From firstname.lastname@example.org Mon Aug 11 10:00:15
From: Le Monde diplomatique <email@example.com>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Rough guide to another world
Date: Mon, 11 Aug 2003 14:34:34 +0200 (CEST)
ON THURSDAY 13 June in the year 1325, Ibn Battutah, a 21-year-old from a family of lawyers of Berber descent, packed his camelhide bags, said an emotional goodbye to his parents, and set off from his home city of Tangier, near the western edge of the world of Islam, to fulfil the Muslim duty to make the Haj to Mecca. From all that we know of him, and we know an amazing amount, he was a very modern figure: a well-educated economic migrant, a serial husband, a networker, something of a gourmet, and a snob.
As the leading scholar of Ibn Battutah's life, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, points out, he had highly-saleable academic credentials in Islamic jurisprudence (1), and did postgraduate studies en route to upgrade them; out along Islam's furthest trade routes and in its development zones, these secured him employment, as a diploma in teaching English as a second language might do now. He had a strong sense of belonging that was based both on faith and the values of pan-Islamic civilisation, and wherever holy Friday was properly observed he felt secure, as Englishmen used to do when offered a cup of tea upon boarding a British Airways plane. He had youthful spiritual yearnings too and respected the devout of many religions; tenderly described his encounter with a great Byzantine personage turned Orthodox monk and recalled that cities which had faced the Black Death with their citizens, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, carrying their sacred books in procession, had averted the worst bills of mortality. On his first outward leg, he acted on the revelations of charismatic gurus he sought out, who told him perhaps divining in him a restlessness that a single pilgrimage could never satisfy—that it was his destiny to travel.
Which it certainly was. Although he had a miserable time getting as far as Tunis (feverish and rain-sodden, he had to sell his surplus gear and learn to caravan) he stayed on the road for 120,000km and the next 29 years, albeit that sometimes he sojourned a while and set up what proved to be sequential households; he had had two marriages and a divorce before he even reached Alexandria, and left wives and children behind across continents. He is remembered still in the ancient mosque that survives in the Chinese city of Quanzhou, which was then the multicultural port of Zaitun, with its fleets of huge merchant junks whose liner-suite-style accommodation, with private loos, he enjoyed. He reached east of Sumatra, south of Mombasa and far north of Astrakhan, recording the Turks' preferred transport across their flat grasslands—their never-stopping trans-steppe express trains of ox, camel and horse-drawn wagons, felt-tented and softened within by rugs and, in Ibn Battuta's conveyance, one of the many slave-girls he collected. He was curious about the sexuality of other cultures, although his views about the correct behaviour for women within his own rigidified as he aged: an elsewhere of which he disapproved he defined by its exotic sexual skills, sloppy hygiene, gross food, and insufficient attention paid to his special status. At times he sounded surprisingly like a Western tourist, aroused from diarrhoea and petulance at the mozzies and bad service only by the thought of the white-skinned local beauties fattened up on creamy porridge.
We can hear Ibn Battutah's tone still because, after he returned home to fade as a provincial lawyer, he dictated, at the request of the Sultan of Morocco, an account of his wanderings which was then edited by a pushy young writer, Ibn Juzayy. Mackintosh-Smith's recent one-volume abridgement of the huge tome—he reluctantly jettisoned three-fifths of the compilation—did keep all those parts of the narrative in which Ibn Battutah's own voice was most present. The complete work had long been consulted as a major, sometimes the sole, reference source for the societies Ibn Battutah observed (he was an eye-witness of oil-of-sesame-fuelled suttee in Hindu India, tasted vinegar-pickled unripe mangoes in Mogadishu, and explained China's paper-cash economy): now the abridgement makes it easy to read his masterpiece as a memoir. In fact, almost as an autobiography.
As he recollected his early grand tour of the scholarly sites of the
Near East, we can hear his novice voice, annoyed when jackals tore
open his pack and scattered his date rations, allured by the sensuous
women of Mecca who spent so much on perfume that the sanctuary was
saturated with their scents, and always seeking an advantageous
I did not see there anyone whom I should wish to
mention, he sniffed of a town of mediocrities). He checked things
out, as lads carrying Rough Guides in their backpacks still do: did
the shaking minaret of Basra really shiver when he grasped its finials
in his hands? It did. Orchards and fruit delighted him, and
sweetmeats, too, especially the almond-stuffed apricots of Syria: one
of his entourage was a Yemeni confectioner who seems to have
specialised in marzipan. And he felt a young man's disappointment
that Baghdad (as legendary to him as the abode of caliphs as it is to
us from the 1001 Nights) never recovered from the Mongol invasion,
although he was impressed by its public bathhouses, decorated with
black pitch and white gypsum plaster, with running hot water in every
cubicle and three clean towels for each patron.
