Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Discovering the world through non-European eyes

Other Routes: 1500 years of African and Asian Travel Writing, Tabish Khair, Justin Edwards, Martin Leer & Hanna Ziadeh, eds., Oxford: Signal Books, 2006. pp420

Click to view caption
EAST IS WEST: (Above) the world according to Al-Sharif Al Idrisi Al Qurtubi (1099-1166), from Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq (The delight of him who desires to journey through the climates); and (right) River Nile according to Ibn Hawqal (943-969), from the author's revision of Al-Istakhri's Kitab al-masalik wa al-mamalik (Book of Routes and Kingdoms)

Travel! Set out for pastures new
Life tastes richer when you have road-worn feet.
No water that stagnates is fit to drink,
For only that which flows is truly sweet.
--- Attributed to Imam al-Shafi'

Drama is life with the dull bits left out, according to master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. The same could be said of good travel writing. However, in Other Routes: 1500 years of African and Asian Travel Writing, this piece of wisdom sometimes seems to have escaped the editors, notwithstanding the valuable, and sometimes exciting, material they present.

Part of an ambitious project to resurrect non-European travel writing as proof of a longstanding tradition of the genre outside the European continent, the editors of this book argue that eurocentrism is an unsatisfactory way of understanding the contemporary world, as this world has grown out of a colonial experience that was strongly associated with the desire on the part of the European colonisers to subjugate the colonised peoples by "discovering," "stereotyping," or otherwise "categorising" them. Though the book's project is a worthy one, highlighting the need for further exploration of this subject, too often this comes at the cost of having to go through texts that seem either to be irrelevant to the book's general theme, or are filled with the dull parts of life without apparently serving any larger purpose. The inclusion of extracts from the diary of Queen Emma of Hawaii, whose relevance to African or Asian routes is not explained, is a case in point.

As a result, the book is perhaps best read backwards, starting with the last section entitled Travel Accounts. This includes some informative and entertaining tales of travel by masters such as the mediaeval Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, as well as by less well-known wanderers, at least in the Arab world, such as the Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694). Born into a noble family, Basho rejected the world and chose instead to wander in it, and he is represented here by a rich and dreamy travel piece whose originality lies in the insertion of poetry into the text, its subjective feel and its use of the first person, which is rare among late-17th and early 18th-century Asian writings.

The lengthier texts in this section also give a better sense of the book's subject and help to establish a more intimate connection between reader and author, which is hard to feel in the case of some of the shorter texts. While the editors note that lack of space has prompted them to abridge some texts and to do away with others, fewer, but lengthier, extracts, might have served their purposes better. However, one benefit of having so many texts collected together in one place, irritating though this might be for the lay reader, is that it furnishes researchers with a wealth of references useful for further investigations. It also provides a conspectus of an alternative way of travel writing, besides the familiar pattern of the western visitor traveling into non-western regions, and instead involves easterners visiting and writing about the east, for example, as well as easterners visiting the west.

Travel writings bringing these alternatives to life are included in this book under the headings of Pilgrimages, Studies, Autobiographies, Diaries and Memoirs, and Travel Accounts, all preceded by an engaging foreword by the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh and a less- accessible introduction by one of the book's editors, Tabish Khair.

Ghosh presents an alternative vision of travel writing, placing it in a framework different form the usual western one of discovery and exploration. The travel writers included in the book, he says, "do not assume a universal ordering of reality; nor do they arrange their narratives to correspond to teleologies of racial or civilized progress," and he gives the example of the supposed French "discovery" of Angkor Wat in Cambodia as a case of the tendency of past European travel writing to construct its version of reality regardless of the facts on the ground. Ghosh points out that it was only after the French discovery of this "lost city" in the 19th century that the monks, who had previously continued to inhabit parts of the site, finally abandoned it. The European discovers, the French in this case, not only then re-wrote the complicated story of the site's past, but also "recast the actual structure to accord with their telling of the tale."

Despite the value of Ghosh's piece, the travel writings themselves are unnecessarily delayed by the editor's subsequent introduction, which is filled with academic jargon that distracts from the theme of the book. Khair nevertheless points out that in the dominant western tradition, "travel writing is an account of the unusual for the home market, while in other traditions, such as the Chinese, travel is a meditative immersion into place." He then outlines the contents of the book's four sections, giving brief accounts of the different writers included, these being thankfully supplemented by full introductions when one reaches the texts themselves. These mini-biographies are especially welcome in that they provide fascinating accounts of the travelers' often adventure-filled lives; at times they are even more informative and relevant to the book's theme of non-European travel than are the selected texts themselves.

In the Pilgrimages section of the book, for example, the life of the 12th-century Andalucian traveler Ibn Jubayr illustrates the sometimes shaky notion of a strict religious differentiation between east and west. As the biographical summary introducing the extract from Ibn Jubayr's writings explains, "the west" was not exclusively seen as Christian at this time, any more than "the east" was considered to be exclusively Muslim, and Ibn Jubayr was as much part of Europe geographically as he was part of the Arab world culturally. However, the extract that follows does little to develop this notion, though it does includes a noteworthy description of a Christian bridal procession in the city of Tyre in present-day Lebanon.

Another unique figure whose legacy transcends the seemingly perennial distinction between east and west is "Leo Africanus," originally Hassan bin Muhammed al-Wazzan al-Fasi, who also adopted other names as his odyssey unfolded on the heels of the fall of Granada in 1492. According to Leo's own account, the only one to survive, he led a turbulent life: recently elevated to contemporary fame by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf in his book Leo the African, having been driven out of Spain Leo Africanus settled in Morocco before setting out on his travels through North and Sub-Saharan Africa. His capture by Spanish corsairs, and later conversion to Christianity, turned him into a subject of the Medici Pope Leo X (1532-21) in Rome, and the study of North Africa that Leo Africanus wrote while in the Pope's service is an illuminating case-study of the European discovery of Africa, presented in the form of a text and seen through non- European eyes, as well as being an interesting example of how a man who was a Muslim by birth portrayed Muslim North Africa to the Christian world.

These accounts by Ibn Jubayr and Leo Africanus date back centuries and predate European colonialism. However, significant texts shedding light on the complicated and sometimes fuzzy relationship of east and west during the later colonial period are also included. Among them are reports by a 19th-century Parsee journalist, Behranji M. Malabari, who published a book entitled The Indian Eye on English Life in 1893 presenting the author's love- hate attitude towards all things British. It also reveals the impact of colonialism on the identity of the colonised, Malabari seeming to be particularly fascinated by British women. Another extract included here, this time from a work entitled T he Shah of Iran in European Corridors written by Nasser-ed-Din Shah in the later part of the 19th century, is one other, perhaps less amusing, account of east-west relations during the colonial period. It contains a revealing and chilling tale of the then ruler of Iran's encounter in Paris in 1873 with Jewish businessman Gustav de Rothschild, who wanted to talk about the "Jewish problem".

Other revealing and sometimes bizarre anecdotes are scattered throughout this book. These include quotations from a 15th-century manual for incubating chickens, the brutish rituals of a Viking funeral as described by a Baghdad merchant, and the 13th-century reputation of Cambodian woman as over-sexed and able to regain their virginity after giving birth using a poultice of hot rice and salt.

Also included is the tale of an Arab sailor who might have passed on the secret of the sea route from East Africa to the Indies to the Portuguese mariner Vasco De Gama, long held to be a central figure in the European Age of Discovery.

Reviewed by Hicham Safieddine

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