Amin Maalouf’s Leo Africanus begins with the birth of the narrator, Hasan. Through the narrator’s voice, the reader learns about life in Granada and Fez during the late 1500s. Hasan’s birth is a great triumph for his mother, Salma, because it cements her status above that of her husband’s mistress, Warda, who “only” gives birth to a daughter. The reader is then informed of assorted religious happenings. Abu’l Hasan ‘Ali lost favor as sultan when he became too extravagant. He imprisoned his wife and children and did whatever his mistress told him to do. He even sent detachments of troops to challenge Christian holdings which began a war that the Muslims could not hope to win. However, Boabdil, one of Abu’l-Hasan’s sons managed to escape and usurp his father’s position as sultan through a violent civil war. The Castilians continued to advance and eventually laid siege to Granada. Dignitaries and all who would speak were called to give their opinion on future actions to the sultan. Al-Mulih, the sultan’s principal confidant, adamantly suggested surrender. Astaghfirullah, a shaikh, spoke against this notion and revealed that Al-Mulih had already orchestrated the terms of surrender with a spokesperson of King Ferdinand. Although surrender was not desirable, it was the best option, so the people voted in favor of it. The Castilians took over the city, and the Muslims were encouraged to leave. Warda, who had been a Christian, found her brother and was forced to leave Muhammad. Muhammad was not satisfied with this, so although he leaves with Salma and Hasan in order to reach Fez, he sets it up so that Warda finds them again on the boat. Salma does everything she can to regain her husband’s affection, but when he discovers her pouring an elixir on him, he immediately divorces her.
I found the interaction between religion and mysticism very interesting. Salma, and eventually Muhammad, come to rely on Gaudy Sarah to tell them about news of the world, as well as various predictions. Salma takes a potion offered by Sarah in order for her to conceive a child, which theoretically works. She also visits numerous soothsayers to discover how to bring Muhammad back to her and takes an elixir to help her do so. Amulets and charms are sewn into children’s clothing to ward off the “evil eye.” Despite their devout worship and exile for religious reasons, the family seems to be more opportunistic. They will try anything just in case their religion does not come through. I am not sure yet how far this extends, but I think it may be possible that the family is religious more through tradition and mores of the society versus anything else.
I thought it was extremely interesting that Warda was a slave but was given the status of free woman once she gave birth to a child. Does that mean that she could have left her husband with no consequences? That clearly would not have been in her best interests since she was completely provided for and treated well, but I really would have liked to know if that was possible. As a slave, she had been able to go about unveiled, but in public in the book, she is veiled, despite her being Christian. Was that part of a mark of her being a “free woman”? What does being “free” entail in this society? I then found it intriguing that Juan, the brother of Warda (Esmeralda), felt that Warda had still been a captive and was only free once the Christians took control of the city. If she became a free woman with the birth of her daughter, was she not then no longer a captive? As is proven later when Warda rejoins Muhammad, she apparently wanted to stay with Muhammad whether she was free or not, although her reasons are not necessarily clear.