August 8, 2012 By Shameer KS

Ibn Battuta: In Frames and Pages

Battutta‘If I am to die, let it be on the roads to Makkah’
Ibn Battutta speaks as a young man. But to speak these words to us now, the great traveller needs the crutch of Ben Kingsly’s assertive voice. We hear the Academy won actor giving voice-over and, thereby, credence to Ibn Battutta. The context is top-rated film Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battutta directed by Bruce Neibur. And we feel assured and Ibn Battutta is baptised in the hallowed princints of Hollywood: the largest standing symbol of commercialised mass culture. We may be reluctant to accept the screen version of Ibn Battutta, not because of the below par acting of Chems-Eddine Zinounce, but because of our doubt and concern over anglicanising Ibn Battutta (who speaks English in the film!). The question remains: has Ibn Battutta ever spoken himself out? Or, to put in other words: has our commercialised mass culture ever allowed him to speak himself out?

Abu Inan Faris (1348-58), the reigning Marinid Sultan of Morocco, realised that Ibn Battutta can be sold like a hot cake in the market. When the sultan commissioned Muhammad Ibn Juzayy, poet, theologian and legal expert, to collaborate with Ibn Battutta to compile the latter’s travel experiences, the sultan advised Juzayy in no uncertain words: “the compilation should ‘comprehend what was of profit in them…giving care to the pruning and polishing of its language and applying himself to its clarification and adaptation to the taste of readers, that they may find enjoyment in these curiosities and that the profit to be derived from their pearls should be increased in stripping them from their shell.” (David Waines, The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer). The thrust of the consciousness that Ibn Battutta’s words should not remain unrecorded is ‘the profit to be derived from their pearls’ and ‘the enjoyment’ that ‘the readers may find in these curiosities.’ It is as if Sultan Faris, as befitting a publishing tycoon like Rupert Murdoch, was giving a remarkable tip to his favourite editor: on the necessity of maximising profit and of piquing readers’ curiosities by pruning and polishing document.

Ibn Juzayy was not Ibn Battutta’s alter ego, as he is expected to be; he was his editor. Ibn Juzayy was not supposed to serve Ibn Battutta by dictating what the traveller pulls together from his memory; he was supposed to serve the sultan, his publisher, by sorting the wheat of profit from the chaff of Ibn Battutta’s memories. Today we know editing is not a nobler job than doing the item dance (a post-modern Indian version of belly dance) for a thriller. It’s appropriating texts, pruning them, polishing them, and packaging them for those who have enough stuff in their purse. In the final analysis, we don’t hear Ibn Battutta speak. We hear Ibn Juzayy and Ben Kingsly speak. That is the requirement of mass culture; we can’t help it. But this is not the destiny cut out for Ibn Battutta alone. We did not allow Marco Polo, whose year of death in 1324 saw the birth of Ibn Battutta’s hunger for the roads to Mecca, to speak himself out. David Weines in his book quoted above informs us that Rustichello of Pisa was Marco Polo’s compiler, or his editor, to use the apt word.

Those who write and speak to the gallery have always drawn flak from those who stick to the rules of historicity and authenticity. Much before Ibn Battutta has started to be edited by Ibn Juzayy, he had recounted tales about land and people under a tree where listeners would gather around an enlightened traveller whose soft words cooled many hearts. There was suspicion of spuriousness in many of his tales. One of the doubters was none other than the great Ibn Khaldun. ‘One day he conveyed his own concerns about Ibn Battutta’s veracity on India to the sultan’s wazir. He replied that incredulity often arises over reports, exaggerated or not, relating to the government of a country one has never personally visited. He said it was rather like the story of a high government official who had been imprisoned by his for years together with his son who had grown up from infancy in the same confined environment. Now a youth, he asked his father what meat they were fed by the prison authorities. The father described a sheep which of course the boy had never seen and hence concluded that it must belong to the same species as the prison rats!’ (David Waines, The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer)
Many translators of Ibn Battutta, including Orientalist HAR Gibb, have posed doubts about the accounts of/on Ibn Battutta based on the differences in chronology and other inconsistencies. In fact, no translator or historian for that matter has ever presented Ibn Battutta without inconsistencies. David Waines’ book iteself is not free from any. The book draws Ibn Battutta in the opposite direction in which  Bruce Neibur’s camera moves. Whereas in the film we see Ibn Battutta on move in spiritual pursuit, we read in the book about a man who travels, besides seeking knowledge, to eat and mate. The book is full of references to Ibn Battutta’s favourite dishes (Waines relates Ibn Battutta’s travels to the Arabian tradition of codifying cooking manuals) and women.  To quote from the book: ‘Ibn Battuta must have rejoiced to discover the Maldive Islands were near to paradise on earth. The staple diet was based upon fish and the  products derived from the coconut which had an ‘amazing and unparalleled  effect in sexual intercourse, and the people of these islands perform wonders in  this respect. I myself had four wives there, and concubines as well, and I used to  visit all of them every day and pass the night with the wife whose turn it was’,  and this continued for the whole of the time he was on the islands.’ ( David Waines)

What Waines quotes as having been said by Ibn Battutta can’t be taken for granted, since the requirement of mass production of his travel accounts ever since the first commissioning has been based on profit and readership. Also, Waine’s (?) account of a gourmet Ibn Battutta clashes with Ibn Battutta he presents on another occasion as a man of zhud (asceticism):  Ibn Battuta in fact had acquired considerable spiritual capital during  the first four years of his travels. He had performed three pilgrimages to  Mecca and had sojourned in the Holy City for about three years. Further  capital was accumulated in these years by his attitude towards zuhd, the  act of renunciation by ascetics. A God-conscious piety fostered zuhd not  in the medieval Christian sense of extreme repudiation of the flesh but  rather in a disdain for material comfort.

We are far removed from Ibn Battutta. That is why we can’t see him as clearly as he might have seen lands and people.

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