Honorary Degree Recipient Talksrecording...
Transcription by Lissa Minkel '07 · Natalie Davis's speech. Includes Q & A.
My name is Nicola Courtwright. I'm an art historian from the Department of Fine Arts. And it is my enormous pleasure to welcome Natalie Zemon Davis to Amherst College today. A graduate of Smith, Professor Davis went on to get her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan. After teaching history at many prominent universities in the U.S. and abroad, she retired from Princeton as the Henry Charles Lay Professor of history in 1996. She now teaches at the University of Toronto in the programs not only of history, but also anthropology, medieval studies, and comparative literature. Truly a renaissance paragon of learning, Professor Davis has published 11 books, mainly as sole author, and over 130 articles. Indeed, this graduate of our distinguished neighboring single-sex college has been so remarkably prolific and varied in her scholarship that I think it behooves Amherst to go back to the drawing board and reconsider the costs of co-education. Axel, any thoughts?
Seriously, many of us here know that Professor Davis has transformed the current study of history in a profound way. Rather than focusing on members of the elite classes and ruling bodies, or famous events that succeed one another in an inexorable and often deadly march through time, Natalie Davis dove into the worlds formerly little-known to students of 16th and 17th century European history, with the majority of people, folks on the margins, the lowly, the illiterate, slaves, but also artisans, women, Jews, and now Muslims as well. Pouring over innumerable, diverse kinds of sources in the archives, and old texts, studying folklore, strange tales, transgressive festivities, and odd art, she discovered different structures of social, political, and personal relationships, different axes of power than the familiar ones. She analyzed, too, through practices such as gift-giving, spheres of influence among the privileged and the literate.
Professor Davis thereby tracked a new kind of history that was just as compelling, if not more so, than the old, and created a new picture of the chronological trek to modernity in Europe. A remarkable, almost unparalleled sympathy for her subjects makes them come so alive that in the preface of one book, Women on the Margins, she feels compelled to write an imagined argument with her 17th century subjects. A woman who abandoned her son to become a nun and eventually convert Amerindians in Canada, a Jewish widow merchant who wrote the story of her life for her children, and an artist naturalist who travelled to Dutch Surinam to study insects. They accuse her of unhistorical thinking and want to know what on earth they, who were so foreign to one another, are doing together in her book.
We are extremely fortunate to have Professor Davis with us today, in this room, and I ask you all to join me in expressing our appreciation that she is here. Thank you.
NATALIE ZEMON DAVIS:
Thank you so much, Nicola Courtwright. It is a very great pleasure and a very great honor to be at Amherst, a college that I knew in a very different way when I was, you can imagine, when I was an undergraduate at Smith. Admired very much. I knew the Amherst undergraduates, as we did at Smith. It's a very very great pleasure, and it's a pleasure partly because over the years I have had wonderful scholarly encounters with Amherst. Members of the history department, with Austin Sarat's institute of, I may get the name wrong, but of law and the humanities. I had the opportunity to present my work and learn so much from colleagues here. Benefitted from the books. Met and enjoyed meeting a student who's graduated from Amherst and now I feel very thrilled to be a part of the community in this very special way.
I thought I would tell you about my current adventure in trying to do a book about a 16th century Muslim, an Arab, an adventure because up until ten years ago, I really knew very little about that world, only what a scholar of Western Europe might know about the wars between Western Europeans and the Ottomans, the kind of things that one would know and teach in undergraduate courses. And now I have under press a book called Trickster Travels--Trickster Travels: A Muslim Between Worlds in Early Modern Times. I wanted to tell you about, a little bit about the man who is the subject of this book, a little bit about the excitement of moving into the worlds that I needed to understand to describe him, and finally about my surprise to discover that having traveled so far, I seem to be very much doing the same thing that I always did, you heard a little bit about some of the past work.
So who is this Muslim between worlds? His name, as he was known in Europe, from the mid 16th century on, was Leo Africanus. If there are any Renaissance people here, or any people even who are specialists in Africa, they would know him by that name and by a book published initially in Italian, then in many other European languages, called The Description of Africa. It was described as, it was said to be edited, written by a man named Johann Giovanni Leoni Africanus, which became shortened into Leo Africanus, and it was a fascinating account of many different parts of Africa, down to Sub-Saharan Africa. The entire north, the entire North African, and it was described as being the work of a man indigenous to the area. That made it very special to Western Europeans whose knowledge of Africa was primarily based on travel accounts, or accounts of missionaries, accounts of sailors, Portuguese sailors.
