Eyewitness to 16th-Century History

LEO AFRICANUS, by Amin Maalouf, translated by Peter Sluglett. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 360 pp. $17.95. TODAY, we tend to believe that we live in the most dramatic of ages - that in the past 50 years we have been witness to the most profound changes the world has ever seen.

But might not other men in other ages have witnessed as many thought-provoking occurrences as we have? Leo Africanus - Leo the African - was such a man.

Born in the 15th century in Granada, Spain, he was named Hasan al-Wazzan. His early childhood was played out against the siege of Granada, when the Christian King Ferdinand of Castille and the armies of his Inquisition forced the Muslim population to convert or flee their homelands.

As a refugee, he grew to manhood in Fez, accompanied his uncle on a diplomatic mission to Timbuktu, and was later banished from Fez and sought refuge in Cairo.

There, he witnessed the destruction of the Mameluke dynasty by the Ottoman Turks. Later, he was enslaved and given as a gift to Pope Leo X in Rome, and was baptized Johannes Leo. He was sent as an envoy to the sultan. He witnessed the sack of Rome and the breaking up of the Roman Catholic Church's spiritual hegemony in the Reformation.

His book, ``The Description of Africa,'' was published by Giambattista Ramusio, circa 1550, and it remains the definitive work on the geography of Africa for the 15th century. It was later translated into English in 1896 by the Hakluyt Society of London. Hasan al-Wazzan also made and lost several fortunes in the course of his life as a merchant and diplomat.

``Leo Africanus'' is Lebanese journalist Amin Maalouf's fictional autobiography of this extraordinary man and his eventful life. Published originally in 1986 in France, where Maalouf is currently living, the book has only now been translated into English by Peter Sluglett and published in the United States.

Maalouf presents Hasan's story as if it were a memoir written by Hasan for his son. He divides the years of his life into the chapters of his life's tale, beginning with his birth in 1488 and continuing through his return to Tunis in 1527.

In the intervening years, Hasan travels from country to country, from capital to capital, from court to court, from culture to culture. He witnesses many of those events that were to alter the course of history.

Yet, it is not these sometimes cataclysmic occurrences that provide the fascination in Maalouf's book. Instead, it is the details of family life and Islamic culture in the 16th century that enrich ``Leo Africanus,'' and prove intriguing.

Maalouf carefully describes the various Muslim communities - in Granada where the 21st sultan is corrupt and the casbah is alive with rumor, fear, and reforming zealots; in Fez, where the Granadan refugees must assimilate into the North African society, though many long to return to Spain; in Cairo, where Muslim life is built upon the grandeur of the once-great Egyptian Empire.

In each locale, Maalouf meticulously depicts the lot of women, of slaves, pirates, merchants, and princes, giving the reader the rare opportunity to understand Muslim life in the 16th century and to see the Western Christian powers through Muslim eyes.

Yet for all the exotic places and characters that grace the pages of ``Leo Africanus,'' the narrator's tone seems surprisingly flat. Whether this is due to the pervading fatalism of Islam, to Maalouf's own style of writing, or some fault in translation is impossible to say.

Still, ``Leo Africanus'' is a remarkable work. It furnishes both an accurate view of that past which is so much a part of our present - the political power within the Muslim world - and a reminder of the extraordinary challenges in times past.

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