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Review article: Ibn al-Mujawir 

Tim Mackintosh-Smith

This is an abridged version of the review which appeared in Bibliotheca Orientalis LXVI No. 1-2 January-April 2009. We are indebted to the Editorial Board of Bibliotheca Orientalis and to the author for permitting its publication in the Society's Journal. 

A Traveller in Thirteenth-Century Arabia: Ibn al-Mujawir's Tarikh al-Mustabsir. Translated from Oscar Löfgren'sArabicText and edited with revisions and annotations by G. Rex Smith. The Hakluyt Society, London, Third Series, No. 19. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, 2008. Pp. xix + 341. Maps. Illus. Appendices. Glossary. Bibliog. Index. ISBN 978-0904180-91-6. ISSN 0072 9396. 

'The text of Tarikh al-Mustabsir', Professor Smith tells us at the start of the introduction to his annotated translation of it, 'is the early thirteenthcentury account of a journey made by a businessman (or someone profoundly interested in business) in the Arabian Peninsula.' (p. 1). It is, however, a lot more than a simple travelogue: so broad are the contents, Smith admits, ' ... [that] they ideally require the treatment of a whole committee of scholars.' (p. xvii). It is that breadth of subject matter which, more than anything, makes the long-awaited appearance in English of Ibn al-Mujawir's Arabic text a major event in the world of Arabian studies. 

Rather than describing a single trip as suggested by that opening sentence, Ibn al-Mujawir, in the manner of the earliest Arabic geographical literature, organizes his book round a series of routes. Each of these takes the reader from one place to another via a number of stated points, with the distances between the points given in parasangs. In addition, places of particular interest are described at greater or lesser length, the descriptions focusing on historic buildings, defensive walls and so on. Eleven major towns, together with a group of fortresses and the island of Socotra, are also illustrated by schematic plans: eschewing attempts at naturalism and relying instead on simple geometric forms, these are in the style of the maps that illustrate the early geographical works of the so-called 'Balkhi school'. As a source on the historical topography of Arabia, and particularly the populated areas of its southern half, Tarikh al-Mustabsir ranks high in importance after al-Hamdani's earlier Sifat Jazirat al-'Arab

Ibn al-Mujawir's account, however, goes far beyond topography. Of a naturally curious and digressive frame of mind, it is his wanderings away from his stated itineraries and antiquarian descriptions that make his book so rich. Paramount among his interests is a concern with almost every aspect of commerce - the various grades, for instance, of leather goods and swords; the minutiae of weights and measures, of customs and excise and taxes. It is a concern that is almost an obsession: at one point he even dreams of taxes. The fact that Tarikh al-Mustabsir is the major source, along with documents from the Cairo Geniza, for a recent monograph on regional commercial history - Roxani Margariti's Aden and the Indian Ocean Trade (2007) - bears witness to its importance in this respect.

It is important in many other respects too. Ibn al-Mujawir had a magpie's eye that took in much of anthropological interest - marriage customs, magic, heterodox sectarian beliefs and practices, dress, food and so on - and eagerly sought out 'aja'ib, 'wonders'. He also had an ear for tall stories and a nose for the salacious. Much of the marvellous farrago of information that results is thus decidedly anecdotal. Much is also sui generis: whether we wish to believe, for example - or even particularly want to know - that in al-Nahrawan in Iraq depilation of the anal area is aided by the barber inserting into the orifice, then partially withdrawing, a ball on a string (p.152), we will probably search in vain for an alternative account. (That most prurient - and inaccurate - of translators, Sir Richard Burton, would have loved Tarikh al-Mustabsir). Much of what might at first sight appear dubious can in fact be of considerable value. For example, there is a curious passage on 'Protection arrangements among the Arabs' (p.229), concerning captives and the periods of immunity from death that they enjoy as a result of consuming various types of food and drink in their captors' houses. Not only is this evidence for the antiquity of an apparently strange legal notion, one that reappears in more recent tribal statutes, but it also goes on to explain the logic behind it.