And here you had an account, very wide-ranging. It bounced down over the centuries under the name of this rather strange figure Leo Africanus. And all the introduction said about him, written by his editor, was he was from West Africa, he was from Morocco, he was picked up by Christian pirates, taken to Pope Leo X, the great pope of Renaissance Rome, one of the greatest figures that we think of as a humanist patron, and became a Christian, and had, it's said in this introduction, and had this manuscript in Arabic in his briefcase which he then wrote, that he had translated, he translated it himself into Italian, and that's all we knew.
The book has been much-studied lately, and very well, by scholars interested in its impact on European thinking. From people who wanted to see how Leo Africanus might be behind Shakespeare's Othello, to people interested in post-colonial perspectives who wanted to see how this description of both North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa might have played into European reflections, questions, or fantasies about the blacks.
So that impact has been considered very interestingly, but I wanted to think about him. I wanted to find out who he was, and I wanted to see if I could recreate him as a Muslim, and an Arab, because we knew from what he'd said in the description of this book that he came, that he had been born in Granada, that he had been brought up in Fez, as Granada just at the time that that region of Spain was taken back by the Christians, that he'd grown up in Fez, as many Muslim families did, they left Granada and moved to North Africa where they could live as Muslims, and that was pretty much all he said. He suggests, along the way, that he had become a diplomat for the sultan of Fez and that his travels throughout Africa were partly, partly commercial, and mostly on some kind of unspecified diplomatic mission, which even took him beyond Africa, up to the court of the great Ottoman Selim, and he claimed even farther east.
Well, I wanted to find out who this man was, and the issues that I had in mind, that is, the interpretive, political, historical, and moral issues, really were those suggested by that title, Between Worlds. It seemed to me that at a moment in which somehow, I must say, to my surprise, given the prize of what I would have thought of back in 1949 when I graduated from Smith, in a world in which rigid boundaries were being erected by religious fundamentalisms, by strong resurrected political nationalisms, ethnic nationalisms, and so forth, when these very strong boundaries were being erected was a time to talk about porous boundaries, and people crossing, and to talk about it, if I could, and if one could, with more precision and flexibility, humor and skepticism, than is suggested by the simply word multiculturalism.
And I thought, this guy is terrific. This is a just perfect figure. Because there he is. All I knew about him to begin with was that he was a North African and he was a Muslim and then we had this book. That was what I knew to begin with. And I wanted to find out. And I think to begin with, I had this very sort of naive, upbeat idea that it was all going to--everything was going to work out fine, that I would show the wonderful, rich creative mixture that--without cost, that came out of a life that crossed over and put it all together. It was going to be just, a very difficult, challenging story, because I had so much to learn, but that everything would be very, as I say, upbeat.
Didn't turn out that way. Many years later, it's still a story that I'm very very glad that I embarked upon, and I'll only give you a couple of indications of what happened. First of all, it turned out that the book that had been published in 1550 in Italian was drawn from a manuscript and a manuscript that had only recently been discovered. And when I got hold of the manuscript, the manuscript wasn't the same as the book that the Christian editor had done.
Well that, actually, was a wonderful opportunity, because I could get closer to what he wrote. And it was changed in very interesting ways, including the assertion into the printed text of much more, of anti-Islamic sentiment. Whereas, in the manuscript you had what I call a neutral text, a text that is appreciative of Islam but in that it talks about the great learned scholars of Egypt and the wonderful manuscripts, religious manuscripts being sold at the fair, the market in Timbuktu, and about holy men, he's not too enthusiastic about ecstatic Sufi but about good Sufi holy men.
But it never has the qualities of a manuscript that he would have written back home in that, for instance, just to give you an idea, every time the Prophet's name would be mentioned in a manuscript back home, there would be a little prayer afterwards, it would always be there, may his name be blessed, something of this kind. And every chapter, even in a completely secular history book or geography book, would be opening with a little prayer, the Bismillah or something of that kind. So it is a completely neutral text in that sense.
