Leo the African, or Leo Africanus, is not a new book. It was first published in French in the nineteen-eighties and my British edition was published in 1994. I pulled it from my shelf as one of five books whose covers I like and was surprised at how old it was, the cover still beautiful but the inside pages yellowed with age. When I re-read it I remembered everything of its world: the places, the characters and above all the voice of Hasan, who is the Leo of the title and the teller of his own story.
There was a real-life Leo the African, a sixteenth century exile from the Spanish conquest of Muslim Granada, who wrote a geography of North Africa that was a go-to text for centuries. Hasan/Leo included details of his travels in his ‘Description of Africa’. Amin Maalouf’s fictional memoir is based on those travels.
And what extraordinary travels they were. From Granada to Fez, to Timbuktu, to Cairo, to Constantinople, Mecca and Rome, Hasan doesn’t so much navigate the world within camel and boat reach as fall over it. He stumbles from place to place and from friendship to friendship. Hasan’s friends seem to be constantly saying, “Don’t do that. It’s not a good idea.” But, accident-prone and given to falling helplessly in love, he somehow survives persecution, fire, snow storms, imprisonment and capture by slave-traders, always emerging to find somewhere to live and be valued as a diplomat by the terrifying people who hold power in this age of religious arrogance and the aggressive expansion of empires.
In this book you will meet the last sultan of Granada, the first ruler of the Ottoman empire and the Medici popes, and you will be glad it is Hasan who actually meets them and not you. Despite his trials and tribulations, his losses and compromises, Hasan survives to tell his tale. You might not have been so lucky.
The book is still in print, as ‘Leo the African’ in the UK and ‘Leo Africanus’ in the US.
The cover of my UK edition invokes the art of Moorish Granada: perfectly balanced in design and color, rich in shape and texture.