The Arab world has a rich history of travel writing, but only now are contemporary English translations being made widely available
On the move: time travel through new translations
Over a Lebanese dinner in Abu Dhabi this week with Humphrey Davies, a celebrated translator of dozens of works of Arabic literature including Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and four novels by Elias Khoury, I asked him who his favourite Arab travel writer was.
Davies, who lives in Cairo but is currently working on a new project at NYUAD’s Library of Arabic Literature, has a stellar pedigree having read Arabic at Cambridge and Berkeley and is a double winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation - for The Gate of The Sun and Yalo.
While it’s tempting not to challenge Ibn Battutah’s place at the top of the tree because of the sheer length of his travels and Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s brilliant renderings of his journeys - more restorations and improvements on “IB’s” narrative than bald translations and all the better for it - it’s only now that other notable contributors are being translated into contemporary English.
Recent publications by Abu Dhabi’s Library of Arabic Literature span the periods both before and after Ibn Battutah and are mostly the travelogues of diplomats and traders.
From the 10th century, Baghdad and Basra were at the centre of a network that stretched from the Baltics to China and accounts reveal global citizens often surprisingly at ease with different nationalities and customs.
They include Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad by Ibn al-Sai, which has been translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa and is described as “a seventh/thirteenth century compilation of accounts of remarkable women at the world’s most powerful court.”
There is also Two Arabic Travel Books, by Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, a Persian who moved to Basra, and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century explorer whose Mission to the Volga offers his less than diplomatic notes from his journey on a diplomatic mission from Baghdad to central Russia.
Yet there are several 19th-century Arab writers whose work is still virtually unheard of too. Davies’ most notable travel-related translation, rolled out from 2013, is the four-volume Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a Lebanese poet, publisher, essayist and translator - a man obsessed with language who narrates the colourful adventures of his alter-ego (“the Fariyaq”), as he moves through Lebanon, Egypt, Malta, Tunis and Europe, ending up in England at one point and describing the hideousness of life in an English village in the 1820s.
Yet although Davies describes Leg over Leg as “unlike anything before in Arabic” and the task of translating it akin to climbing Mount Everest, his forthcoming publication is In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People by Muhammad al-Tunisi, who was born in 1790 to an Egyptian mother and Tunisian father, into a family of Tunisian merchants who traded with Egypt and what is now Sudan, and spent 10 years travelling through the then powerful Darfur Sultanate, and the book offers a rare example of an Arab depiction of Africa “on the eve of western colonisation”, evoking “a world in which travel was untrammelled by bureacracy, borders were fluid, and startling coincidences appear almost mundane.”
Davies reveals Tunisi is his favourite on account of the fact that he set off on his journey at the young age of 14 and exhibited the determined spirit of travel that so many of us can identify with. “When he was warned not to cross a particularly dangerous mountain range,” Davies says, Tunisi brushed it aside. “He simply said this,” Davies says: “‘I just want to see.’”