Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, an essay by the Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami appeared in The New York Times Magazine. In “My Life as a Muslim in the West’s ‘Gray Zone,’” Lalami, whose Ph.D. is in linguistics and who regularly produces opinion pieces, criticism, and essays on a range of cultural and human rights subjects, discussed some of the challenges she has faced during her quarter-century as a Muslim immigrant to the United States:
Some months ago, I gave a reading from my most recent novel in Scottsdale, Ariz. During the discussion that followed, a woman asked me to talk about my upbringing in Morocco. It’s natural for readers to be curious about a writer they’ve come to hear, I told myself. I continued to tell myself this even after the conversation drifted to Islam, and then to ISIS. Eventually, another woman raised her hand and said that the only Muslims she saw when she turned on the television were extremists. “Why aren’t we hearing more from people like you?” she asked me.
“You are,” I said with a nervous laugh. “Right now.” I wanted to tell her that there were plenty of ordinary Muslims in this country. We come in all races and ethnicities. Some of us are more visible by virtue of beards or head scarves. Others are less conspicuous, unless they give book talks and it becomes clear that they, too, identify as Muslims.
Ordinary or not, Lalami calls herself “not a very good Muslim”:
I don’t perform daily prayers anymore. I have never been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I partake of the forbidden drink. I do give to charity whenever I can, but I imagine that this would not be enough to save me were I to have the misfortune, through an accident of birth or migration, to live in a place like Raqqa, Syria, where in the last two years, the group variously known as Daesh, ISIL or ISIS has established a caliphate.
Under ISIS control, Lalami writes, what it means to be a good Muslim in Raqqa has been made all too explicit. Women must wear niqabs and not circulate without male supervision. Smoking and profanity have been outlawed and chemistry eliminated as a school subject. Through such edicts and their policing, ISIS has effectively divided the world into two camps: that of Islam under the caliphate and that of the West under the crusaders. Citing an article in a recent issue of the ISIS recruiting magazine, Dabiq, Lalami explains that ISIS has coined the term “the gray zone” to describe “the space inhabited by any Muslim who has not joined the ranks of either ISIS or the crusaders.” By using terrorism to goad the West into military action in the Middle East, Lalami writes, ISIS hopes to make Muslims pick one camp or the other:
Either they “apostatize and adopt” the infidel religion of the crusaders or “they perform hijrah to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.” For ISIS to win, the gray zone must be eliminated.
Whose lives are gray? Mine, certainly. I was born in one nation (Morocco) speaking Arabic, came to my love of literature through a second language (French) and now live in a third country (America), where I write books and teach classes in yet another language (English). I have made my home in between all these cultures, all these languages, all these countries. And I have found it a glorious place to be.
Lalami’s most recent book, her second novel and third work of fiction, The Moor’s Account, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the recipient of a range of awards and distinctions,* is the story of an ordinary Muslim’s journey to the continent that Lalami has made her home.
Set in the sixteenth century, the novel’s narrator is Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. Born in Azemmur, a city on the coast of modern-day Morocco, Mustafa is the son of a notary, “a witness and recorder of major events in other people’s lives,” and a mother who “nourished me with stories, both real and imagined.” After completing his studies without distinction (“In spite of my lackluster attendance and poor performance, I had eventually learned the principles of Arabic grammar [and] memorized the Qur’an”), Mustafa embarks on a very different career from that of his father: merchant.
I like watching merchants convince buyers with the yarns they spin, how they persuade someone to buy something he did not know he wanted. And then the offer, the haggling, the resolution: all the give-and-take of a sale.
His father is unhappy with his son’s decision (“I tried to put some sense into you, he said, but I failed”) but arranges an apprenticeship for him nonetheless. Mustafa meets with success very quickly: “I became a trusted partner…earning commissions that made me rich…a man whose contracts were recorded by flattering notaries.”
That success leads to trouble. When a man who wishes to sell three slaves appears, Mustafa ignores “the teachings of our Messenger, that all men are brothers, and that there is no difference among them save in the goodness of their actions,” and decides to undertake the transaction: “With neither care nor deliberation, I consigned these three men to a life of slavery and went to a tavern to celebrate.”
Not long after, the Portuguese put the city of Azemmur under siege, blocking trade. Soon, food is scarce and commerce all but ceases, and Mustafa’s family is beginning to suffer:
All I saw were people like me, their faces haggard, their bodies so distorted by hunger and disease that they looked like jinns. So great was my despair that I would have readily gone to the gates of hell if I knew it could save my family from starvation.
And so he does. A merchant with nothing to sell, Mustafa realizes he has one possession of value left:
The clerk asked me my name. His missing teeth gave his voice a perversely benevolent tone….
With deliberately slow movements, the clerk opened his register and dipped his feather into black ink. Mustafa. Fifteen reais.
And thus it was done. Of all the contracts I had signed, this was perhaps the only one that my father could never have imagined me signing, for it traded what should never be traded. It delivered me into the unknown and erased my father’s name. I could not know that this was just the first of many erasures.
I gave the money to my brothers. Take it, I said.