Then again, it would be almost as hard to find an Arabic work of its period, or indeed of most other periods, written with such sustained verve and humour. Leaving aside the more mannered comedy of the maqamat, perhaps only Usamah ibn Munqidh's Kitab al-I'tibar is written with anything approaching the unforced wit of Tarikh al-Mustabsir. Ibn al-Mujawir is a natural raconteur, and some of the stories he tells - for example, one in which a merchant unwittingly slights the ruler of Aden to his face (pp.146-7) - are as funny now as they were 800 years ago. If independent evidence of the quality of his narrative material were needed, a story he tells about two slaves bidding madly for the last fish in the market (p.122) was good enough to have lasted - albeit the fish had turned into a ram - until the time of Ibn Ba??u?ah's visit to Aden, over a century after Ibn al-Mujawir. Even more enduring is a joke involving circumcision and decapitation (p.62), still told in Yemen with slight variations today; it was probably doing the rounds long before Ibn al-Mujawir.

Despite his pungent voice and his all-seeing eye, Ibn al-Mujawir - unlike the self-revealing Ibn Ba??u?ah - gives away almost nothing, at least directly, about himself. He is an all but invisible spectator. Professor Smith, in fact, is the first commentator to establish the author's full name beyond reasonable doubt. The identity of the author, however, is a problem that pales beside the difficulties of his text. For a start, the language, like the contents, is sui generis. Smith began by wondering why Ibn al-Mujawir should have chosen to write his book in 'Middle Arabic' (pp.18-19). More recently, he has inclined towards a more obvious conclusion that Ibn al-Mujawir's knowledge of literary Arabic was simply deficient (p.22). In addition to his extremely non-standard grammar, Ibn al-Mujawir also scatters his writing with dialecticisms, some still to be heard in southern Arabia today - which might well suggest long acquaintance with or residence in the region on his part. Add to the linguistic problems a huge number of highly localized toponyms and a lag of nearly four centuries between the book's composition and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, and all the ingredients are there for a mangled text. Oscar Löfgren struggled valiantly to disentangle its confusions; but the Arabic version he published in the 1950s, on which Professor Smith has based his English version, is still littered with tentative readings and gaping lacunae. The task of translating it is often more akin to decipherment. It is therefore not altogether surprising that Smith worked on his version for over twenty years (that ideal 'committee of scholars' would have taken for ever...). Nor is it surprising that it has finally appeared, by the translator's own admission, with 'blemishes and all' (p.xvi). What is more surprising is the number of these blemishes. 

These include inconsistencies in page references (at times to the printed Arabic text, at other times internally to the translation, apparently without reason for the differentiation), in the use of italics in the transcription of the Arabic and in the use of miles versus kilometres. In one notable example of an elementary editorial slip, the plan of al-Janad (p.175) has been printed upside-down. These errors give the impression that the text was rushed through the press - a strange notion given its twenty-plus years of gestation.

Apart from other basic errors such as occasional omission of an Arabic phrase from the translation (e. g. on pp. 215, 266, 274, 276 and 285) and in one case omission of a footnote (n. 7, p. 127), other problems perhaps arise from that long gestation period: the intermittent nature of work on the text and notes seems to have resulted in insights being incorporated into them at some points but not at others (as the Yemeni saying goes, ma tuwul wa 'urud dakhal fih miyat shaytan, 'if an affair becomes long and wide, a hundred devils will get into it' or, perhaps, 'the longer the job, the more the gremlins'). 

To turn to more substantial matters of (a) reading and (b) interpretation, there are very many points on which this reviewer would differ from Löfgren and Smith. This is certainly not the place to set these out in full, but a few examples of each sort may serve to illustrate the kind of textual and exegetical debates that might be opened and which are indeed invited by Professor Smith, who admits that he has had recourse to 'educated guesses' (p. xvii). 

The migration of the people of Libyan Tripoli 'to Bari and Tuliyah', glossed respectively as a village near Baghdad and, following 'Ibn Khurdadhbah ... , a town on a lake behind al-Saqalibah (?)' (p. 198 and n. 8), might be more credible if it were redirected to Bari and Buliyah, i.e. Bari and Puglia in Italy. 

A troublesome phrase read by Löfgren and Smith as fanus taf'il' 'ajib (nn. 1 and 2, p. 222) would make more sense in the context as ra's naqil' ajib, i.e. 'the top of the 'Ajib Pass'. A comparable expression is to be found in a very similar context - that of lights being visible at high and distant points in the eighth volume of al-Hamdani's Iklil.

