Bruce Sterling. My Rihla
CATSCAN 7 "My Rihla"
Abu 'Abdallah ibn Battuta, gentleman and
scholar, late of Tangier, Morocco, has been dead for
six hundred and thirty years. To be remembered under
such circumstances is a feat to compel respect.
Ibn Battuta is known today because he happened
to write a book--or rather, he dictated one, in his
retirement, to a Granadian scribe--called _A Gift to
the Observers, Concerning the Curiosities of Cities
and the Marvels Encountered in Travels_. It's more
often known as "The Rihla of Ibn Battuta," rihla being
an Arabic literary term denoting a pious work
concerned with holy pilgrimage and foreign travel.
Sometimes known as "the Marco Polo of Islam,"
Ibn Battuta claimed to have traveled some seventy
thousand miles during the years 1325-1354, visiting
China, Arabia, India, Ghana, Constantinople, the
Maldive Islands, Indonesia, Anatolia, Persia, Iraq,
Sicily, Zanzibar . . . on foot, mind you, or in camel
caravans, or in flimsy medieval Arab dhows, sailing
the monsoon trade winds.
Ibn Battuta travelled for the sake of knowledge
and spiritual advancement, to meet holy men, and to
listen to the wisdom of kings, emirs, and atabegs. On
occasion, he worked as a judge or a courtier, but
mostly he dealt in information--the gossip of the
road, tales of his travels, second-hand homilies
garnered from famous Sufi mystics. He covered a great
deal of territory, but mere exploration was not the
source of his pride.
Mere distance mattered little to Ibn Battuta -- in
any case, he had a rather foggy notion of geography.
But his Moslem universe was cosmopolitan to an extent
unrivalled 'till the modern era. Every pious Moslem,
from China to Chad, was expected to make the holy
pilgrimage to Mecca--and they did so, in vast hordes.
It was a world on the move. In his twenty-year
peregrinations. Ibn Battuta met the same people again
and again. An Arab merchant, for instance, selling
silk in Qanjanfu, China, whose brother sold tangeri
in Fez (or fezzes in Tangier, presumably, when he got
the chance). "How far apart they are," Ibn Battuta
commented mildly. It was not remarkable.
Travel was hazardous, and, of course, very slow.
But the trade routes were open, the caravanserais--
giant government-supported hotels, sometimes capable
of housing thousands--were doing a brisk trade from
Cairo to Delhi to Samarkand. The locals were generally
friendly, and respectful of learned men--sometimes, so
delighted to see foreigners that they fell upon them
with sobs of delight and fought for the prestige of
Professor Ross Dunn's narrative of _The
Adventures of Ibn Battuta_ made excellent, and perhaps
weirdly apt, reading last April, as I was traveling
some thirty thousand feet above the North Atlantic in
the boozy tin-can comfort of a KLM 747.
"God made the world, but the Dutch made
Holland." This gross impiety would have shocked the
sufi turban off the valorous Ibn Battuta, but we live
today, to paraphrase Greg Bear, in a world of things
so monstrous that they have gone past sin and become
necessity. Large and prosperous sections of the
Netherlands exist well below sea level. God forbid the
rest of us should have to learn to copy this trick,
but when I read the greenhouse-warming statistics I
get a shuddery precognitive notion of myself as an
elderly civil-defense draftee, heaving sandbags at the
angry rising foam . . .
That's not a problem for the Dutch at the
moment. They do, however, currently find themselves
confronting another rising tide. "The manure surplus."
The Dutch are setting up a large government agro-
bureaucracy to monitor, transport, and recycle, er,
well, cowshit. They're very big on cheese, the Dutch,
but every time you slice yourself a tasty yellow wedge
of Gouda, there is somewhere, by definition, a
steaming heap of manure. A completely natural
substance, manure; nitrogen, carbon and phosphorous,
the very stuff of life--unless *there's too much of it
in one place
at the same time*, when it becomes a
poisonous stinking burden. What goes around, comes
around--an ecological truism as painful as
constipation. We can speculate today about our own six
hundred year legacy: not the airy palaces of the
Moorish Alhambra, I'm afraid, or the graceful spires
of the Taj Mahal, but billions of plastic-wrapped
disposable diapers, mashed into shallow graves . . .
