Ibn Battutah Meets Forrest Gump

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In the Spring edition of Slightly Foxed, Paul Routledge defied anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to head off at once to Central Asia. I think he is absolutely right about that. A little later in his essay, he writes, ‘If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it.’ I think he is wrong about that. Or perhaps, which is quite probable, he has not come across the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf ’s Leo the African, whose opening sentences I read as an impressionable 18-year-old on the verge of my first visit to Cairo.

I, Hasan the son of Muhammad the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia. I am also called the Granadan, the Fasi, the Zayyati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. I am the son of the road, my country is the caravan, my life the most unexpected of voyages.

By the second paragraph, I was completely lost to the Middle East. Who wouldn’t be?

My wrists have experienced in turn the caresses of silk, the abuses of wool, the gold of princes and the chains of slaves. My fingers have parted a thousand veils, my lips have made a thousand virgins blush, and my eyes have seen cities die and empires perish.

Perhaps I was particularly receptive to this romanticized view of the Arab world. My father was born in Beirut in

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In the Spring edition of Slightly Foxed, Paul Routledge defied anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to head off at once to Central Asia. I think he is absolutely right about that. A little later in his essay, he writes, ‘If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it.’ I think he is wrong about that. Or perhaps, which is quite probable, he has not come across the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf ’s Leo the African, whose opening sentences I read as an impressionable 18-year-old on the verge of my first visit to Cairo.

I, Hasan the son of Muhammad the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia. I am also called the Granadan, the Fasi, the Zayyati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. I am the son of the road, my country is the caravan, my life the most unexpected of voyages.

By the second paragraph, I was completely lost to the Middle East. Who wouldn’t be?

My wrists have experienced in turn the caresses of silk, the abuses of wool, the gold of princes and the chains of slaves. My fingers have parted a thousand veils, my lips have made a thousand virgins blush, and my eyes have seen cities die and empires perish.

Perhaps I was particularly receptive to this romanticized view of the Arab world. My father was born in Beirut in 1938, grew up in Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo, and spent much of his adult life doing business in North Africa and the Middle East. Libyans, Iraqis and Pakistanis kept popping up in our family home throughout my childhood before being whisked off to Liberty’s and Laura Ashley by my father to shop for presents for their wives and children. I remember my mother fielding questions as to whether the meat was halal – often it wasn’t – and on one occasion disapproving of my father taking some sort of treatment for impotence to a friend in Tripoli. There were always a lot of kaftans and jalabiyas in the house.

It was only after reading a number of novels by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the same year Leo the African first appeared in English, that I discovered Amin Maalouf ’s wonderful picaresque novel. This was to be the first stage in a curiously circular path that led to North Africa and thence, for a book I was writing on Libya, to the real-life Leo Africanus, the sixteenth-century traveller, diplomat and writer on whose extraordinary career the novel is based.

The life of Leo, or Hassan al-Wazzan, as he is also known, is itself rich in romance. Born a Muslim in Granada, Leo accompanied his family into exile in Fez shortly after Ferdinand and Isabella’s conquest of the last Muslim stronghold in Spain in 1492. As a young man he travelled extensively across North Africa, through the Sahara and further south into the Niger Basin on several diplomatic missions, before being captured by Barbary corsairs near the island of Jerba in around 1520. He was then presented to Pope Leo X as a gift, an educated and highly travelled ornament for the papal court. His probably tactical conversion to Christianity soon after his arrival inspired the pope to free him from slavery, allowing Leo free rein to continue his studies and write his evocative Description of Africa, published in 1526. His later years are shrouded in mystery but it is thought he left Rome shortly before its sacking in 1527 – Maalouf has him there as an eyewitness for dramatic effect – and, after further travels north of the Mediterranean, returned to North Africa where he died in about 1550.

So there he is, East meets West in one man, a window on the fall of Granada and the Spanish Inquisition, the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, and Renaissance Rome under the Medicis. Maalouf ’s novel sparkles with life, conjuring up the sights, smells and sounds of the great Arab cities – from the opulence of palace life to the terrors of a leper colony – and the tension of an embattled Rome encircled by a Lutheran mob. The prose is rich and graceful, and the English-language edition is beautifully translated by Peter Sluglett.

Tragedies, scandals, good fortune and reversals come and go. The political is always threatening to overwhelm the personal, but our itinerant scholarly hero refuses to be overcome by the succession of storms that break over him. He makes and loses fortunes, cheats murderous bandits, is banished for a crime he didn’t commit, picks up a sword and goes to war, adopts a child destined to become the Ottoman sultan, performs the haj to Mecca, and so it goes on. Leo the African recalls the mesmerizing density of adventure in Don Quixote and Candide, though its protagonist is more thoughtful – part Ibn Battutah, part Forrest Gump, an enlightened, multilingual man of many cultures.

‘From my mouth you will hear Arabic, Turkish, Castilian, Berber, Hebrew, Latin and vulgar Italian, because all tongues and all prayers belong to me,’ he says at the outset. ‘But I belong to none of them. I belong only to God and to the earth, and it is to them that I will one day soon return.’

During the course of his travels, Leo meets the great and the good of his era. He is befriended by the Moroccan sultan in Fez, has an audience with Barbarossa, welcomes Tumanbay, last of the Mamluk sultans, to his home, appears before Sultan Selim the Grim on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, and is baptized by Pope Leo X in the Eternal City.

Diplomacy takes up much of his energies but he manages always to find time to indulge the affairs of the heart. He embarks on several love affairs. Some bring happiness, others are doomed to disappear in the dust of the Sahara. One of his greatest loves is his first, a 14-year-old slave girl called Hiba whom he keeps for several years. ‘My only home was in her eyes, her lips, her hands,’ he says, but they are separated when he gives her back her freedom deep in the desert in return for an impromptu act of generosity which saves him from ruin. In Cairo he falls for Nur, a beautiful Circassian woman with a dangerous secret, a young son whom she intends for the Ottoman throne. They, too, are separated after he is abducted from the beach one night by pirates and taken into captivity. Then in Rome he is matched with Maddalena, a one-time convent girl who steals his heart for ever.

Maalouf writes movingly and from bitter personal experience about exile, war, ethnic tensions and the problems of cultural identity. In 1975, after civil war broke out, he exchanged Lebanon for Paris. There are times in the novel when Leo is fleeing danger with a wife and young children in tow. The passages have a fear and immediacy about them which come, in part, from the time when Maalouf and his pregnant wife and small son huddled together in their basement in Beirut as all around outside gunmen fought in the streets. Leo’s life is a constant form of exile, sometimes voluntary, more often forced upon him by political events beyond his control. Nostalgia and resignation pervade the prose.

Rereading Leo after almost twenty years, I find Maalouf ’s vision of tolerance between different cultures, above all between East and West, all the more striking in an age dominated by an unfathomable war on terror. Leo the African ends with a heartfelt piece of advice from Leo to his son as the boat on which he is writing these memoirs nears the North African coast. His own wanderings, he says, have come to an end. His gait is heavy, his breathing burdensome. His only desire now is to spend the rest of his life peacefully in the bosom of his family. He cautions his son to watch out for those who, later in life, will surely question his identity.

Wherever you are, some will want to ask you questions about your skin or your prayers. Beware of gratifying their instincts, my son, beware of bending before the multitude! Muslim, Jew or Christian, they must take you as you are, or lose you. When men’s minds seem narrow to you, tell yourself that the land of God is broad; broad His hands and broad His heart. Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Justin Marozzi 2006


About the contributor

Justin Marozzi travelled across Libya on a camel and wrote Islamistan, a hard-hitting satire on Iraq.

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