on 24 March 2011
Landfalls is the third in Tim Mackintosh-Smith's trilogy of books following in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah, the well-traveled 14th-century man about the Islamic world--and perhaps his best book yet. By now, Mackintosh-Smith is a seasoned traveler and deeply read Ibn Battutah connoisseur, and a sharp, observant and delightful writer. After trailing IB, as he calls Ibn Battutah, across North Africa, the Middle East and India in Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns, he ventures with IB here to the edges of the classical Islamic world: east Africa, the Indian Ocean, China and West Africa.
Mackintosh-Smith roams from Tanzania, which is as far down the east coast of Africa as Islam spread by the 1300s (and today, for that matter), to the Maldives, those idyllic looking islands in the Indian Ocean that had just fallen under the sway of Islam as IB landed by ship. Then it's off to Sri Lanka, where a beleaguered Muslim minority still lingers through the depredations of that country's longstanding civil strife between Tamils and Sinhalese, and as far east as China, where Muslims now (as then) barely have a toe-hold. In the end, he returns like IB to West Africa, where IB spent his last journeying days, and to Spain, as the reconquista was pushing the last remnants of the golden age of Islam out of the Iberian peninsula and back to the shores of Africa.
All along, Mackintosh-Smith seeks tangible remnants of IB or of IB's time and acquaintances, and surprisingly often finds them, or at least close enough to the real thing. There are mosques that IB must have attended, roads that he might have traveled. Then there's the time he manages to attend a Manding religious ceremony in Guinea--a Naipaulesque nightmare of a country. He's suddenly sitting with IB, who wrote about the same ceremony some 650 years before, in pretty much the exact same place. It's a startling convergence of time and space, and one that Mackintosh-Smith conveys in sparkling prose that brings it indelibly alive.
Along the way, Mackintosh-Smith regales us with stories of IB, whose famous book of travels he knows inside out not only from speaking Arabic but from having all but memorized extended passages. IB was infamous for collecting royals: if he were alive today, Mackintosh-Smith jests, he'd work a tabloid on the royalty beat. As an exotic Westerner in whatever place he lands, he is soon fawning over local potentates, and carefully planning how he will touch the various sultans for a bit of gold while he's at it--and spreading his genes via multiple marriages and liaisons to boot. IB, as Mackintosh-Smith portrays him, is utterly wily--after all, how otherwise could he have survived some 30 years of traveling the known world in the mid-1300s and come back to tell the tale?
Mostly Mackintosh-Smith is traveling alone, but occasionally his traveling companion, the artist Martin Yeoman, tags along, providing the deft line drawings that are sprinkled through the book. Mackintosh-Smith likes the company, and he gleefully reports the puns they trade. Still, the storytelling in Landfalls is best when Mackintosh-Smith is alone; it makes him a more careful observer, forced to mix with the locals.
Normally I trot quickly through a good travel book, but with Landfalls I took my time, savoring each page. Mackintosh-Smith's writing is a joy to read; he's a writer who's in love with words. (More than a few I'd never run across before, but like reading Patrick Leigh-Fermor, I consider it a free lesson to have to thumb through my dictionary now and again.)
Landfalls stands alone perfectly well: you don't need to have read the first two books to appreciate or understand anything in this one. Mackintosh-Smith has thought long and hard about IB and the ways that IB's world is still with us today. This is the most erudite, masterful, amusing, and enlightening book I've read in years, and deserves a wide audience, especially in this age of very one-dimensional portrayals of Islam.