Mustafa al-Zemmouri, or Mustafa from Azemmour, is thought to be the first Arabic-speaking person to land in the so-called New World. Not much is known about him even though according to Moroccan-American professor Laila Lalami, more people have come to know of the man’s voyage since she wrote a fictional memoir for Mustafa in 2014.
Mustafa was born and raised in 15th-century Azemmour, now a modern coastal Moroccan city. At this time which was a few centuries after the Moors had conquered Spain, the Wattasid dynasty, a ruling house of Berber descent, was in charge of the space we would now call Morocco. To the Mediterranean Europeans, all the peoples in North Africa could be described as Moors.
What ‘Moor’ stood for widened over time so that between the 6th and 15th century, both the peoples of the former Roman colony of Mauretania and Middle Easterners, including Arabs, were called Moors by the Europeans of the Mediterranean. By the beginning of the 15th century – for specificity, by 1492 when the Moorish stronghold of Granada fell in the Reconquista – the Europeans were referring to Arabs as Moors.
The balance of power was affected when the Spanish reasserted control over their homeland. They did not only look to defend their homeland after this period but also set their sights on the neighbors across the sea to the south. How Zemmouri became a slave of Spain is not known for sure, however, the reigning theory holds that Azemmour faced economic hardships during the early 1500s. This economic malaise forced a change in the identities of some people – a free man such Mustafa became enslaved.
Under such an agreement, a person could be sold into servitude against their will. This is not the same as chattel slavery, which was the case with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Yet, the identity-losing aspect of enslavement was about the same. Under Spanish law, the expeditions to the Americas could not include Muslims and Jews. As such, Mustafa would be forced to let go of his faith – Islam – as well as his name. He was from that point known and called Estevanico or Little Stephen, a Christian. Estevanico is what many researchers continue to call Mustafa.
“It [Estevanico the Christian] isn’t how he would have felt about himself, obviously, but that is how the world would have treated him. And it is a status he would have been confronted with on a daily basis and he would have had to find ways to cope with it,” Lalami said in an interview. There is also a consequent belief that although he was enslaved by the Spanish, he was not one while the Spanish interacted with natives of the New World.
Mustafa and a few members of his crew survived a shipwreck on their way from Cuba – then Hispaniola – to Florida where they intended to colonize the lands of the Native Americans. Mustafa was recognized for his ability to translate any speech by the Spaniards to the locals, perhaps through signs. He continued to retain his ability to speak Arabic.
Together with Spaniards. Mustafa helped to colonize parts of southwestern United States in the name of Spain. This incidental place in the scheme of things highlights the metamorphosis of his identities – free man, slave and then colonizer.
He is thought to have been killed in the 1530s by some of the native populations whose descendants continue to recognize Mustafa as one of the colonizers. In El Paso, Texas, a statue stands in his memory.