So I'm practicing my Arab calligraphy in my
scholarly cell at the Austin madrassa, when a phone
call comes from The Hague. Over the stellar hiss of
satellite transmission, somebody wants me and my
collaborator to talk about cyberspace, artificial
reality, and fractals. Fair enough. A month later I'm
sipping Coke and puffing Dunhills in tourist class,
with a bag full of computer videotapes crammed in the
overhead bin, outdistancing Ibn Battuta with no effort
more strenuous than switching batteries in a Walkman.
Aboard the plane, I strike up a discussion with
a young Italian woman--half-Italian, maybe, as her
father is an Iranian emigre'. She calls herself a
"Green," though her politics seem rather strange--she
sympathizes openly with the persecuted and
misunderstood white Afrikaaners, for instance, and she
insists that the Ayatollah Khomeini was an agent of
British Intelligence. I have a hard time following
these arguments, but when it comes to the relations of
the US and Europe, her sentiments are clear enough.
"After '92, we're going to kick your ass!" she tells
Unheard of. Europeans used to marvel humbly over
our astonishing American highway system and the fact
that our phones work (or used to). That particular
load of manure is now history. The Europeans are
happening now, and they know it. 1989 was a pivotal
year for them, maybe the most momentous popular
upheaval since 1789.
This century has not been a good one for Europe.
Since 1914, the European body-politic has been
wheezing along on one lung, a mass of fresh scar
tissue when it wasn't hemorrhaging blood and bil
this century, "The American Century," as we used to
call it in 1920 when there was a lot of it still
before us, is almost gone now. A lot can happen in a
century. Dynasties rise and fall. Philosophies
flourish and crumble. Cities rise, thrive, and are
sacked by Mongols and turned to dust and ghosts.
But in Europe today, the caravanserais are open.
National borders in Europe, which provoked the brutal
slaughter of entire generations in '14 and '44, have
faded to mere tissues, vaporous films, riddled
through-and-through with sturdy money-lined conduits
of trade, tourism, telecommunications. Soon the twelve
nations of the European Community will have one
passport, perhaps one currency. They look to the
future today with an optimism they have not had since
"the lamps went out all over Europe" in World War One.
(Except perhaps for one country, which still remains
mired in the Cold War and a stubborn official
provincialism: Britain. The Dutch feel sorry for
Britain: declining, dirty, brutalized, violent and
full of homeless--far too much, in short, like their
too-close friends, the Americans.)
My Italian acquaintance introduces me to her
mother, who is a passionate devotee of Shirley
MacLaine. Mom wears an Iranian gold bracelet the size
of rappers' jewelry, a diamond-studded knuckleduster.
Her husband, the Iranian emigre', is an architect. His
family was close to the Shah, and is now a scattered
Moslem hejira in a dozen Western capitals, plotting
vengeance in desultory fashion, like so many White
Russians in 1929. They may have a long wait. Father
looks rather tired.
