Tim Mackintosh-Smith is an Arabist, traveler, writer, and lecturer who makes his home in Sana’a, Yemen. He is perhaps most well-known for his best-selling Travels with a Tangerine, in which he retraces the journeys of the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭah in the old Islamic world. In Two Arabic Travel Books, he translates Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī’s Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind (Accounts of China and India), a late 9th-/early 10th-century text written down by two authors about fifty years apart, which takes the reader to lands east of Baghdad.
In an interview with M. Lynx Qualey, Mackintosh-Smith talks about the nature of travel writing, how it’s changed—and hasn’t changed—in recent years, the remarkable detail in al-Sīrāfī’s collected accounts of the East, and why his dream readers would be seventh- and eighth-grade students.
As both a celebrated travel writer and a scholar of travel writing, you’ve seen many sides of the genre. What makes a good travel narrative?
There’s a line by Alfred Tennyson, the poet, on reading Edward Lear. Tennyson read Lear’s book on Greece and Albania, and he had a line that said: “I read, and felt that I was there.” And I think that’s really the feature of good travel writing. Putting the person in the place that you’re writing about is very important.
The thing I feel personally about travel writing is that, because you’re moving in these three dimensions, it’s kind of lessening the role of time, if you think of time as the fourth dimension. So you can take your reader very, very easily across time. That’s what happened with me in the Ibn Baṭṭūṭah book in particular.
I felt I was there, and I felt I was also then, in that time. That’s what good travel writing does. It puts you in the place with the people and then it takes away time.
Has the nature of travel writing changed over the years since the two parts of Accounts of China and India were written? How?
I suppose it has changed most significantly very, very recently. I wrote about this in my last book, Landfalls. You’re imparting two things. In a travel book, you’re imparting information, but you’re also imparting knowledge and wisdom. And there’s a big thing that’s changed very recently, which is that the information, a lot of it is out there on the web or on National Geographic satellite channel. You don’t have crowds of people avidly wanting to read books about Antarctica. The information aspect of travel books has lessened.
But the knowledge and wisdom aspect hasn’t really changed. That’s to do with how we see other people and how they affect us. That aspect of the travelogue has not changed, and I don’t think it ever will. That will always be relevant to readers.
Back in Abu Zayd’s day, the attraction to travel narratives was learning about something there was no other way to know about.
Yes, with Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind, the very first word of its title tells you that: the word “akhbār.” To talk about akhbār, it really is the imparting of information, first-hand, or preferably as close to first-hand as you can get, and in simple language.
Unflowery language was the norm for imparting information. There’s a nice anecdote in al-Balādhurī about the first Arab conqueror going to Sind. He comes back, and talks to—I think it was the caliph ʿUthmān—and he starts talking about what he’s seen, but in rhymed prose. And then ʿUthmān sort of stops him and he says, basically, are you giving me khabar, information, or are you getting your rocks off with rhymed prose?
These are not Abu Zayd’s stories, but we don’t know where they come from. There isn’t a chain of transmission, as there would be with hadith.
Having a chain is a concept that’s sometimes used in akhbār. But in Akhbar al-sin wa-l-hind, he’s there talking to the sea captains and to the traders, and it is pretty first-hand. So they’re not so interested in chains of transmission.
So how did Abu Zayd find these first-hand informants? Do we have any idea?
Not particularly, no. I think you can make informed guesses. I think all you can say is that Abu Zayd, like the author of the first part of the book, was from or was connected with the port of Sīrāf in the Gulf. And he lived in Basra, so you can guess that he was from that nautical and merchant milieu.
There’s a bit at the end of the first half of the first book where he’s talking about al-Sila, Korea, about how “none of our friends has been there and brought back a reliable report.” So we can imagine there was a circle of expatriates talking about their experiences.
Then again, it’s surprising not to get more names.
What else is surprising here? You’ve read a great number of travel narratives. What do you find remarkable about this one, outside of it standing as among the oldest Arabic travel narratives to survive?
