The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta, by David Waines.
London, I.B. Taurus, 2010. 226 pp, ISBN 9781845118051. £25.00.
Ibn Battuta’s famous journey across and beyond the boundaries of the medieval Muslim world raises important questions about how we categorise travel literature and what we expect to find in a journey qualified as ‘epic’. On the one hand, there must be something about the sheer scale of the traveller’s canvass that grips us, even though time and distance, of themselves, are insufficient qualifications. But, I would also argue, we expect the traveller’s encounters on a truly epic journey to display some mythic quality, and thereby invoke the universal in human experience.
The title of this book obscures these distinctions. On grounds of scale, Ibn Battuta’s journey easily qualifies as epic – 75,000 miles and almost half a lifetime of travel is unequivocal by any standard, even if we allow for the possibility that parts of the journey may have been creatively imagined rather than visited in fact. But whether Ibn Battuta’s journey is an odyssey in the mythic sense of the term is a much more difficult question to answer, and it is not one that this book addresses directly.
In approaching the one thousand pages of Ibn Battuta’s journey, Prof. Waines’ method is thematic. He contextualises the text through the arguments of its critics in the first chapter, providing an overview of the traditional concerns about authorship and reliability. But against this epistemological backdrop of truth and falsehood, he also foregrounds theimportance of allowing the traveller to speak of himself, and for himself, without being interrogated about every last detail by the textual critics.
This introduction is followed in the second chapter by a digestible overview of the many parts of the journey, which is more than necessary when dealing with material on this geographic and historic scale. By strange coincidence, I found myself in central Beijing whilst reviewing this book and was able to visit the 10th century pagoda-style mosque Ibn Battuta visited, or purported to have visited, on his travels. It was a disconcerting experience to say the least, and it could not have been any the less disconcerting for Ibn Battuta.
The substance of Prof. Waines’ book is set out in the final chapters, where three themes that cut across the raw chronology of Ibn Battuta’s narrative are pursued in some detail. These include the treatment of food and hospitality; tales of popular piety and encounters with the marvellous; and comparative perspectives on women, ethnicity and culture in and between the territories he covered.
The usefulness of this approach, which has wider application in the writings of other Muslim travellers, is that it allows the reader to move beyond what is, in a strictly literary sense, a poorly constructed story; and to gain some sense of what it must have felt like to be a traveller who saw so much, and who saw so much that was so very strange.
The chapter on food and hospitality illustrates the point. It is very difficult to make sense of the extremely long list of food items that Ibn Battuta ate or encountered across the territories he covered, not to mention all the episodes – banquets, snacks and offers of food – in which he encountered them. It is precisely this tendency indiscriminately to document anything and everything that makes medieval Muslim travel writing so difficult to read as a story.
Prof. Waines’ ability to contextualise this kind of detail in the scale of Muslim values is what makes his analysis meaningful. Drawing our attention to the ways in which ‘the fruits of the earth’ are recalled by the traveller as a sign of divine benevolence,he also notes how they serve to mark difference: what can be eaten and by whom, when and how it should or should not be eaten. This same contextualising approach is applied to the two other thematic areas covered by the author. As an approach, it is illuminating and links Ibn Battuta’s journey to key reference points on the cultural map he deployed, consciously and unconsciously, along the way.
In identifying and colouring in the features of that map, Prof. Waines allows the modern reader to experience the affinity Ibn Battuta would have felt with the readership of his lifetime. The theoretical questions to which this cultural map gives rise – the role of the traveller as witness and entertainer, the exploration of the Muslim world through encounters at its boundaries – are also well presented, dealt with succinctly and free from unnecessary academic jargon.
If I have one criticism, it is that the book would have benefited from an additional chapter to explore these ideas further, in light of what is otherwise a thoughtful and fascinating analysis. For example, Prof. Waines touches upon various ideas about the construction of the traveller’s persona at different points. He also draws, and returns to, an interesting analogy of medieval Muslim culture and Muslim travel writing as a form of geometrically repetitive arabesque.
But these remarks are nowhere developed, and it is perhaps in those unfinished explorations of the journey that the mythic quality of Ibn Battuta’s heroic endeavour is to be found.
University of Westminster