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 Post subject: trickster travels
PostPosted: Wed Jul 12, 2017 10:01 pm 
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Trickster Travels author is Natalie Zemon Davis, also author of The Return of Martin Guerre, reviewed previously. In that book, she was describing two people trying to be one: the real Martin Guerre and the imposter; in Trickster Travels, the protagonist is one man trying to be two: the Moroccan diplomat al-Hazzan al-Wazzan, forced to accept baptism and become the Christian Leo Africanus after his capture by Spanish pirates. Davis is handicapped by the lack of information about her subject; he was a prolific author during his captivity, writing a geographic The Cosmography and Geography of Africa, an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary, an Arabic translation of the Epistles of St. Paul, The Art of Poetic Metrics, and bibliographic On Some Illustrious Men Among the Arabs and On Some Illustrious Men Among the Jews. He also may or may not have written The Epitome of Muslim Chronicles, and Faith and Law of Muhammed according to the Malikite School of Law; these titles are mentioned but either he never completed them or the manuscripts have been lost. However, very little is known about the man himself, and Davis apologizes for having to use “may have”, “was likely to have”, “perhaps” and “maybe” a lot. Thus the book is less of a biography and more of an account of the customs and social milieu of the Maghreb and Italy in the early 16th century.

A further handicap is the multiple names he used. He was born in Granada in the pivotal year of 1492 and sometimes appended “Granatino” to his name in Italian and “al-Gharnati” to his name in Arabic. However, his family fled Granada after the Reconquista and settled in Fez, thus sometimes resulting in “al-Fasi” (of Fez) if he used Arabic. His full name and patronymics were al-Hassan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan; when he converted he was given the baptismal name Johannes Leo, which in turn got variously transcribed as John Leo, Juan Leo, Giouan Leon, Giovanni Leone, and probably other variations. He often called himself Yuhanna al-Asad (John the Lion) in his writings, and in history he’s generally known as Leo Africanus. Davis calls him al-Wazzan when he’s a Muslim and al-Asad when he’s a Christian.

Whatever his name was, he had undertaken a number of diplomatic missions for various local rulers and notables, travelling to Mali, Algiers, Tunis, and Cairo (and he had also undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca); it was on the return from Cairo in 1518 that his ship was taken by Don Pedro de Cabrera y Bobadilla. If he had been an ordinary Muslim captive, he probably would have been put to work as a galley slave; but when his captors discovered he had diplomatic papers in in possession, they sent him as a gift to the Pope.

He was confined in Castel Sant’ Angelo, the Vatican fortress; although Davis notes the dungeons of this place could be pretty severe, al-Wazzan’s captivity seems to have been mild; he had library privileges (and wrote his name in a couple of books – “Praise to God. Al-Hassan ibn Muhammad al-Fasi, the servant of God, has read this book” – vandalism now but apparently common then. Library privileges or no, al-Wazzan apparently decided that he would be better off if he cooperated, and on January 6 1520 he was personally baptized by Pope Leo X with three cardinals as godfathers: Bernadino López de Carvajal of Spain and Lorenzo Pucci and Egidio de Viterbo of Italy; this last would figure in al-Asad’s subsequent career. Since he now needed a surname, the Pope game him his own: “de Medicis” – although Davis notes although al-Asad sometimes described himself as “a servant of the Medicis” he never used “de Medicis” as part of his name.

Al-Asad found himself working in various noble households – Alberto Pio, the prince of Carpi and a professional diplomat, and the aforementioned Cardinal de Viterbo, presumably acting as an Arabic tutor and expert on Arabic and Turkish affairs. Davis speculates he may have been contacted by various other personages interested in the Muslim world – she cites historians and poets as possibilities – although also noting that no mention of al-Asad appears in any of their works. He also had contact with several Jewish intellectuals, notably Jacob ben Samuel of Bologna; they cooperated on a Latin-Hebrew-Arabic dictionary and al-Asad describes him as a “teacher and skillful physician” and “trustworthy Israelite”.

Davis takes advantage of the situation to discuss various Christian and Muslim literary concepts; how, for example, both cultures treated geography. She notes Christian writers generally followed Ptolemy and organized geographical works by continents, while Muslims (also following Ptolemy but using a different one of his concepts) organized geographical works by climatic bands. Al-Asad’s biographical books Illustrious Men Among the Arabs and Illustrious Men Among the Jews (they were apparently two separate books but the only known manuscript has them bound together) follow a traditional Muslim genre, tabaqat, which involves citing a chain of previous historians as authority. She also comments on al-Asad’s use of Italian; he may have known some before his capture since it was spoken by Venetian traders in many Muslim cities, but now he had to write in it; she notes that many of his words are Venetian dialect.

