In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta: An Interview with Carolyn McIntyre
Carolyn McIntyre’s goal is quite simple: to travel throughout the Arab world in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, an explorer who travelled throughout the Islamic world in the 14th century. What makes her mission so remarkable is the fact that she’s doing it as an independent female traveller. In a day and age when the Middle East and wider Islamic world is looked upon with great suspicion by many in the Western world, Carolyn is proving that travel in the Middle East is not only possible, but also deeply rewarding.
TravelBlogs caught up with Carolyn by email to learn more about what inspired her to embark on this epic journey.
For those who have never heard of Ibn Battuta, who was he?
He was a Moroccan from Tangier born in 1304. In 1325 he set out to complete the haj in Makkah (Mecca). It took him a year to get to the Red Sea and when he arrived to make the crossing, there had been a local insurrection and all the ships had been sunk. He made his way back to Cairo, decided to wait until the following year to make the haj from Damascus and to travel around in the meantime. He did go to Makkah and, haj completed, followed a fellow traveler’s advice and went to what is now Iraq and Iran. He returned to Makkah for a second haj by which time he had decided that he wanted to travel through all the Islamic world, which is exactly what he went on to do – the only traveler that we know of who did. He covered three times the distance Marco Polo did – 75,000 miles – yet remained forgotten and unknown until the French found an old manuscript in Algeria in 1839. And thus was he saved from oblivion and I found myself with a mission…..
He covered three times the distance Marco Polo did – 75,000 miles – yet remained forgotten and unknown
What was it about Ibn Battuta that inspired you to retrace his journey?
The first I ever heard of him was in 1991 when I read an article about his travels. I decided there and then that I was going to re-do his journey. Nothing could have seemed more outlandish at the time but I simply knew I would do it, I could taste it. It took me 15 years to actually get going but I am now 14 countries into the 46 country trip and 16 months into the journey.
In what ways does travelling in the footsteps of a historical figure change the travel experience?
You become very persistent! Looking for 14th century shrines, tombs and other buildings is not on most travelers’ “things to do and see” lists, so even the guides often do not know where to start. However it is fun for them because they get to do something different. It is also easier because your travel itinerary is already set. On occasion I deviate if there is something I haven’t seen before, but in principle I am following his journey as closely to the original as the 21st century permits.
Many Westerners would consider the Middle East too dangerous to travel through – especially for an independent female traveller. How have you found the Middle East in terms of safety?
I have been traveling, living and working in this part of the world for the last 30 years so it is like my second home. There are several reasons for what I consider to be a completely false perception of the region however. Most Americans probably only really became aware of the Middle East with the oil embargo of 1973 which personally affected them, so a negative image was formed on several fronts which has never really gone away. Islamic extremism has clearly worsened this perception.
But street crime is virtually unheard of even in countries which are very poor such as Yemen, I have no fear of walking alone at night in cities – something I would never dream of doing in Europe or the States, there is very little rape, robbery, murder, or people going on the rampage with guns – if you take away the extremist element, the region is extremely safe and people are the most hospitable you will ever hope to meet.
However, there is no question that it is a different culture with different standards and mores which differ from country to country. You simply have to acquaint yourself with them. Throughout the Middle East people still have a great fondness for Americans, generally-speaking, even if the regional policies and practice of the current administration are almost universally condemned.
Have you faced any challenges due to the fact that you are a woman?
Not really, in many instances you get to be an honorary man. At weddings in Yemen for example, the celebrations are separate – the women celebrate loudly, and often quite raucously by the way, in the house and courtyard, while the men erect a huge marquee in the street and chew qat, smoke and listen to music. On several occasions I was invited to join the men which would never happen to a Yemeni woman or any other Arab woman probably. Men cannot gain access to women in Arab culture but women can access both so there are actually some advantages to being a woman.
There are drawbacks – in some countries you have to accept that you will often be the only female sitting at a cafe. In Libya and Yemen, both conservative countries, most women would not sit down in a public place even with other women, whereas I can do so with no approbation – I am foreign therefore the rules are different.
Are there any places that Ibn Battuta visited that you won’t visit because they are simply too dangerous at the moment?
I am not going to Somalia or Iraq. I am hopeful that I will get to Iraq in the not-too distant future – I went there in the 70s and despite everything, I believe the Iraqis will eventually take back their country and sort themselves out one way or another, although we have unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box of other potentially destabilizing regional issues such as the Kurdish/Turkish question which may prove troublesome. Somalia is a different story – it has been in a state of anarchy for so long that it is hard to know when and how it can rebuild itself. I want to do the journey as accurately as possible but not if it means exposing myself to unnecessary danger. I do not think Ibn Battuta would go to either of these places right at the moment either.