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Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin Edwards & Hanna Ziadeh, eds. Other Routes - 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing

Florence D’SOUZA
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Tabish KHAIR, Martin LEER, Justin EDWARDS & Hanna ZIADEH, eds. Other Routes - 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing. Signal Books, 2006, xii + 420 pp., €23.53, ISBN 1-904955-12-6

Texte intégral

1This anthology of extracts from non-European travel texts, by Asians and Africans, in English translation, spans from the 5th century AD to the 19th century AD. It is edited by four contemporary scholars, one of Indian origin, two Danish, and one of Egyptian origin, all attached to Danish academic institutions. Six other contemporary scholars from a variety of countries have also contributed extracts and introductory presentations among the book's thirty-three sections, that include the writings of forty-four non-European authors. These are divided into four parts: five sections on pilgrimage texts, then seven sections on scientific studies on historical, archeological and anthropological subjects, followed by eleven sections of autobiographical texts from personal diaries or memoirs, and finally ten sections under the polyvalent heading “travel accounts”, taken to mean texts that record “the traveller's experience per se” (24), with attention to the unusual and the unfamiliar. Despite an inevitable typological overlapping between the four parts, since a pilgrimage text could also be viewed as autobiographical, and a scientific study could double as a “travel account” with observations on unfamiliar details, a certain coherence and chronological progression are maintained within each part. In addition, sub-headings within each extract assist the reader's comprehension.

2Amitav Ghosh's brief foreword and Tabish Khair's 27-page introduction underline the aims behind this anthology: to redress the imbalance that exists between European travel texts about the non-European and European worlds, which dominate the field of travel writing by their sheer volume and easier accessibility, as opposed to travel texts by non-European authors, relegated to a more restricted circulation and limited critical attention. Thereby, this anthology intends to provide a counter-narrative to the most frequently encountered narrative of European discovery and laying claim to the world. While underlining certain universal characteristics of all travel writing, (non-European and European)—such as the expression of human hopes and fears, a mixture of fact and fiction, the creation of a specific travel vocabulary, a link to writing with a need to describe and interpret an observed reality for expected readers, the editors state that the non-European authors selected by them nevertheless tend to show less prejudice, less need to establish their own difference on a binary frame and a less hegemonizing manner than that displayed in the evident “gaze of power” of European travel-texts (7, 11, 15, 20), thus decentring the Eurocentric myths, tropes and discourses of travel. A critical reader could remark that such a reactionary, compensatory impulse runs the risk of reinstating the very binarism it seeks to undo.

3The first part on pilgrimages runs from 400 AD to 1271 AD. It begins with three Chinese Buddhist scholars who went West to India between 400 and 653 AD, followed by the Japanese Buddhist monk Ennin's peregrinations in China in the 9th century AD, then the religious travels of the Japanese aristocratic lady Sei Shonagon, within Japan c. 990 AD, the Andalusian Muslim scholar Ibn Jubayr's 12th century pilgrimage from Valencia in Spain to Mecca, Baghdad, Damascus, and back, via Tyre and Sicily, before ending with the confessions of the late 13th century Japanese concubine, known as Lady Nijo, who became a Buddhist nun, recounting her visits to various Japanese Buddhist shrines. This part illustrates the frequency of religiously motivated travel among Asian Buddhists and North African Muslims in the medieval period. Encounters with Europeans are not given priority in these texts, which focus instead on the local landscape and cultural specificities.

4Part II contains seven sections of scientific studies carried out in the course of the authors' travels. Here again, the selection concentrates on Mediterranean or Asian Muslims, and Far East observers, leaving out Hindus and Black Africans. We thus obtain glimpses of the Ghaznavid court astrologer Al Biruni's early 11th century views on India, with his comparatist, anthropological approach, the 12th century Maghrib geographer Al Idrisi's attention to natural phenomena and cartographical layout until as far as New Guinea and the China Sea, the 15th century Omani Arabian Ibn Majid's preoccupation with maritime navigation, winds, typhoons, danger spots, and favourable sailing dates between the African coast and Indonesia, the 16th century Turkish corsair Piri Reis' interest in mapping coast lines, deltas and lucrative trading goods in the sea of Maghrib, and his 16th century contemporary, the Moroccan Leo Africanus' observations on Black African Numidians and Tombuctoans. These are complemented by extracts from two 13th century Chinese travel texts on the customs and administration of the Tartar Mongols of the lineage of Gengis Khan, and the anthropological notes on the Cambodians of Angkor, who blended Vaishnav Hinduism and Buddhism, by the late 13th century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan. Part II demonstrates the presence of scientific concerns and empirical observation among Chinese and Mediterranean Muslim scholars in the medieval and 16th century periods.

