Journeys to find the Other

Other Routes
July 14, 2006

The urge to explore has been shared by all nationalities. Nigel Barley reports

Travel writing, to judge by the title of this book, has had a good run for its money. Yet the present decline of the genre from the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s, when it filled whole sections of bookshops, coincides curiously with the rise of academic interest. For the consumer, such books have overtones of fun, holidays and guilt-free escapism. For the academic, beating the butterfly of travel writing with the iron bar of postmodernism, they have none of these associations, for they are all about colonial hegemony, the imposition of silence and the creation of the colonised subject.

It is too simple to see academic interest as the actual agent of mortification of travel writing, but it is, perhaps, the mark of a rising tide of disquiet over the whole business of depicting the Other. And then travel writing is notoriously like pornography: it can act as an armchair substitute for those unwilling to get their hands dirty or it can encourage the masses to get out there and do it for themselves. It may just be that more people are travelling as opposed to reading about it.

The leitmotif of this book is that travel writing is not an exclusive concern of the West in its urge to discover the world and capture it in a net of Enlightenment evaluation. Asians travelled, Africans travelled, for business and diplomacy, for spiritual and academic growth, even out of sheer curiosity about their fellow humans. Sometimes they regarded it as a privilege, sometimes they were given no choice, being variously kidnapped, impressed and enslaved. That the earliest entries are Asian and the African entries are largely North African or Arabo-Hispanic is significant but deliberately and modishly obfuscated, yet the sheer breadth of the writing is staggering.

We have Arabs writing on South America, Koreans on China, Japanese on other regions of their own country, Indians on Europe and Africans on Russia.

There are women and pilgrims, and clear individual voices emerge, such as the excited teenager who is the Shah of Persia on his first visit to the West, the endlessly amiable Queen of Hawaii and the icily dignified Princess of Zanzibar, who comes to London only to be double-crossed by the British Foreign Office. A scholar might quibble that sometimes we are offered translations of translations rather than a return to the original text.

The excellent and insightful introduction of Tabish Khair follows a most unhelpful foreword by Amitav Ghosh, claiming that the writers featured here are "not seized by a compulsion to fit what they see into familiar narratives". In fact, the principal interest of these pieces lies precisely in the fact that they are every bit as situated within their own context as any Western travel writing, rehearsing their own cultural obsessions, and it is hard to see how anything else could be the case since to write about the Other is necessarily a comparative act. Thus, Islamic writers can be sneeringly dismissive of Christian and "kafir" ways, Moroccans disparaging of Egyptians, Asians smugly ethnocentric and Africans sweepingly condemnatory of cultural difference. Khair notes tellingly that the worst excesses of Orientalism are to be found in the writings of al-Abdari, a 13th-century Moroccan author, telling of his journey on the haj - he is a man who does not mince his words: "Cairo is the site of the lowest, most corrupt, vile and evil people." Often, it must be said, the lives of the writers are more extraordinary than their insights: Umar ibn Said travelled throughout the Ottoman and Russian empires, visited Western Europe, the West Indies and served in a Northern regiment in the American Civil War, but has virtually nothing of note to say about any of it.

The editors have divided the work into a number of sections - pilgrimages, studies, autobiographies and travel accounts. This classification leaks horribly and serves little purpose. A decent index would have been much more help. A lengthy passage from Olaudah Equiano is included under the last rubric, but the editors seem unaware that his work is not "unique in his recollection of traditional African life before the advent of the European slave trade" but rather an 18th-century Western literary scam (see Vincent Carreta's recent Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man ).

The most striking and important piece is probably the account of a Viking (Rus) funeral observed by Ahmad ibn Fadlan in southern Russia in 922 and claimed repeatedly to be first published here in English. This seems unlikely since British students of Germanic languages were using some version of this text 30 years ago and, more recently, it was published in English and discussed at length by James Montgomery in the Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies . Yet it shows the difficulty of revealing hidden agendas at such a remove.

What impresses about ibn Fadlan is the bald objectivity of his observations, devoid of moral judgment. The passage reads rather like the crisp ethnography of a postwar, British-trained anthropologist, deliberately unimpressed by the exotic at the same time as he unpicks it intellectually. The serial sex with a slave, for example, as a distinctive stage of the funeral, is described entirely without passion and with a determination simply to record detail. Yet the comparison is spurious.

Elsewhere in this document, ibn Fadlan is furiously condemnatory of the Rus (comparing them to dogs), and it must be remembered that Arab interest in the region was largely as a source of imported slaves, many for sexual purposes. Is it possible that ibn Fadlan is unemotional over this sexual violence less because he is a detached and educated rationalist rather than simply because he gets enough of it at home?

Nigel Barley is a writer and anthropologist and was formerly a curator at the British Museum.

Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing

Editor - Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin D. Edwards and Hanna Ziadeh
Publisher - Signal Books
Pages - 421
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 1 904955 11 8 and 12 6

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