Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011

A Voyager for the Ages

In China, Ibn Battuta writes, he heard once of a cave-dwelling man, more than 200 years old, who never ate, never drank and never spoke. Upon seeking him out, the intrepid Moroccan traveler watched the sage seize his hand, smell it, then pronounce, "This man is just as much attached to this world as we are to the next." With that, the aged ascetic — apparently breaking his vow of silence — also told his visitor that they had met before and then stepped into his cave, never to appear again.

A pious, well-trained magistrate, Ibn Battuta reported this puzzling encounter to a local judge and heard of a businessman who had previously visited the sage, imagined himself in a large palace before a crowned sheik, seen what looked to be "fruits falling into streams" and, having eaten of these hallucinated fruits, was sick for many months.

There, perhaps, you have Ibn Battuta in miniature: an engaging mix of mystery and precision, throwing together matter-of-fact accounts of signs and wonders with savory details of life as it was. The reason we still read him more than 650 years after his travels concluded is that his attitudes, travails and writerly gambits are startlingly similar to those we might meet or deploy today yet are flavored with his incorrigible personality and details of a world nobody evoked quite as he did.

Ibn Battuta set out from his native Tangier in 1325 as a devout Sufi pilgrim and something of a religious anthropologist, eager to record the sacred sites, saints and small fables of pride and devotion he discovered along the way to Mecca. But having completed the hajj in a year and a half, he kept traveling for 28 more years. As with the very best travelers, he seems to have begun by taking a journey — and then found that the journey had taken him over. The result was not just the Muslim Pilgrim's Progress he had intended but a global anthology of marvels. Ibn Battuta spoke for a kind of archetype we still see everywhere even in the age of MapQuest.

The Rihla, or travel book, was a common form in the North Africa of his day, commissioned by sultans to give readers back home a sense of the great intercontinental network of Islamic fellowship and prayer. Ibn Battuta was doing nothing very unusual when he set out from his family of legal scholars — not unlike the wellborn and well-connected Englishmen of four centuries later who embarked on a grand tour to visit such centers of learning and culture as Paris and Florence and Venice. (Though Ibn Battuta went to Damascus and Cairo and Medina.) Wherever he traveled in the Dar al-Islam, he ran into other learned jurists like himself, who offered him shelter and hospitality, gave him slave girls and commissions and sometimes set him up with traveling partners.

Yet even as he moved in high style, the fact that he kept on — and on — traveling, well beyond his original itinerary, ensured that his adventures were often uncannily close to those of many an every tourist of today: he caught malaria, he found his guides turning treacherous, and at one point he saw the Chinese junk that he was due to board go down at sea while another vessel, transporting his servants and his concubines (one of whom was carrying an unborn child of his), sailed off toward an unknown port. We see him set upon by bandits, hiding in a ditch to avoid attackers, passing through a Cairo in which 21,000 people every day are dying of the plague.

Strange New World
So the man who begins his account presented as a figure of "courage, religious confidence and indefatigable perseverance," recording the wisdom of saints — one clairvoyantly tells him to look up colleagues in faraway India and China, and lo and behold, the young traveler ends up doing so — goes on to offer wide-eyed descriptions of places that to many of his readers must have seemed as remote as the moon. He writes of a magician who "assumed the form of a cube and arose from the earth" and of women who could kill men with a glance; he tells of seeing a man cut off his own head as a sign of devotion to his ruler and of a palace constructed so as to collapse on anyone who enters as soon as an elephant comes in contact with it. Assembling a kind of Thousand and One Nights in reverse, Ibn Battuta was like a thousand travelers today who eagerly inform us that getting lost proved more fruitful than finding their hoped-for destination.

