Friday, April 29, 2011

A Bird Among the Fish: al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, diplomat kidnapped by "Christian" Pirates ( See a Book Review)

Joannes Leo Africanus,

(c. 1494 – c. 1554?) (or al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, Arabic:حسن ابن محمد الوزان الفاسي) was a Moorish diplomat and author who is best known for his book Descrittione dell’Africa (Description of Africa) describing the geography of North Africa.

It has been suggested that William Shakespeare may have been inspired by Leo Africanus' book to create the character of Othello. See bio note in the Wikipedia entry: 7. ^ Verde, Tom (2008), "A man of two worlds", Saudi Aramco World (January/February 2008): 2–9, here = Retrieved from ""

The following review is about the kidnapped diplomat's life and contributions to history. At the same time, this sophisticated student addresses the fairly new approach of micro-history and the author who has become a celebrity for her use of the same.

A Bird Among the Fish

Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
By Natalie Zemon Davis
Hill and Wang
448 Pages
By Alexander Bevilacqua
Microhistory is written in the subjunctive mode, Natalie Zemon Davis warns her readers at the beginning of Trickster Travels . Even as the emerita Princeton professor has in her eighth decade embarked in an entirely new direction, away from her beloved sixteenth-century France and across the Mediterranean towards the Arab world of that same century—with a significant stop in Rome along the way—her approach remains unchanged. Throughout her latest book, this supreme practitioner of microhistory, a school of historical writing that emerged in the late 1970s, traces the life of a single Muslim diplomat, a man whose unique fate it was to be kidnapped by Christian pirates and presented to the pope. Yet, as readers of Davis 's The Return of Martin Guerre or Women on the Margins well know, sustained focus on a single, distant figure is a challenge, as historical records are scanty for many aspects of such a protagonist's life. Hence the frequent recourse to "may have," "could have," and "as it were."

Its focus on individuals should not lead anyone to confuse microhistory with biography, that least sophisticated of historical genres, whose psychologizing speculations affirm a vision of subjectivity that little matches most twentieth-century understandings of historical agency. Microhistory, as its very name suggests, is not the story of great men, but of minute, forgotten worlds, which are to be painstakingly rediscovered and re-imagined. Microhistory lives in the interstices of the past. Yet its central premise, as Davis notes in the introduction to Trickster Travels , is that "an extreme case can often reveal patterns available for more everyday experience." Unlike biography, then, microhistory does not seek to affirm personality, but rather uses the individual as a means to enter a sensibility, a mentality, a historical moment. This paradoxical focus on the particular to enlighten the universal is dictated in great part by archival necessities: only lives deemed extraordinary in their day left a trace.

In the case of Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, the likeable protagonist of Trickster Travels , it is his writings in Italian, and in particular his La Descrittione dell'Africa (The Description of Africa), which gave rise to his posthumous fame. His opus described for a Western audience the African continent and Arab and Islamic civilization, about which very little was known in Renaissance Europe. The text had quite a publication history, serving as a source on Africa until well into the nineteenth century. Yet as Davis notes, even twentieth-century scholarship on al-Wazzan always broke his work into pieces, appropriating its parts to support diverse arguments. Davis aims to bring the book back together and look at it as a whole, integrating it into its unique context of production. Indeed, Trickster Travels is remarkable for the ease with which it integrates a myriad of details into the main narrative. We follow al-Wazzan from his birth in Granada just before the 1492 reconquista to his life in Fez under the Wattasid dynasty. He traveled all over the Islamic world from Timbuktu to Istanbul , giving Davis ample chance to discuss the politics and cultural diversity of these regions. Al-Wazzan was cultivated without being an exponent of the high culture: though he was a faqih (expert in law) and could quote much classical verse by heart, his calling was to be a diplomat and a man of action rather than a scholar. In Italy , however, his status as expert would be viewed quite differently.

