Your Turn III: Ibn Battuta

Posted by sepoy on August 10, 2005 · 15 mins read

This last, for now, entry from CM readers comes courtesy of Saurav. A genial fellow, he lives in NY and claims to have seen the ghost of Vivekananda at Columbia. Ok, I totally made that up but wouldn't that be cool? On his post today, I have to say that I taught Ross Dunn's Adventures of Ibn Battuta last Fall and it was a qualified failure. The youth of today just refused to be awed by the wanderlust of this man. I blame Dunn and myself. However, the siren call of imaginary voyages still does exist. I have never been to Macau but when I get there, it will not be a stranger to me.

When sepoy asked me to guestblog here, I was initially filled with trepidation; for what worse fate is there for a prodigal son of the study of history to write in Clioís space? Itís like a nightmare in which, you enter the archives, find what youíre looking for, sit down at a table, and find that you can no longer make sense of the characters or the words on the page. The walls close in, claustrophobia ensues, and your eyes flit desperately here and there, seeking a way, any way, to escape.

I think, though, I have stumbled upon something worthwhile. Although I am now a homebound person, I was not always like this√“at least, to this extent. At one point in my life, I had inside me the fantastical notion that upon finishing oneís (bourgeois) obligations to oneís parents to complete college, it is time to take off, vanish, flee thousands of miles away. Iím not quite sure where I got this strange idea from, but it was undoubtedly aided by a lifelong awareness that my own parents had moved 10,000 miles away from their parents shortly after their marriage, from Monsoon season in Calcutta to the perpetual dairy and beef season of Wisconsin.

At 22, other places were just ephemeral, imagined places that gave a false sense of physicality to ideas of freedom, liberation, unburdening, and escape. I find this is no longer the case. Some short voyages, some social networking connecting me to various locales around the world, and the omnipresent ìLook where I am!î e-mails from friends have all taken their toll. If I go to London, I have family and connections from now-annual trips. If I go to Guatemala, I can look up beforehand the average life expectancy, the weather, common ailments, travel warnings from the US State Department, the availability of Internet access in hostels, Spanish language class rates, and consult with about 200 friends that have done the same trip. If I go almost anywhere, there will be e-mail, a phone, and an expectation from those I left behind that I use them both.

Even at home, in-depth information on many places in the world is just a click away; the rest are multiple clicks (and seem to exist exclusively to provide news about famines, violence, or the discovery of fossil fuels, and then disappear into the news vacuum whence they came). Yet, I still know that theyíre there√“if only as a class. Cumulatively, this is what bothers me. I think I am far more likely to stumble upon and be able to immerse myself in the revitalizing sense of discovery through wikipedia than through the real world.

And so I did. While reading the collectively composed history of Timbuktu, I came across the tale of Ibn Battuta√“a fourteenth-century, Tangiers-born traveler. According to wikipediaís account of his A Donation to those interested in the Curiosities of the Cities and Marvels of the Ways, he left home at about the age of 20, evidently struck by the same wanderlust that fills the blood of many a post-adolescent boy, seeking to perform the hajj:

"I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a long-cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home. As my parents were still alive, it weighed grievously upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow."

Ibn Battuta visited Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Medina, and Mecca and points in between. But, having completed the hajj a first time, he reportedly didnít stop his journeys at Mecca. Over the course of the next several decades, he traversed almost the entirety of the Muslim World of the 14th century as well as places outside Dar al-Islam. He went on to visit: Najar; Basra, Baghdad; Tabriz; Mogadishu; Mombassa; Astrakhan; Constantinople; Bokhara; Samarkhand; Calicut; Sumatra; the Maldives; Sri Lanka; Chittagong; Vietnam; Fujian province in China; al-Andalus; Mali; and finally Timbuktu, before heading back to Morocco√“all in that order with multiple stops at several of these locations and lesser points in between.

Unsurprisingly, he accumulated some interesting stories along the way. Some were about people:

"On the fourth day after our arrival in Constantinople, the khatun sent the slave Sunbul the Indian to me, and he took my hand and led me into the palace. We passed through four gateways, each of which had archways in which were footsoldiers with their weapons, their officer being on a carpeted platform. When we reached the fifth gateway the slave Sunbul left me, and going inside returned with four Greek youths, who searched me to see that I had no knife on my person. The officer said to me: "This is a custon of theirs; every person who enters the king's presence, be he noble or private citizen, foreigner or native, must be searched." The same practice is observed also in India. After they had searched me the man in charge of the gate rose and took me by the hand and opened the gateÖ

In the midst of the hall three men were standing to whom those four men delivered me. These took hold of my garments as the others had done, and on a signal from another man led me forward. One of them was a Jew, and he said to me in Arabic "Do not be afraid; this is their custom that they use with one who enters. I am the interpreter, and I come from Syria." So I asked him how I should salute the Emperor, and he told me to say "As-salam alaykum.""

