Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka: Review by Sasanka Perera

This review was originally published in the Sunday Times

In a casual conversation in 2019, Ameena Hussein told me that she was writing a book on Ibn Battuta, the well-known Moroccan traveller and scholar of Islam who lived between 1304 and 1369. I was intrigued by how Hussein, a formally trained sociologist and one of the best-known English language writers of fiction in Sri Lanka, would approach such a historical exploration. The answer came when a copy of her interesting book containing 22 chapters and 115 maps, photographs and illustrations reached me a few days ago.

It is certainly not the kind of historical narrative I have read before. It takes us back to many pasts: the past when Battuta roamed the world and came to Lanka; the past when other travellers also came to the island and visited some of the same places as Battuta had, and the past marked by the author’s own family history. But this book is not only about the past. Hussein also takes us to many moments in the present via the excursions she had undertaken in search of Battuta’s traces in Lanka. In this process, she disrupts the traditional boundaries of time and space cautiously maintained in formal narratives of history and blurs the boundaries between them. In this sense, it is certainly a ‘personal journey’ as a part of the book’s title informs us at the very beginning. However, Hussein’s foremost intention as claimed in the book itself is to construct a narrative of Battuta’s presence in Lanka in the 14th century.

Ibn Battuta’s record of his travels is generally referred to as the Rihla, which is now available in many languages. In her first chapter, Hussein presents a brief history of how Battuta’s original work entered European languages through several seminal translations and goes on to offer an outline of the English translations she has used for her book.What fascinated me most about the book was the simple and somewhat playful and irreverent language style employed, which she had initially developed through her creative writing.  I think this selective irreverence in language has brought Battuta down from the classical pedestal he usually occupies in historical material to well within reach of ordinary people who can read in English.

It is generally assumed Battuta landed in Puttalam or the surrounding area during his voyage to the island. In that sense, it is hardly surprising that Hussein starts her work in Puttalam. Although there is a street and a public building named after Battuta in this largely Muslim city, Hussein’s conversations with many people suggests that the memory of Battuta has largely faded from the popular discourse of the community. A person associated with a mosque in Ratnapura even insisted that Battuta had come from Russia.

At present, knowledge of Battuta’s travels as well as numerous interpretations on where he went and what he saw constitute a global discourse of travel and history. In this sense, the significance of Hussein’s efforts in reading Battuta is located in her concerted attempt to focus on his visit to Lanka as well as his internal travels in the island. From a methodological point of view, any writer attempting to trace Battuta’s travels in Lanka would be immediately confronted by several significant hurdles.  One of the main issues is, the place names in his record are not easily decipherable while often he fails to give crucial information on what he might have seen because many of his references are very concise. Also, when trying to connect with Battuta’s time, it is very difficult to find reliable local historical and archaeological information that might corroborate his stories.  My sense is, it is not possible to resolve these methodological problems successfully today.

When it comes to these gaps, Hussein deals with them primarily through a lively sense of imagination. For example, Battuta refers to a place called ‘Kunarka’ as the capital of the country, which Hussein refers to as the Sinhala capital (108). She says, “surely that is the Moroccan’s unwieldy tongue trying to pronounce Kurunegala” (108). She argues Kunarka is Kurunegala because present day Kurunegala is situated in a valley and has a lake similar to the references that Battuta gives in his account: “it lies in a narrow valley between two hills, near a great lake called the Lake of Rubies because rubies are found in it” (108). Kurunegala certainly was an important centre at the time and Hussein may well be correct. But the bases for her interpretation are the non-specific physical references noted above, and because Kurunegala is on the way to Trincomalee, Dambulla and Jaffna (108). However, references to hills and lakes are too general, and could also describe many other places in the island at that time. Also Kurunegala’s importance in travel to Trincomalee, Dambulla and Jaffna are important in the context of colonial trunk road construction and after rather than in the 14th century. One can find such interpretations in many places in Hussein’s narrative. Although this method of argumentation does not provide an adequately robust methodological basis for formal historiography, it very clearly is in sync with the contextual arguments made by Hussein while it also adds to the readability and flow of her book.

