Feb 2017Local EventsPast Articles

Building a “Wall of Words” with Just Buffalo Literary Center BABEL series speaker Laila Lalami

Building a “Wall of Words” with Just Buffalo Literary Center BABEL series speaker Laila Lalami


By: Bridget Fallon


Imagine being ripped away from your family and a life in your home country to face an expedition doomed from the start, against your will. You spent years getting lost, attempting to dodge disease, survive despite starvation, and constantly resisting indigenous tribes. As a slave, you managed to live four lifetimes in one—a conquistador, a servant, an outcast and a healer by faith. Out of the six hundred people, you were one of the four survivors and yet did not receive any credit for it—simply because of your faith and the color of your skin.

Pulitzer Prize finalist The Moor’s Account tells the fictional story of this Muslim Moroccan slave of Cabeza de Vaca, named Mustafa (often referred to in the book as Estevanico) who was one of the four survivors of the Narvaez expedition of what is now the southern region of North America. Eventually, this group of four are found by a squad of Spanish slavers and brought to Mexico City where they asked to provide testimony about their journey—all except for Mustafa, who tells his own story in the novel. The book shines a light on the perspective not told in the history books—a Muslim Moroccan slave highly contributed to the exploration of the new world.

Mustafa’s voice is given by the book’s author—the multilingual, critically acclaimed professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, Laila Lalami. The Just Buffalo Literary Center brought Lalami as part of their BABEL series—which aims to engage local audiences to create a global literary conversation by bringing the world’s most important authors to Buffalo each year.

Lalami spoke from the heart at Kleinhans Symphony Hall on Wednesday, November 9—the first night after the election and the nation’s first night facing the reality that Donald J. Trump was voted as the president elect. The irony of taking years to schedule Lalami to discuss her book and its themes could not have come at a better time.

Lalami ended up dedicating her talk to the current state of American politics and broke down the numerous perspectives covered in the NBC election exit poll statistic by statistic as a metaphor for how the themes in her book are still present today. Lalami’s enthusiasm for these themes were also met with moments of taking pauses to hold back tears. Artistic Director of the Just Buffalo BABEL series, Barbara Cole, agrees that the book’s “dramatic conflicts between foreigners and natives, its implicit interrogation of the “us versus them” dichotomy and its stories of the risks that individuals are willing to take in the quest for freedom and new opportunities would resonate in powerful ways.”  Lalami highlights that although “the first Muslims arrived as early as the 16th century, they have been treated as if they are invisible. They are here to make their voices heard. Although Muslims only make up one percent of the American population, Islam gets covered in the media in worse terms than cancer.”

The “us versus them dichotomy” highlighted in the book is still very strong regarding Americans and who they deem to be foreigners. Lalami concluded the exit poll revealed that “the biggest fear of the people who voted for the current president elect was the often sensationalized fear of immigrants and terrorism—noting that the Trump campaign openly appealed to people’s instincts regarding their safety. If this was about policy difference, people would not fear for their lives.”

Lalami talked about how her own life parallels that of Mustafa’s. Growing up in Morocco, Lalami’s native language is Arabic. Lalami also learned French in Morocco, where she went to a French school and then proceeded to learn English for college and finally became a citizen of the United States. On her journey, she encountered language barriers, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and exploration of new land—just like her book’s protagonist, Mustafa.

Lalami’s central message to her conversation which helped her own journey was “You have to really examine what you can bring. Ask yourself, what is it that I am really good at that I can bring to this world?”

The Lalami’s speech concluded with a thunderous applause and a standing ovation, followed by a Q&A session with Barbara Cole, where the story’s elements were discussed in more detail.

Identity is massive in this story. Despite being called by others “Estevanico” by others and the discrimination he faces, he never stops thinking of himself as Mustafa. Mustafa keeps his beliefs strong no matter what he endures. The theme of identity was used to further the Just Buffalo Literary Center mission of creating a “wall of words” to celebrate how they felt– celebration, defeat, longing and acceptance through writing and stories.

Barbara declared “Estevanico is the storyteller we need. A trustworthy narrator who resists the urge to erase atrocities or whitewash tragedies” an idea which transcends a media that undermines the hate crimes Lalami mentioned were facing the Muslim community.

A key theme that was mentioned was history in storytelling. Lalami noted “history is a living argument constantly being interrupted—the one who tells the story, shapes it.”

Despite the range of emotions that was this BABEL series discussion– the message was in a statement best summed up by Cole stating “Lalia Lamali’s writing combines knowledge of history with a contemporary landscape using clarity and focus. If we ever need clarity and focus, it is now. Words can divide or unite. The power of story is the reason we come together.”


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