Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Yemen: In Battutah's footsteps

Rosemary Behan travels to Yemen where Tim Mackintosh-Smith, the author of two highly acclaimed books loosely following the 13th-century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battutah, is now hard at work on a third.

Sana'a is a city of children. From my room near the top of the Burj al Salam hotel - it means "tower of peace" in Arabic - I can hear the hauntingly melodious sound of a child singing. It's beautifully clear and gentle and I jump out of bed to see where it's coming from.

An open-topped rubbish truck with loudspeakers attached has stopped on the street below: as men slowly fill it to the brim with filth, a young girl in the front seat fills the air with spirited sweetness.

I wander on, without a map, through the heart of the old city from Harat al-Fulayhi to Wadi as-Sailah, where I find a market. It's just like stumbling onto a film set, or the early pages of Tim Mackintosh-Smith's award-winning book Yemen - Travels in Dictionary Land (1997). In it, the author describes a country where "the men wore pinstriped lounge-suit jackets on top, skirts below, and wicked curved daggers in the middle; the cities seemed to have been baked, not built, of iced gingerbread."

This is exactly how Sana'a is. It's a gorgeous, tilting, cake-like city of red-brick buildings, alabaster windows and delicate, crumbling mouldings. Young children are everywhere here - playing games, riding bikes, jumping onto the back of pick-up trucks and kicking footballs. Few cars bother to negotiate the old city's narrow streets, and the kids - many dressed in rags like so many Dickensian street urchins - know how to have a good time.

Maybe it's a sense they get of the hard life which is to come: boys who look no more than 10 are seen desperately pushing wheelbarrows, pulling trolleys and hawking everything from drinks to henna; the older ones sit in their shops, chewing qat and looking exhausted.

I am stared at, too - though when I utter an Arabic greeting the effect is universally welcoming. Now and again the conversation develops into a string of further questions - interestingly, more from women, who on several occasions adjust their stride to match my own. I walk in a complete circle through the central souq back to the hotel where I am to meet Mackintosh-Smith, who has made the city his permanent home.

He's dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, and it's hard to compute at first that this former conductor of his college choir has been living in the city for 26 years. He leads me down a few alleyways to his local café, where we sit on benches and have his favourite breakfast of ox liver sautéed with chilli and onions (surprisingly tasty), fresh bread and gallons of sweet tea. He says it's just what he needs to get writing in the morning - although he only writes around 400 words a day and his third book on Ibn Battutah is already horribly delayed.

We talk over the roar of the oven and the shouts of friends and acquaintances. Mackintosh-Smith originally came to Yemen on a one-year sabbatical while studying Arabic at Oxford. He returned again at the age of 23 to teach at the British Council, first English, and then Arabic, which he speaks fluently. "There are few places in the world I've been that are as different," he says. "I can come and have breakfast and have people who don't know me ask, 'where are you from', 'where do you live' and 'are you a Muslim,' even after 25 years."

It's clear that Mackintosh-Smith has been in love with Yemen for a very long time. It started when he saw an extremely lifelike mock-up of a Yemeni souq in a London museum as part of Britain's World in Islam Festival in the 1970s. The more he read about the country, the more he wanted to visit; by the time he did, he didn't want to leave. Yet he didn't start writing about the place until the writer Edna O'Brien came to visit and he showed her around. "She said, 'it's criminal to live in a place like this and not write about it'. So I left teaching and lived on a wing and a prayer."

Mackintosh-Smith's first encounter with Ibn Battutah was in the Greater Yemen Bookshop in 1995. Like most westerners, he had barely heard of the 13th-century Muslim traveller until he took home a copy of Tuhfat al-nuzzar fi ghara'ib al-amsar wa aja'ib al-asfar (The Precious Gift of Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel).

Ibn Battutah, who Mackintosh-Smith refers to in his writing as IB, was born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1304. He trained law and set out on pilgrimage to Mecca at the age of 19 but was to spend the next 29 years on the road, travelling some 120,000 kilometres - three times as far as Marco Polo, his renknowned close contemporary. Half the known world at the time was in Muslim hands, and the enlightened spirit of Islam - then at the height of its powers - considered travel in pursuit of knowledge to be a religious duty. As Mackintosh-Smith explains in Travels with a Tangerine, "Some authorities believed that the shortest period of spiritual outward-bound for a dedicated mystic should be 24 years."

For Mackintosh-Smith, Ibn Battutah (full name: Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah al Lawati al-Tanji) is simply the world's greatest traveller, and believes that his life, and his travels, deserve greater attention. "It's about translation in its widest possible sense," he says. "It's what Ibn Battutah was about and he was very conscious of it at the time. He was very aware of himself as a traveller. He's an icon, and I don't use that word lightly."

