Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah

One of Tim's books 
One of Tim's booksOne of Tim's books

Published in hardback in 2000 and in paperback in 2002.

'Intoxicating, dazzlingly erudite, yet full of gentle wit and informed by its author's profound knowledge of Muslim society, this book is a breathtaking achievement.'
Sunday Times

'Mackintosh-Smith is a worthy eccentric successor to Battutah … brilliant, erudite and entertaining literary coup … Delightfully old-fashioned and courteous, Mackintosh-Smith has a gift for the arresting phrase and the vivid metaphor'. Time

'Learned, smartly observant, and very readable . . . An admirable rarity'
The New Republic

'Travels with a Tangerine is an exceptional book. ... I have filled the blank pages at the back of the book with a cornucopia of notes; on subjects as varied and fascinating as how to prepare your own soothsayer from sesame oil, how to make medieval anaesthetic (from a gag of opium, hashish and belladona), what to do with the penis of a palm tree, on Al-Khadir the immortal Muslim greenman and how Islam and Christendom are split on the matter of shaving, one faith preffering a clean face, the other a clean crotch'. Country Life

'Mind-broadening not only in the way that it revives the history of a remarkable traveller, but also for its representation of modern Islam as tolerant, hospitable, humorous and cultured.' The Times

'This is not, strictly speaking, a travelogue: It’s a dhayl, or “tail”—in the style of medieval Muslim authors—that carries on where the writer left off, brilliantly collapsing the six and a half centuries between today and Ibn Battutah’s dictation of the globe-spanning memoirs that made him the most renowned traveler of the Middle Ages. Mackintosh-Smith doesn’t so much literally retrace Ibn Battutah’s route as he engages in “inverted archeology” at key sites along the first third of the Moroccan’s 75,000 miles of journeys ... panoptic and witty, he slides effortlessly from the esoteric Arabic texts that lend context to Ibn Battutah to his own experiences as a modern traveler ... Mackintosh-Smith’s writing is fresh enough to make the entire field of medieval Arabic studies suddenly seem, of all things, fun, and—perhaps more surprising yet—hip'. Saudi Aramco World

'Mackintosh-Smith's knowledge of Arabic opens many doors, and his affection for, and empathy with, Arab and Muslim culture allows him to weave past and present together in a seamless literary tapestry, studded with jewels of erudition and joyous humour. Some pages made me laugh out loud, a reaction fully in keeping with Ibn Battutah's spirit . . . The writings of Ibn Battutah show us that life under medieval Islam was often rumbustious, joyful, sensuous and highly pleasurable.'    Literary Review

Captivated by the intricacies of Arabic (and its ironies: a near-mute landlord on the coast of Oman being called Abu Kalam, or Father of Speech), and the academic complexities of what he calls the 'inverse archaeology' he is engaged in, he is not the most obvious of traveller-types. But by playing the roll of sponge-bag in Ibn Battutah's luggage, he has allowed himself to indulge a much less ordered side of himself. Ibn Battutah the sensualist (what a libido!), the romantic, the joker, the socialite, the holy-man addict has etched himself into MS the footnote-fetishist, to such an extent that the best of the stories in Travels with a Tangerine are those of this later, 21st century traveller. … MS writes like a dream … : His images cry out to be watched, and on the crest of real humour is a lyricism that flows throughout the book. The linguist, scholar, foot-sore walker and wit in him all melt into the story-teller … the effect of this double-narrative -- where you watch Ibn Battutah set off into the sunset, double-take, and then watch MS do the same thing -- is mesmerising. Al-Ahram Weekly

'While there are few writers who would dare to break off from a brief hagiographic treatise to muse on the merits or otherwise of the various lavatories they have encountered, M-S has no such reservations. He shouldn't really get away with it, but he does.' Yorkshire Evening Post



Following the Path of a Medieval Arab Wanderer By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

The following article was published by the New York Times on the 11th January, 2003.

SANAA, Yemen — The mildly hypnotic effects of his daily khat chew had barely kicked in before Tim Mackintosh-Smith made an odd admission for a travel writer.

"I don't like traveling in itself," he confessed, shredding another mouthful of the tender, slightly bitter khat leaves from a branch he was holding. "I would much rather stay here and chew khat. But when I do travel, I have been blessed with good luck."

The luck Mr. Mackintosh-Smith referred to is not the ordinary kind associated with travel in these uneasy times. He was talking about his chance encounters with the myriad saints, rogues and savants — mostly living — who lend zest to his books.

"A third eye opens when I travel, and it sees a lot," he said during a day spent eating lunch and chewing khat (pronounced cot), a stimulant whose ingestion is the afternoon pastime of most men here in Yemen's capital, his home for two decades. "Things cease to be mundane when you have this third eye open."

In his latest effort, "Travels With a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah" (Welcome Rain Publishers), which appeared in the United States last summer, he endeavors to follow the route of a famous 14th-century Arab traveler, Ibn Battutah. I. B., as he is referred to in the book, set off from his hometown, Tangier (hence the title), on the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in roughly 1325 and returned some 29 years and 75,000 miles later.

He had wandered as far east as China, well into Russia and as far south as Tanzania, officially marrying at least 10 women along the way — not to mention entertaining himself with prodigious numbers of slave concubines — and siring five children.