One thing that Battuta has described in considerable detail is, his journey to Sri Pada. As a result, Hussein also offers us a somewhat detailed account of this episode (161-175). It is interesting to note that in his time, Sri Pada was an important pilgrim destination for travelling Muslim pilgrims and not merely for Buddhists, a fact that is now completely lost to contemporary Buddhist pilgrims. In addition to the information provided by Battuta about his travels, Hussein also provides us with numerous strands of information about Kings Vijaya Bahu I and Parakrama Bahu II as well as Jacob Godfried Haafner, a latter-day Dutch traveller, and even Sir John Kotelawala. Although all these people are brought together by their encounters with Sri Pada, those encounters took place at vastly different times and circumstances from each other, and equally as different from Battuta’s time.  This ever-changing and radical variation of times though with reference to a single space poses significant challenges.  This is mostly a difficulty for cautious readers to navigate through. This stylistic approach can be seen in many parts of the book.  However, it will not be a problem for people who would read Hussein’s book with entertainment in mind, which it certainly offers as well.

Although the book’s stated objective is to offer a commentary on Ibn Battuta’s journey to Lanka, it gives us other very different and more interesting accounts than what Battuta offers in Rhila with regard to Lanka. For me, what is most educating and intriguing about book has to do with these other narratives that go beyond Battuta. One of these is the past implicated by Hussein’s own personal family history, intertwined with the broader socio-cultural history of the country. For example, the Mumtaz Mahal, which was once the Speaker’s official residence, was the author’s ancestral home built by her grandfather, where her father used to live as a child. Similarly, the well-known Ghafoor Building in Colombo was built by another close kinsman.

As we all know, these are very important iconic examples in any rendition of Sri Lanka’s history of built environment in the colonial period. But Battuta has nothing to do with these places or their individual histories. The author does not make any claim for this either. Instead, they are linked to the author’s attempts to establish her ethno-cultural and religious and class identity when visiting culturally conservative places such as mosques to explore the contemporary memory of Battuta. That is, these descriptions have entered into the book as methodological detours as well as Hussein’s irresistible urge to be an entertaining storyteller.

Similarly, another important secondary contribution of the book is the information it offers on the social and cultural history of Muslims in this country. That information begins from the time before Battuta’s arrival, his own time as well as the centuries after his time, right up to the present. This tendency of additional narratives manifests itself within the book as a collective of indirect but substantial discourses. My sense is, they play a crucial role in giving the book the personality it has.

Seen in the context briefly outlined above, how should we understand Hussein’s work? Without a doubt, there are problems with research approaches and interpretations when looking at her methodological practice. This is the result of her attempt to take the book beyond a formal historical inquiry and weave it into a ‘personal’ journey and a somewhat emotional inquiry tempered by passion. My suggestion is, it would be a mistake to perceive this book merely as a linear historical inquiry in the conventional sense. Instead, we should understand it as a very readable narrative that takes Battuta’s journey to Lanka as its starting point, which then proceeds through various detours to map out Muslim religious and community history in Lanka as well as the author’s family history in the context of which we also get to know what Battuta has written about what he saw in the island, and Hussein’s interpretation of what these places might be.

Moreover, this is not just a book about the past. It is also very much a contemporary narrative that takes us to various places in present-day Sri Lanka and to current and evolving socio-political situations, and the author’s anxieties about these conditions.

Finally, I would suggest Ameena Hussein’s Chasing Tall Tales and Mystics – Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka: A Personal Journey as an elegant and moving present-day textual performance that implicates the past as well as the present. In this context, Ibn Battuta is not the main character in the book, but only one of the main characters in it. The main voice and the guiding character in the book instead is Ameena Hussein herself.  As a result, to appreciate and understand this work, one must take a closer look at her emotional, intellectual, and personal background, as well as her political sensibilities and playful approach to language and narrative.

Let us know what you think!