The immediacy of it. Lots of travel literature is filtered through a lens of what we expect to see. But Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind is surprisingly immediate. It’s surprisingly interested in small details, which turn out to be what are the most interesting. Look: In the very beginning of the first half, he’s talking about the whale, blowing water up out of its “mouth.” And he says that when the sea is calm, the fish shoal together, and the whale gathers them up into its mouth with its tail.
The first time I read this, I thought it was for landlubbers, a flight of fancy. But then I found on Google that scientists have observed this, that it seemed to be a learned behavior. And then I thought, Oh my God, here’s a guy on a dhow in 800-and-something observing exactly the same action among whales in the middle of the ocean. You wouldn’t think a sea captain would be interested in these little details, but people were.
These things are surprising, and make it even more worth reading.
How do you see the relationship between travel narratives and other forms of classical Arabic writing—poetry, philosophical narratives?
Coming back to the title, the word akhbār, it’s very much in that tradition of reporting raw information. It’s where an oral culture slips into being a written culture. And so it’s one of the earliest forms of written Arabic literature. I’m thinking for example of the Akhbār of ʿAbīd ibn Sharyah that dates back to Umayyad times.
And as I say in the introduction, Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind really was mined and plundered for centuries and centuries. So it contributed to great geographies and histories and compilations yet to come.
If you read someone like Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, there are kind of ghosts of Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind in that too.
Why did you choose to translate this text?
You look at what you like, and then you see what has been translated and when and where gaps need to be filled. And Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind is a text that had never actually been translated directly into English. It had been translated indirectly, in 1733, from a French translation by Abbé Eusèbe Renaudot which is not bad, though you could say it’s lacking. To have a chance to actually communicate with the text is wonderful. I feel all those nautical informants peering over my shoulder, helping me understand what they said.
So there was a French translation, and a triangle translation into English. What about other languages? Was its influence felt in other travel literatures?
Are there other translations? I feel there should be translations into Indian languages and into Chinese, but I don’t know, to be honest.
It would be wonderful if we could arrange a conference, bringing together folks from India and China and the other places the text talks about.
What makes a travel narrative stand the test of time? Or makes them interesting to read hundreds of years later?
Well, as I said, I think it goes back to all those little nitty-gritty details of unexpected things. But in a sense it hasn’t stood the test of time, because there’s only one manuscript surviving. It’s kind of disappeared.
But it got all this new life through how people used it, and particularly al-Masʿūdī.
And while we’re on “standing the test of time,” I’ll go back to what I said about time, and the way that travel texts can kind of obliterate time from the equation. And you realize things like, when he says, “Oh, I talked about the rebel Huang Chao cutting down the mulberry trees and this is the reason silk disappeared from Arab markets and it’s the reason why sea captains in Sīrāf lost their jobs,” and you think, here’s a globalized economy, or hemi-globalized economy, where events in a country 7,000 miles away are affecting the economy of your country back home.
It’s the kind of circularity of things popping up in history that makes a text transcend time.
I was surprised at how present things felt, particularly the discussion of pensions in China and socialized medicine.
There’s something I didn’t go into so much in my introduction—but it’s something that’s perennial, and particularly if you live as I do in a country like Yemen—and that’s the phenomenon of people looking outwards and thinking, “Oh, well, they’re different and they’re strange and they don’t do things like us. But they do have a lot of good going for them, because they’ve got the social security which we don’t have and we still don’t.” It’s a kind of surprised envy.
I found the map tremendously useful and continually referred to it as I read. Would Abu Zayd’s readers have had anything similar?
No, I don’t think they would. You’re sort of beginning to get very schematic maps around that time. But a kind of nice full world map that you could look at and really understand everything—no, I don’t think people would’ve had that.
But then again I may be wrong. I’ve thought about it in relation to Ibn Baṭṭūṭah: What sense did he have cartographically of where he was going? And I imagined that he would’ve had access to something like the al-Idrīsī map or some version of it. But probably only when he got back. So I think, in short, they probably wouldn’t have had maps.
