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  • Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds
  • Edmund Burke III
Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds. By Natalie Zemon Davis. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. 448 pp. $17.00 (paper).

Hasan al-Wazzan was born in Granada around 1486. Like most other things about him, neither his name nor his date of birth can be known with exactitude. Indeed, as Natalie Davis suggests in her marvelous Trickster Travels, the silences and inconsistencies are characteristic of the man. Known to the West as Leo Africanus, Hasan al-Wazzan was the author of a Description of Africa as well as numerous other books on a variety of subjects. A refugee from Nasirid Granada after its fall in 1492, raised and educated in Fez, widely traveled in Africa and the Mediterranean, he lived most of his life in the Rome of the Medicis. His claim on our attention as world historians derives from his liminal status as a voyager between worlds.

Whereas Ibn Batutta's travels provide a vantage point to explore the fourteenth century world through which he traveled, al-Wazzan's peregrinations occurred at a time when the shadow of the West was beginning to fall over the western Mediterranean. An expellee of Islamic Spain, his life invites us to consider the ethnic cleansings that made modern Spain possible. Like many other Granadans, both Jewish and Muslim, he ended up in Fez (where an entire quarter, that of the Andalusians, marks Moroccan historical memory). Captured by Christian [End Page 372] pirates while on his way back to Morocco from a diplomatic mission to Cairo, he was sold into slavery in Italy in 1518, and his life (and Davis's book) began anew. His owner was Pope Leo X.

Trickster Travels is a work of enormous energy and erudition that combines aspects of a historical detective story, an innovative reimagining of Medici Rome (viewed as a point of multicultural, multilingual crossings), and a comparative history of the Renaissance Italy and late Marinid Fez. Only Davis could have written this book. No other historian possesses the range, historical imagination, and knowledge of multiple languages and literatures. It is quite simply a tour de force. Just following al-Wazzan's life in Rome is a major feat of research in itself, given the thicket of names by which he was known at various times. Upon baptism, he took the name of Joannes Leo. But he was also known by his pen name Leo Africanus, as Giovanni Leone, and, toward the end of his stay, Yuhanna al-Asad. He may have used other names as well.

In some respects Leo's life recalls the kidnapped and enslaved British people we encounter in Linda Colley's Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600–1850 (2004). However, as a converted Muslim and scholarly servant/slave, Leo enjoys better material conditions than the Britons enslaved in Morocco, of whom Thomas Pellow is emblematic. (See his captivity narrative, The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow [1973].) Yet Leo's livelihood always depended upon his ability to provide useful information to his owner and subsequently his patrons in the Roman curia.

Davis makes the composite cultural world of Renaissance Italy come alive. Jews, Muslims, and Christians of several sorts intermingled and interacted, not always as equals, in a high-stakes scramble for knowledge and power. The first several chapters trace al-Wazzan's North African years and his life in captivity. The heart of the book is a complex, many-layered exploration of his writings. These chapters explore his scholarly Italian milieu and his liminal status between Africa and Europe as well as between Islam and Christianity. Davis has painstakingly documented Yuhanna al-Asad's previously unknown role in a bilingual translation of the Qur'an, as well as in Jacob Mantino's Arabic-Hebrew-Latin-Spanish dictionary, among others. In subsequent chapters Davis provides a masterful reading of how Islamic literary and historical conventions as well as those of the Italian Renaissance informed the Description and its more important twin, The Book of the Cosmography and Geography of Africa. The intellectual portrait of Juhanna Leo that emerges from these...