The Original Leo

A new book by Natalie Zemon Davis chronicles the life of Hasan Al-Wazan, the 16th-century traveler (and author) whose life inspired Amin Maalouf’s amazing novel Leon L’Africain (or Leo Africanus.)

Using hazy and sometimes contradictory evidence, Davis beautifully renders the chapters of Al Wazzan’s life: his birth in Islamic Granada in the 1480s; his family’s flight as Christian armies expelled the Moors from Spain; his education in the madrassas of Fez, Morocco, and his years traveling as a diplomat in North Africa and the Levant, among the Berbers, Arabs, Jews and black Africans who populated those lands. She writes of his kidnapping by Spanish pirates who offered him as tribute to Pope Leo X in Rome; his christening as “Giovanni Leone” by the pope; his life of independent scholarship in Bologna and his departure from Italy after nearly a decade, during which he produced “The Description of Africa” and other works.

Read Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s review of Trickster Travels in The Los Angeles Times.