ANDALUS By Jason Webster Back Swan, 2005 312 pages, 0552771244
TRAVELS WITH A TANGERINE The Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutali By Tim Macintosh-Smith Picador, 2002 352 pages, 0330491 148 Pb
THE TRAVELS OF IBN BATTUTAH Edited by Tim Macintosh-Smith Picador, 2003 328 pages, 0330418733 PD
THE POLYMATH By Bensalem Himmich The American University m Cairo Press, 2004 250 pages, 97742482 1 X Hb
IBN BATUTA WITH DUENDE
The handful of books explored in this review all share a cunning ability to make us question reality and the way it is presented. From the vigorous and polished prose of relative newcomer Jason Webster in Duende and Andalus, to the somewhat obsessive and utterly enthralling travelogues of Tim Smith on the trail of Batuta, to the kaleidoscopic vision of Ibn Khaldun in Himmich’s The Polymath; here are a batch of books with immediate relevance to the Islamic world which also happen to be setting standards of qualtity writing.
It isn’t often one sits down with an autobiography and reads until it is finished, somewhere round the chimes at midnight Quite simply, Mr. Webster’s Duende is a page-turning tour de force. A travelogue of his time spent trying to plumb the mysteries of Spain’s flamenco subculture, the book grabs the reader and refuses to let go with a viselike grip seldom found in true stories. In the advertising found at the end of the paperback edition, we are told that Webster has chronicled his journey into Spain’s Moorish past which bleeds into a very Spanish present with Andalus , his second work. Having whetted appetites with some of the finest writing I have read this year; it is awkward to pronounce that Andalus is a bit of a disappointment
Note carefully that I said “a bit” For readers of the Arabist scholar turned wandering troubadour this translates as “you may be able to put Andalus down and take almost three days to read it” While Webster’s command of language remains superb, he seems to have aged in the years since he bosked his way through Spain’s gypsy culture – a life spent playing music and stealing cars – to the point where he appears too often as a stodgy wet blanket to his acquaintances’ antics in this second work. Since his flamenco adventure, we are informed , he has settled down to relative domestic bliss with his Spanish wife and seems a bit exhausted by all the life swirling around Zine, his Moroccan sidekick, on his tour through Andalusia’s echoes at the edge of the European Union. Quite simply, he has lost some of his former duende; that wonderful indescribable Spanish word popularized by Lorca for the dark edge to life and art; the shadow that forever grounds our delicate souls to the primordial ooze. It was duende thai drove the author into the chaotic and dangerous night world of the flamenco; but a tamer, scholastic search for meaning and order which fuels his Andalusian exploits. Sigh.
Just goes to show. It’s more fun being naughty. It also proves the theory voiced by our narrator and Lorca before him that art with a capital A gets its life from the skillful weaving of light and dark, the sacred and the profane. A travelogue that begins with an escape from a prison-like work farm for immigrants, has a murder victim and confrontations with Europe’s new version of anti-Semitism can hardly be accused of hiding too often behind airy philosophizing. Yet the outstanding weakness in this generally robust volume is one that threatens another equally impressive writer. In works that ought to be lauded for their craftsmanship, honesty and scholarship, that annoying flaw might be termed preciousness. And yet one shies from the term in an age where popular culture has made a fetish of all that is maudlin, self glorifying and ultimately précieuse. In Andalus, and Travels with a Tangerine we sometimes stumble over the authors’ obsessions with alarmingly scholastic themes. Given the dearth of genuine scholarship these days one need tread here with caution. In one book, the author is bent on discovering the Moorish roots of modern Spain, and in the other, author and translator Tim Mackintosh-Smith sets out in the footsteps ofthat most intrepid of travelers , lbn Batuta, through a modern world that hasn’t changed all that much it seems from the times of Bam ta. In both narratives, the weight and focus given to the “theme” comes close to preventing the writer from experiencing and writing about what actually happens. We, in turn, are hoodwinked from the life being lived, to the theory or obsession being cultivated.
Given the freshness, the expanse of the landscapes and the skill of two consummate authors, the critique is verging on incidental. There is too much quality material in these works to shy away from what may simply be a reviewer’s obsession about obsessions.
Travels with a Tangerine shares that wonderful trait so rare in travel writing: an ability to carry a reader from the first page to the last while leaving us wondering if our own journeys are as magical and com- pelling if only we bothered to notice. There is nothing in the work that makes one feel that the author resorted to exaggeration or selective memory in order to render a scene more “real” because the real was not real enough. Thankfully, the author, another finely trained Arabist never feels the need to travel to foreign climes only to mock the locals’ grasp of English. That last bit is too often the hallmark of the travel writer from sophomoric Lonely Planet wannabes to that incorrigible mother of wet blankets, Theroux. If only Mr. Smith of the Batuta trail would have stopped talking about “IB.” The book is littered with the acronym for lbn Batuta. The author apologizes for it at the beginning. And then we traipse halfway round the world in the footsteps of “IB.” It’s the twenty first century, and a word proces- sing program would have made for a less jarring nickname for the writer’s idée fixe. May I recommend simply: Batuta? The second work, though, secures the author as both a gifted writer and a crack translator. The edited volume of sections of The Travels of lbn Ratuta comes as close to a self effacement of the translator in the translated as I have ever seen. It manages the difficult balance between the colloquial and the quasi-classical style that has been the Achilles heel of many a lesser writer. The author deserves an award – in an era where Rumi translations sound like recycled psychedelia – for writing what the original said without skimping or misappropriating. There is little for an appreciative reader to do save wait till Mr. Smith finishes the wraabridged Travels.
Having come this far on the strength of two writers who make fact read like fiction, and in the best possible sense; it is time to look at the stunning coup de grace offered by Mr. Himmich in The Polymath. He has turned a novel about lbn Khaldun into a work so real, so textured and so true to life that one feels one is reading the Father of Modern History himself. Granted, the author relied heavily upon excerpts from lbn Khaldun, but without the Arabic text in front of you, you’ll be hard pressed to know what was lifted. Or should I say, translated. For those writers pondering a path in the shadowy realm where fact meets fiction, be forewarned that trailblazers have been through and their torches have ht up the skyline. Perhaps more importantly is the warning that for the Islamic world, intention and feelings that warm the heart are all well and good, but they don’t replace what can be accomplished by hard work and excellence. Why is it that once again, we leave it to the Arabists to show us where the gold is?