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith, 41, proposed retracing Ibn Battutah's steps. Except for the marriages, that is, because "travelers never fall in love because love is connected with stasis," he said. He wanted to unearth what traces of I. B.'s spiritual and physical world survive.

To his delight, he found men along the way who could quote whole passages from Ibn Battutah's "Travels" and came upon certain scenes that might have been lifted from it wholesale. The task proved somewhat too daunting for one book, however, so this first episode covers Morocco , Egypt , Syria , Oman , parts of the Crimea and Turkey . Mr. Mackintosh-Smith is writing a second volume, restricted to India , and finds his editor welcoming even more.

"You end up in the middle of bloody nowhere and you think you could do this forever," he said.

Walking into an afternoon khat chew at a friend's new house, Mr. Mackintosh-Smith noted the incorrect grammar in an inscription above the door. (His first book, " Yemen : Travels in Dictionary Land ," depicted his early years learning Arabic and teaching English here.) Although Yemen has recently earned a rather dim reputation as Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland and a possible refuge for fleeing Qaeda veterans, Mr. Mackintosh-Smith finds his life here unaffected by events since Sept. 11.

His sweeping command of Arabic, which he began acquiring as an Oxford University undergraduate, gives his meanderings far more texture than most chronicles about the Middle East . He draws inspiration from the Arabic literary tradition of springing verbal surprises — nawadir, or rare words — on the reader.

"The odd one is an ornament, like a mole on a beautiful face," he said, as if he were quoting an Arabic proverb, as he often does. "I think it's good for the reader to have a puzzle every so often, though not too many," he said.



Describing a beached whale in Oman , for example, he writes in "Travels With a Tangerine," "I tried to imagine this inert, axungious blob alive, flexing and somersaulting through the deep ocean." His editor, unable to find the adjective axungious in any dictionary, queried him. Mr. Mackintosh-Smith was able to cite a 17th-century writer who used the word (it's from Latin) to describe something resembling lard.

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith also weaves in descriptions drawn from unusual Arab writers, especially at times when his main inspiration, Ibn Battutah, fails to provide flavor. When I. B. gives scant attention to what he did in Cairo, for example, Mr. Mackintosh-Smith quotes other medieval travelers on subjects, like hailing a donkey cab, that retain a ring of truth today. This is from Ibn Sa'id, a poet as well as a wanderer:

The city is sheer hell, alas

For him that hires a taxi-ass.

I, driver, on your donkey sit,

Eyeless in Cairo from the grit.

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith often translates Arabic poetry when not traveling, and for that, to"It's brilliant for reading; you can plow through some really solid texts with khat," he said, comparing himself to Albus Dumbledore, the good wizard and headmaster in the Harry Potter series who stores all his memories in a bowl. "Khat seems to have a similar sort of effect; it's great for making connections. Rhythms just come to you when you are chewing."

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith swears the stimulant is not addictive. Although illegal in the United States , where the Drug Enforcement Agency compares the effects of heavy consumption to those of amphetamine abuse, khat is legal in most of Africa, the Middle East and Europe . Mr. Mackintosh-Smith said the real allure of the plant lay in the ritual: scouring the market for the right leaves, washing them and gathering with friends in some rooftop aerie overlooking old Sanaa to chew and sip water or soft drinks.

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith, born in England to a father who played the viola and a mother who worked as a nurse, first came to Yemen in 1982 to continue studying Arabic after a banking job failed to materialize. "I always felt that I would like to be here for a good long time, if not for good, and now I do think it's for good," he said, blue eyes glinting under black hair well gone to gray.

When not traveling to research his books — "Tangerine" took a year — he often refurbishes old houses in Sanaa, towers whose tilting mud-brick construction and white trim make them seem like gingerbread confections run slightly amok.

His current project is a house for himself that is roughly five stories, with one room on each floor. The previous tenants are responsible for some of the holes that he is using for wiring. Just before moving out, the owner had an apparition of a breed of snake that symbolizes buried treasure in Yemeni lore, so she returned to bash holes in the wall with a pickax to look for the lucre.

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith's conversation, like his books, overflows with lore. Driving past a street called Choppy Sea in this landlocked city, he explained that the name probably stemmed from the blood that used to flow from the butcher shops there.

Earlier the same afternoon, Mr. Mackintosh-Smith had shown up for lunch wearing a long white robe and a double-breasted pinstripe blue blazer from a local secondhand shop, a tattered head scarf thrown around his neck and his feet in sandals.

He waded into the crowd on the main square, heading for a narrow storefront where blackened stone pots teetered atop blazing open fires. The largely outdoor restaurant served a bubbling dish called salta .

He quoted a Yemeni from 1,000 years ago describing the benefits of the searingly hot dish, made of beef, wheat bread and fenugreek and scooped out of the pot with delicious chunks of fresh flat bread.

"This is the best place in Sanaa for salta and therefore the best place in the world," he said, perched on a rickety sidewalk picnic table of welded aluminum. "All the wicked people who say this came from the Ottomans are a load of rot."

It was another street meal that launched the "Tangerine" travels. Mr. Mackintosh-Smith had bought a potato from a vendor when a neighbor, who, as he put it, "takes gentle pleasure in publicly eroding my bookish reputation," suggested that the word potato came to English via Arabic from the name Ibn Battutah.

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith did not take long to discover that it didn't, but the gleam of inspiration was born.