And it's neutral in regard to Christianity. Much, there were a number of references to Christ added in the text. It's never disrespectful with regards to Christianity but I was struck by the fact that the one prayer, the one time a Christian prayer is mentioned along the way is when he says, there's a poison so powerful in Numidia that it will kill anyone whose given it in the time it takes to say a Pater Noster. This was removed by the later editor. And the only reference to the Lord's--to the Eucharist, is a description of a very beautiful table upon which it was believed that Christ had first performed that act with his apostles, and his comment about it is that table is now belong--it was captured by the Muslims, and it was now in Toldeo.
So it's not exactly a rich reference to the Eucharist. So there were baffling things already in this manuscript. Then I began to try to pursue his travels, and I knew from his book where he'd been. I knew that he'd been to this place. I knew that it would be very difficult because there's virtually--there's no archival material from Sub-Saharan Africa to get anything, and I would have needed to get somebody to translate for it. But I knew he had been on missions in Cairo, and that we have a diary from somebody associated with the Cairo sultanate. It gives all the gossip in Cairo, talks about every ambassador that comes, what he was wearing, the gifts he gave to the sultan of Cairo, and I'm turning the pages saying, "Where's my man?" He was in--"Why isn't he here?" Though I was finding material about him, I found his baptismal records in Rome, he really did convert to Christianity, and I'll say more about that in the moment. I had a lot of gaps. I think I won't give you any more details on that. But it is frustrating for a historian when you know somebody should be there and you finally find the source and "Where is my man?"
Now, let me describe the life as I was, however, as I was able to put it together a little more fully, and then come back to how I tried to resolve things, some of the fascinating things about him. He was indeed, his real name was al-Hassan al-Wazzan. Indeed the additional names were, al-Wazzan was the family name, and he called him self al-Fezi, that is, from the town of Fez, and sometimes al-Granadi, born in Granada. He was, indeed, he was from a quite well-off family. Trained very well at the madrasas of Fez. Particularly in law, that is, which means religious law, and poetry. He loved poetry, and loved to write in the poetic prose which is the style of a learned man.
He--he was from a good family. His uncle had already been a diplomat. He did indeed do the travels, maybe not as many as he suggests, he says he went all the way to Iran, and that's doubtful, and travel--Muslim travels are sometimes bragged. But he did travel across North Africa on missions. He did indeed travel to the Songhai Empire, the great black empire of the Songhai in the early 16th century, sending messages back to his master. He did go to Cairo, as I suggested, and saw the capture of Cairo from the long enduring Mamluk Empire by the Ottomans, a very great event. Saw the sack of that city. And then indeed, having gone up to Constantinople, to Istanbul, was captured by pirates.
We know who the pirates are now, it was a Spanish pirate, who said, "This is a diplomat. I'm not simply going to enslave him and ransom him. This is a big deal. I am taking him and his diplomatic pouches to Pope Leo X," who at that point was planning a crusade against the world of Ottoman. So this pirate knew when he had a good man. They took him to the Castle St. Angelo, which is both a dungeon and a papal place--where papal festivities, many went on during Leo X's reign. For a year and a half, he was there.
Rather well treated, he would have feared that he would be put in a dungeon but instead he was put in a room where he could read and he was brought Vatican manuscripts--they had a few in Arabic--on Christian themes, and he was catechized. And in January--1520--after about a year and a half in prison, he converted. The question of how serious the conversion was I've already raised by describing some of the curious features of it. But he converted and was able to leave prison and was given the name--he was baptized in St. Peter's at the hand of the pope and was given the pope's name--Giovanni--from Giovanni di Medici, the pope's birth name--and Leoni, from the pope's name.
He then spends seven years in Italy, in which he writes several books about the world in which he came, about the Arabic world, the Muslim world in which he came, for European readers. And he writes them in Italian, which he has learned, and he writes them in Latin, and some things are in Arabic. He becomes an Arabic teacher to one of the great cardinals of the church whose goal, who was already having Hebrew lessons and whose goal, besides curiosity, is to convert the entire world to Islam [sic], including, he hoped, the Indians in North America. The cardinal was a kind of escitological visionary who saw the whole world united under the popes, a kind of Christian caliph, to use the kind of language. And he's teaching Arabic, becomes quite friendly with the Jewish scholar who was teaching Hebrew to this cardinal.
