Entertainment | Books

Tim Mackintosh-Smith obsessed with Ibn Battuta

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a Yemen-based travel writer and one of the world's leading experts on Ibn Battuta, tells Khulekani Madlela why he chose to write about the great explorer

  • By Khulekani Madlela, Friday magazine
  • Published: 00:00 April 20, 2012
  • Friday

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Tim says he was drawn to the Arab world from a very young age and was fascinated by the books his father read.
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Tim Mackintosh-Smith is an Ibn Battuta man through and through. Actually he's obsessed with his subject: he tells me he's written "2,924-and-a-half" pages of entries in his travel diary about the great explorer, which translates into 500,000 words. The research notes he made were another 500,000 words. The total word count from his published books adds up to 333,333. All in all he's produced a whopping total of 1.5 million words (including notes on Post-its and scribblings) on Ibn Battuta.

He was recently in the UAE at the Abu Dhabi International Book Festival to give a talk about travel writing, with special reference to Ibn Battuta, in both Arabic and English.

"On the first day I had a full house and spoke in Arabic throughout. In Yemen we have a specific dialect but in Abu Dhabi I had to switch to classical Arabic. The audience was wonderful and many people were amazed to hear a European speaking in fluent Arabic," he says.

Born in 1961 and brought up in Bristol, England, Tim's passion for history saw him take up Egyptology at Oxford but, finding it too daunting, soon changed to classics and history. However, after a year he got bored with the subjects and decided to major in Arabic.

Allure of the Arab world

Tim says he was drawn to the Arab world from a very young age and was fascinated by the books his father read. His favourite was a book by Freya Stark, an eccentric traveller who visited Lebanon and Yemen, which included pictures of tribesmen. He recalls seeing one of an elderly, wrinkled man carrying a huge lizard and thinking "when I grow up I'd love to go and see these people." And he did, in 1982 he moved to Sana'a, Yemen, a place he's called home for 30 years. Having studied Arabic, he says he always wanted to learn to speak the language. "I chose Yemen because of childhood memories of the old man in the picture," he says.

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While growing up, the sense of adventure was strong in Tim. He was also keen to write about his experiences, a talent that runs in the family as his maternal grandfather Sam Watson Robbins was a poet.

"We used to hear his poetry around the house. He wrote a lot of poems that were used on postcards and he actually made a living out of it."

The Mackintosh-Smith house was also filled with books which Tim enjoyed reading.

The spark to write was ignited at the age of four when he read Alice in Wonderland. "I remember thinking I wish I could write like Lewis Carroll."

Then years later in 1990, Irish novelist Edna O'Brien visited Sana'a and the British Council asked Tim to take her around since he knew the place well. "Edna was bowled over by what she saw. She asked me, ‘how could you live in a place like this and not write about it? It's a crime'."

This got Tim, who was teaching English at the British Council Institute at the time, thinking. He didn't want to die teaching English and regret not having done what he always wanted to do - write.

"I decided to write a book about Yemen because the country hada rich cultural heritage and I haven't looked back, nor regretted becoming a writer. I was lucky to get a good agent - Carolyn Whitaker of London Independent Books, who is still my agent - and in 1997 Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, was published."

The Ibn Battuta journey

He then went on to write about Ibn Battuta because he felt many people didn't know about him or had only a hazy idea about who he was. "I tried to capture the whole Islamic world through one character who travelled to many places," he says.

Initially he thought he'd just write one book but became so enamoured by the character Ibn Battuta that he ended up with a trilogy. The first book - Ibn Battuta; Travels with A Tangerine (2001) focuses mainly on the Arab world, Turkey and Crimea; the second, The Hall of a Thousand Columns (2005) is set in India where Ibn Battuta spent ten years; and the final instalment, Landfalls: on the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battuta (2010) covers some of the places Ibn Battuta visited that Tim had missed out on.

He says he travelled extensively while researching for Landfalls. The journey began in Dubai then on to other places including Tanzania, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and China, followed by West Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea) before proceeding to Spain.

He finished his journey in Paris where the oldest copy of Ibn Battuta's book is housed at the National Library of France.

"For me it was like going on a pilgrimage. To turn the pages and see where his scribe had dipped the pen in ink [it starts off darker then becomes lighter until the pen is dipped again] was an amazing experience. It pulls away the time between you and the book."

