Saturday, 29 December 2012

Mackintosh-Smith: Landfalls

Tim Mackintosh-Smith (2010) Landfalls, On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battutah illustrations by Martin Yeoman; JohnMurray, London; 384 pp.; ISBN 978-0-7195-6787-2

Ibn Battutah was born in Tangier in 1304. As a young man he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and ended up travelling for the next twenty-nine years, across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, over the lands of the Indian Ocean to China. It was an extraordinary journey and we mainly know of it because he recorded his voyages in a long manuscript, copies of which still survive. Perhaps ‘extraordinary’ is not the right word. We often assume pre-modern people lived in settled communities with little in the way of international links, and that even hunter gatherers foraged over familiar terrains. But in fact humans travelled enormous distances to colonise the globe and wanderlust seems ingrained in our nature. David Lewis in The Voyaging Stars (1978) described how over 2,000 years ago sailors crossed the Pacific Ocean and settled remote islands, then maintained trade and cultural links over vast distances using their intimate knowledge of the sea and stars. Ibn Battutah was following in the footsteps of many a Muslim trader, so in some ways his wanderings were not uncommon at all. It was his purpose – to wonder at the full extent of the Muslim world rather than to trade – which was extraordinary for the time.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has devoted a good deal of his life to the study of Ibn Battutah and his writings. In Travels with a Tangerine (2002) he followed him over North Africa, the Middle East and into Eurasia, then in The Hall of a Thousand Columns (2005) traced Ibn Battutah’s visit to India. Landfalls begins on the island of Kilwa Kiswani in Tanzania which was once a major trading post but is now a sleepy tropical backwater. He also visits Zanzibar, until the middle of the twentieth century an important mercantile centre, though insignificant when Ibn Battutah passed here in the fourteenth century. Time mocks all aspirations to greatness.

Ibn Battutah followed established routes across the Indian Ocean. Mackintosh-Smith shadows him to the Maldives where he notes how Islam overlays an older Tantric Buddhist religion and where ghosts and demons are still very real, even as people text furiously on their mobile phones. In Sri Lanka, he traces Ibn Battutah’s visit to Adam’s Peak, a sacred spot for Hindus, Buddhists and Christians as well as Muslims. Then he heads to China, visiting the cities of Quanzhou, Guangzhou and Hangzhou where descendants of early Muslim traders as well as modern-day ones can be found. In some ways Islam forms a circle here, the sea traders coming from Arabia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent and the land trading Uighurs travelling overland from the western deserts.

If we think of Ibn Battutah’s travels in terms of countries they appear diverse, but if we look at them from the sea, as merchants would have done, it coalesces into a whole that makes sense. In The Sea Kingdoms (2008), Alistair Moffatt showed how the Celtic ‘fringe’ areas of Britain and France appear as an integrated domain when viewed from the seas ploughed by early missionaries and traders. I got a sense here that this is how Ibn Battutah and Muslim traders viewed the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea: this was their watery home and the landfalls markers on its periphery.

In the second part of the book Mackintosh-Smith tries to track Ibn Battutah in west Africa. Modern borders make this more difficult as he ranges over Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Guinea. In the fourteenth century the empire of Mali was very rich and traded in gold, ivory and slaves. The Sahara was criss-crossed by trade routes linking the north and south, not the barrier we perceive today. Mackintosh-Smith goes in search of an elusive musical instrument mentioned by Ibn Battutah and meets with some (frustratingly) silent sages.

Mackintosh-Smith ends his journey in the Andalusia region of Spain, where Granada was the last sultanate to fall to Christendom. It was already under threat when Ibn Battutah arrived but it was here that he met his future editor and conceived the idea of recording his long travels. It was also here that he met his first critic. Some patterns in life never change.

Following Ibn Battutah is not always easy. He travelled many centuries ago and his descriptions were largely from memory so the details are not always reliable. You can understand why Mackintosh-Smith gets excited when pieces of the jigsaw fall into place.

In Travels with a Tangerine both Ibn Battutah and Tim Mackintosh-Smith came across as scholarly and aloof. Little of either man’s character was evident. In The Hall of a Thousand Columns Mackintosh-Smith became more open about his thoughts and reactions, and more interesting as a result, even if Ibn Battutah remained elusive. In this book, both men appear to us as more rounded characters. Ibn Battutah often worked as a judge and he was harsh. He was also a keen guardian of his personal status and took on (and shook off) wives and concubines with gay abandon. He was robbed and shipwrecked, losing almost all of his possessions, but persisted in his curiosity about the world. Mackintosh-Smith shows a similarly formidable persistence in tracing Ibn Battutah’s life and in presenting the results in his well-written and accessible books. He comes across as ecumenical and tolerant, in contrast to some of the fundamentalists he meets along the way. Mackintosh-Smith is a long-time student of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture and lives in Yemen. His rich understanding of what he observes shines on every page.

In Andalusia, Ibn Battutah decided it was finally time to go home, and he died in what is now Morocco in 1368 or 1369. In the final pages of this book you also get the sense that Tim Mackintosh-Smith is pondering where ‘home’ might be and whether his wide-ranging travels and obsession with Ibn Battutah have all been worth it.

The book has illustrations by Martin Yeoman who is often Mackintosh-Smith’s travelling companion and who has illustrated his earlier books. Yeoman understands what fascinates Mackintosh-Smith and conveys this in his evocative sketches.

It is not clear if Mackintosh-Smith will write more about Ibn Battutah. Certainly he has not exhausted all the places where his subject travelled, either around the Mediterranean or in more exotic locations like the Cham empire in south-east Asia, but the latter part of the book does suggest some soul searching is in progress. Even if Mackintosh-Smith writes no more about this medieval wanderer, his books to date will leave an enviable and treasured legacy.

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