The books he wrote, besides the description of Africa which he called the geography of Africa, the books he wrote, besides this big book with his travels and this remarkable ethnographic description, were biographies of illustrious Arabs of that world and illustrious Jews from the world of North--from the Islamic world. From North Africa, like Maimonides. Mostly a genre that is absolutely characteristic of Arab-Islamic writing, but he does it in Latin. He does a book about, and that book we have, that manuscript has been saved.
He did a book on Arabic prosety, on Arabic poetic metrics, which we still have, in Latin. He did a book about Muslim law, about Sharia, by, according to the particular school of Sunni law that was important in Maghreb, in the West, that's lost, and he did a book about the Islamic faith--all for Europeans. He becomes an author for the first time in his life. And he does a dictionary, which we have in manuscript, of Arabic, Hebrew--the Hebrew written by one of his Jewish scholar friends, and Latin. So you see that all of this is a crossing of worlds.
Well, with all this material, I wanted to put a life story together, and a mentality together for this figure, and the--here were the two kinds of challenges that I had. One, that he wasn't mentioned as often as I wished. I would look through the writings of that cardinal to whom he was teaching Arabic, and I know he was teaching Arabic to, because he--and I know they were connected because in addition to the works I've told you, he also did a Latin, a correction of a Latin translation of the Qur'an for this man, with the dedication to him, and we have that manuscript. And I would read and read and say, "Why don't you mention Giovanni Leoni?" I'm by now am calling him Johanna al-Hassad, which is the Arabic version of Giovanni Leoni, and it's my preferred name because it's sort of a compressed way of suggesting to people that he's between two worlds. I can call him Giovanni Leoni if you want. I can give him an Arab and Christian name at the same time.
I have some answers to that. There were a lot of gaps of this kind and what I decided to do, but then I had all of this writing, so I simply decided to take, to make those silences work for me. There were silences in his book on Africa, which is full of autobiographical references. He talks about his father, he talks about his uncle. I wanted to see him talking about a wife. Where is your wife? And I knew that in genres of this kind it was possible for there to be reference to a wife. She would not be fore-grounded in an Arabic travel account or a geography but she could be there. I knew that. Where is this woman? And I knew, I just, she should be there.
I began to look at what was available in writings about Arab families. There's still a lot to be done on North African family life. Women's history has started. And I discovered that if you looked at families like his, men trained in the law, and some of them have been documented, you'd find that they all married young, I mean, marriage is recommended, I mean, the Prophet was married, all the holy men in Morocco were married, there wasn't a significant celibate option. And I discovered that if you looked at his generation of people at law school, he was at law school in Fez, you can get some information on them, they would have sons by the time they were twenty. I thought it's okay, as long as I say I'm speculating, for me to give him a wife. So, with that kind of evidence, and knowing that that was recommended, I gave him a wife. And I'll take whatever flack I can get. That I'm not worried about. I think I'm really on firm ground.
But I didn't just do it there. I speculated on possibly picking up wives along the way in his travels, because you can pick one up and repudiate her, and we know a few other travel accounts where that was done, some very very famous accounts, where it's told, and told with good spirits, and it's completely legal by Islamic law. I speculated on that. But in Rome, I think he stayed there seven years after he got out of prison, and really if he wanted to go back, he might have left early.
I think he stayed there partly because it was very interesting writing those books. I think it was very interesting being in a world in which you were teaching Arabic to some of the most important people in the world, and maybe hoping to influence them for a more nuanced view toward your religion. We know that the Jewish scholar who was teaching Hebrew to the same man said in his writing, "I am teaching him Hebrew even though some rabbis disapprove because he is developing a better attitude toward my people. I'm very happy to be Jewish," he says, this Jewish scholar. This is a man who was in close touch.
So I imagine that that was one of the reasons. That he was in a fascinating world, a world rich for his curious mind, a world--he traveled through Italy. But I also thought, maybe there was some kind of romantic interest, possibly. And I thought that, partly, I wasn't just making it up. Some of you may know the novel by Amin Maalouf. Anybody here read? It's a very good French novel by a Lebanese writer who identifies totally with Leo, now lives in France. And he gives him several wives, and lovers and concubines, but he's a novelist, so he can do this. But I had--and he's very, I've interviewed him, he's fun. But I can't just--he's great. But I can't just do that.
But I did have something that--Amin Maalouf didn't need this, but I did have a January 1527 census of the entire head of household of Rome. You may know this. Anyway, there's all heads of household. And on it, there's on person named Johannes Leo, with two people in his household. There's no one else with that name. It's a very very unusual name. There are Giovannis, Andrea, Giovanni Baptista very common.
