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Landfalls; On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Batutah
Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Landfalls is the long-awaited and dazzling conclusion to the Tim Mackintosh-Smith trilogy ­ a three book quest after the shadow of Ibn Batutah. Half Sherlock Holmes, half Paddy Leigh-Fermor, Mackintosh-Smith possesses an enthusiasm, stamina and intelligence which have all been tested on the trail of the Moroccan traveller who died over 600 years ago. In this volume, we dart from the ancient curse-haunted cemetery of forty shaykhs on the Swahili coast of East Africa, to the spirit-obsessed nightlife of the Maldive islands. From there we join a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain of Adam’s peak in the centre of Ceylon and get lost among the ancient trading cities of the China coast, before heading back home to the West, delving down into the deep Sahara of Mauritania and Mali, and concluding in southern Spain and Morocco.

All the time, Mackintosh-Smith is sleuthing after fragments of a trail left behind by Ibn Batutah during some 30 years of world travel in the middle of the 14th century. But he is not so much on a footnote-like hunt for antique fragments that confirm the traveller’s tale, as looking out out for the live issues, the stories and myths that animated the world at that time and which still relate and resonate with our own times. To use his own words, Mackintosh-Smith is on a quest “to pick up the vibrations of his age, to echo sound the centuries”. So we witness two simultaneous sets of travels – one with a 14th century Moroccan Islamic scholar on the make, the other with a pun, drink and poetry-loving British Arabist of the 21st century.

Mackintosh-Smith is clearly entranced by his fellow traveller (whose appearance we will never know), but there are frequent voluble differences, as when he berates his hero for being “a swaggering, sanctimonious, self important dick-head”. Ibn Batutah was, indeed, not an entirely loveable man. He exposed himself as a snob and a legalistic hypocrite, and, behaving like a Taliban Mullah on Viagra, deserted children, wives, concubines and gift-giving Sultans with habitual ease all over the globe. But Mackintosh-Smith berates himself, too, for the ease with which a modern traveller cuts the corners off experience. He also admits that, for all his love of the Islamic world, he ultimately remains an outsider - an organ-playing Anglican, albeit an unusual one, as much at home in the back streets of his adopted Yemeni home in Sanaa as in the Cathedral Close. What unites them, however, is a shared delight in travel, motivated by a continuous quest for holiness, for the company of men touched by God. Again and again this takes us into fascinating territory: into the company of Dervish masters, soothe-sayers and magicians; towards the old rites of blood sacrifice, with demon ships of the Sea God blazing on the surface of the Indian Ocean; or on a quixotic hunt for a sacred musical instrument possessed by a royal dynasty of African Kings. At such times, the two travellers are united in a glow of wonder.

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