Sample Paper on Book Review: Trickster Travels: a Sixteenth Century Muslim between Worlds

Natalie Davis’ Trickster Travels: a Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds, published in 2006, narrates the enthralling story of Leo Africanus, a diplomat from Morocco who converted to Christianity and authored the earliest modern European geography of Africa. Born Al-Hasan bin Muhammad al-Wazzan, the diplomat changed religious status into Christianity after baptism by Pope Leo X before writing the geographical piece on Africa as his most prominent scholarly accomplishment (Davis 1-3). Davis’ authority to write the book and the diplomat’s story originates from her broad research on the early modern period of history. She is a Canadian-American historian whose historical research work focused initially on France but broadened to include North and West Africa, North America, and Europe with time. Davis is an experienced historian who has utilized different sources in research for her work, including early printed books, pamphlets, judicial records, tax records, plays, autobiographies, and folk and notarial records. Her unique approach in research on the early modern period of history features a cross-disciplinary component in combining history with other disciplines such as literary theory, anthropology, and ethnography to provide richer content and understanding of the historical period. Her work has won several prominent awards, including Holberg International Memorial Prize, National Humanities Medal, and Canadian national honors. She has had an inspirational influence on many historians and academics and served as President of the American Historical Association (“Professor Natalie Zemon Davis CC Ph.D. FBA”).

In writing the book, Davis intended to portray North and West African and European societies in the early modern historical period, through a story-telling and image-creating style of analysis based on Leo Africanus’ inventive geographical piece. In a world that features widening differences among societies across the world based on religious philosophies and violence, Davis presents evidence that Islam and Christianity are compatible and peace is possible between them. She does this through the description of how a North African Muslim in the 16th Century was able to convert to Christianity and live successfully in Italy. Shifting between Al-Wazzan’s inner devotion to Islam and outward obedience to Christianity, Davis’ objective is to disclose the personal, cultural, political, and literary complexities and challenges that the North African diplomat encountered while living as a forced convert in a land far from his home. In telling the story, the author implies that Al-Wazzan probably harbored hope to return to his home country and continue to practice Islam, his beloved religion, but that life in Italy provided the opportunity of acquiring the respect of Europeans who were ignorant of Arabic culture and African geography. Considering his experience in both areas, his expertise drew high regard among the Europeans. In this way, Al-Wazzan earned a level of respect and social status that would have been hard to acquire had he remained in his North African home.

To evaluate the complexities of Al-Wazzan’s life and his fate as a forced convert in foreign land intimately and comprehensively, the author divides the book into nine chapters. Each of the chapters deals with a specific aspect of the diplomat’s life and activities as a scholar. Following the introduction section of the book, chapter one offers an account of his life in North Africa prior to abduction by Christian pirates and transfer to Italy (Davis 8-14). The author bases this chapter’s analysis on Al-Wazzan’s work, Description of Africa, painting a picture of an immigrant from Granada who underwent training in law and harbored scholarly interests. He traverses the southern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean region and inner Africa as a diplomat to a Sultan. Chapters 2-8 tackle the diplomat’s capture and presentation to the Pope in Italy in 1518, forced conversion to Christianity, interactions with and life among Italians, Europeans, and Christians, and literary accomplishments and adaptations to the new cultural environment. The last chapter addresses his return to Africa, although this part of his life is unknown.

Throughout the book, Davis incorporates her research on native customs, values, and history to provide a context for the limited accurate knowledge of the diplomat’s life. She portrays the thought that the diplomat’s “double” life influenced his relative freedom to express himself in ways that would have been impossible were his circumstances different. Davis argues that living as an outsider in Europe, and yet integrating into European culture, Al-Wazzan could identify and evaluate delicately the prejudices he witnessed in European culture and portray some aspects of Christian culture positively in a way that would have been impossible in his North African homeland (Shalev, n.d.).

One strength of the book is that Davis acknowledges the imprecise nature of information about the diplomat’s life throughout the book, stating her assumptions and utilizing her research on local customs at the time to provide context for her analysis. The book’s major weakness also relates to this feature (Davis 2-3). Due to scant evidence on the life of the diplomat, the author illustrates regularly and extensively the political, historical, and cultural context of information about the diplomat’s life, threatening the main points and original topic of the book.

The book presents rich content on numerous aspects of European and Northern African history and culture in the 16th Century, and scholars shall find its content valuable as an introduction to Islamic law, European and North African history, and politics in the 16th Century.

Works Cited

“Professor Natalie Zemon Davis CC Ph.D. FBA” University of St. Andrews Website, n.d.

Davis, Natalie. Trickster Travels: a Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds. New York: Hill & Wang, 2006. Print.

Salev, Zur. “Davis, Natalie, Trickster Travels: a Sixteenth Century Muslim between Worlds, Reviews.” Renaissance Quarterly: 157-158. Print.