I then, because I am into adventure, I then went to Roman archives and looked at a really, many hundreds of pages of notaries in that section of town where I thought he would be living, just looking at the names of all males to see if I could find anybody. Of course I was looking for his marriage contract. But that didn't work out. But I found only one other person with hundreds and hundreds of pages, in a criminal record, a Giovanni Leoni from Venice, and I sometimes wonder if it wasn't actually he. So I decided it wasn't too risky to give him a wife. And then I began to imagine using the census records and finding all these women who were converts, and had mora, moor, former slave, and that might be the woman he took to wife. By cannon law that would be possible, it would be possible for him to do it.
So that was how I worked out some of the personal asides. But there was still the question of his relationship to this world and the thing that I'd started out with, which was how do you move back and forth between Islam and Christianity, and between North Africa and Italy? How could I use these texts to get behind just what he said?
Well, I of course made the difference between that manuscript as he wrote it and the anti-Islamic sentiment, I worked from the manuscript. But, I kept finding strange, not only those silences, I found strange things when I began to read the biographies and read about these figures, most of whom I had never--I'd heard of al-Ghazali, I'd heard of some of the important figures, but many of them were people that a Western scholar, a Europeanist, wouldn't know about. They're marvelous people, I'm very glad I learned about them.
I began to read some of these biographies and some of them, when I would check them out in scholarly sources, were just right on. And others were just wild, wild. I'll give you one example. I'll give you two examples, because they're fun. One is, there is a very very important physician named al-Razi. He's got a much longer name. He was born in Baghdad. He never got much farther, if he even got to Cairo, that would be remarkable. He was mostly based in the world of Iraq. Very very distinguished. His writings were massively important, not only for Arabic medicine, but his manuscripts were among those that got through Spain into--some of them were being published in Europe. Were first copied in manuscript, and one or two were pouring off the presses of Venice in the very time he was there.
Well, the biography that he gives starts out right. He's born in the right place, right century, right time. He gives all the dates by the Hijra, from the Prophet's trek from Mecca to Medina. And everything's fine and then all of a sudden he has left the East and he is in al-Andalus, he is in Muslim Spain, in Coritiba, and the Almansor, his most famous work as it was known in Europe, and is a book--in Europe it's always called the Book of Almansor. It was the most important medical work and it was dedicated to Almansor. It's a summary of all his medical work. Instead of dedicating it to somebody off in Iraq, which is what had happened, way in the East, it's suddenly being dedicated to an Almansor in Spain. And there's a lot of back and forth between--in other words he turns him into the kind of Andalucian, the kind of Granadan, that he was in his own past. Well, I--it may have been confusion of names. There are people name al-Razi that lived in Coritiba. But I decided to think of it as a kind of playful thing that he did. I think he figured, no one's going to know--no one's going to know, and here I am creating a Granadan, I the Granadan am giving a Granadan context to someone who--my medical friend, he had a Jewish medical friend, whose books he's reading, and they don't know much about it. So that's one example.
Another, and again, I think this was especially done for this same Jewish physician with whom he collaborated on the dictionary that I mentioned, in another part of this biography, he creates a story about the great Averroes, the philosopher Averroes, it's a name that we know in the West. Ibn Rushd, as he was called in Arabic. He creates a story that is actually bounced down the centuries and is referred to. The Averroes and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides were friends, and that Maimonides in fact studied with Averroes, and that when Averroes had to leave, and was banished for a time by his Muslim sultan, that he took refuge with Maimonides, and Maimonides tried to protect him and then Maimonides left and then went to Cairo. They had taken refuge together down in North Africa and then Maimonides had left and gone to Cairo, partly to protect him. He thought, if I'm here, they'll find him at my house.
So he had this elaborate story, now both men were in fact born in Coritiba. And it is true that Maimonides was deeply interested when he read Averroes' writing later. But they didn't know each other. They didn't study together. These are impossible--this is impossible--this is a wonderful impossible story. And he tells it and as I say, interestingly, on that story, actually has got into the literature, and people who--it became a kind of myth. And I think he maybe was partly confused. He was far removed from his source materials. But certainly he, I think he playfully decided to make this up, for his friend, Jacob Mantino.