And some were about hippos:

"On reaching it I saw sixteen beasts with enormous bodies, and marvelled at them, taking them to be elephants, of which there are many in that country. Afterwards I saw that they had gone into the river, so I said to Abu Bakr, "What kind of animals are these?" He replied, "They are hippopotami which have come out to pasture ashore." They are bulkier than horses, have manes and tails, and their heads are like horses' heads, but their feet like elephants' feet. I saw these hippopotami again when we sailed down the Nile [Niger] from Tumbuktu to Gawgaw. They were swimming in the water, and lifting their heads and blowing. The men in the boat were afraid of them and kept close to the bank in case the hippopotami should sink them."

Sadly, the worlds that made such storytellers possible are all dead. Instead of knowing that, some day, I may unanticipatedly be regaled by stories, I am left to bemoan the death of the merchant of tales from lands far away. Herodotus, Ibn Battuta, and Lewis and Clark seem impossible today. Information glut has shifted our focus, changing the needs of explorers the way the camera afflicted naturalistic painting; astronomers who eventually land on Mars will be looking at rocks, not people (much less hippos).

Bear with me in this moment of imagined existence: I would like to know nothing of nowhere, to be familiar primarily with the contours of the local streets and the markets in my town, to rely on old wivesí tales because there is nothing better. I would like to be sitting here at home one day, and have my mother come and tell me, ìYouíll never believe who I met!î I would like her to introduce a strange man in strange clothing who speaks a strange tongue come who regales me with tales of foreign places that I will never go to and would never have heard about otherwise. I would like to examine, after he delicately samples our cooking and offers some of his own oddly tasting food, that strange device that he possesses, that indecipherable script he reads. I would like to wonder whether that glint in his eye was from his memories of the true adventures he had or a subtle indication that he was employing the storyteller art, without ever finding out which was the case. I want to hear stories that I cannot, but I might, but√“oh! what if they were true!√“believe.

Of course, flights of fancy frequently lead to melting wings, and this is where mine come apart. Falling back to earth and depending on what little methodological training I have, I know I am relying on next-to-no information in creating a role that likely never existed as I depict it in my mind. And even if it did, surely I romanticize the particular figures and the worlds that produced them√“Ibn Battuta and his world had their share of flaws, like reportedly allowing him to ìown slave girls√Æ√“and many features of Herodotusís world were nothing to write home about either. Let us not even bother, then, with the opening of the American West and the closing of the Amerindian peoples and the extension of slavery it allowed, for which we have angering and heartbreaking details that will kill the best of romantic delusions. Yes, I unfairly construct these traveling heroes, absolve their imperial patrons, and ignore the ravages of Black Death, the institutions that oppressed people, the absence of regular, widespread bathing. It is a vision that rests on a basis of profound antidemocratic values.
As a result, I acknowledge that given the capability to (God forbid!) make a choice in the matter, it would be beyond unethical to take away this new capability for people√“like me√“to have their own voice, and I canít deny the benefits of extending it even further; Iím sure the tsunami victims who were up on their global politics and economics would agree.

So why, then, do I do this? Why do I long for Ibn Battuta to come to my doorstep after long years of travel?

In the end, it is as a listener that I envision the role of the lone explorer, the storyteller, the fairytale maker. I have said it before and I will say it again: I am a homebody√“and a somewhat comfortable one, at that. I suspect my fantasy of an agent to examine some imagined, external cultural foreignness exists not so much for its own intrinsic value as to satisfy my own choice to settle√“for now√“for comfort, similarity, and sameness over the risks and rewards of chance. In other words, if the wandering traveler is out there, then I can be safely ensconced in here, in my AC-equipped suburban hideout, with my wifi hub and Google News. I can live the shielded life with no qualms about what I am depriving myself of√“for surely our Ibn Battuta is finding out for me and will tell me in a few decades! If I bemoan his loss, his non-existence, perhaps I can still escape the responsibility of having to undertake myself what journeys really are possible.

If explorers existed then, they surely exist now; we will just have to believe that, independent spirits that they are, some of them might be able to forge their own paths through the thicket of modern conveniences and informational glut to indulge their sense of discovery, the results of which they can share with others. Perhaps their product wonít resemble the words of the Rihlat and will instead be more like Asimovís universe of worlds. In the end, that will have to suffice; I am not quite ready to condemn the human propensity to look at, encounter, study, reenvision other human beings√“even if the incarnations of that inclination have to change in our age to meet our self-imposed burdens.

And in the meantime, while I await my storyteller, perhaps I could pay tribute to my vision of Ibn Battuta and his spiritual heirs by putting my foot past the doorway of my house once in a while, by embarking on some possibilities that I had hitherto ignored. After all, everyoneís entitled to a glint in the eye√“especially homebodies like me.


Saurav | August 10, 2005

You know I'm related to Vivekananda, right? Seven or eight generations back on my mothers side, his mother was my (male?) ancestor's sister. Our claim to fame :)

sepoy | August 10, 2005

Why else would I invoke Swami Ji?

Saurav | August 10, 2005

Oh, and thank you :)

Paul | August 17, 2005

I had quote from Ibn Batuta on maldives; link below -paul