“Travels with a Tangerine” A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah (Book Review) [Archives:2001/39/Culture]
Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who has made the Yemeni capital his home during the past seventeen years, first encountered Ibn Battutah in the Greater Yemen bookshop in Sana’a.
“I wasn’t looking for him: it was a chance encounter – better, as the saying goes, than a thousand appointments”. This chance encounter prompted a journey which followed in Battutah’s footsteps.
Ibn Battutah, the greatest traveller of the pre-mechanical age, set out in 1325 from his native Tangier on the pilgrimage to Mecca. By the time he returned twenty-nine years later, he had visited most of the known world, travelling three times the distance Marco Polo allegedly covered. Spiritual backpacker, tireless social climber, temporary hermit and failed ambassador, he braved brigands and his own prejudices. The outcome was a monumental book on The Wonders of Wandering and the Marvels of Metropolises – in short, The Travels.
Captivated by this inquisitive, indefatigable man, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, in the tradition of earlier Arab authors, set out to write a dhyal to his book – a ‘tail’, or continuation of the original train of writing. Travels with a Tangerine follows the first stage of the Moroccan’s eccentric journey, from Tangier to Constantinople. Destinations include an Assasin castle in Syria, the Kuria Muria Islands in the Arabian Sea and some of the greatest cities of medieval Islam. Mackintosh-Smith travels both in Ibn Battutah’s footsteps and in the footnotes of his text, rooting out memorabilia of the man and his age – buffalo-milk puddings, a crimean minaret, dancing dervishes and the scions of defunct
In the hotel Ibn Battutah in Tangier, Mackintosh-Smith was confronted with a photo of Battutah in the telephone longue and protested that it is photograph.
“Yes. A very old photograph”.
“And he is smoking a water-pipe”.
“Ah, IB knew that water-pipes are healthier than cigarettes”.
“But tobacco came from America and photography was only invented a hundred and fifty years ago”.
“IB”, said the receptionist, with unanswerable finality, ” was a very great traveller”.
Not having done too well with the photograph, Mackintosh-Smith wondered if the hotel’s restaurant did a pizza IB: the dough would be made from Luristan acorn flour: Dalmietta buffalo cheese would take the place of mozarella: it would be topped by flakes of South Arabian dried shark and coarse-ground Malabar pepper and presented on a platter of Omani banana leaves. But the chef had not risen to the challenge!.
After his initial disappointments, Mackintosh-Smith made it to Ibn Battutah’s tomb: the interior walls were painted pink and decorated with a silver arabesque frieze. Qur’ans rested on the shelves, and around the walls hung strings of giant prayer beads. The tomb itself was covered in an embroidered black pall sheathed in transparent plastic, like upholstery of a brand-new car”.
Ibn Battutah was part of a long tradition of Maghrebi travel writers who probably read Ibn Jubayr before leaving Tangier at the age of 21. Mackintosh-Smith speculates that one passage would probably have stuck in his mind: “If you are a son of this Maghreb of ours and wish for success, then head for the land of the east. Forsake your homeland in pursuit of knowledge… The door to the east lies open: O you who strive after learning, enter it with a glad greeting! Seize the chance of freedom from the cares of the world before family and children ensnare you, before the day comes when you gnash your teeth in regret for the time that is gone”.
Egypt, Alexandria, to be exact, was the next stop. “Six hundred and seventy-one years, five months and three days after IB, I walked along Lotetree Gate Street, by which travellers from the Maghreb entered Alexandria”, Mackintosh-Smith recalls. “She is a unique pearl of growing opalescence, a secluded maiden, arrayed in her bridal adornments, glorious in her surpassing beauty”.
IB, or more likely his editor, was nothing is not flattering. Alexandria was, even then, of a certain age. Now she is a very old lady, indeed, an empress exiled to a tenement who hardly dares to recall the days when Mark Anthony came to dinner”.
In Cairo it was the time of the Mawlid, or festival of al-Husayn, commemorating the Prophet’s grandson, killed in 681 at Kerbala, in Iraq. The body of the greatest Islamic martyr stayed where it was: his head, however, worked its way westward with long stopovers in Damascus and Ascalon, until it arrived in Cairo.
There are also philosophical discussions including those about a certain king of the Caucasus mentioned by the geographer Ibn Rustah. He prayed on Fridays with the Muslims, on Saturdays with the Jews and on Sundays with the Christians. “Since each religion claims that it is the only true one and that the others are invalid”, the king explained, “I have decided to hedge my bets”. The farmer laughed. “I suppose it’s alright if you’ re a king and don’t have to work. But what about the rest of us.
We can’t afford to spend half the week praying”.
After debating the merits of orthodox religions Mackintosh-Smith moves to the world of the supernatural and in Dofar visits Khawr Ruri, the spooky lagoon where witches park their hyenas. He then leaves the Arabophone world and moves on to Turkey. “Mediterranean Turkey was doubly foreign. I seemed to have entered one where they spoke an entirely different cultural language – a sort of Euro-Teutonic. Most of the tourists in Alanya were Germans but even some Turkish visitors affected rimless spectacles and gemutlich lapdogs. Sauerkraut was served with everything; every other building seemed to be a disco. One night club, the Whiskey Go Go, offered ‘Sex on the
Beach’. To be fair, it was not an activity but a pop group; but it seemed to sum up the ineffable crassitude of the place. Where was the Alanya of IB? Gone.”
Feeling lost, linguistically, culturally and temporally an encounter with Israelis who were born to Yemeni parents was most welcome. It took place in a hotel restaurant when Mackintosh-Smith used the Arabic of Sana’a (Ya Izzay!) to summon the waiter and two men on the next table turned and stared at him as if he was the risen Lazarus.
The Israelis had been born in Tel Aviv to Yemeni parents: Yirham’s came from a town towards Aden, Reuben’s from a village near Sana’a.
“When my great-grandmother died”, said Yirham, ” she was a hundred and five. And her last words were, “I want to go back to Yemen.”
“We’re always saying that”, Reuben added. “Life isn’t easy. We Orientals don’t get on with the Shiknaz, the Ashkenazis. And Tel Aviv is all rush. A hundred times worse than London. Yemen, we remember something unhurried. All that sitting around, telling stories, chewing qat. Reuben excused himself. He returned with a damp towel. “Israeli qat”, he announced.
The next stop was Crimea and a determination to find IB’s church. The only possible candidate was the eleventh-century St John the Baptist, where Battutah found ” on one of the walls the figure of an Arab man wearing a turban, girt with a sword, and carrying a spear in his hand”.
Constantinople was the last stop. Another interesting character, Jamal, with a passion for kung fu, appeared. He explained how he was in prison in Algeria and tortured because he was a Muslim, with a beard. Now he was a Muslim without a beard.
“If I get to Belgrade, I’ll cross from there to Italy and from Italy to France, inshaallah. I’ve got a diploma in animal health and I want to carry on studying, get a degree”.
“He had successfully repackaged himself”, Mackintosh-Smith observed. “That, I suppose, was what it was all about: repackaging. You have a beard, you get tortured: you have an Algerian passport, you only get a return [ticket to a European country]. Rules of the ancients!”.
There are no ghosts in Islam: but sometimes, as the great Islamic scholar al-Jaziz said, “a book can huant you like a shadow” – even 650 years after it was written. Mackintosh-Smith was a victim of this haunting and has made a significant contribution to travel literature: Travels a Tangerine not only describes but seeks to understand and interpret.