Thus Mustafa sells himself into slavery for next to nothing—one tenth of the profit he’d so recently earned selling three slaves, money he’d wasted buying meaningless things.
Briefly in the hands of a brutal Seville merchant, baptized in the faith of his owner’s god (“The priest’s fingers traced a cross in the air…. It was not until much later that I understood the significance of the sign on our bodies”) and emerging with a new name (“I had entered the church as the servant of God Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori; I left it as Esteban”), his miseries are compounded when his master gambles himself into such debt that Mustafa is sold to a second master, a Spanish nobleman soon to travel to New Spain “to claim La Florida for the Crown.” Thus begins Mustafa’s odyssey under his new master’s new name for him (“Estebanico …a boy’s nickname”) as they travel across the Atlantic and into La Florida.
It all goes very badly, as the steadily diminishing party first wreaks terror and then runs a gauntlet of horrors in the region. Of the six hundred lives that first set sail, the journey claims all but four men by the end of its eight years: Mustafa and three companions,
three Castilian gentlemen known by the names of Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and…Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca…. The first was my legal master, the second my fellow captive, and the third my rival storyteller. But, unlike them, I was never called upon to testify to the Spanish Viceroy about our journey among the Indians.
If those names or numbers are familiar to some readers, it’s because of the testimony of the “rival storyteller” to which Mustafa alludes: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relación (1542), one of the earliest texts in the Latin American canon. De Vaca was the treasurer for the Narváez expedition that left Seville in 1527, the expedition documented in his Relación. Although there are many accounts of the colonizing of the Americas as one long story of misadventure and torture, de Vaca’s narrative is notable for its precision and verve, its anthropological notations (however broad and sometimes crude) of the lives and customs of the many different tribes of indigenous people they encountered, as well as for its documentation of the first African-American explorer of the Americas.
“Although I have based this novel on actual events,” writes Lalami in an afterword to The Moor’s Account,
the characters and situations it depicts are entirely fictional. This is especially true of my protagonist, about whose background nothing is known, except for one line in Cabeza de Vaca’s relation: el cuarto [sobreviviente] se llama Estevanico, es negro alárabe, natural de Azamor. (“The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor.”)
Although, in de Vaca’s account, there is indeed no information about Estebanico’s background, Estebanico is nonetheless an ongoing presence (“Castillo and Estebanico went inland on the mainland, to the Yguazes”; “Castillo and Estebanico…did not know how to swim and greatly feared the rivers [so] I agreed to carry them across any rivers or bays that we found”). One does not hear from him directly, in de Vaca’s account, and that silence, no less than the clamor of the adventures de Vaca describes, is an understandable lure to a novelist. What’s more, since Cabeza de Vaca does not mention Estebanico’s fate (some historians say he remained in Mexico and was killed by Indians while others say he remained and survived), Lalami grants him a final chapter, in which Mustafa would seem to have arranged, through his guile, not merely his freedom but his independence.
The trouble with Lalami’s version—scrupulously researched; dependably in line with the actual trajectory de Vaca describes in detail—is that the voice she has forged to fill the silence of history, the written voice of Mustafa’s own account in which Estebanico at last speaks for himself, doesn’t seem plausibly that of a singular human being.
In part, the problem is technical. Lalami is writing, in English, an account said to be written by Mustafa, who though conversant in Spanish and Portuguese (as well as increasingly fluent, as his story unfolds, in a number of the native American languages—Lalami lending him some of her own linguistic versatility), would be writing this text in his native Arabic. To the end of making that Arabic-ness felt, Lalami includes transliterations of Arabic words. Qibadh, for example (“the water never rose higher than a man’s waist and often it was so shallow that the rafts were only a few qibadh above the seafloor”), a word I couldn’t find a trace of online—except in a tweet to Lalami (“Have come across an unfamiliar term #qibadh”), to which she replied just a few hours later: “Plural of ‘qabdah,’ an Arabic medieval unit of measurement (a palm-length).” As neat as this ad hoc Q&A certainly is on a technical and communitarian level—how delightful that our authors are so accessible and amenable—it also makes no sense that Mustafa, in the English that his account is rendered in, wouldn’t just say “a palm-length”—which, as it happens, is a description as evocative as it is transparent.
It is not that I’m advocating for a reading experience that wouldn’t require reference books (or tweets). The problem is that Lalami not only insists upon making her character’s linguistic past a feature of his English prose, but also allows his vocabulary to brush elbows with English idioms of later eras, as when Mustafa writes that someone “turned around to size me up,” a turn of phrase (“size me up”) that won’t make its English-language debut until the nineteenth century. My purpose here is not to fault Lalami either for academic exactitude or for anachronistic sloppiness. Rather, to say that the prose she gives to Mustafa combines multiple registers so serially and awkwardly as to make a reader disbelieve that Mustafa is the maker of this language—or that Lalami is in consistent control of her own.