Off the plane, jet-lagged to hell and gone, in
Amsterdam. A volunteer for the Image and Sound
Festival drives me to The Hague in a very small car on
a very large autobahn. Windmills here and there. Days
later I inspect a windmill closely, a multistory
preindustrial power-station of sailwork, levers, gears
and thatch. An incarnation of a late-medieval tech
that America simply never possessed. A some
monstrous presence fit to scare the hauberk off Don
The Hague is a nineteenth-century government
town of close-packed four-story townhouses. The
pavements, built on sand, ripple and warp like the
sagging crust of an old pie. Advertisements in the
bus-stops brutally abolish any air of the antique,
though: "Mag ik u iets persoonlijks faxen? De Personal
Fax van Canon. CANON--Meeten al een Voorsprong!" Dutch
is close enough to English to nag at the ear, but it's
landmined with liquid vowels and odd gutturals. The
streets--"straats"--are awash with aging Euro baby-
boomers, leavened with a Dutch-born populace of
imperial emigres -- Dutch-Indonesian, Dutch-Surinamese,
On Wednesday, Moluccan separatists bombarded the
Indonesian embassy, near my hotel, with Molotov
cocktails. A dozen zealots were injured. Nobody
outside Holland and Indonesia know much about the
Moluccans, an Asian Moslem ethnic group with a
nationalistic grievance. They'd love to raise hell at
home in Indonesia, but when they do they're shot out
of hand by fascist police with teeth like Dobermans,
so they raise a stink in the old Mother Country
instead, despite the fact that Holland can do almost
nothing for them. Europe is full of exiles--and full
of its own micro-nations: the Flemish, the Magyars,
Gypsies, Corsicans and Bretons, Irish who remember
Cromwell, Jews who remember Nebuchadnezzar, Basques
who remember Hannibal, all like yesterday.
Ibn Battuta's world was similarly polyglot, and
divided into "nations," too, run by mamelukes and
moghuls who doted on tossing dissidents to packs of
ravenous man-eating dogs. Muhammed Tughlug, the
radiant Sultan of Delhi, punished rebels (very loosely
defined) by having them cut in half, skinned alive,
and/or tossed aloft by trained elephants with swords
strapped to their tusks. It was bad news to cross
these worthies, and yet their borders meant little,
and ethnicity even less. A believer was a citizen
anywhere in Islam, his loyalties
Civilization--the sacred law of the Prophet--and then
to his native city. Ibn Battuta was not a "Moroccan"
countryman or a "Berber" ethnic, but first a learned
Islamic scholar, and second a man of Tangier.
It may soon be much the same in Europe--a vague
attachment to "Western democratic ideals," while one's
sense of patriotism is devoted, not to one's so-called
country, but to Barcelona or Amsterdam, Marseille or
Berlin. (Cities, mind you, with populations every bit
as large as entire nations of the medieval world.) At
this period in history, the aging institution of the
nation-state is being torn from above and below--below
by ethnic separatists, above by the insistent demands
of multinational commerce and the global environment.
Is there a solution for the micronations--
besides, that is, the dark horrific example of the
"Final Solution?" Maybe. Let the Lithuanians "go"--
give them "freedom"--but with no local currency, no
local army, no border tariffs or traffic control, no
control over emigration, and with the phones and faxes
open 24 hours a day. What is left? City-level
government, in a loose ecumenicum.
A good trick, if anyone could pull it off. It's
contrary to our recent political traditions, so it
seems far-fetched and dangerous. But it's been done
before. Six hundred years ago, in another world . . .
The fourteenth century, what Barbara Tuchman called _A
In Alanya, a city of medieval Anatolia, Ibn
Battuta had his first introduction to the interesting
organization known as the fityan. He was invited to
dinner by a remarkably shabby man in an odd felt hat.
Ibn Battuta accepted politely, but doubted that the
young fellow had enough money to manage a proper
His interpreter laughed, for the shabby young
man was a powerful sheik of the fityan. "The fityans
were corporations of unmarried young men representing
generally the artisan classes of Anatolian towns . . .
The code of conduct and initiation ceremonies were
unded on a set of standards and values that went by
the name of futuwwa . . . referring in concept to the
Muslim ideal of the `youth' (fata) as the exemplary
expression of the qualities of nobility, honesty,
loyalty and courage. The brothers of the fityan were
expected to lead lives approaching these ideal
qualities, including demonstrations of generous
hospitality to visiting strangers . . . By the
thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, the fityan
associations existed in probably every Anatolian town
of any size. In an era of political upheaval and
fragmentation . . . the fityan were filling a crucial
civic function of helping to maintain urban
cohesiveness . . ."
