The rough guide to the Middle East: historic travel books translated by NYUAD reveal a vibrant world

English translators of two fascinating travel documents from the Middle Ages that have just been published as part of NYUAD’s Library of Arabic Literature.

A world map by Muhammed Al Idrisi, 12th century, with north at the bottom. Universal History Archive / Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

I meet Tim Mackintosh-Smith for Friday brunch at the Habtoor Grand in Dubai. It's both incongruous and fitting: I'm here to ask the British author about his latest project, a contribution to Two Arabic Travel Books, a translation of two Arabic texts from the ninth and 10th centuries, for the Library of Arabic Literature, an initiative funded by New York University Abu Dhabi Institute to increase the Arab literary canon in English.

The first portion of the book is Mackintosh-Smith's translation of Accounts of China and India by Abu Zayd Al Sirafi, a seafarer from the ancient port of Siraf on the shores of the Gulf in modern-day Iran, who moved to Basra, Iraq, from where, it seems, he at least verified The First Book of the Accounts and wrote (using both his own experiences and those of fellow merchant-­informers) The Second Book.

Each book is fairly short; there is a frustrating and somewhat intriguing lack of background information about both the author and the places mentioned. Compared to Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan travel writer whose 29-year trip Mackintosh-Smith has followed, recounted and translated, these accounts seem disappointing, and, I argue, there’s too much vagueness and third-person narration for them to be considered travel books.

“That’s true, and we still don’t know if Abu Zayd travelled or if he was just a verifier,” says Mackintosh-Smith. “But the accounts are still valuable because they contain the first recordings of some things. For example, when he describes a whale kickfeeding, this is probably the first description of it anywhere, and there are also the first written references to tea and porcelain. That’s what scholarship was about at the time – collecting and transmitting accounts in an essentially oral culture.”

Most important, says Mackintosh-Smith, is that Abu Zayd is a trustworthy and objective narrator, though, in common with Ibn Battuta, his observations about people and their customs are often refreshingly direct and politically incorrect. Throughout the book, the text itself is split into small sections, switching back and forth from India to China, so there is a lack both of a story and a sense of continuity; the Arabic script is given on the left and the English translation on the right – chapter headings and footnotes help. The geography can be confusing, as many place names have now changed, though there is a useful map. There are just the right number of annotations to allow a non-academic reader to navigate the text, and, having seen what Mackintosh-Smith has done with Ibn Battuta, one senses that he did as much as he could do with what was available (“I’m sometimes not 100 per cent sure I’ve got it right, as some bits of the original have got a bit messed up and I have to do a bit of reconstruction,” he says).

The only other English version of this text was published in London in 1733, from a French translation; this is the first English translation directly from the manuscript and the first new Arabic edition in more than 200 years.

Interestingly for Gulf readers, the text begins in the Sea of Lawrawi (the Gulf of Oman), with that description of the whale kickfeeding; it then moves on to the evocatively named Sea of Harkand (Bay of Bengal). There follows some reasonably specific detail about the nature and extent of trade between the Gulf and China, and from Oman to India. "Geographically and thematically, although the compilers did their best to organise the material, the book as a whole is no Baedeker [a guide book] – it has more in common, in fact, with the interactive travel websites of our own age," Mackintosh-Smith concedes in his introduction; more importantly, perhaps is that "it is a book that tells us … as much about the energy and enterprise of Islam in that age as it does about India and China". This is true, and borne out not only in Mackintosh-Smith's section but in James Montgomery's translation of Ibn Fadlan's Mission to the Volga, which forms the second part of this publication; yet, I found myself wanting a fuller account, even a reimagining, of the travel described, complete with historical and geographical context.

Non-academic readers may have little patience with the large number of statements that now seem bald and banal: “The Indians use tooth sticks, and no one eats before he has cleaned his teeth with one, and washed himself; the Chinese, however, do not do this.” Similarly, historians may be fascinated by battles and dynasties, but I found that keeping up with the different rulers and areas, sometimes interrupted with digressions into cultural practices, more tiring than interesting. There are some tantalising mentions of local places such as Musandam and Socotra, but precious little detail.

