Travelogues are a well-known genre within medieval literature; from Ibn Battutah to Ibn Jubayr’s travels, they demonstrate how curious these explorers were. In more recent times, the travelogues have been used in Arab literature to highlight various issues that afflict the modern Middle East, whether that be through Naguib Mahfouz’s “Travels of Ibn Fatouma” or Amin Malouf’s “Leo the African”. The latest addition to the canon, “The Travels of Ibn Fudayl”, is a quirky addition to this genre that is a subtle critique of current attitudes both within the Arab world and, indeed, towards the Arab world.
The travelogue claims to be a translation based on a manuscript found in Damascus by a previously unheard of translator, George Richard Sole. He is clearly as much a part of the story as the escapades of Ibn Fudayl himself. Through his copious footnotes and bibliography, he filters an Englishman’s prejudices about the Arabs and satirises the chicanery of Orientalists whose attitudes still inform our popular intellectuals to this day.
The plot is ostensibly about a philosopher — the eponymous Ibn Fudayl — who sets out on his travels in search of wisdom, which would probably have been successful were it not for the fact that he is an imbecile. Ibn Fudayl’s journey takes him across the Middle East all the way to Andalusia, but instead of searching for what is really important, he recounts local conflicts such as the civil war in the town of Siyasa between those with short beards and those with long beards. It’s a dispute so mired in obduracy that even the hairs on the chins of the local goats were neither spared the yardstick of condemnation nor the shears of the righteous.
Action-packed bloodshed aside, the central narrative is the relationship between Ibn Fudayl the traveller and his mentor Al-Homsi, quite possibly the most stupid man on earth at the time. Al-Homsi purports to be a great philosopher and scientist who in his quest for irrelevant knowledge and society to hold him up in great esteem, causes more damage to society than he is aware of. Whilst the reader watches this with incredulity the narrator explains that Al-Homsi’s ways are to be seen as “a rare kind of wisdom”, bestowed as a Divine gift on the great man. The Great Al-Homsi, as we should refer to him, is more than a relic of more simple times, and is perhaps a harbinger of modern movements that shape the world in which we all currently live.
The footnotes are funny and extraordinary; for example, the extraordinary claim of Dr Volgare, who claims that Al-Homsi was responsible for nothing less than redrawing the gender map of the West by daring to treat women on an equal footing in 12th Century Iberia. Some footnotes have their own plot within them. In fact, they serve another purpose, along with the sources, in lampooning some of the experts who write about the Arab world and have built careers on the back of deconstructing Arab identity to give intellectual respectability to a lot of the unsavoury Western discourse about the Middle East and its subjects.
A great satirist is clearly at work in “The Travels of Ibn Fudayl”, one who definitely knows the medieval travelogue genre intimately as well as the previously alluded-to skills in translation. This work informs and entertains as well as raises many questions. The book is great fun for the expert and is both accessible and enjoyable for the casual reader. It has been called “remarkable” by the Guardian’s former Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker. He is not wrong.