The rasas, Smith's 'stones', used in the building of the Marib Dam (p. 205 and n. 6), may in this case be 'lead' (the more common meaning of the word), the use of which in the dam's construction can still be observed in its remains today; compare also the Quranic account (18: 96) of the barrier of Ya'juj and Ma'juj. 

With a text as corrupt and often obscure as Ibn al-Mujawir's, there are enough points such as these for that ideal committee of scholars to argue over until doomsday fire appears from Sirat 'Adan. However, there are more than a few cases where this reviewer believes the translation to be unquestionably wrong. A somewhat surprising number of them could be classed as mistakes of an elementary nature - for example translating mumiya, 'mummy' (in this case the substance extracted from embalmed corpses is meant), as 'indicate' (p. 166), as if it were from the verb awma'a; or reading bayt sha'ar, 'a hair tent' (p. 231), instead of bayt shi'r, 'a line of poetry'. No scholar is immune from error: Homer sometimes nods, and so too - very rarely - does Gibb in his Hakluyt edition of Ibn Battutah. The noddings in the present volume, countable in dozens, are more numerous than might have been expected. 

There remains one final matter, perhaps more substantial than the others. Professor Smith suggested in an article written when he was still in the early stages of his work on Tarikh al-Mustabsir that, in view of the many problems associated with them that are insoluble by other means, Ibn alMujawir's travels 'should ideally be repeated with text in hand'. [1] It is to be regretted that this ideal was never realized, and that quite so much of the book's landscape, both literal and metaphorical, remains terra incognita. Professor Smith has benefited from the experience, warmly acknowledged, of some of those who know or knew Ibn al-Mujawir's territory on the ground (notably Francine Stone, Daniel Varisco and the late Professor R. B. Serjeant - one of the co-dedicatees of this volume). His translation is nevertheless a creature of the library, and a huge number of toponyms are impossible to check in the literary sources. He himself acknowledges this and apologizes (p. 11) for the 'tedious' repetition of that footnote, 'Unidentified', referring to place-names. In some cases there are ten or more such gaps-in-the-map on a single page (e. g. p. 125). 

Many of Ibn al-Mujawir's toponyms will probably elude us for ever. Some, though, are still there on the ground for the mustabsir to find (curiously, Professor Smith does not appear to have translated the book's title: Tarikh al-Mustabsir means 'The History of One Who Seeks to Perceive Clearly'). These toponyms include, for example, Wadi Sari' (p. 239 and n. 10), which flows south between the massifs of al-Mahwit and Hufash to join Wadi Surdud at Khamis Bani Sa'd; the alleged cave (one of many in different lands) of Ahl al-Kahf, on which Ibn al-Mujawir comments at some length (pp. 170-2), in a hamlet of the same name not far from the summit of Jabal Sabir; and, looking further afield, al-Ma'bar and Saylan which - far from being unidentified (nn. 3 and 4, p. 286) - are the usual Arabic names of the period for what are now the Coromandel Coast and Sri Lanka. 

More place-names will probably be pinned down on the map by the Yemeni scholar Muhammad 'Abd al-Rahim Jazim, who is currently working on a new Arabic edition of Tarikh al-Mustabsir and has the advantage of being in situ. And what else, beside toponyms, may survive undiscovered on the ground? The only way to find out is to respond to the tacit call of Ibn al-Mujawir's book - a call made explicit in another far-ranging work of historical topography of the age, al-Harawi's Isharat - 'to roam the earth and to confirm with heart and pen what I have said'. 

Professor Smith's translation and annotation of this beguiling but highly challenging text is a labour of love; or perhaps more exactly the child of a long and passionate, if at times inconstant, affair. Despite its blemishes and inevitable guesses it is a work of considerable scholarship. Prominent among its many strengths is the attention given to elucidating Ibn al Mujawir's often garbled accounts of contemporary and earlier political and dynastic history, and to commenting on his dense information concerning trade, commercial practice, taxes, weights and measures. Most important, through his twenty years of textual travels in and around Tarikh al-Mustabsir, Professor Smith has opened up the broad landscape of Ibn al Mujawir's Arabia, in all its richness, strangeness and - not least - comedy, to a wide new readership. 


[1] A. Gingrich et al. (eds), Studies in Oriental Culture and History: Festschrift forWalter Dostal, Frankfurt-amMain, 1993, p. 161. 48 

Vol 18. 2010