5Part III is the longest part as it presents eleven sections of autobiographical texts with the narrating “I” in the foreground. It is also the most varied part in the collection, as it spans the period from 1304 to 1881 and incorporates the views of a wide panoply of authors. It begins with a 14th century Syrian prince in Mecca and Cairo, followed by a 15th century Korean official in various parts of China, extracts on Samarkand from the Travel Memoirs of the 16th century Moghul emperor of India, Babar, a late 16th century Persian diplomat in Spain (including his conversion to Christianity and decision to settle in Spain), the 17th century Chinese traveller Xu Xiake at various sacred mountains in China, the 18th century Nigerian slave, Olaudah Equiano's experiences in Virginia and in England, the 18th-19th century Indonesian Dean Mahomet's views on his fellow Indians, on palankeens and on Calcutta (already under British rule) before he migrated to Britain, the slave narratives of the Senegalese Umar Ibn Said in the 1820's in North America, and the Sudanese slave Nicholas Said's adventures in Tripoli, Mecca, Smyrna, and St. Petersburgh before he ended up as a free man in the USA in the 1860's (during the American Civil War), the visit to Britain and France in the 1860's of Queen Emma of Hawaii, after the death of her son and her husband the king, the enthusiastic bedazzlement of the 19th century Shah of Iran in various European capitals, and finally the comparisons and disillusionment of a Zanzibarian princess in Hamburg and London in the 1870's (during the European scramble for Africa). The very different personal backgrounds and historical contexts that form the settings of these autobiographical notes fully show the complexities of evoking selfness and otherness through travels.

6Part IV consists of miscellaneous texts written between 922 AD and 1890, having in common the single factor of travel. They can be viewed as completing the earlier parts devoted to pilgrimages, scientific studies and autobiographies, since they reach into a wide range of human experiences. The ten sections of this final part of these selected travel extracts cover the 10th century eye-witness description of a Viking funeral on the Volga river with the sacrifice of a slave woman along with the cremation of the dead Russian official, viewed without moralising comments by a Baghdad merchant sent by the Khalif of Baghdad to propagate trade and Islam, the 13th century Moroccan Al Abdari's grumbling observations on Tunis, Cairo and the Egyptian Pyramids on his way to Mecca, some extracts on desert caravans in Black Africa from the intercontinental travels of the 14th century Moroccan Ibn Battuta, the 17th century adventures of the Baghdadi Chaldean Al-Mawsuli in Peru and Bolivia, including a visit to the Potosi silver mines, the 17th century Japanese poet Basho's transports among mountain shrines in North Japan, the 18th century North Indian Mirza Itesamuddin's dialogic perspective on Nantes, Calais, London and the Scottish Highlands, the early 19th century North Indian Abu Taleb's remarks on the Irish, the English and a comparison of the social position of women in the East and in the West, the 19th century Moroccan envoy Al Amraoui's observations on France under Napoleon III, the 1873 visit to Egypt, Lebanon and Jerusalem of the Ibo West African named Blyden, and finally the late 19th century visit to London of the Parsi named Malabari from Bombay, torn between admiration and a feeling of alienness amongst the English. The charm of this section is that no unilinear or monolithic perception of the West emerges.

7The editors have paradoxically used, in most cases, 19th century English translations by European scholars of the non-European texts cited, using only very rarely recent, direct translations from the original Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Persian travel accounts. The volume contains a quite thorough “Select Bibliography” divided into “Primary Literature” and “Secondary Literature”, and a useful combined index of proper names and names of places. The extracts could pertinently furnish examples for analysis in graduate courses on travel writing. The editors have successfully achieved their goal of providing access to non-European travel accounts through the wide variety of African and Asian authors they have encompassed in this volume.

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Florence D’SOUZA, « Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin Edwards & Hanna Ziadeh, eds. Other Routes - 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing »E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 31 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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