Amin Maalouf’s Leo Africanus is a refreshing contrast to the more factual styles of our previous readings. Rather than viewing history from a macro perspective and simply providing a record of important people and figures, this text is written from a first person perspective. Not only does this narrative make for an easier read, but it also gives a personal view of the individual impact of large-scale historical events. While we have read and discussed facts and figures about a variety of cultures and their interactions in this time period, these cultures cannot be fully appreciated or understood without first-hand accounts like Maalouf’s.
A prime example is the chapter describing the Year of the Hostelries. Previous readings certainly described the rise and fall of cities heavy with culture. Those readings, however, did not go into the dynamic detail of this reading. In this chapter, Hasan is still a child, and the hazy, dreamlike state with which he describes Fez matches that of a childhood memory. In his description, it is apparent that while he had spent his entire childhood in the capital of Granada, his past city of residence did not match the vibrancy and bustle of Fez. The narrator’s description provides greater transparency than a listing of cities and the dates of their success.
Another striking description in this chapter is that of the plague. The plague is mentioned in all historical texts about this time period, but this view is unique in its inclusion of the emotions and reactions to the disease. “The whole of Fez was living in fear of this disease; it spread so quickly no man seemed able to escape it…The whole town became an enormous infected area, and no medicine proved effective against it.” It is this palpable fear that further defines the plague as more than a disease but as an almost living monster that cannot be stopped. The narrator even uses some sarcastic humor in describing how the blame was spread for the arrival of the plague, with each group of people blaming another. This commentary certainly helped me identify more with the cultures of the time period.
Through all of the reading, the importance of religion stands out. A primary example is when Muhammad pulls out his prayer rug and prays in the midst of being robbed, demonstrating that the responsibility to answer the call to prayer precedes all else. In addition to insight on religion, the narrator describes family interactions involving Muhammad’s wives and concubines and the shame and embarrassment that revolve around them. It is very interesting that Hasan’s uncle greets him but treats everyone else very coldly. Is this abandonment of family acceptable given the distance they traveled or is Muhammad’s punishment deserved?