The other thing that marks him out is the way he cannot fail to remake every place he sees (as many a defining traveler does) in the light of his own beliefs and opinions. When affronted by the sound of Catholic bells in Crimea, he runs up to the top of a minaret and begins chanting from the Koran. Taking a job as a magistrate in the Maldives, he institutes a system whereby men who fail to attend Friday prayers are "whipped and publicly disgraced." In Mali a Sultan declines to give him enough presents, and Ibn Battuta threatens him with bad reviews. (The Sultan promptly gives him a house.) In Delhi, when condemned to seeming death, he tells us that he recites a prayer 33,000 times and somehow survives.

As Ross Dunn and other scholars have pointed out, some of Ibn Battuta's passages (and he's not alone in this) are taken verbatim from earlier Islamic travelers' accounts; his descriptions of the Pyramids, say, are so vague that (as with Marco Polo) it seems likely that he never saw them or some of the other places he describes. His chronology in many places makes no sense at all, and in dictating his book after his return to Morocco, apparently without notes, to a young Andalusian scholar he had met in Granada, he seems to have either misremembered many dates or, like a proto Bruce Chatwin, created composites and taken shortcuts in the interest of storytelling.

We turn to Polo for the practical information he collects and the unexpected accuracy of many of his details; we read Ibn Battuta — who set out a year after Polo died — for his digressions and the flavor of his often orientalizing personality. In India, for example, he goes out of his way to describe most of the people he meets as "infidels" and to tell of how a blind man is dragged by his feet for 10 days and condemned men are cut to pieces by elephants. In the Maldives he suggests that he has picked up so many wives along the way (six on that set of islands alone) and fathered so many children that a vizier is fearful of the fast-growing Ibn Battuta clan. It almost makes for apt poetic justice that the only English-language version of his travels I could find in a huge bookstore in the Middle East this spring was the 1829 translation edited by the British Rev. (and professor of Arabic at Cambridge) Samuel Lee, its footnotes bristling with references to Genesis and harrumphs about how Ibn Battuta is "superstitious, and addicted to the marvellous."

When we read his Rihla today, we are struck at how Genghis Khan, memories of whom were still fresh when Ibn Battuta was writing, is described as "a liberal-minded, powerful and corpulent person"; Yemen, so mired in chaotic poverty these days, is in parts "abounding with every commodity." China, for the traveling Muslim, was "the safest and most agreeable country in the world," though Ibn Battuta could not bear to go out often because of its godlessness. As in any "as told to" version, it's hard to know what exactly can be ascribed to the official author and what to his ghost. But the curiosity that constantly pushes Ibn Battuta forward flashes into life as, having dispensed with a visit to Mecca in a sentence, he lavishes a long paragraph on the cuisine of Mogadishu — roasted plantain fruit boiled in new milk and served with "bundles of preserved pepper-pods, salted and pickled" and grapes and green ginger.

Completing the Circle
Just as I was reading such Anthony Bourdain-worthy passages recently, I found myself, by chance, in the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai. Filipinas were modeling sarongs outside a L'Occitane outlet. A friendly Indian invited me to sample language tapes that could make me fluent in Dari and Albanian and Quechua, even "American." An Iranian restaurant sat next to Tony Roma's (with a Pizza Express across the courtyard). With six large zones devoted to areas that Ibn Battuta visited and a central display on Ibn Battuta himself (right next to a Starbucks and across from a Nine West), the mall did its earnest best to honor both the exoticism of his itinerary and his spirit of inquiry.

Yet the deepest memory of the pious Muslim came for me at exactly noon: a quiet call to prayer passed over all the glossy corridors, floating over the Body Shop and the Tipsy Gypsy store, over the Laughing Buddha stall and the 21-screen cinema showing Space Chimps in digital 3-D. For a moment, the blown-up photo of Elvis in one window and the Hello Kitty display in another were put into place by something more eternal. And the far-off cultures represented by every other customer and salesperson might almost have borne out the spirit and the purpose of the indomitable Moroccan's journey. He may not have planned it, I thought, but Ibn Battuta had done what many great travelers surely dream about: he had become a site, a destination in himself.

Iyer, a writer for TIME since 1982, is the author of many books about travel, among them Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk and The Global Soul