Far from humble poverty, Ibn Battuta found his
medieval youth-culture hosts occupying a fine downtown
lodge crammed with pricey Byzantine rugs and Iraqi
glassware. The lads were dressed to the nines in long
cloaks, boots, knife-decked cummerbunds and snazzy
white bonnets with pointed white peaks two feet high.
"They brought in a great banquet, with fruits and
sweetmeats, after which they began their singing and
dancing." He was "greatly astonished at their
generosity and innate nobility."
No more so, perhaps, than myself and my Canadian
caravan companion when we found ourselves in a
retrofitted nineteenth-century stove factory downtown
in The Hague. Now a filmhouse, it was crammed with
young Dutch media-devotees in the current
multinational fityan get-up of black jeans and funny
haircuts. Their code of conduct was founded in a set
of standards and values that goes by the name of
"cool." Six hundred years from now, the names of Mark
Pauline, Laurie Anderson and Jean Baudrillard may mean
little, but at the moment they are the stuff of a
Sufi-like mystical bond.
We gave them a few names and second-hand
homilies: Mandelbrot, ART-MATRIX, _Amygdala_, Jaron
Lanier, Ryoichiro Debuchi--with addresses and fax
numbers. We are pagans, of course, and we have video
screens; but basically little happened that would hav
surprised the lads of the fityan--except for the
shocking anomaly that many of us were women.
In his travels through Anatolia, Ibn Battuta
stayed with no less than 25 separate fityans. But
then, he was a professional.
In my time off, I tramped the streets seeking
the curiosities of cities and the marvels encountered
in travels. Would the hashish have surprised Ibn
Battuta? I rather doubt it. You can buy hashish in The
Hague in little plastic bags, for about six bucks a
pop, quite openly. A hole-in-the-wall place called The
Jukebox offers a varied menu: Senegalese marijuana,
Swazie, Columbian, Sensemilla . . . and various global
subspecies of hash: Chocolata, Ketama, Kabul, Sputnik,
Zero-Zero . . . It's a teenage thing, bubblegum.
They're not allowed in bars, Dutch teenagers. They
have to smoke this harmless hashish stuff instead.
They seem rather moody and somber about it, for they
don't kick up their heels, scream, giggle, or frighten
the horses. They just get red-eyed and a bit sluggish,
and listen to old Motown records while sipping orange
soda and playing of all things, backgammon. They huff
hash like monsters and nobody thinks a damn thing of
In the Maldive Islands, Ibn Battuta was
appointed a judge. The lax and easy life of the
tropical Indian seas offended his sense of propriety.
Once he sentenced a thief to have his right hand
severed, a standard punishment by the sacred law, and
several sissy Maldivans in the council hall fainted
dead away at the sight of it. The women were worse
yet. Most Maldivan women, he related, "wear only a
waist-wrapper which covers them from the waist to the
lowest part, but the remainder of their body remains
uncovered. Thus they walk about in the bazaars and
elsewhere. When I was appointed judge there, I strove
to put an end to this practice and commanded the women
to wear clothes; but I could not get it done. I would
not let a woman enter my court to make a plaint unless
her body were covered; beyond this, how
ever, I was
unable to do anything."
Poor fellow. Later in his career Ibn Battuta had
the good luck to accompany a slave-train of six
hundred African women as they were force-marched
across the blistering Sahara. There was a great deal
of money in the slave-trade; its master-traders were
very well-respected. Ibn Battuta owned several slaves
in his career, but he was an unlucky master; they
could not keep up with his restless migrations, and
drowned, or froze, or fell ill, or were sold. He does
not keep count of the number of children he sired, but
there were many, mostly by slave-women.
What atrocities are we committing today, that we
too take in stride?
