Dubbed one of the top travel writers of the last hundred years, Tim Mackintosh-Smith visits Bahrain this month to share some of his experiences and tips for successful travel writing. We caught up with him to find out more. You’ll be speaking in Bahrain about travel writing and how to do it well, how did you first start writing about your travels? I was living in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a (where I still live). A famous Irish novelist dropped in, and told me it was a crime to be in such an interesting place and not be writing about it. I took up the hint.
What were you doing before the publication of the first book? Writing it – it took five years. Before that, I was teaching English for the good old British Council.
That book is about Yemen, which is your home, what first took you there and how do you deal with the ongoing troubles in the country? I studied Arabic in England, and came to Yemen to learn to speak it. I grin and bear the troubles, and hope that enough Yemenis will come to their senses to make their country the peaceful, law-abiding and truly democratic place that it should be: Arabia Felix revived. I admit there’s a long way to go . . . but if there’s no hope, it’s not worth living.
Is it somewhere you would still recommend to travellers? Yes, but give it a while to settle down, insha’Allah.
What first drew [y]our interest to the Arab world? My father was a great fan of Arabian travellers like Freya Stark and pictures in their books enthralled me when I was a child. The World of Islam Festival in London in the 1970s was particularly inspiring, too. Also, I was bored by having studied too much Latin and Greek, and wanted to get into a more challenging language.
Your last three books have been based around the life and travels of Ibn Battutah, how did you become interested in him and how much of his life and travels have you managed to follow more than 700 years later? Ibn Battutah’s book is captivating in itself – and then when I realised that his host in Yemen was the 26-times-great-grandfather of my old friend Hasan, time seemed to concertina inwards. I’ve been looking for other moments like that, and have found plenty in travels that have taken me in Ibn Battutah’s footsteps across three continents, from the Crimea to Tanzania, and from China to Guinea (and a lot in between). I’ve left gaps, though . . .
Was it difficult to recreate his journeys? Yes and no. You have to plan like mad. And then on the road you have to forget the plans and rely on luck. Luckily, I’m a lucky traveller.
You’ve won numerous awards and been described by Newsweek as one of the finest travel writers of the last hundred years, how did it feel to receive such an accolade? My hat-size swelled horribly. But living in Yemen is a good antidote. Yemenis are unimpressed by accolades in magazines.
How do you manage to make the journeying of a historical figure so relevant to today’s readers? By subverting time. When you can introduce the reader to, for example, a West African musician whose ancestor Ibn Battutah met, and the man has the same name as his forebear, is wearing the same sort of clothes and is even playing the same musical instrument – and I mean the very same instrument, not just the same kind – the little matter of 650 intervening years becomes irrelevant.
Where is the place that has touched you most in your travels and why? Possibly the site in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh in India where Ibn Battutah saw a widow burn herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. From Ibn Battutah’s description, I could pinpoint the precise spot where she died. And I could feel the horror that he felt.
And where will you be heading next? To the exotic and endless shelves of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, to do some research into the history of the Arabic language.