Trickster Travels

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The title Trickster Travels places the work’s central figure, al-Ḥasan al-Wazzn, in the literary context of medieval Islamic travel literature. Therein, a picaresque, first-person narrator judges distant locales, compares them for good and for ill with his own culture and region, and resorts to trickery to survive and thrive amid peoples and places quite different from his own. At the same time, the title carries the author’s thesis that al-Wazznborn in Granada (now in Spain) in 1492, exiled with his family to North Africa in the wake of Christian conquest, and later a diplomat-at-large for the sultan of Fezwas a subtle trickster. Being enslaved by Christian pirates forced him to hide his true allegiances in order to survive imprisonment and exile in Rome. There, theoretically “freed” by his conversion to Christianity (a conversion Davis suggests was in keeping with taqiyya, the simulation of conversion to hide one’s Islamic faith in order to survive among infidels), al-Wazzn, now Giovanni Leoni, worked for Pope Leo X and his cardinals. He translated Arab texts and later wrote a description of Africa that necessitated clever manipulation of two traditions in order to remain a supposedly neutral observer, keeping the support of his Christian captors but not offending his fellow Muslims to whom he hoped finally to return. The subtitle, A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds, adds a focus on al-Wazzn’s double vision as an exile between worlds, observing what Europeans did better than North Africans and vice versa and trying personally to bridge the gap between two warring peoples, who not only differed in race, culture, and religion but also in preconceptions and intellectual approaches to their worlds.

Because she is charting new territory, Davis devotes a full one hundred pages to carefully documented notes, identifying and commenting on sources, and includes a glossary of Arabic words as well as a twenty-three-page bibliography. These notes are clearly meant to be the authority that give her the right to guessto tell readers what al-Wazzn “must” have thought, to conclude about his sex life and possible wives, and to explain his self-justifications, motives, personal reactions, and scheming. Her introduction explores the puzzle al-Wazzn presents to historians, while the rest of the book is a speculative biographical account from birth to final years. (Al-Wazzn’s death date is uncertain.) Davis’s chapter on his early years and the closing chapter on his post-European life build on very few historical facts, while the European middle chapters are solidly grounded in reliable sources.

In spite of the uncompromising use of references, Trickster Travels remains accessible and easily readable for the nonspecialist, a tribute to Davis’s lucid style and artful literary touch. Especially in the early chapters describing al-Wazzn’s peripatetic movements through Africa and the Mediterranean region, novelistic images give the reader a camelback perspective: a flock of ostriches crossing the Sahara single-file, looking like robbers on horseback; a Berber-constructed, ten-person basket passing over a ravine; al-Wazzn sprinkling dust on his head while prostrated before the Songhay emperor in the Sudan. Whether Davis describes al-Wazzn buying black African slave women to serve the sultan of Fez or huddling in a shepherd’s hut during a two-day snowstorm, accompanied by desert Arab robbers and potential murderers, she captures the excitement of adventure that made the Muslim travel books so popular. In the descriptions of Africa, Davis evokes a romantic world of desert caravans and polyglot African cities like Timbuktu, Fez, and Tunis, a universe alien to Western readers accustomed to thinking of a richly complex European medieval world set against a vast emptiness in Saharan Africa. Davis is excellent at communicating what she calls the spirit of Islamic voyage, “a discovery not of the foreign and exotic, but of the character and meaning of Islam itself.” Encountering infidels from Europe to India to China leads the traveler to discover his own Islamic identity, just as the hardships of travel test the depths of his commitment. Like the hajj, travel can be a spiritual duty, a true pilgrimage.

Davis, a famed feminist historian specialized in early modern France and called a pioneer...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 12 (February 15, 2006): 33.

History Today 52 (October 1, 2002): 18-20.

Library Journal 131, no. 4 (March 1, 2006): 102.

The New Republic 234, no. 15 (April 24, 2006): 33-37.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 5 (March 23, 2006): 23-24.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 5 (January 30, 2006): 53-54.