This disjointedness would be less of a problem if central to Lalami’s story weren’t Mustafa’s running commentary on the fact that he is writing a true story meant to be a historical corrective. Each of the twenty-five chapters in his account is titled some variation on “The Story of La Florida” or “The Story of My Birth,” and Mustafa is constantly prompting us to pay attention to the truthfulness of his—of any—account. As he says in his prologue:
I consider the three Castilian gentlemen I have mentioned to be men of good character, but it is my belief that, under the pressure…they were led to omit certain events while exaggerating others, and to suppress some details while inventing others, whereas I, who am neither beholden to Castilian men of power, nor bound by the rules of a society to which I do not belong, feel free to recount the true story of what happened to my companions and me…. If, by a stroke of luck, this account should find its way to a suitable secretary, who would see fit to copy it down without any embellishment, save for those of calligraphy or, in the manner of the Turks and the Persians, colorful illumination, then perhaps, someday, if that is to be the will of God, my countrymen will hear about my wondrous adventures and take from them what wise men should: truth in the guise of entertainment.
It’s a formula as admirable as it is clever—rendered here in Mustafa’s more eloquent mode, unencumbered by inconsistencies of idiom or argot—but the truth that accumulates about Mustafa by the end of his own account is that he’s too good to be true. His past as a shortsighted seeker of riches behind him, his misguided sale of himself accomplished, his adventure in the Americas largely done, his politics become those of a twenty-first-century humanist:
I was a thirty-eight-year-old man, so I had had plenty of time to consider the world through the eyes of someone else; yet that someone had rarely been a woman. What was it like to wear a girdle for the first time? To feel your chest crushed under metal boning? To walk with your feet tangled in the hems of your dress? I felt keenly aware of the sacrifices my wife was making for my sake, and keenly grateful.
His views on gender inequities are as ecumenical as his thoughts on religion:
Standing in that half-finished church, surrounded by statues of prophets and saints, I wondered why God created so many varieties of faiths in the world if He intended all of us to worship Him in the same fashion. This thought had never occurred to me when I was a young boy memorizing the Holy Qur’an, but as I spent time with the Indians I came to see how limiting the notion of one true faith really was. Was the diversity in our beliefs, not their unity, the lesson God wanted to impart? Surely it would have been in His power to make us of one faith if that had been His wish. Now the idea that there was only one set of stories for all of mankind seemed strange to me.
These are, of course, virtuous thoughts, but in Mustafa’s march through the stations of the colonialist cross, they come across less as the specific workings of a particular mind—one whose daily life consists of torture, rape, murder, and cannibalism—than as bullet points from a position paper on how to be a member of a better society than our own.
As I write this, Donald Trump has spent the past few weeks hinting at and then saying explicitly that were he elected president, he would establish a database to track Muslims in the United States. That the outcry against such stupidity has been swift comes as no less a relief than his continued and increasing lead over his fellow Republican candidates remains a harbinger of a profound civic disorder.
But such clearly unacceptable ideas—historically unacceptable; morally unacceptable; intellectually unacceptable; constitutionally unacceptable—have been muddled further by reactions to the horrendous news that a Muslim couple in San Bernardino (the wife swore her allegiance to ISIS on Facebook) slaughtered fourteen people at an event for employees of the county Public Health Department where the husband worked. “Our nation is under siege,” Chris Christie said, campaigning in Iowa, after hearing of the shooting. “What I believe we’re facing is the next world war. This is what we’re in right now, already.” And Jeb Bush broadsided that “they have declared war on us, and we need to declare war on them.”
That the prior week’s shooting at a Planned Parenthood by a devout Christian gunman did not produce a similar rhetorical outcry by the same candidates is, unambiguously, a difference based in race—in racism. It is a clear call to people of conscience that to be Muslim in America right now is to be enduring a period of terror in the land of the free. As Lalami wrote in The New York Times Magazine:
Terrorist attacks affect all of us in the same way: We experience sorrow and anger at the loss of life. For Muslims, however, there is an additional layer of grief as we become subjects of suspicion. Muslims are called upon to condemn terrorism, but no matter how often or how loud or how clear the condemnations, the calls remain. Imagine if, after every mass shooting in a school or a movie theater in the United States, young white men in this country were told that they must publicly denounce gun violence. The reason this is not the case is that we presume each young white man to be solely responsible for his actions, whereas Muslims are held collectively responsible. To be a Muslim in the West is to be constantly on trial.
The political value of a novel like The Moor’s Account—which presents the journey of an ordinary Muslim in America who suffers great hardship and yet who manages to think thoughts so irreproachable that an Islamophobe could find nothing to fault him for—can’t be overstated. The novel has the value of telling the truth about history—the history of the mistreatment of Native Americans, of African-Americans, of Muslims, of women. It is a truth that many of us need to learn. But Lalami’s book is a work of politics, not of art. Its excellent intentions mustn’t be mistaken for aesthetic achievement, however much the moment might need them to be.
American Book Award winner; Arab American Book Award winner; Hurston-Wright Legacy Award winner; Man Booker Prize Longlist; New York Times Notable Book; Wall Street Journal Top 10 Books of the Year; Financial Times Best Books of the Year; NPR Great Reads of 2014; Kirkus Best Fiction Books of the Year. ↩