bread and wood, and it was full of a constant, comforting noise ...”

Those interested in the history of the Spanish colonization of the Americas will find much to like in “The Moor’s Account,” as will lovers of good yarns of faraway lands and times.

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a Seattle Times desk editor.



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