She also speculates on the sincerity of al-Asad’s conversion. Tellingly, al-Asad cites a fable of amphibious bird who can live underwater; when the King of the Birds comes to collect taxes, the bird goes into the sea and claims to be a fish; when the King of the Fish comes along he emerges and claims to be a bird. This story isn’t found in any Arabic folktale collections – or in any European ones, for that matter – and she suggests he may have invented it himself to serve as a metaphor for his condition – compelled to pretend to be a Christian. Davis discusses the concept of taqiyya – sanctioned by the Qur’an – in which a Muslim compelled to apostatize can hold on to his faith “in his heart” and escape the death penalty for apostates if he returns to the land of Islam. She suggests al-Asad’s use of the bird story may have been an escape hatch in case he every made it back home. She also notes al-Asad only rarely says anything explicitly critical of Islam or Muhammed – once describing the fall of the Vandal kingdoms of North Africa to the “pestilence of Muhammed” and once describing an account of Alexander the Great in the Qur’an as a “folly of Muhammed”. He also once describes the “incarnation” of Jesus, and once says Jesus is “the son of God”. She allows that these could be explained away with “inner” reservations.

She devotes most of a chapter to al-Asad’s sexuality. Many of the accounts in The Cosmography and Geography of Africa concern the sexual mores of various peoples al-Asad had encountered in his travels, including homosexuality, lesbianism, and prostitution. (All of these things were forbidden in Islam and theoretically subject to the death penalty, but all were actually tolerated in the 16th-century Maghreb as long as the right people were paid off). She speculates that al-Asad may have had encounters with prostitutes or courtesans in Italy, and comments that Muslim custom allowed a traveler to “marry” up to the limit of four wives while traveling and then discard them by reciting the divorce formula. A cryptic note in a 1527 Roman census lists “Io. Leo” as heading a household of three persons; Davis argues “Ioannes Leo” was a very uncommon name – she can find only one other reference in the time period, and that from Venice – and suggests that “Io. Leo” is “Yuhanna al-Asad” and the household of three is a wife or concubine and a child.

If the 1527 census report does refer to our Yuhanna al-Asad, his happy home didn’t last long. Later in 1527 troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V marched down Italy and sacked Rome. There is a cryptic reference from a 1547 work to an Arab who had been captured in Africa, presented to the Pope, baptized, and who then took advantage of the confusion engendered by the sack, fled, and “turned Turk again”. The person referenced is named “Zematto” not al-Asad or Johannes Leo, and the pope is Clement VII not Leo X, but Davis argues it’s probably a round-about reference to al-Asad. Certainly in 1532 a German scholar approached al-Asad’s patron, Cardinal Viterbo, and asked about the whereabouts of his Arabic teacher – and was told that Giovanni Leone was in Tunis. The scholar set off to visit him but was turned back by bad weather, and that’s the last we hear of Giovanni Leone Granatino or al-Hassan al-Wazzan al-Gharnati or al-Hassan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan al-Fasi or John Leo or Juan Leo or Giouan Leon or Giovanni Leone or Yuhanna al-Asad. As Leo Africanus, his book on Africa was printed in Italian and French and English, usually with numerous “corrections” by editors uncomfortable with the not unsympathetic treatment of Islam and the frank discussion of sexual matters (it was a prohibited book in Spain). There’s a tenuous hint that he may have been the inspiration for Othello in Shakespeare. His books remained curiosities until the 1930s when French and Moroccan historians revived interest in him; he is the protagonist of a novel by the Lebanese author Amin Maaloof.

The book is extensively annotated (about a third of the text it notes and bibliography); the bibliography includes works in multiple languages, including Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, and Hebrew (although not Arabic). There are a few illustrations, including al-Asad’s handwriting in a Vatican Library manuscript. I’ve glossed over much of the book; there are extensive discussions of Maghreb and Italian politics, history, and customs – which make the book a somewhat difficult read, as there’s a lot to keep track. There's a rather strange final chapter in which Davis speculates on what it would have been like if the French author François Rabelais had ever met al-Asad, which seems out of place and adds to an already long book.


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