Well now, these are a couple of examples of what I--of his playfulness. Now I want to sort of conclude by coming back to my title. Trickster Travels. I was not planning to call this book Trickster Travels. In fact, I hoped that one of the things that I could say was that this book--very solid, that one of the uses of his books was that they brought absolutely solid, reliable indigenous information to Europe, and that's partly true. I mean, some of the stuff he says is just fascinating and terrific, and even when some of it's wrong he introduces names and figures to the European scholarship that no one had ever heard of before. So part of that is true.
He certainly gave an image of Africa that under--that weakened some of the stereotypes that are in all the European literature. European literature at the time is full of stereotypes--this is a land of--Africa is the land of monstrosity. It's a land of extremes, either immense fertility or absolute sterility, and so on. It's a land teeming with novelty, and for that time, when novelty's bad, not good. We think of novelty as good. But saying this is a place teeming with novelty and change is not good. And he gives--even when he's not quite accurate about some of his things, he gives an ethnographic picture of a very rich, of a society at work, of a society not saturated with lust, that was another one of the stereotypes. Even when he talks about, and he does talk a lot about sex, but when he talks about prostitution, or when he talks about men who love men, and so forth, it's all--it's not because they're saturated with lust, it's because there's certain kinds of institutions, there's certain kinds of practices. So it is, even with the trickster elements, it is--they are very very interesting and valuable texts. But still.
So here's what I did. I was very struck, fairly early along, by a genre that I, as, had never heard of before I began this work. It's called the maqamat. Not quite the right pronunciation. That word means, in Arabic, assemblies. And these are stories that go back to the ninth, tenth, eleventh century, always written in rhymed prose, which Arabic literature loved, about two figures. About a narrator, who himself travels everywhere, in the world of Islam, never leaves Islam, travels everywhere. He's maybe on a mission or a merchant. Travels everywhere, and always sees in his travels a remarkable figure.
Each story has--sometimes this figure is a preacher. Some times he's a healer. Sometimes he's a barber. Sometimes he's before the judge. Sometimes he's performing some kind of miracle. He's always doing something remarkable. He always bursts into poetry, in this case, rhymed poetry, real poetry. He always ends up successful, on his feet, with lots of gifts, or alms, in his backpack, his bag. And he always turns out to be the same person. And the narrator, in one of the most famous is a certain sheikh from Alexandria, Abu Fad, and the narrator, you know about this because the narrator is always telling his friends this story. "Well, I was in Cairo recently..." or "I was in Isban recently, and I..." and then you have this story, and at the end of the story, he says, "And then he began to say poetry and then I went up to him and said, 'Are you Abu Fad from Alexandria?' The same."
Well, you can see--and, in each case, he's got a different disguise, and in each case, he's doing a trick. Sometimes they're kind of mischievous tricks, and sometimes they're tricks that more, are truth-telling tricks. Sometimes they're destructive, sometimes they're constructive. But when you can see how I might fall into this, I don't know, did you mention my Martin Guerre, I wrote--you did happen to mention, you did mention. Okay, I would just mention--one of the earlier books I wrote in the eighties is called The Return of Martin Guerre, it's that impostor story, so I have impostors, I am interested in self-fashioning and identity. But never did I dream, when I started this, that I would be taking a model that had some relationship to a peasant in the Pyrenees in the 16th century, and find something similar in the literature of, the great literature of the Arab-Islamic world, and that I would just fall into it. There is--I've got a vagabond poet, my man loves poetry, he's constantly talk--my Giovanni Leoni, my Johanna al-Hassad, my al-Hassan al-Wazz, he loves poetry, it's one of the main themes. He writes books about poetry. Well, once that had taken hold of me, I just couldn't let it go. And I decided to make it one of the ways in which I would interpret him. And it--I would use this idea of him.
Now having said that, so that you won't think it was only my taking habit, a habit from the past, like a finger mark, you just can't get rid of it, I will say that there was some element, there's some reason for thinking that this would work. One is a story that he tells about himself. And one is a feature of Islamic law. And I'll tell the Islamic law first, and then I'll tell the story second.