Several years (and a circuit of Russia) later, in Afghanistan, he
changed to his middle-passage tone. Perhaps it came upon him after he
saw Balkh, mother of all cities, devastated a generation or two before
Tankiz—Genghis Khan—seemingly substantial (as it
still is, its adobe walls like muddy cliffs), but hollowed at the
core. Or maybe when crossing the Hindu Kush, where he was so sunburned
at snowy altitude that the skin peeled from his face. Thereafter, he
seems to have faced fortune and misfortune with equanimity, as if,
though they imperilled his body and income, they no longer threatened
His changes of fortune were extreme. There was a voyage-of-Sindbad quality to Ibn Battutah's life in India and its oceans: not that he fabulated—most inauthenticities in the text were interpolated by Ibn Jazayy, adorning pages with borrowings for a smoother literary effect—but he walked, or rode, or sailed, first into success and then disasters. Accustomed to the hospitality of Islam, to being feasted and lapped in robes of honour when his luck was in, he arrived in Delhi, where the Sultan appointed him a judge with a Bollywood star's income, even though he had confessed he lacked the language qualifications for the job. According to Ibn Battutah's candid evaluation of his employer, the Sultan was an arbitrary despot addicted to death, so he was unfazed when the Sultan's whim disfavoured him, and he dropped out for a while, as a possessionless ascetic devoted to a saint. After which, to borrow a suitable phrase from Scheherazade, he was restored to the Sultan's good graces and dispatched on a mission to China, accompanying tribute gifts*#8212;all listed in the text: Ibn Battutah never stinted on an inventory of gold and pearls.
At that point, when he would have been in his 30s, his final voice
emerged. Mackintosh-Smith believes that Ibn Jazzay abbreviated the
itinerary of the last decade or so, perhaps inspired by Ibn
Battutah's own changed attitude. High expectations departed from
his narration: he settled for accepting the weird and mundane alike,
probably as a result of a roster of losses. That Indian embassy to
China first came to grief in a clash with dacoits en route to the
port: long after, when he dictated the story of his capture, he
stressed the fear and surreality of his near-execution and solo
I was watching them all the time and saying to myself it is
with this rope that they will bind me when they kill me, he
explained in a convincing survivor's statement, adding that when
he crept through a hole in a giant storage jar to hide, a bird
fluttered its wings above him all night—
I suppose it was
frightened, so we made a pair of frightened creatures.
Worse befell, for the ship on which the Sultan's treasure was bound for China was wrecked in a squall off Calicut, and all aboard died, Ibn Battutah only being left alive because he stayed ashore for Friday prayers; while another vessel with his own goods and slaves sailed on, leaving him bereft, with just 10 dinars and a carpet. He regained his temporal estate only temporarily before it was scattered forever in Hindu-Muslim clashes, and then improvised his way east, at one time a judge on the Maldives with a plurality of wives, another time abandoned on a hostile shore of the coast of Coromandel, stripped to his pants, his shirt, savings and souvenirs all stolen.
The marauders seem to have taken his worldly ambitions too, and perhaps his curiosity, for when he reached China at last, by way of south-east Asia, he was travelsick; noting without the old enthusiasm occasional details of daily life that he had previously revelled in, sulking in his lodgings overwhelmed by what we would call culture shock, and homesick when he met a fellow-countryman or caught a Persian song on the canal pleasure boats. Although he returned home by way of a dry desert crossing to Timbuktu and a risky excursion in what remained of Moorish Spain, his heart was no longer light; the seven or so years of his westward trip were reduced to a handful of abrupt snaps. The awful calabash of curdled milk that was a gift of welcome in Mali! The hunting of big-foot hippos on the Nile!
In the end, after a final chill in the snow crossing the Atlas mountains (which must have been a powerful persuasion to settle, since he said he had never been colder, not even in central Asia) he dwindled into immobility in Fez. From his time of sitting still, he left us this fabulous account of both the width of his world and the depth of himself.