The Moor's Account
by Laila Lalami
“Telling a story is like sowing a seed—you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree, with firm roots and branches that soar up in the sky. But it is a peculiar sowing, for you will never know whether your seed sprouts or dies.”― Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account
We tell stories both to others and to ourselves. They are seldom written down but once in a great while a writer with imagination may create a story about a real event. That is what the Moroccan-born author Laila Lalami has done with The Moor’s Account. Her novel is a fictional memoir written by Mustafa ibn Muhammad, a Moroccan slave who participated with a Castilian exploration group exploring La Florida. The story tells how Mustafa, who is owned by Señor Dorantes, a captain assigned to the expedition, becomes part of this exploration of the land. They change direction when they discover trace amounts of gold in one of the Indian villages. The leader of the expedition, governor Narváez, captures a group of Indians and he forcibly obtains information from them about a fabled capital city known as Apalache, which is supposed to be filled with even more gold.
The expedition splits up and Mustafa and his master travel with one group over the land and discovers the city of Apalache, but there is no gold. To make matters worse, they are running low on supplies and have become lost in the unknown land. They try to find a Spanish port where they can get help, but there’s nothing to be find. Narváez refuses to give up the idea that there might be gold nearby. He keeps interrogating the Indians for information. He pushes onward, but the expedition is plagued with sickness, a lack of supplies, and constant attack from the natives.
Throughout the journey, Mustafa reminisces on his past. His family wanted him to become a notary when he was younger, but he defied their wishes and became a merchant. He was fascinated with being a merchant because of how much money they made. His desire for money continued to grow and he soon found himself trading slaves. When the town came under siege, he lost his job and struggled to make any money. With no other way to take care of his family, he sold himself into slavery.
The expedition soon falls apart and the survivors are scattered throughout the region. Mustafa and his master along with some of his other companions manage to find a friendly Indian tribe. Mustafa learns their language and customs and gets help for the expedition. Disease forces them to move once again, their numbers much smaller. Madness begins to set in for some of the survivors, who desert the group and end up resorting to cannibalism. A few members give up on returning home and try to find home among the Indians.
Through all of this Mustafa feels terrified, but also free on his journey. The survivors continue to dwindle in number until there are only four left. Together, they become legends among the different tribes thanks to their medical knowledge. Soon, they are all wed by the tribe. They spend years traveling together, treating different tribes and gathering a large group of followers. Eventually, they run into fellow Castilians, who bring them to New Spain. While welcomed by there own Mustafa finds he is a slave once again. To make matters worse, his wife is enslaved alongside him. The final sections of the story are suspenseful as the reader wonders if Mustafa will ever gain his freedom and with it a return home or some other outcome that will allow his wife to live with him on their own.
Lalami creates a believable account of the expedition from the Moor's viewpoint. This is provides a much different perspective than that of the Conquistadors. Thus the reader has a different view of the Native Americans and their surroundings that they met along the way. This is historical fiction at its best that I would recommend to all who have an interest in the history of the exploration of the Americas.