Many people have described the trilogy as travel and history books but Tim says they're about time and travel. To illustrate his point he recounts an incident that occurred during his trip to Africa.

"In one of his books Ibn Battuta says he spent some time in Madinat Mali, the capital of the ancient Mali empire - although no one knows exactly where it is since back then the Mali Empire spanned significant parts of the present-day Mali, southern and western Mauritania and Senegal," he says.

One thing that caught Tim's attention is that Ibn Battuta says while in Madinat Mali that he attended both Eid celebrations and describes them in detail. He speaks about the king's griot [poet], Duha, and the instrument he played while reciting the king's praises.

"From the description it's clear that he was referring to the balafon,a musical instrument found in sub-Saharan Africa. I looked into the history of Mali music and discovered that the king's balafon still existed."

As luck would have it while Tim was visiting Mali the descendents of the Duha family were having a get-together. The person who was reciting poetry wore the clothes and carried a spear that fit the description provided by Ibn Battuta. The griot recited the family's lineage untilhe got to their ancestor who wasthe king's poet during Ibn Battuta's time. "I was stunned to hear him,'' says Tim.

Afterwards he was shown the instrument, which is still kept in a sacred hut. He also had an opportunity to read Ibn Battuta's description of their ancestor.

Tim says, "This was a high point of all my travels. The most important aspect during my journeys was meeting the people and hearing the Duha family giving voice to the past. It was marvellous. It was an amazing convergence of oral and written history, and the transcendence of time. I am sure nothing more remarkable will happen to me than meeting these people."

While some writers travel with photographers during their research, Tim is different. He is usually accompanied by his friend Martin Yeomam, an artist, whose works appear on the covers of the hardbacks as well as inside. "We travel well together and he's elevated the aesthetic appeal of my books enormously," he says.

Past, present, future

Of all the books he has written, Tim says Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land stands out. "It's like your first child. It's a sort of a classic... Probably because it's about Yemen before it began to change, it preserves theold charm.''

The book also holds a special place in Tim's heart because of the joy it gave his father. "All he could muster when I gave him a copy was ‘you've excited me too much, go to your mother'. That was very endearing."

When he's not writing he likes to read and his greatest pleasure is being with his adoptive family. "When I moved to Yemen I was adopted by a local family. I spend a lot of time with the children who are aged between three and 18."

Tim, who also has a passion for music, teaches them English and classical music. "I am learning the guitar with them and also relearning the violin," he laughs.

Thanks to the kids, Tim is attempting to write something different - a thriller. "I bounce ideas off them and they're helping me with my story. We always do the story in Arabic; they ask questions and give suggestions." The thriller is set in Granada, Spain during the time of Arab presence and Tim says it has all the necessary ingredients: murder, mayhem, a love triangle…

The plot sounds exciting but he isn't sure if he'll get a publisher. He says in the publishing world it's "always a challenge, each time it's like starting at the bottom of a cliff. When you get started it's hard to get published and when you make that first break it becomes difficult to do the second book. Then before you know it you are caught up in a series and people begin to think you can't write standalone stories". Another problem is that "you don't make money writing travel books when you fund your own travels. For me it's a labour of love."

But all these low moments are offset by the highs like getting awards, "particularly when they come with money. Even a plaque is OK, it's nice to put it up on the wall".

Tim has won several including the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award (1998) for his book Yemen; Landfalls won him The Oldie best travel writer for 2010 award; and in the same year he was awarded the Ibn Battutah Prize of Honour by the Arab Centre for Geographical Literature.

Ibn Battuta's travels from Morocco to China - detailed in Landfalls - were made into a 2007 BBC series with Tim presenting it. He says it was exhausting as it involved lots of travel and everything was done in three months. The series has stood the test of time and can still be seen on Emirates Airlines' in-flight entertainment.

He's also working on a translation series - from Arabic to English - fora magazine called Saudi Aramco World. Did Tim ever think of writing in Arabic? He says he sometimes writes in Arabic but only short pieces such as scholarly articles on translation and on architecture. "I thought of writing my thriller in Arabic and then translating it to English to escape my own style, but when I sat down and began typing the thrillerin English, it flowed naturally soI decided to continue."

And what does he think of the Ibn Battuta Mall? "The mall and Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel, Dubai, are a befitting tribute to Ibn Battuta. They do perform a real service as many people will learn something about Ibn Batutta. These places are giving him more prominence," he says.

 

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