Mackintosh-Smith has already dedicated almost 15 years of his life to Battutah, first, by bringing out his own highly readable edition of The Travels of Ibn Battutah, and second, by writing a trilogy about travelling in his footsteps. The first two volumes, Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns, were riveting and won high critical acclaim; the third and final book, which should be finished next year, he has subtitled 'From Zanzibar to Timbuktu via China and Spain'.

We leave the café and wander around town. We make again for the central souk, passing - and I found this astonishing - ancient granite oil presses which were still powered by camel - in the downstairs rooms of houses. The central souk is a sprawling patchwork of shops and workshops, from spice souks to blacksmith's forges. "Here in the oldest part of the city, the land goes up," Mackintosh-Smith says, leading me down what looks like a blind alley, and greeting friends as we go. "Sana'a goes back to Sabaean times and the Queeen of Sheba. This raised mound was an ancient tell - a mound built of ruins. The presidential palace was down there next to where the great mosque is."

Mackintosh-Smith lives in a house on the mound, next to a donkey market. "This is the souk al-Erj - literally, the market of the lame ones," he explains. "Lame donkeys used to be fed at the expense of the waqf but now they have been moved elsewhere and it's now a commercial donkey market. Tuesdays is donkey day and it's stuffed with tribesmen." We enter the house from shera ja'hbel, or 'Dragging Alley', and Mackintosh-Smith converses with a neighbour's daughter for several minutes before we go inside. The house is built of brick covered in white gysum plaster, four storeys high, and very narrow. The writer's bedroom is on the ground floor - on the other side of the wall is a donkey stable. "The donkeys usually start to move around at about 1.30 in the morning, but I only hear them if I'm awake," he adds.

We climb the stairs to the top of the house, passing a tiny, subterranean-looking kitchen with a two-ring cooker, a kettle and a reassuringly English container of Green & Black's hot chocolate. Further up there's an equally miniature sitting room and a small library, lined from floor to ceiling with volumes in Arabic and English. Further still, at the top of the house, is the mafraj - a room the writer had built himself. It's an original penthouse, a cosy space filled with cushions and views out over the city.

Mackintosh-Smith makes some coffee and brings it upstairs. I admire the Arabic script which runs in a freize around the ceiling; it turns out it's a poem by Abdu Hadi al Jawahari, an Iraqi poet who came to Sana'a in around 1930. Mackintosh-Smith translates it: "Sana'a, home of lofty civilisation, / Dwelling of every brave and generous lord, / Paris, London, and all the great cities / Of the Romans and Americans do not match you in beauty. / The beauty of those other places is but embellishment and artifice; / Your beauty is unaffected, the gift of your Creator."

Despite travelling in Yemen, Mackintosh-Smith doubts whether Ibn Battutah ever visited the old city of Sana'a. "I don't think he came here. What he says about it isn't original. But he does have interesting things to say about the ruler of the time. He was invited to his court and wrote about it in great detail." He's planning to start his final book in Tanzania, continuing through the Maldives, Sri Lanka, China, west Africa and Spain. It will cover the last 12 years of Ibn Battutah's travels, from about 1342 to 1354. "I was going to go to Bangladesh and Indonesia, which were also important in his travels during this time, but in the end I wanted to look at the bigger pictures," he says, eyeing, in horror, something out of the window. "I'm sorry," he says "but look at that. They are putting up a mobile phone mast on my neighbour's roof."

Mackintosh-Smith was also foiled in his attempt to get a visa for Bangladesh. "Now I call it Bungle Dosh. I couldn't get the visa from here so I tried to send my passport to the UAE but then it turned out it had to go to London…I'm a hater of visas." Travel was in some ways easier in the time of Ibn Battutah, when national boundaries were virtually non-existent and all that mattered was the seaworthiness of your boat or the fitness of your camel. "This last book is about the Indian Ocean and the Sahara, the two big trade routes which were travels which facilitated trade rather than barriers. I'm going to look at the national museum in Dar es Salaam which has some interesting bits from Kilwa and then go down to Kilwa to look at the remains of what was the biggest building in permanent materials in sub-Saharan Africa for hundreds of years. I might try to hitch a lift on a dhow for some local colour and then probably spend a couple of days in Zanzibar. Then I come back and go off to west Africa, but unfortunately because of these borders, visas and everything else, I can't follow Ibn Battutah's route exactly, so I'm short-changing him as ever."

