Leo Africanus begins with Leo describing the relationship between his mother and father and how he came to be born. He tells readers that when he was born his father was overwhelmed with joy, but it was nothing in comparison to the joy his mother felt. When I first read this, I assumed his mother, Salma, was more joyous simply because she is a woman; women bear their unborn child for 9 months, which usually results in a stronger emotional connection to their young, and women are generally more emotional anyway. Salma’s joy was indeed distinct from Leo’s father, Muhammad, because of their gender, but not for the reasons I expected.
Leo goes on to tell readers that his mother and father are actually cousins, who were betrothed to each other at since childhood, and married four years prior to his birth. A mere two years after their marriage, Muhammad brought home a mistress he called Warda, who was beautiful and young. Salma takes over narration at this point. She explains that she was free, and that Warda was slave. Because Warda was a slave, however, she was able to express more freedom than Salma; “she could go out unveiled, sing, dance, pour wine, wink her eyes, and take off her clothes.” Salma could do none of these things as a married woman, and was even supposed to refrain from showing any interest at all in her husband’s pleasures. She tells us that Muhammad would call her “my cousin” and that at the end of the night, it was Warda, not herself, who went to bed with her husband. This description highlights the dynamics between Leo’s parents and his father’s mistress, and gave me the impression that Leo’s mother was very alone before his birth.
Salma then goes on to explain how she became pregnant with Leo. Her friend Sarah came over one day and say how unhappy she was in her present living situation with her husband. Sarah gave Salma a potion, and told her to pour it into Muhammad’s glass that night, after three nights, and again after seven. Salma did so, and within a few weeks she found herself pregnant. Salma was ecstatic, because she knew a child meant that Muhammad would be there for many years to come. Even this failed to ease the tension Salma felt towards her husband, however, as Warda was also pregnant and whoever birthed the first son would give Muhammad his legacy.
This insight to Salma’s situation really made me feel for her. I could not imagine having to: 1) marry my cousin, 2) tolerate my husband having a mistress whom he went to bed with every night, and 3) being nervous that my child would be a girl rather than a boy or be born too late. It is clear to me that Salma is not must unlike other women during her time, and that her worries were the norm. The fact that free women felt less free than slave mistresses is very sad to me; almost as sad as the fact that there actually were slaves. Reading this section really made me appreciate the rights that women have today and the fact that relationships in this day and age are so different from what they were in terms of gender roles.