Ibn battutah has a claim to be the greatest traveler of the premechanical age. In 1325, aged 21, he left modern-day Morocco. Some 29 years later-having journeyed 120,000 km as far north as the Volga, as far east as China and as far south as Tanzania-Battutah returned home to become a judge and dictate his spellbinding story. The volumes that resulted-The Marvels of Metropolises and the Wonders of Wandering (known as Travels)-are little read in the English-speaking world. But in a brilliant, erudite and entertaining literary coup, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British student of Arabic who has lived in San'a, Yemen for the past 17 years, tracked down the remains of Battutah's world-not just the buildings and monuments, but the smells, sounds and people. The result is Travels with a Tangerine (John Murray; 340 pages).
Mackintosh-Smith, 39, is a worthy eccentric successor to Battutah. In the course of a year spent meandering from Morocco to Egypt, Syria to Oman and Anatolia to the Crimea for the first installment of what he promises is a multi-volume narrative, Mackintosh-Smith lives, eats and talks Battutah. The author's research takes him from the HotBot Internet search engine to the back streets of Cairo. In Damascus he dips into the Bath of Sultan Nur-al-Din, as Battutah did, and notes that Strauss waltzes are now played to soothe the bathers. A transvestite propositions him in the Crimea. He explores aphrodisiacs in some detail, wears a thick double-breasted British jacket in the heat of Luxor, devotes an entire day to binge eating in Damietta (as did Battutah) and even unearths a 12th century Arabic remedy for an itchy anus. Throughout, he sees far more than the landscape. "Walking back along the Corniche, I reflected that the physical Alexandria of today would be all but unrecognisable to IB," he writes. "But the intangible city-the one built on devotion to saints, holy pledges and belief in miracles-was in remarkably good shape. To travel with IB I would have, in effect, to keep my third eye peeled."
Delightfully old-fashioned and courteous, Mackintosh-Smith has a gift for the arresting phrase and the vivid metaphor. "I have not yet admitted to my Muslim friends that I forked my father's ashes into a Lincoln-shire flower bed," he writes at one point. At another he remarks that Battutah's itinerary was "as irrational as that of a New Zealand backpacker." In Alexandria he notes that anti-Western militants have a 700-year-long history, though at least "bisection seems to have been abandoned" in contemporary Egypt.
"Perhaps I was becoming obsessive, seeing 14th century profiles everywhere," he admits toward the end of his epic journey. "Over supper I realized that my close focus could also be seen as tunnel vision." Happily, it is this commitment that turns Battutah's world into a living reality for modern readers. In Cairo, Mackintosh-Smith chances on an antiquarian book shop and reflects that it should disabuse any writer with dreams of immortality. Travels with a Tangerine is a splendid work that should stand the test of time-like Ibn Battutah's Travels.