As you translated, did you work in any way to reflect the informality of the Arabic?
I would say that they’re not colloquial texts as such—not at all. But they do retain elements of colloquial Arabic.
I suppose the thing is that with informality or colloquialism in Arabic, the effect comes across differently than it would in English. It was sometimes quite hard to reflect the oral feeling and still make sense, because a lot of it is very compressed and runs away with itself. In a passage on debts in China for instance, it says that if somebody lends somebody else money, the first guy writes a document for the second guy, and he writes one for himself, and they get together, and he and he and he . . . and you don’t know which he the text is talking about.
So the kind of oral nature of it, you inevitably can’t always reflect because it will make it unclear. And that’s the great problem with a text like this: You have to clarify things. You have to interpolate. That old problem of what or who the pronoun is referring to, you have to clarify that.
Sometimes, you can just hear the guy losing track of his own narrative, and I think the way I put it was “getting lost in its own subordinate clauses.” Which in a way I would love to leave, as I’m of the school of translation that thinks it doesn’t matter if the translation appears strange. But I suppose it does matter at the end if it’s actually unclear.
I had a lovely example of this where I translated a little book which had some texts of tribal law in them, very rare things and weird things, here in Yemen. And I knew the author very well. And I’d be asking him, “What does this mean, and what does this mean . . .” And he’d say, “I don’t know.” As one does, he had presented these texts as they are. I said, It’s all right for you, because you’re publishing them in Arabic, but I’ve got to make sure they have some kind of meaning. So you have to be an exegete as well as translator. Luckily most of it speaks for itself.
Who’s your ideal audience for this translation?
I hope millions and millions of people! You want to get the word out.
Something I’ve always been proud of is that I’ve probably contributed a bit to Ibn Baṭṭūṭah becoming a feature in courses on world history, and he’s not an unknown name so much as when I started working on him. And others before me have contributed as well, like Ross Dunn.
If I had a sort of dream audience, it would be seventh and eighth graders in American schools, and equally in Arab schools. And European. And everywhere. To see this slice of the earth as it was and, how can I put it, to know that we’re not lost in our own time.
They would be my dream readers.
Who would have read it in Abu Zayd’s time?
I love the idea that he might have compiled it and tidied it up for al-Masʿūdī. I think there was probably quite a large middle-class, if you will, reading public in cosmopolitan places like Basra who would’ve seen all the goods arriving from China and elsewhere, and wanted to know about where they came from. If you’re sitting there, dining off porcelain, which after all people did, and if your wife is sitting there in a silk dress, you would want to know a bit about the place where they came from. While you’re putting your peppercorns into your stew.
It’s a bit similar to reading the pages in the New York Times about the state of the economy in China.
What can we understand from the fact that there’s only one remaining manuscript?
That might be part of my thinking behind wondering if al-Masʿūdī is the unnamed patron. In a sense, the information was subsumed into al-Masʿūdī’s book. Abu Zayd’s book is referred to by other writers, but only really at the time it was written, or soon after. Then it seems to get lost.
But I think there weren’t hundreds of copies made. In a sense, its rawness meant that it’s more interesting to other writers than a more polished work, which would’ve gone down better with a reading public. If you like, it’s a first draft of geography—and ethnology and zoology and so on—and it got superseded by more literary works.
Does it change the way you look at travel writing, being a travel writer yourself?
I’m very, very much in favor of taking the text out of the library. It’s what I did with Ibn Baṭṭūṭah. A lot of the queries in Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind could actually have been best answered in situ.
I would’ve loved to have taken Akhbār al-şīn wa-l-hind back with me to India and China and so on. And this is part of the reason why I think it would be great to have a scholarly conference on this.
Do you know what Indian or Chinese readers’ responses were to the narrative?
No, I don’t. I’m thinking there probably weren’t any Indian or Chinese readers of Arabic in the time when it was written! But the 1733 English translation from the French was reprinted in New Delhi in 1995. Obviously they must’ve thought there was interest in the text, that there were enough readers to have printed it.