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The Marco Polo of Morocco

By Geoff Wisner

Born in Morocco in 1304, Ibn Battuta was the greatest world traveler of his time. He began his journeys in 1325, a year after Marco Polo died in Venice, but traveled five times as far before he was done. In his journeys through lands including Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and China he covered an estimated 75,000 miles.

Ibn Battuta’s name often comes up in books about African travelers, but he is rarely quoted. I get the impression that not many people have actually read him, but it’s well worth doing so.

As I fill in the gaps of my anthology African Lives, I’ve been seeking out speeches, interviews, and travel books that might contain nuggets of autobiographical material. Recently I picked up the Dover edition of The Travels of Ibn Battuta, translated by the Rev. Samuel Lee and first published in 1829. The Travels is a short book—without the copious footnotes it would run barely a hundred pages—and I found myself wishing it were twice or three times as long.

Ibn Battuta has a plain, straightforward style and an apparent lack of interest in himself that is sometimes frustrating. Especially in the early chapters, he seems driven to move from one city to the next, recording their names but hardly staying long enough to look around.

Along the way, though, there are wonders to be seen. In Persia he meets the members of a religious sect who wear chains around their necks. They build a fire, then “sing and walk into it.” Their leader borrows Ibn Battuta’s shirt, “then proceeded to roll about in the fire, and to strike it with his sleeves, until he had put it out. He then brought me the shirt, upon which the fire had not made the least impression.”

The king of a city called Birki asks him, “Have you ever seen a stone that came down from heaven?” Ibn Battuta answers no, and the king has a meteorite brought to him. “It was a black, solid, exceedingly hard, and shining substance.” Four men beat on it with an iron hammer, which (in an echo of the earlier incident) “made not the least impression upon it.”

When Ibn Battuta reaches India, the character of the book changes entirely. Rather than repeating tales and verses he has heard, he recreates scenes in which he is an active participant. Here he is on his arrival at the city of “Dehli,” apparently a bit dusty from the road.

When I had got to the house prepared for me, I found it furnished with every carpet, vessel, couch, and fuel, one could desire. The victuals which they brought us consisted of flour, rice, and flesh, all of which was brought from the mother of the Emperor. Every morning we paid our respects to the Vizier, who on one occasion gave me two thousand dinars, and said: This is to enable you to get your clothes washed.

A little later Ibn Battuta reports that “a daughter of mine happened to die” — surprising news, since he has not mentioned having a daughter, or a wife. The Vizier kindly arranges a funeral like one for the nobility, including “incense, rose-water, readers of the koran, and panegyrists.”

Later the traveler witnesses a cruel and unusual form of execution.

Upon a certain day, when I myself was present, some men were brought out who had been accused of having attempted the life of the Vizier. They were ordered, accordingly, to be thrown to the elephants, which had been taught to cut their victims to pieces. Their hoofs were cased with sharp iron instruments, and the extremities of these were like knives. On such occasions the elephant-driver rode upon them: and, when a man was thrown to them, they would wrap the trunk about him and toss him up, then take him with the teeth and throw him between their fore feet upon the breast, and do just as the driver should bid them, and according to the orders of the Emperor. If the order was to cut him to pieces, the elephant would do so with his irons, and then throw the pieces among the assembled multitude: but if the order was to leave him, he would be left lying before the Emperor, until the skin should be taken off, and stuffed with hay, and the flesh given to the dogs.

Rev. Lee, a diligent translator, provides amplifications of the text, quotations from other travelers, stretches of the original Arabic to elucidate doubtful meanings, and a number of cranky corrections of other translators.

Ibn Battuta is usually fairly decorous, but at one point in the journey he goes too far for the minister. Describing the women of the Maldive Islands, he writes “Their conversation is very pleasing; and they, themselves, are exceedingly beautiful.”

Their attractions, it seems, are heightened by the products of the local palm trees. “From these they make palm-wine, and oil olive; and from their honey, sweetmeats, which they eat with the dried fruits. This is a strong incentive to venery. I had some slave girls and four wives during my residence here,” and at this point, in mid-sentence, an asterisk directs the reader to a footnote.

“The passage, which will not bear translating, is this,” writes Lee. He supplies the Arabic text, and as if to apologize for his reticence, offers his speculation the type of palm that his subject is discussing.

Published Apr 16, 2012   Copyright 2012 Geoff Wisner

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