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The Moor's Account

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An “exquisite piece of historical fiction” (Winnipeg Free Press), The Moor’s Account is “brilliantly imagined fiction…rewritten to give us something that feels very like the truth” (Salman Rushdie).

In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez left the port of San Lucar de Barrameda in Spain with a crew of more than five hundred men. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and as famous as Hernán Cortés. But from the moment the Narváez expedition reached Florida it met with incredibly bad luck—storms, disease, starvation, hostile Indians. Within a year, there were only four survivors: the expedition’s treasurer, Cabeza de Vaca; a Spanish nobleman named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; a young explorer by the name of Andrés Dorantes; and his Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori.

The four survivors were forced to live as slaves to the Indians for six years, before fleeing and establishing themselves as faith healers. Together, they traveled on foot through present-day Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, gathering thousands of disciples and followers along the way. In 1536, they crossed the Rio Grande into Mexican territory, where they stumbled on a group of Spanish slavers, who escorted them to the capital of the Spanish empire, México-Tenochtitlán.

Three of the survivors were asked to provide testimony of their journey—Castillo, Dorantes, and Cabeza de Vaca, who later wrote a book about this adventure, called La Relacíon, or The Account. But because he was a slave, Estebanico was not asked to testify. His experience was considered irrelevant, or superfluous, or unreliable, or unworthy, despite the fact that he had acted as a scout, an interpreter, and a translator. This novel is his story.

Photograph © Alexander Yera

Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College in London, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in linguistics. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Time, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship. She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.

“Tremendous and powerful, The Moor’s Account is one of the finest historical novels I’ve encountered in a while. It rings with thunder!”

—Gary Shteyngart

“Laila Lalami has fashioned an absorbing story of one of the first encounters between Spanish conquistadores and Native Americans, a frightening, brutal, and much-falsified history that here, in her brilliantly imagined fiction, is rewritten to give us something that feels very like the truth.”

—Salman Rushdie

“A beautiful, rousing tale that would be difficult to believe if it were not actually true. Lalami has once again shown why she is one of her generation’s most gifted writers.”

—Reza Aslan, the New York Times bestselling author of Zealot and No God But God

“A novel of extraordinary scope, ambition and originality, Laila Lalami has given voice to a man silenced for five centuries, a voice both convincing and compelling. The Moor’s Account is a work of creativity and compassion, one which demonstrates the full might of Lalami’s talent as a writer.”

—Aminatta Forna, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and Hurston Prize Legacy Award-winning author of The Memory of Love, Ancestor Stones, and The Devil That Danced on the Water

“Laila Lalami’s radiant, arrestingly vivid prose instantly draws us into the world of the first black slave in the New World whose name we know—Estebanico. A bravura performance of imagination and empathy, The Moor’s Account reverberates long after the final page.”

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University

“¡Qué belleza! Laila Lalami has given us a mesmerizing reimagining of one of the foundational chronicles of exploration of the New World and an indictment of the uncontainable hubris displayed by Spanish explorers—told from the point of view of Estebanico, an Arab slave and Cabeza de Vaca’s companion in a trek across the United States that is as important as that of Lewis and Clark. The style and voice of sixteenth-century crónicas are turned upside down to subtly undermine our understanding of race and religion, now and then. The Moor’s Account is a worthy stepchild of Don Quixote de la Mancha.”

—Ilan Stavans, author of On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature

“Lalami has created an unforgettable drama of wonder out of the gaps and silences in the master narratives of colonial conquests. She gives name to the unnamed, agency to the sidelined; she takes them from footnotes into the footprints that make up the pages of this remarkable novel. Lalami gives voice to the silences of history.”

—Ngugi wa Thiong’o

“[An] exquisite piece of historical fiction.”

Winnipeg Free Press

“[An] ambitious historical novel.”

New Yorker

“Mustafa, one of four survivors of a crew that originally numbered six hundred, spins an exciting tale of wild hopes, divided loyalties, and highly precarious fortunes. His account also communicates a sense of the power and the privilege of storytelling, and Lalami develops this thread with great finesse.”

New Yorker

“The novel is a fascinating saga of the many native American tribes they encounter, without whom they would not have survived as well as the importance of other cultures and races in the exploration of the New World. … There is so much modern readers still don’t know about this period of history in the Americas—and that we many never know. The Moor’s Account feels true to the lives of real human beings.”

Toronto Star