Miraculous conversion

<strong>Trickster Travels: in search of Leo Africanus, a 16th-century Muslim between worlds</strong>

In 1518, al-Hasan al-Wazzan, a diplomat in the service of the Sultan of Fez, was travelling home from Cairo across the Mediterranean when his boat was attacked by Christian pirates. His captor, the Spaniard Don Pedro de Cabrera y Bobadilla, quickly realised that he had stumbled across something far too valuable to be sold in a slave market and, with one eye on his immortal soul, gave al-Wazzan as a "votive offering" to Pope Leo X.

Al-Wazzan's capture was well timed. The Turkish conquest of Egypt in the winter of 1517-18 was feared by many to presage an Ottoman invasion of Europe and in 1518 Leo X called upon the kings of England, France and Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor to put aside their differences and crusade against the Turks "to defeat the diabolical Mohammedan rage". But to Leo X al-Wazzan had something more valuable than information to offer: his soul. In 1520, after a year of genteel imprisonment during which al-Wazzan was catechised by bishops, he was baptised by Leo X in St Peter's basilica and renamed Joannes Leo de Medici, a name that bound him to the Medici household in a dependent status.

It is not surprising that Natalie Zemon Davis, a cultural historian famed for her interest in the obscure, was drawn to al-Wazzan. Caught between the "warring worlds" of Islam and Christianity, his story is packed with adventure and parallels with present-day conflicts. But Davis makes this fascinating material tough-going. She covers al-Wazzan's early life, from his arrival in Morocco as a refugee from Granada to his eventual capture, in fewer than 30 pages, reeling off names and racing though conquests, court intrigue and al-Wazzan's extensive travels at breakneck speed.

The pace slows only when Davis describes al-Wazzan's career as a scholar following his baptism. Presenting himself as an "independent polymath", he was accepted by Rome's intelligentsia and wrote prolifically, collaborating on a number of works including a Latin-Hebrew-Arabic dictionary. His most famous achievement is the Description of Africa, a sort of renaissance Lonely Planet in which he catalogued the civilisations of Africa and the vices and virtues of its people. It had a profound impact: debunking European stereotypes and depicting what was thought to be a land of cannibals and monsters as a continent dotted with cities and villages.

"Whatever else, one must not be boring." Davis quotes this golden rule of Arab literature without paying enough attention to it herself. Intriguing anecdotes give way to the academic minutiae of etymology and translation. But Trickster Travels rewards the persistent reader with rich detail on, for example, the use of taqiyya, the dispensation under which Muslims could practise the "precautionary dissimulation of faith and religious practices under circumstances of coercion". These rules allowed captured Muslims to eat pork, drink wine and renounce their faith without fear of being accused of apostasy, providing they remained inwardly faithful. They also offer one possible explanation for al-Wazzan's behaviour.

Al-Wazzan lived in Rome for nine years, slipping away in 1527 after the city was sacked by Charles V. There is some record of him living in Tunis shortly after, then nothing. Why did al-Wazzan remain in Dar al-Harb, the abode of infidels, for so long? He was living in relative freedom and could certainly have escaped. Davis posits a number of theories: that he hoped his work would correct Christian stereotypes of Islam; that he was married with a small child; that he enjoyed being "distinctive"; or that he was simply living it up with Rome's whores. All this seems possible because, in the end, we are left knowing almost nothing about him.

Al-Wazzan was a cultured man who liked his women plump, preferred European table manners and, as a scholar, was not above using guesswork to plug the gaps in his memory. Despite Davis's exhaustive search for hints of his torn loyalties and religious turmoil, this is about as much as we can say about his charac- ter. Trickster Travels introduces al-Wazzan as a shadowy figure poorly defined by history, and so he remains.