History lives in the Mauritshuis, shelter to a
horde of Rembrandts and Vermeers. Portraits--with that
pre-photographic intensity that an image had when it
was one-of-a-kind, likely the only visual record of
the sitter that would ever be made. The portraits are
formalized, flattering, very studied, and they lie a
lot. The children of the rich pick garlands of flowers
in unlikely getups of velvet and chiffon, expensive
fabrics that a grass-stain would ruin forever. This
kind of portraiture is a dead visual language now, and
when the language no longer works, the lies become
evident, like someone else's old propaganda.
It was a rich and earthy life. Leather, wood,
wool, bloody still-life heaps of slaughtered game. A
woman in satin rides side-saddle with a boar-spear in
one dainty gauntlet. Huntsmen let fly with flintlock
muskets at a foam-snorting pig. The sky has never
known an airplane; these are clouds that have never
been seen from above, fleecy and untainted by smog.
But there is honesty, too. Vermeer's famous Girl
in a Blue Turban is not posed, but caught in an
instant in the mind's eye. She is plainly dressed, and
her sweet frail face strikes the viewer in a sudden
rush, the very opposite of all those formal images of
Dutch aristos with unearned power and too much
Here are Rembrandt's se
kid of twenty-two or so, striking a pose in fake-
looking armor, the detail excellent, but perhaps a bit
forced. Transmuted by time and experience, he becomes
a big-nosed saggy-eyed veteran, a gold pendant in one
earlobe. Less youth--but more gold. And a lightening-
quick brushwork that catches the play of light with an
almost frightening ease.
Flattery was their stock in trade. They knew it
was a shuck, a stunt, a trick. Ever notice how good
artists can make each other look? With their palettes
hooked over their thumbs they resemble philosopher-
kings. The big money was in flattery, but they were
restless. Here and there real-life boils out in a
rush. J. V. D. Heyde (1637-1712) paints the Jesuit
Church of Dusseldorf. A couple of black-clad Jesuits
tramp the street talking, very likely up to no good. A
beggar-woman nurses a baby, with an older kid taking
alms in the gutter. Who is the father? Ibn Battuta?
Some working-stiff and his wife push a monster
wheelbarrow up the hill, putting their backs into it.
Dogs piss and tussle, and loungers bowl ninepins in
the public square.
F. van Mieris (1635-1681) clearly spent a lot of
time in bars. Here, taken from low-life, is a wasted
blonde barmaid in a white dress, pouring wine for a
redheaded captain-at-arms. In the doorway, a red dog
fucks a white bitch, a symbol as stone-obvious as
being hit in the head with a bung-starter.
A block away from the Mauritshuis is a shopping
district, the streets bent and skinny and pre-
automotive, an open-air mall. MEGA WORLD
COMPUTERWINKELS, reads the sign outside the software
shop. Soon all Europe will be mega world
computerwinkels, cool nets of data, a cybernetic
Mecca. Our Mecca will be electronic, and you'll be a
nobody 'till you've made that sacred pilgrimage.
We look to the future. Extrapolation is
powerful, but so is analogy, and history's lessons
must be repeated helplessly, until they are seen and
understood and deliberately broken. In 54 Javastraat,
the Ambassade van Iran has telecameras trained on its
entrances. A wounded Islam is alive and convulsing in
65 Zeestraat contains the Panorama Mesdag, the
nineteenth century's answer to cyberspace. Tricks of
light are harnessed to present a vast expanse of
intricately painted, cunningly curved canvas, 360
degrees in the round. It presents, to the stunned eye,
the seaside resort of Scheveningen, 1881 A.D. You
stand on the center on a round wooden platform, a kind
of faux-beachhouse, fenced in by railings; at your
feet stretches an expanse of 100% real sand, studded
with torn nets, rusting anchors, washed-up wooden
shoes, fading cunningly into the canvas. This must
surely be Reality--there's trash in it, it has to be
real. The Panorama's false horizon will not sit still
for the eye, warping in and out like a mescaline trip.