In Islamic law, there is both Sunni and Shi'a, there is a doctrine called Taqia, which means, first, to dissimulation in a situation of coercion. And those of you who are familiar with the Jewish Maranas and the Conversos who had to convert in Spain or Portugal but kept their practice, and it's still--it is performed secretly, you'll be familiar with the idea, and in fact there are versions of this in Christian law as well. Calvin condemned it as nicoteminism but it is, you find versions. Well there is this and it allowed a person, and there's a Qur'anic verse right behind it--it allowed a person to say that as long as in his or her heart he had stayed loyal to Islam, it was legitimate to convert, to become Christian.
Indeed, the people who would stay behind in Grenada when his family had left had received a fatwa from North Africa telling them, "It's okay, it's okay, if you can't come to North Africa, and you must stay there, you can pray at a Christian alter but in your heart you must be facing the Qibla, you must be facing Mecca. And so on. You can say the son, you can say that Christ is the son of God but you must think to yourself, Christ is the son of Mary, who is a worshipper of God." And it spells it all out, so that, with this, I could go back to the very few places in his text where he does talk about, in one of his caliphants, in one of his dedications he uses the words, 'Christ, the son of God,' and I could use, I could imagine him using this when he went back to North Africa as he did, to excuse himself.
But that didn't seem to me the whole story. I didn't seem to--as I said, I think he was really very interested in staying, not just because of a sex--an erratic liaison, but he was really very interested in staying in Italy and having this other life. And that was where the trickster came in. And now I"ll tell you the story that he tells himself in his--both in, and this appears, much modified, it appears in the printed version, it appears, but it's very wonderfully told in the manuscript.
He says--he's talking about Africa, and he says, the Africans have both vices and virtues, he says, good points and bad points. Now, lest anybody think that I just have the vices, here's the story that I'll tell. Once there was a bird who could live on, in either the air or in the water. And he lived in the air until the king of the birds came around to collect the taxes, and then he flew to the water, into the fish, and said, 'You know me, I'm one of you, that no good rascal king of the birds wants to collect taxes from me. He's abusing me. I want to stay with you.' And he stayed in the water for a year until the king of the fish came around. And then he zoomed out of the water and went to the birds and told them the same story.
And he comments, and so I will do as the bird does. If anybody makes fun, mocks or criticizes the Africans I'll say, oh but I was born in Granada. And if anybody criticizes the Granadans, I'll say, oh but I was brought up in Fez. And so he lived, he said the bird lived without paying any taxes. Well I took this story not only to be a story about Grenada, which now is of course Christian when he writes, and North Africa, but to be a story about his own movement, and the ways in which he could be both close to the worlds that he left and the world that he had moved to, and distant from it, by this sense of not being too tightly positioned. he could truth-tell and be, and maneuver, but where he was going to be, he warns the Europeans, 'Don't pin me down.'
So, I will end there, and let--you can pin me down, and challenge me or ask me more about anything on this topic. But my bird is quieting down for a while.
Yes, I do, and in fact I sort of, before it's published. And who he would have imagined as his readers--he would have expected the kind of learned, multilingual, people interested in multilinguality, the people that he'd seen in, around Rome, and that he met in Venice, that he met in Bologna. I have a thought, however, that he imagined also wider, and in some sense, feared a wider readership. He knew a great deal about the printing press. All these Jews that I mentioned that he was working with, and the one he did the dictionary with, were publishing books all the time, right at the time. He must have visited printing shops. There were probably people who came and asked him if they would help them help them set up an Arabic printing press.
Another silence is he never mentions European printing press. He makes so many comparisons between Europe and Africa to help his European readers understand what he's saying, but he never talks about the printing press. I'm sure he--he definitely knew about it, and I think he was worried about what would happen when a wider--well, not worried. He was curious about what would happen with a wider readership. And what it meant for his strategies of self-presentation.
What I think he feared, and not totally without reason, was that this manuscript, even with his neutrality, would get into the hands of people back home, and would complicate it after he went back after 1527. And he always planned to go back, by the way. Even though--well always, he certainly by the time he had written it he says, I'm going to go back. He says, when safe and sound, God willing. You sort of hear him say, Insha'allah. He says God willing, and in Italian, I go back home. I will write about Europe, I will write other works. And so he would think that some of the compromises in this manuscript, he would worry whether they would get back, and how am I going to explain it, and he would know the Taqia, because that's his thing, it's law. So I think that part of being a trickster is writing a manuscript that he hopes could work in these different worlds.
