Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battuta, Tim Mackintosh-Smith (with illustrations by Martin Yeoman), John Murray, 370pp, £25 (hardback)
‘My whole travelling life with IB had been an attempt to pick up the vibrations of his age; to echo-sound the centuries,’ writes Mackintosh- Smith. The fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta (full name, Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah Ibn Battutah al- Lawati al-Tanji), whom the author refers to affectionately as IB throughout this narrative of his own travels, crossed a very different, rich Islamic landscape. Born in 1304 in Tangiers, he left home to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325, not to return for another twenty-nine years. His journey funded by royal benefactors, Ibn Battuta traversed borderless continents and encountered holy wanderers, ascetics and mesmerists.
The book’s acknowledgments open with an admission of inadequacy: ‘[the author] has spent less than a year altogether [in seven countries]. He does not speak Kiswahili, Dhivehi, Sinhala, Tamil, Chinese, Bambara or Spanish.’ Added to this are the notable omissions and errors in Ibn Battuta’s text that lead the author to ponder wryly ‘how IB could have made such an almighty cock-up of parts of his China chapter.’ The confusions and indignities that are the daily reality of travel in a foreign land are brilliantly captured by Mackintosh-Smith in – sometimes over-written – descriptions of places and people. Careful not to neglect any architectural wonders himself, the author takes his cue from a subject who ‘went to Granada and missed the Alhambra’, but chronicled local manners in detail and included such minutiae as the time the great traveller squatted by the river in the then Malian capital to ‘fulfil a need’, narrowly escaping being eaten by a lurking crocodile.
This concluding volume of a three-part series in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, is also a record of what does not remain of that age, and of the habitats and lifestyles that have taken its place, however apparently crass and inauthentic. In twenty-first-century Guangzhou, China, the author tries to trace the cave of the hermit, described in Ibn Battuta’s Travels¹ as ‘a venerable shaykh … who was more than two hundred years old’. In the public park of White Cloud Mountain, Mackintosh-Smith finds ‘exactly the sort of place where IB’s hermit would have lived’, but later on he encounters the park manager, Mr. Wei Wei, who ‘does his best to demolish once and for all the carefully-built structure of my faith. “The cave of the Melting Rock”, he said with the sort of smile you might put on to admit to a child the terrible truth about Father Christmas, is recent and artificial.’ Mackintosh-Smith is rarely discouraged, however, and in this instance he settles on ‘the only possible explanation’, that it is the original cave, only beautified.
Mackintosh-Smith has transformed what for the historian would be disappointment into delight at the incongruities brought by such a long passage of time, only rarely adopting a mournful tone at what has been lost: In Gibraltar, once the site of ‘Dar al-Sina’ah’ or ‘house of manufacture’ as mentioned in Ibn Battutah’s Travels, the author finds that ‘[a]nything that might have linked me at all intimately to IB’s visit was utterly destroyed or irretrievably buried. From all the years of Arab rule, not a single inscription remained.’
Mackintosh-Smith’s gentle mocking of his subject allows for some unsettling comparisons between fourteenth-century and contemporary mores. With special (sexual) services on offer in the Chinese hotel that the author and the book’s illustrator lodge in, he recalls how Ibn Batuttah took advantage of Islamic laws of the time, according to which ‘to buy a slavegirl for sex is perfectly permissible, to pay a girl for sex is depraved’. Aside from sarcastic commentary, no judgement is proffered on such exploitative practices or, in other contexts, on potentially dangerous political ideologies. Perhaps the book’s witty, self-deprecating tone precludes the possibility of registering real concern and pathos and readers must satisfy themselves with his many droll observations: ‘so far the point of Mauritania seemed to be highway robbery in uniform’, and in the Maldives, ‘fandita [pre-Islamic black magic] hardly seemed to be the wicked anti-Islamic heresy the imam of Kinolhas has implied it to be, any more than Christmas crackers were a threat to Christianity’. The effect can feel tediously whimsical at times.
Mackintosh-Smith’s easy erudition is a delight for the reader, however. There is no doubt that as a fluent Arabic speaker, long-term resident of Yemen and passionate pursuer of Ibn Batuttah, he offers much insightful commentary on Muslim cultures and Arab scholarship of the time. At his best, the author also conveys the exhilarating pleasure of being a stranger experiencing other people’s mundanities and messes, where the smells of a market in ‘eclectic, relic-strewn’ Dar es Salaam, Tanzania are vividly evoked: ‘smoked fish, in various stages of arrested decay, combined with the scents of dust and garlic, chicken-shit and porter-sweat, a soupcon of sewer and a thousand other substances.’
A journey that zigzags across time and space does not easily lend itself to a ‘climactic conclusion’, in spite of the book’s promotional blurb. Mackintosh-Smith casts around for meaningful endings, almost-endings and ironies: ‘It isn’t the end of course. As long as people read, and travel, and write, as long as readers take to the road then go home – whatever it is that home has become – to tell their stories, the journey never ends. It is both circular and linear’, and so on. There is no need for such strained truisms. Even where Ibn Battutah’s wanderings across the globe ‘are rich with wayside detail’, as with the author’s trek up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka out of season, their precise bearings are less clear. The image of the writer stuck halfway up a mountain in the sweltering heat and completely lost is a more self-evidently compelling symbol of what this journey can mean to the writer and to the reader alike: passionately following in the footsteps of an elusive hero from another age is a brilliant folly.
1 The book’s full title is The Precious Gift for Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel