Interview with Mohammed Hajji: Half a Century of Leo scholarship

I write from the dimm light of Professor Hajji's 5th floor office, home to the Association of Moroccan Publication- a one man, 2 assistants and a few secretaries endeavor to build a Reference library on Morocco. So far they have completed a Dictionary of Moroccan Celebrities and half of the Encyclopedia of Morocco. We sit and talk of Leo. Hajji's whitening hair and slow motions contrast with my inpatient youth and unbridled curiosity, yet somehow, we find our cruising altitude- zeroing in on the details of a life we both know so well.

Thirty years ago, Hajoui and his colleague set out to complete an arduous task: bring Leo's prose back to it' s original language. Working from a French translation of Ramusio's 1550 and 1558 editions, they gave Leo an Arabic voice, and opened his works to the Arabic speaking community. First published in the 1980s, their work remains the best Arabic translation of his text (the only other being the work of a Syrian author, published in Saudi Arabia, and "of no value" according to Hajji, who had refused that same publisher's invitation to complete the translation in three weeks- a challenge or "crime" the Syrian apparently took up!). Hajji attributes the quality of his translation to the work he did with M. Lakhdar, his colleague, whose pressure to stay as 'close to the text' as possible, complemented his more poetic inclinations. "What do you expect, Lakhdar was a professor of Latin and French"!

The Wasf Ifriquia was prefaced with a detailed biography and analysis of the pertinence of Leo's work. See Bibliography full French translation of this Preface.
I visited Professor Hajji both before and after having read and translated his biographical work on Leo. Here are extracts of our conversations:

What was Leo's Arabic Name, and what does it mean?
El Hassan ibn Mohammed el Wazzan. His first name was Hassan, his father's name must have been Mohammed and the family ancestors must have been 'weighers' at some time- official weighers of gold, a high position in the Sultan's court. You shouldn't mistake this for the town of Ouezzane- as those originary from the town are called Ouazzani.

What do we know about his family?
Without doubt Leo was from a prestigious family, as both his uncle and father worked for the Sultan of Fes. But their prestige was not equal to that of the greatest Andalusian families, whose presence was recorded in Fes. I have seen no mention of the Wazzani's name in Fassi records.

Was it unusual for such a young man to take on such important missions on account of the Fassi crown?
You must remember the important positions held by Leo's uncle and father, and the opportunities they had given Leo to work for the Sultan and be noticed by him. Surely, when his uncle died, Leo must have been called upon to replace him. You must also remember that these were troubled times for the Wattaside court [the ruling dynasty in Fes at the time] as their authority was being challenged by the Portuguese on the coast, and by the Saadians in the South [By the end of Leo's life, the Saadian dynasty would have taken over, transferring the main seat of power from Fes to Marrakech].

Was Leo a merchant? One sort of gets this impression, reading his comments on the price and quantity of goods across Morocco?
Certainly not! Leo did not have the right merchant 'savviness' Don't you recall the time when he was held hostage in a village, not allowed to leave until he had judged each and every quarrel. Upon his departure, they all paid him 'in kind'- with chickens, barley, goats etc... Had he been a good merchant he would have stayed a few extra days to sell these bulky goods. Instead he kept the light merchandise and gave the rest to his host!

Did Leo ever marry?
Highly unlikely. He would not have had the possibility, as he was too young. Once in Italy, his doubtful religious affiliations would have made it difficult for him to find a wife there. Regardless, there are no families in Moroccan who claim to descend from him.

Did Leo truly convert to Catholicism?
Yes and No. Yes, we have the written proof of his conversion. No in so far as this conversion was simply a matter of convenience, not a matter of faith. Leo remained a true Muslim.

Did Leo return to Tunis, or did he die in Italy?
I don't think Leo ever made it back to Tunis, though he probably intended to. Had he crossed over, local writers would have surely mentioned the arrival of such a great personage. I personally think he drowned on his way over.

I was once told that the people of Tunis believe his tomb to be in their main cemetery. The tombstone is said to carry the words: Hassan el Roumi. Have you ever heard of this?
No, but this is an unlikely epitaph, as Leo would never have been referred to as a "Roumi". Indeed that appellation is reserved for people whose native tongue is not Arabic.

Who are the main "Leo scholars" in the Arab World?
There is Mohammed Hajoui, the first Moroccan to write Leo's biography. There is Said Hajji, an old cousin of mine. He wrote a few articles in the 1930s. Also, Louis Massignon's thesis is in Rabat. He was a great man. There really aren't that many, and some are not very serious. I once participated in an international forum on Arab geographers in Riad (Saudi Arabia) where they asked me to hurry through my translation to present it then. I refused but they found a Syrian scholar to do the job in three months!

How did you write this biography?
My work is mostly based on Leo's actual words. As I translated his text, I carefully noted all biographical indications. I also read the works of the people cited above, and others you can see in my Bibliography.

In your Biography you mention Leo as a student of the Quaraouine (mosque and great center of learning in Fes). Though Leo describes his studies in Fes, he does not mention this. What makes you think he studied there?
Leo makes references to events, books, people, general things that would have only been known to a student of the Quaraouine. Moreover, during his voyages he often stayed with Qadis, or doctors of the law, a privilege that would have only been awarded to a Qadi himself.

Who was Mohammed Hajoui, the author of Leo's first biography in Arabic?
[He pulls out his Dictionary of Famous Moroccan People]
Mohammed Hajoui was the son of a tremendously prestigious Faqi, the equivalent of the Minister of Justice. Mohammed himself held important functions, and was governor of Oujda for seventeen years. During the Protectorate, he took the wrong side ( the French side!), though he remained Governor after Independence in 1956. He was nearly murdered, outside a mosque. In his old age, he returned to Fes, his birthplace.

Is Leo Africanus in that dictionary?
[He takes a few moments, searching both for "Africanus" and "Hassan El Wazzan].
No. [Uncomfortable silence]

I am not too sure why Hajji did not include Leo in his Dictionary. Perhaps it is because Leo isn't really famous here or perhaps because he wasn't really Moroccan. To tell the truth, I did not dare ask. It can't possibly be out of lack of passion, or ignorance. The aging Hajji, beyond the handicap of his 80 or so years, still shines with all the curiosity and scholarly dedication of the young researcher. So perhaps it boils down to religion... In a later interview with Dr. Loubna Skalli, a professor of Communications and English at the University of Kenitra, I asked her about Leo's relative unpopularity- amongst her many explanations I heard a new one: "there's something about his wishy-washiness with respect to religion. In Morocco, either you are a Muslim or you are not."