A nose for adventure

ONE of the most diverting features of this wonderful book is the quietly careless way in which trivia is used to adorn the account of a truly serious journey.

Consider for instance Tim Mackintosh-Smith's discovery of an 18th-century text, which urges that bathing in a mixture of frankincense, olive oil, nigella oil and honey "is an excellent stimulant of libido in the hundred-plus age group".

Ah well, travel is so broadening. Ibn Battutah was a great traveller and man of the world, and never was the phrase more aptly used. He set off from his native Tangiers, a town famed "for its grapes, its pears and the brainlessness of its inhabitants", in 1325, when he was but 21 and crossed the north of Africa, went on through the desert wastes of Arabia, on to Turkey, and then subsequently to China, India and the Maldives. He returned to Tangiers in 1354 after a journey of 75,000 miles, having been "as far north as the Volga, and as far south as Tanzania", considerably more than the author's pet peeve, Marco Polo. In this marvellous account, Tim Mackintosh-Smith tells of his own highly contemporary experiences on the same route, up to Constantinople. His attempt was not so much to simply follow the route taken by Ibn Battutah, or IB, as he is fondly referred to throughout the book, but to try and see what IB would have seen, and to imagine a period in history when Europe and Asia were each warily becoming aware of the other. A real danger through IB's travels was The Black Death. IB was a wanderer, restless and eager to be on the move, but his pursuit was not only of sights and sounds, but also of friendship, experience and spiritual discovery. He was game for anything, including several marriages, but was also notoriously erratic in his recollections.

People interested him more than sites. This makes Mackintosh-Smith's task the harder, trying as he is to trace IB's route, and he is conscientious about detail. What he shares with IB is a nose for adventure and is no slouch when it comes to asking for trouble.

There is a great deal of travel writing, often interestingly done and wittily told. There is also a hoary tradition of Englishmen, and women, going native, and from this tradition springs a genre of fine writing, of an English sensibility, and sense of humour, brought to bear on the mysteries of the orient. Tangerine is a particularly distinguished example. Enormous scholarship and intimate knowledge of the language, history, religion and culture of the Levant mark Tim Mackintosh-Smith's book. More extraordinary is the effortless grace which clothes his scholarship. Add to this an eye for the odd, the droll, and the quite simply mad. Further, Tim Mackintosh-Smith is deeply familiar with the various versions in Arabic and English of IB's Travels, and with a becoming modesty makes no mention in the bibliography of his own annotated version. To this formidable knowledge he brings an acute sense of Islam in history and practice. This is not to say that all his scholarship is pedantic. Apart from anything else, he is a great foodie. Breakfast in Damascus is "a brainburger — a whole lamb's cerebrum, poached, peppered and squashed into a bun — and a banana milkshake". Gross, but vivid.

Lunch in Damietta is quails, "two little birds roasted with their heads on and stuffed with onion, garlic, hazelnuts, sultanas and cumin; they were served on a mound of rice surrounded by stuffed cabbage leaves, stuffed baby marrows, and pickles". This particular meal was followed by "a plate of buffalo cheese buried in layers of sweet vermicelli, two bowls of buffalo milk rice pudding strewed with sultanas", and a particularly disgusting savoury called fissikh, "fish which are left in the sun until they begin to blow up". Clearly a man of determination, this is followed by Egyptian caviar, the roe of the grey mullet, "in its yellow membrane, reticulated with pink veins, ... salted, pressed, then dried in the sun, and finally, dipped in wax".

When done, it "resembled mummified human fingers and smelt slightly of football socks". I do not believe you could write about food better than that. IB's later journeys took him to India, where one of his hosts was the Sultan of Delhi, "of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood". I had not realised till a young friend pointed out to me that IB has so comprehensively entered Indian folk lore as to be immortalised in a popular children's rhyme, Ibn Battutah pahen ke joota, nikal pade toofan mein, Thodi si hava naak mein ghus gayee, thodi ghus gayee kaan mein. In a recent article, Tim Mackintosh-Smith writes of his travels in India, from Delhi to Malabar, on IB's trail. One can hardly wait for the sequel to Tangerine. But while we wait, go out and buy this at once.

Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Picador, 2001.

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