Hassan El Wazzan to Leo Africanus: two names, two identities

Leo's signature at the end of the Vocabulary

Hassan El Wazzan is Leo Africanus' Moroccan name and the name Moroccans most commonly use for him. This is not the name that Leo uses in Description of North Africa,which he signs in the following manner, in 1526:

"Ici finit the livre de Jean Leon, ne a Grenade et eleve en Berberie" [This book was written by Johannes Leo, born in Granada and raised in Barbary]

However, he does use his Arabic name in an earlier work: a short Arab-Hebrew-Latin dictionary which he wrote for a Jewish doctor living in Italy. In 1520, he signs IN ARABIC:

"Vocabulaire arabe-hebreu-latin compose par Jean Leon, Grenadin, appele autrefois Al-Hassan ibn Mohammad al Wazzan el Fassi, en Janvier 930…pour Iaqoub Ibn Simoun" [Arabic-Hebrew-Latin Dictionary completed by Johannes Leo, from Granada, once called Al Hassan ibn Mohammed al Wazzan al Fassi in January 930...for Jacob Ibn Simoun]

As all Arabic names, Leo's is blissfully informative:
Hassan is his first name
Mohammed is his father's name

But the rest of his name has been subject to much controversy....One of the main roots of confusion has been the transcription from Arabic letters to the Roman alphabet, and the consequent adoption of many different interpretations of his name. For example, " Wazzan" can be written as such or as "Ouazzan"- and when transcribed back into Arabic, it comes to signify two different affiliations.

Central Plaza in Ouezzan

On the one hand, "Wazzan" signifies the weigher (families were often designated by the profession of one of their ancestors, in this case a public weighing official who guaranteed the quantity of goods sold). In 1956, A. Epaulard (editor of the last French translation of Leo's Description) wrote: " El Hassan ibn Mohammed El Wazzan es Zayyati est ne a Grenade, a une date indeterminee entre 1489 et 1495. El Hassan est son nom personel, Mohammed celui de son pere, El Wazzan veut dire le peseur et permet de penser que c'est la un surnom de famille, quelque ascendent ayant ete fonctionnaire du poids public." [El Hassan ibn Mohammed El Wazzan Es Zayyati was born in Grenada, some time between 1489 and 1495. El Hassan is his first name, Mohammed is his father's name, El Wazzan means weigher and could mean that one of his ancestors was an official weigher.]

On the other hand, "Ouazzan" is oddly close to "Ouazzani"- meaning from the city of Ouezzan, a town in North East Morocco (near the Rif mountains, on the way to ChefChaouen). In this case, Ouazzan would tie Leo to the great family originating from this city.

Today, scholars agree that the correct interpretation for his name is "Wazzan", the weigher- though you can still find people in Morocco who claim Leo is affiliated to the great family of Ouazzanis...

Similarly confusing discussions are held around Leo's last name: "Es Zayyati".

For a comprehensive discussion on Leo's name and its interpretations the best resource is D. Rauchenberger's work on Leo (see bibliography).Unfortunately, this work currently exists only in German.

While discussion around Leo's Arabic name is certainly interesting, the more intriguing issue is to understand the names he chose for himself in Italy. While he did adopt a Latin name (Johannes Leo), he does not seem to have given up his Arabic habit of including his many origins in his name: "from Granada","from Fes","raised in Barbary". One can read here the ambiguity of his identity and his desire to both affirm and disguise his Muslim origins. For Moroccan scholar M. Hajji, this multiplication of names, in the Arabic tradition, is indicative of Leo's continuous attachment to the Muslim faith, and the superficiality of his conversion to Catholicism. In the introduction to his Arabic translation of Leo's Description, Hajji writes:

" Captif, que pouvait-il faire d'autre pour marquer son attachement a un passe musulman ? Quand au fait qu'il se fasse appeler le Fassi chez les Arabes, et le Grenadin chez les Italiens on ne peut l'expliquer qu'en rappelant qu'en 1520, Grenade était redevenue Chrétienne et que ce nom lui aurait valu plus de respect et de protection dans un monde Chrétien." [As a prisoner, what more could he do to mark his attachment to Islam? And while he called himself El Fassi in Morocco, he reverted to El Granati in Italy, most probably because Granada had just recently been reconquered by the Catholic Kings of Spain, and would consequently have been a safer place to be affiliated to, if you lived in a Christian country]