Now who actually did read it, it is that kind of people. Geographers used it in manuscript. One of the most interesting people is a man named Guillaume Postel, another way-out, wonderful way-out person. He was a man, he was a Frenchman, who wanted to join the Jesuits, which was the most avant-garde order at the time, and the one that sent people all over the world, and they asked him please to leave. He was fabulously talented with languages. And he was a visionary on a grand scale. He wanted all--he studied as many of the languages of the world as he could, and he kept looking for equivalencies, and he wanted everybody to convert, of course, to Christianity. He imagined a peaceful world under one Christian ruler. It was probably the best you can do, and in a way, for the Muslims too, the best you could do for imagining one world, pretty much in those days, was under one caliph or under one pope or something.
And Postel was dying to really get good in Arabic, and he got hold of both the grammar, my man wrote an Arabic grammar, the poetry book, and the dictionary. Excuse me, and the the dictionary, and the book about Africa. And was just extremely interested to have it. And you see it reflected very early in his writing. Other--so that's the kind of of, that was the first, and then it went into French, Latin, English, right away, and there were multiple editions in Italian. And then, later, and then it goes later in the 17th century into other languages. So it has, I would say, a continuous learned, but European-wide tradition. Did it change people's minds? Not as much as you'd think. No. Not necessarily. You know, people don't just read it, what he might have hoped, it doesn't necessarily changed people's minds, but it may have still helped support the world that was more interested in talking about and maybe even converting rather than killing Muslims. It might have contributed to what, to the shred of the erratic Ecumenical tradition in the European world.
Well the ones that I could manage for this would be the Latin and the Italian were the most important. I'm not accomplished in Spanish, but it really wasn't a problem. I really had to do a lot of reading in Spanish because a lot of the source material was in Spanish. The real question--for the Hebrew, I had some of my students, I only had a few Hebrew, because he had all this connection with Jews, and I can't read Hebrew. I can read a little Yiddish. But I could--so I had some of my students translate some very interesting letters, and to make sure that the Hebrew column which was done by that Jew.
And then for Arabic, I thought, well I'll just use translators. And I had several to begin with. Depending on where I was. And I now have a wonderful graduate, older graduate student from Qatar, actually from the Sudan and Qatar, who's getting his Ph.D. in comp. lit. and English at University of Toronto. And his father's an historian. I don't know if I want his father to see this book. He said, "I'll show your book, show your manuscript to my father." Well, maybe not. But he's, we've gotten very interested in this.
Now, what I discovered was, that I had to do, however, was really learn something about, if not Arabic grammar, or reading, about nouns and verbs and the language, and it's actually, it took me a very long time to finally find a really good dictionary and learn how to work in a dictionary and to be able to identify. I've worked in manuscripts for so long, and I thought I was pretty good at reading the handwriting. It's really hard. Because all of this was manuscript. And I now understand a little bit about the grid around words, and I know how to work in the dictionary, which, to begin with, since the dictionary was only organized around consonants, and I was used to having "a" and "e," I was used to having vowels to help me. But now I know--I feel very competent, when he came over to do the final checking for the printer I said, "I had the dictionary, I could look up the words myself." I didn't quite feel like Guillaume Postel, who I was mentioning.
I was was very very glad, at this moment in history, to be able to do that. And I think one of the things that meant the most to me, recently, I was very moved by--I was invited to come to Morocco a few months ago, in March, and talk about him. And he is the life that, and this material that I've told you is not known, they just know him from the translation of the printed version. There's now an Arabic version, but it was only--this life story that I've told you was sensitive enough so that an Arabic version was not made of The Description of Africa until 1980. So I knew his name was known, but the life story, including some of the things that I was discussing about conversion and so on wasn't known, and I spoke to, I spoke in French, to the people there, trying, and I rehearsed all the Arabic words I was going to say ahead of time so I wouldn't say them too badly.
And what I decided to do was to make a comparison between the great French scholar of my, very important to me, François Rabelais, and al-Hassan. Rabelais is a much greater writer and learner, much more learned, but there are very interesting structural analogies, even though they never could have known each other, between the idea of the trickster, and the attitude toward jihad, the rejection of jihad, and the attitude and the rejection of world conquerers, and the preference for diplomacy and law. So, I was able to talk to them, hoping that it would be alright. And it was. And it meant a very great deal to me, to be able to speak to them about someone who had grown up in their world.
Thank you so much, Natalie.