At the very end of his 29 years of travelling, after follwing a global itinerary "as irrational as that of a New Zealand backpacker," according to Mackintosh-Smith, Battutah journeyed south from Fes to Wallata, Timbuktu and Gao in Mali. "He started off in south-east Morocco and went effectively across the corner of Algeria and into Mauritania," he says. "But the Moroccan-Algerian border has been hermetically sealed for years, and even Algeria to Mali is a bit tricky at the moment because of the Tuareg uprisings and so on. So the best way to do it seems to be to go from Casablanca down through the western Sahara and then down into Mauritania that way, then inland to Wallata, and from there across the border in to Mali and, Inshallah, sail down the Niger to Gao."

The interview is interrupted again by a deafening sound of mosques and mules, as the crescendo of midday calls to prayer and the piercing screech of donkeys penetrates the thin glass windows. I'm both exhausted and excited listening to TMS, who strikes me as a sort of cross between Louis Theroux and Ben Fogle. Certainly, the 700-year time lag between Battutah's travels and his own have not diminished his enthusiasm. "Really a lot of our knowledge of west Africa, that bit of east Africa, the Swahili coast and the Maldives, these are four major areas where Ibn Battutah is our only first-hand external source fromm the time. His importance can never be stressed too much because he wrote about places that no-one else wrote about at the time."

Mackintosh-Smith has already done the research for the Chinese and Spanish parts of the book; the Chinese section was researched while he made a three-part BBC4 programme about Ibn Battutah, shown earlier this year, while he travelled to Spain over the summer. "There's a lovely moment in the Travels when Ibn Juzayy [Battutah's editor] pops into the narrative in a garden in view of the Alhambra," he says. "I tried very hard to find the garden and it's no longer a garden. It's under the car park of the Granada football club. So this great literary meeting lies forgotten under a car park."

Mackintosh-Smith spent four weeks in Spain, taking 230 pages of notes and visiting Gibraltar, Rhondda, Granada and Malaga. "Ibn Battutah also went to the Costa del Sol, including Marbella, Torremolinos and Fuengirola, where he stayed the night in a castle," he says. "The castle is still there. IB would have been horrified, and interested."

IB and TMS, it seems, have somewhat similar working methods, although Battutah, who used his legal training to secure a series of very lucrative paid positions around the world to fund his travels, attracted far more glory. "I have a very scattergun way of picking up information," Mackintosh-Smith says. "He writes about noting down inscriptions on tombs and that's what I do. But he was also blessed with a very good memory - because of the tradition of Koranic learning and storytelling. The trouble is today our brains are completely atrophied in terms of memory retention."

Mackintosh-Smith's writing is known for its erudition, but he wears it lightly. Glancing around the mafraj I see that he's reading The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings, various thin volumes on Sufism, the Journal of the Royal Aseatic Society (of which he is a fellow), a book on Arabic morphology, The Tomb of the Prophet: Attitudes and discussions around a major religious symbol in Islam and Grammar as a Window onto Arabic Humanism.

Mackintosh-Smith's work is both humanistic and irreverent as well as erudite, and that's pretty much how he is in the flesh. He's a reassuring presence in the field of travel writing, a genre which too often signals the turning-off of brain cells. Like Ibn Battutah, Mackintosh-Smith says he is interested in the "Islamic continuum" as an "international transcendent culture." "I'm post- post- imperialism. I'm seeking out cultural continuum and it will be a feature of this last book. In many ways he was a religious tourist, but I'm fascinated by the way Ibn Battutah can leave his baggage as a very orthodox Muslim behind and give people the same validity. He was very open-minded and believed that the land of God is wide."

We break for lunch at one of the author's favourite restaurants and eat Salta - a delicious Yemeni beef broth made with mince, rice, vegetables and fenugreek, served in a sizzling iron pan. It's accompanied by freshly-baked bread, a fortifying veal stock soup and unidentifiable meat baked in foil. Next I accompany him to the house of a friend, with whom he chews a qat.

Mackintosh-Smith has no immediate desire to return to England, which he describes as, above everything else, "repulsively expensive," though he did buy a flat in Oxford this year. "For years I'd been staying with friends and kicking children out of their beds and I thought I'd better have an investment," he said. He had the property renovated over the summer, but became frustrated by building regulations. "Apparently it's illegal to have a douche hose fitted to the toilet," he says, incredulous. "They quoted pounds 250 plus VAT and said they'd have to run it off the shower. Here it would cost about 95p." Mackintosh-Smith has considered doing more television work, and he certainly is good at it, but he's clever enough to enjoy daily life without chasing celebrity. "I'd be perfectly happy," he says, "to sit here in my flat, writing, reading and chewing."