In the summer of 1518, al-Wazzan was captured by pirates on his return to Fez from a diplomatic mission in Cairo . Soon he found himself in Castel Sant'Angelo, the Roman landmark now remembered most often as Tosca's final launching point in the last act of Puccini's opera. A prisoner of the pope, and likely the only Muslim in Rome , al-Wazzan was not mistreated, but given a series of texts in Arabic to read, rather speedily learning some Italian and some Latin. Rome , which with fifty thousand inhabitants was half the size of his adoptive home Fez , may have well seemed provincial and backward to al-Wazzan: wolves still prowled at night all the way up to the Vatican walls. Yet on January 6, 1520, the Feast of the Epiphany, he was baptized by Leo X (the famous Medici pope who that same year would order Martin Luther to recant, excommunicating the German monk the following January). From then on, al-Wazzan would be Giovanni Leone Africano, or, in his own later Arabic version of the name, which Davis prefers, Yuhanna al-Asad (John the Lion). Not only was Yuhanna al-Asad baptized, he stayed in the city until the sack of Rome in 1527, much longer after he could probably have escaped. While the data indicating that he may have set up a family in Rome are uncertain, the rest of Davis 's book seeks to solve the puzzle posed by Yuhanna al-Asad's Roman years. In the process, she uncovers the startlingly original and unique attempt at cultural mediation and hybridity that the diplomat from Fez came to develop.

Using La Descrittione dell'Africa as a starting point, Davis shows that Yuhanna al-Asad wrote neither as a Muslim scholar, nor as an obedient Christian subject. On the one hand, he was silent about the chains of transmission of his knowledge, ignoring the traditional means of establishing authority that Arab writers had developed over centuries. Rather, he developed a different, more modest authorial persona, that of el Compositore , the compiler, and referred to himself only in the third person, a practice which had not been the standard convention in Arabic works for several hundred years.

Yet as Yuhanna al-Asad gained distance from his Muslim past in this way, he also sought distance from his Christian identity, rarely condemning Islamic practices outright and remaining notably silent on the circumstances of his capture, which would presumably have forced him to take sides. For Davis , Yuhanna al-Asad was able to creatively combine the cultures he had experienced, ultimately placing himself somewhere in the middle—he was a man with "a double vision, sustaining two cultural worlds." To balance them he developed a story about a bird that could swim, and who migrated between the air and the sea in order to avoid paying taxes in either domain. Having told this story of ruse and deceit, Yuhanna al-Asad promised that while he would be truthful, he would also do as the bird (" io faro como uno ucello "), telling his story from different cultural points of view, choosing whichever was more convenient to the narrative at hand.

The greatest challenge to Davis 's work comes in balancing her optimistic vision of her trickster's capacity to travel between cultural positions with the realities of dominance and violence that Yuhanna al-Asad experienced. He was, after all, kidnapped and then converted while in a prison, and despite the possibility of developing a hybrid culture, was indeed faced with a dilemmatic choice: the Christian and Muslim faiths were after all mutually exclusive. Perhaps in her search for a harmonious compromise, for the bird capable of living among the fish, Davis downplays the challenges which Yuhanna al-Asad had to overcome. Yet finding such compromises is Davis 's particular talent: she aims to reveal how individuals developed creative strategies of survival, exploiting their subaltern status, and this bent has in the past colored her interpretation of, for example, Bertrande de Rols, the abandoned wife in The Return of Martin Guerre. The other shortcomings of Trickster Travels are minor—subjunctive speculation has clear limits, and Davis 's attempt to imagine Yuhanna al-Asad's sexual practices reaches a little too far: "onanism was a lonely consolation for a man who presented himself as gregarious." There are domains that even the best-pondered microhistory cannot enter.

Both the emphasis on the constructive aspect of Yuhanna al-Asad's life and the occasional shortcomings indicate that microhistory, perhaps more than other genres, is dependent on the historian's capacities and is, in final analysis, a demonstration as much of the author's lucidity as of the subject's inherent interest. It is admirable and stimulating that Davis has sought out new territory, while still pursuing her usual goal of revealing the ways in which even oppressed individuals can craft creative accommodations and inventive modes of living. When Davis succeeds she does so with grace and insight, and her topic sustains and rewards the extensive readings and interpretations to which she subjects it. The recovery of past cultural mediation between two societies with little comprehension of each other cannot but interest those of us concerned about mutual understanding in a diverse world.

Alexander Bevilacqua studies French history, both micro and macro.

© 2008 The Harvard Book Review, a student-run organization at Harvard College.
The Harvard name and/or VERITAS shield are trademarks of the President and Fellows of Harvard College and are used by permission of Harvard University.


My daughter, a linguist already, introduced me to Historian-Professor Natalie Zemon Davis. What a rich resource.

Read more about Joannes Leo Africanus, (c. 1494 – c. 1554?) (or al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, Arabic:حسن ابن محمد الوزان الفاسي) for 28 April, 2011, in my blogsite No More Crusades dot blogspot dot com

Find the above review posted in Harvard Archives for Harvard Book Review.

Find a short write-up on Natalie Davis here

1 comment:

Connie L. Nash said...

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