Blurb"I, Hasan the son of Muhammad the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia. I am also called the Granadan, the Fassi, the Zayyati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. I am the son of the road, my country is the caravan, my life the most unexpected of voyages."
Thus wrote Leo Africanus, in his fortieth year, in this imaginary autobiography of the famous geographer, adventurer, and scholar Hasan al-Wazzan, who was born in Granada in 1488. His family fled the Inquisition and took him to the city of Fez, in North Africa. Hasan became an itinerant merchant, and made many journeys to the East, journeys rich in adventure and observation. He was captured by a Sicilian pirate and taken back to Rome as a gift to Pope Leo X, who baptized him Johannes Leo. While in Rome, he wrote the first trilingual dictionary (Latin, Arabic and Hebrew), as well as his celebrated Description of Africa, for which he is still remembered as Leo Africanus.
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Leo, Africanus is without a doubt a riveting, epic tale based on the life of a traveler, diplomat, merchant, slave, scholar, etc; whose life would have made a movie, every critic would deride as self-indulgent, irreal and plainly just way over the top. It is in fact an amazing life, who leaves you vicariously humbled as you find more about it. The book is sectioned in 'Years' which are basicaly chapters spanning roughly a years period (Arab calendar is used). Although this is a nice touch, the fact of the matter is that in trying to keep the chapters equitative in lenght the book gives off the impression that some chapters are rushed due to the nature of the events going in years of historical significance, while in other chapters/years it feels dragging. The reading also feels, at times, slightly disjointed since the point of view doesn't center it self on Leo until he reaches a certain age where his thoughts and conscience are of a certain maturity and worth sharing. This was of course intentional and a necessary evil (if you can call it that) but i do feel it detracts a bit, eventhough the narrative mantains solid throughout. The book does a fantastic job of describing how Leo might have lived and does paint a layered emotional and psychological portrait of him, but historically it's not until the third part of the book that you feel immersed in the historical period rather than just Leo. Up until the mentioned part of the book, you don't really 'feel' the cultural and historical ambiance (Which is a must for me in Historical fiction works), eventhough there is definitely a reasonably thourough description of how the different cultures lived. For this, and for having read Samarkand before this book, Leo, Africanus pales in comparison by upping the pace a bit too late. Still this book will not fail at managing to immerse, educate and entertain you.