To retell history is a daunting task, but to combine it with narrative is almost impossible. It seems that Amin Maalouf has done the impossible with “Leo Africanus”, combining history and narrative, and doing so seamlessly and eloquently. He has taken a man whose life little is known about, and filled in every detail to create a story both compelling and fluid.
The book opens with the story of Africanus’ early life, as a youth in Grenada. It tells the tale of his family, his father and his two wives, one a Christian slave, and the other his mother, a Muslim woman, from his arranged marriage. There is a story of a rivalry and distress, not only among the two women, but within the two religions that inhabit the city. Both women become pregnant at the same time, and this enhances the rivalry of the women. However, they begin to bond over their shared abusive relationship with Muhammad (thank goodness for abuse!). When their children are born, Warla has a girl, and Muhammad is instantly disinterested. Salma has a boy, thus securing her place as the mother of Muhammad’s first son. The story then continues with a recounting of Salma’s childhood among the civil war in Grenada, and more events of Grenada.
What was most interesting was the situation in the family of issues brought on by polygamy. The fact that this was acceptable for a man in this society is very interesting just in how it is so different from our own society. What was it that made it okay for a woman to “imprisoned” as Salma is described in the book. She is simultaneously described as free. How would she actually feel about this?