Coal smoke hangs black and static from a dozen painted
stacks, the bold ancestry of our current crimes
against the atmosphere.
There used to be dozens of these monster
Panoramas, in Paris, Hamburg, London. The Panorama is
a dead medium, as dead as the stereograph, whose
ungainly eye-gripping tin hood is now reborn as the
head-wrapping Sony Watchmans of Jaron Lanier's Virtual
It all returns. The merchants and pilgrims of
Ibn Battuta's flourishing Islam push their trade-
routes farther, farther. Trade expands, populations
swarm, laws and libraries grow larger and more
refined. At length trade opens to an obscure corner of
Siberia, where a certain species of rodent harbors a
Ibn Battuta witnesses the result, without ever
understanding it. June, 1348: travellers tell him of a
virulent unknown disease raging in Gaza, a thousand
people dying every day. Swellings appear in groin and
neck and armpits, with nausea and delirium. If it
takes to the lungs, the victim spits blood and dies
within hours. In the town of Homs, in Syria, Ibn
Battuta is engulfed by the wave of Black Death. Three
hundred die on the day o
f his arrival there.
In Damascus, two thousand are dying each day and
the great polyglot metropolis has shuddered to a halt.
The amirs, the sharifs, the judges, and all the
classes of the Moslem people, have assembled in the
Great Mosque to supplicate God. After a night of
prayer, they march out at dawn, barefoot, the Holy
Koran in their hands. And then:
"The entire population of the city joined in the
exodus, male and female, small and large, the Jews
went out with their book of the law and the Christians
with their Gospel, their women and children with them;
the whole concourse of them in tears and humble
supplications, imploring the favor of God through His
Books and His Prophets."
As the pestilence lurches from city to city,
from mosque to caravanserai, the afflicted scatter in
terror, carrying their fleas like pearls throughout
the vast linked network of the civilized world. From
China to the Atlantic coast, Ibn Battuta's world is
one, and therefore terribly vulnerable. The Great Wall
of China is no defense; and Europe's foremost traders,
the cosmopolitan Genoans and Venetians, will ship a
cargo of death throughout the Mediterranean. Paris,
Barcelona, Valencia, Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo
and Bordeaux will all suffer equal calamity in the
dreadful spring and summer of 1348. Their scientific
experts, those doctors who survive, will soberly
advise their patients to apply egg yolks to the
buboes, wear magical amulets, and have their sickbeds
strewn with fresh flowers.
Ibn Battuta is now forty-five. Perhaps unnerved
by the plague, he decides to return home to Tangier
after twenty-five years on the road. For a while, the
seasoned traveller outruns the horror, but it soon
catches up with him again. When he reaches Tangier at
last, the Death has come and gone. His father has been
dead for fifteen years. But the plague has killed his
aged mother. He misses her by mere months.
The havoc is unspeakable, beyond imagination.
The Plague will return again in t
he next generation,
and the next again, emptying cities and annihilating
dynasties. The very landscape will change: irrigation
canals will silt up, grass will grow over the trade-
roads, forests will grow in old villages. It is
Life will, nevertheless, go on. Civilization,
pruned back bloodily and scourged by God Himself,
refuses to collapse. History lurches under the blow,
changes course--and moves on. A century of horror will
fade, and, unguessed by anyone, a Renaissance beckons
. . .
Ibn Battuta will meet a young Muslim poet from
Spain, named Ibn Juzayy. Together they will compose a
formal rihla of his travels. He works from memory--a
vivid and well-trained memory, for Ibn Battuta, as a
scholar of repute, can recite the entire Koran
unaided, as well as many canons of the sacred law.
Nevertheless, some poetic license will be taken, some
episodes distorted, mis-remembered, or confused, some
outright lies told. The great traveller will be
regarded by many as a charlatan, or as a mere
entertainer, a spinner of fantastic tales.
His Rihla will be little known until the
nineteenth century, when European scholars discover it
with astonishment and wonder.
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