I have made the first steps of a journey – in the footsteps of another. A man long dead but local: from just across the water in Tangier, the African town whose old medina I can make out on most days from the water’s edge. A man who embarked on his life just as Marco Polo turned the last page on his and who set out twenty one years later from his family home – walking, sailing and riding around the known world on a journey that dwarfed the Italian’s feat.
By the time he returned, twenty nine years later, he’d been married ten times, done the whole storms and shipwrecks thing, dealt with pirates, perilous employers and eminent hosts from Somalia to the South China Sea.
Having undertaken such a journey, measuring distances and incorporating a diversity of encounters so far in excess of anything Marco Polo managed, you might expect the travelling Tangerine to have achieved a considerable notoriety, to be renowned in the same way as his European counterpart. He isn’t exactly unknown and some of you will have heard his name before; a number of my readers are travellers themselves and others are living in Spain, a country the Moroccan visited and where consequently the name has a little more caché. Others, however, will be new to it and that is because its owner lived in a world delineated, as ours is, by language, culture and faith.
Also, not a very catchy name.
Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah al-Lawati al-Tanji came to Spain with a very particular destination in mind: Granada, the last stronghold of his people on the peninsula. The great imperial culture that had flowered here under a second Ummayad caliphate had been reduced to this southern enclave which would hold out just a century and a half longer before the final capitulation to Christian Spain.
Ibn Battuta, as he has mercifully come to be known, saw the world through the regulating framework of Islam and the Arab civilization. The geographical reach of his faith, from Morocco to China, at least partially defined the known world in his time, and he had covered pretty much all of it, as well as going off grid into heathen lands from time to time. The book he left behind him has an original title almost as long as his unwieldy name but has come to be known as the Rihlah.
I’ve only begun it, but already Ibn Battuta’s story is providing an enjoyable framework through which I can look back at my own travels in the area. I’ve followed our hero’s progress across North Africa to Cairo, from which he heads south to make the crossing to Arabia at Juddah, the least travelled of the three Hajj routes. It doesn’t work out for him though – he’s turned back by a local rebellion at Aydhab and forced to retrace his steps as far as Cairo, setting out north from there to join the Syrian road.
Things like that are always happening in Egypt. Happened to me once. This was when I travelled without camera or notebook, travel insurance or, indeed, clue. I was living in Israel at the time and came to Egypt for rather more profane reasons than Ibn Battuta’s – a holiday. I say profane but the truth is I was on a quest of my own. I wanted to see Siwa, an oasis near the Libyan border in Egypt’s Sahara. It had become something of a holy grail for me, fascinated as I was by reports of its apparently unique culture – Berber as opposed to the Arabic culture of Cairo and the Nile basin – natural beauty and, most seductive of all, its isolation.
Having left the laid-back delights of the Red Sea coast behind me, I got to Cairo on a ball-breaking bus and that is where it all unravelled. Nothing quite as dramatic as a rebellion, it was more of an administrative issue. Bearing in mind that this was pre-internet, I’d done my best to ascertain that, given the peace treaty in place between Israel and Egypt, I would be able to exchange my shekels for Egyptian pounds here.
I wasn’t, and two days of increasingly forlorn enquiries in the capital city confirmed it. A little heartbroken, I retreated to the coast to spend the next three weeks in a haze of cannabis and forgetfulness. It worked; my obsession with the desert outpost receded. It never quite left me however – over the years it would ebb and flow, lapping against the shore of my memory.
I will never forget the feeling as, nearly two decades later, our car finally descended into the oasis, having crossed nearly three hundred kilometres of utterly empty desert. My emotions were framed, obviously, by years of longing for the place, by the failure of my first attempt. It felt like a triumph to spend a time among the ruins, antiquities and natural hot springs of Siwa. Most beautiful of all, perhaps, the shady date gardens – green and luscious by day, soft and silent by night – where I proposed to K.
I’m glad I did. She’s handy to have around. Example: the other day I was upstairs in my office forward slash workshop, getting to grips with a new machine – a card cutter for framing photographs. Using it is largely a matter of careful, meticulous steps and I was, as usual, a flurry of cholesterol, expletives and hair-pulling. I didn’t think K was much help; she kept interjecting. Girly comments like “Wait. Measure that first,” and “No. That isn’t the 7.85 side. That should be 11.3.”
Of course, as a grown, red-blooded male I slightly resented the unnecessary intrusion but felt it would be rude to ask her to leave. Everybody likes to feel as though they’re contributing, don’t they? So, feeling magnanimous, I let it go. And despite the constant interruptions, the passe-partouts turned out fine – it was very satisfying to see images I am proud of given a proper home, not to mention made ready for sale.
The following morning, with K back at work and unable to disturb me, I went up to make two more. I felt much more relaxed this time, getting into the process a lot more quickly and fluently, humming a favourite tune to myself, and proceeding to fuck both of them up entirely. I’m not doing any more till the weekend when K will be around. Quite sobering to face the fact that one requires supervision, but there you have it.
In the meantime, whenever I feel the urge to frame a photo I’ll pick up the Rihlah instead and follow Ibn Battutah’s adventures, aware as I do so that the words I’m reading were set down on paper not by the Moroccan himself, but by the young writer he had first met in Granada, to whom the traveller dictated. While it can seem frustrating to have our point of view mediated by others, we’re fortunate that we don’t have to tackle the world alone. They come along – or have been along and left their marks – to map it out for us. We may revere Socrates but without Plato we wouldn’t have him, without Ibn Juzayy we wouldn’t have Ibn Battutah.
These others supervise us. They draw the lines we use to frame our understanding.
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