In 1527 the Spanish conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez arrived on the coast of modern-day Florida with hundreds of settlers, and claimed the region for Spain. Almost immediately, the expedition was decimated by a combination of navigational errors, disease, starvation and fierce resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year, only four survivors remained: three noblemen and a Moroccan slave called "Estebanico". The official record, set down after a reunion with Spanish forces in 1536, contains only the three freemen's accounts. The fourth, to which the title of Laila Lalami's masterful novel alludes, is Estebanico's own. Lalami gives us Estebanico as history never did: as Mustafa, the vibrant merchant from Azemmur forced into slavery and a new name, and reborn as the first black explorer of the Americas, discovering and being discovered by various tribes both hostile and compassionate. In Estebanico's telling, the survivors' journey across great swathes of the New World transforms would-be conquerors into humble servants and fearful outcasts into faith healers.
He remains ever-observant, resourceful and hopeful that he might one day find his way back to his family, even as he experiences an unexpected (if ambiguous) camaraderie with his masters. The Moor's Account illuminates the ways in which stories can transmigrate into history, and how storytelling can offer a chance for redemption, reinvention and survival.
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