I ask Mackintosh-Smith why he thinks translation is important and he comes up with both a short and long answer. “The first short reason is that it’s fun. If I could translate all day for the rest of my life I’d be happy. It’s like doing endless crosswords puzzles. Writing your own books is extremely hard work – this is easier.”

The “heavy answer”, he says, “is that one of the great problems in understanding between the West and the East is that there is a deep sense of hurt and cultural loss on the Arab side. Sometimes it doesn’t help to just say that we had great Arab culture but it’s gone. So it is about adding to the corpus of Arabic literature, giving people more and to an extent bringing it up to the present time.”

The structure of Mission to the Volga – an account of a mission from Baghdad (almost laughably referred to as Madinat Al Salam, or the City of Peace) to the Upper Volga – is more satisfying. Believed to be the earliest surviving instance of sustained first-person travel narrative in Arabic, it records a diplomatic convoy which travelled east through the Alborz Mountains of Iran and north through modern-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia. The mission was on behalf of the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad at the request of the King of the Volga Bulghars, who, it is said, had embraced Islam but needed education, training and funds.

The reader gets a sense of the author Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s real journey from place to place, an at times arduous trip that takes 325 days and covers a distance of almost 5,000 kilometres. Immediately arresting is the informal tone and contemporaneous description of Baghdad as being in turmoil, riven by myriad warring factions of which Sunni and Shia are just two examples.

James Montgomery, a professor of Arabic at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, says that the Library of Arabic Literature is “trying to redraw the map of Arabic literary creativity” and that Ibn Fadlan is valuable for his objectivity and “series of voices” reflecting the world around him; he is “the most honest of authors writing in the classical Arabic tradition”.

Certainly his descriptions of various Turkic peoples, including Bashkirs and Khazars, and their interactions with his embassy, are unvarnished and compelling, as are his accounts of the frustrations of travel, including currency, red tape and the weather, and how to deal with obstacles.

The money changers in Khawarzm (in modern-day Uzbekistan), Fadlan writes, “trade in sheep bones, spinning tops, and dirhams. They are the strangest of people in the way they talk and behave. When they talk they sound just like starlings calling.”

Of the weather in the same place, he says: “We thought the country we were visiting was an infernally cold portal to the gates of Hell. When snow fell, it was accompanied by a wild, howling blizzard … The weather was so cold that you could wander round the markets and through the streets and not meet anyone.” And every unprepared traveller will relate to the sometimes impossible effort of keeping warm as he describes how he slept under layer upon layer of shelter, clothing and animal pelts, “and even then my cheek would sometimes freeze and stick to the pillow”.

The text is a sort of short, Arabic Canterbury Tales. The irreverent banter between people of different religions and backgrounds is refreshing, yet at the same time the author is judgemental – of a Turkic tribe known as the Ghuzziyya, he writes: “Their tents were pitched with some in one place and the same number in another place, as is the practice of trans­humant nomads. They lead wretched lives. They are like roaming asses.”

Montgomery, who worked from various copies and versions of script in two formats found in different places, and whose translation is the third in English, applauds Ibn Fadlan for simply taking such a daring trip, and his writing for its attention to detail and lack of flannel in conveying the travel experience. “Ibn Fadlan is as honest about what he disapproves of as he is about what he approves of. The second major challenge facing modern societies is the question of honesty when confronted with the unfamiliar, the strange and the unsettling. So I hear a remarkably modern voice when I read Ibn Fadlan in terms of his candour and persistent inquisitiveness when confronted with some scenes of overwhelming horror. It is true that he does not succeed really in entering into the worldview of a Ghuzz tribesman or the Bulghar king, but he gives it much thought and tries to understand. It is the fact that he is honest about trying to understand and about not succeeding that gives it such a contemporary resonance for me.”

Visit www.libraryofarabic­ for more information

Rosemary Behan is The National’s travel editor.