‘I have to thank Ibn Battuta for taking me on a spectacular journey’: A chat with Ameena Hussein

JANUARY 10, 2021 BY NAVEED ROZAIS 0 COMMENTS

It is rare to find a book that combines the old and the new seamlessly in an enjoyable way. Author and Perera-Hussein Publishing House Senior Commissioning Editor and Co-Founder Ameena Hussein’s latest book Chasing Tall Tales and Mystics – Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka: A personal journey is one of these rare books. 

“I was glad to read about the diversity of women of the Middle Ages and to know that all along, women belonging to whichever century have found a way to make their presence felt” Ameena Hussein

Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka captures the story of Moroccan traveller and adventurer Ibn Battuta’s visit to Sri Lanka’s shores. Admittedly, an unplanned visit while he waited out complicated weather, Battuta’s visit  was one that had an undeniable impact, both on the traveller himself who documented his visit to the island in his greater travel work the Rihla, and on us. There is a street in Puttalam named after Battuta, and lots of small clues dotted around northwest Sri Lanka that hint at the impact Battuta’s visit had on us. Battuta’s description of Sri Lanka in the Rihla shows us a Sri Lanka before colonialism through the lens of a traveller who hailed from closer to home than the European powers that would conquer our borders centuries later. 

Hussein captures Battuta’s journey in Sri Lanka by literally following in his footsteps, visiting the places Battuta visited, and looking to see how much of what Battuta saw can still be seen today, how it has changed, and how people in the area have remembered this visitor from so long ago. Along the way, Hussein uncovers so much of our own history and traditions that we have forgotten, as well as things we still do today that we have evidently been doing for over 700 years in one form or another. 

Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka blends history, travel, and adventure, telling two stories, that of Battuta and his travels, and Hussein and her travels, and blending the two into an enjoyable non-fictional narrative that truly connects us to 14th-Century Sri Lanka while also showing how our history has shaped our present.

The Sunday Morning Brunch interviewed Hussein to glean more of what was going on in her mind when writing Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka. Excerpts of the interview are below.

What drew you to Ibn Battuta and why him; a traveller from so long ago? 

The short answer is a photograph. Not of Ibn Battuta but his name on a street in Puttalam. The long answer is that it was precisely because he was a traveller from “so long ago”, as you put it, that intrigued me. When I realised he had visited Lanka before the 16th Century and the entry of European colonisation into this country, and more importantly, that he had written about our country at that time, I wanted to know more.

Is ‘Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka’ your first non-fiction book? What was it like writing about a real person’s story, especially one from 700 years ago?

Around 20 years ago, I wrote a book on domestic violence in rural Sri Lanka titled Sometimes There is No Blood, so Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka, is actually my second non-fiction book. Writing about a real-life human who lived more than half a century ago was quite fascinating. You become immersed in a world that no longer exists, where hard facts are scarce and you are struck, by not only the obvious differences which one might expect, but also enduring similarities. For instance, the value and use of the betel leaf, cinnamon, the barter system, the gift-giving system – all these resonate with modern life as well.

‘Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka’ was intensively researched. How did you do it and how long did the process take?

All in all, I think it took five years in total. This included research, travel, writing, and editing before the book was published. 

To break it down, I did about one year of reading, one year of travel, and two years of researching, writing, and additional travel to double-check facts and finally, about a year of editing. 

Tell us about Ibn Battuta the man. Paint us a picture of the man you discovered in your research.

When we reflect on any historical figures that impacted our civilisation, we think of them as being larger than life. Perhaps this is so, because they have made an indelible mark on the world. That is the same way I felt about Ibn Battuta. 

I continue to feel admiration for his grit, his determination, and single-minded focus on travel. He was only 21 years old when he left his family to journey into the world. A mere child in today’s context of a cosseted world. And yet, he showed maturity and courage in many instances at that young age. However, he was as human as anyone else. He had many failings, and he had many excesses – that is what makes him even more remarkable. He was an ordinary man, who did an extraordinary thing. To know more about him, and his probable trajectory in our country, you will have to read the book of course!

On your travels following in Ibn Battuta’s Lankan footsteps, what was your most memorable moment or anecdote?

I have to thank Ibn Battuta for taking me on a spectacular journey. He made me see my own country with a different eye. So yes, I had many memorable moments and countless anecdotes. For me, Kurunegala city was the surprise. It is a historical city that is now disfigured by modernism. But scratch under the surface and you uncover very interesting parts of our own history that we do not care to remember. Perhaps now, we will be more interested in Bhuvaneka Bahu and Vathimi Kumaraya together with his metamorphosis into Gale Bandara.

Ibn Battuta’s story and work allows us some insight into medieval Middle-Eastern and Asian women. As a modern woman, what did it feel like being able to learn about these women whose stories are hardly ever told? 

To tell you the truth, the status of women has not changed much over the centuries. In some parts of the world, you still have women who are fettered and bound by culture – so it was in those times as well. But the women who peppered Ibn Battuta’s journey were noted because they were different from what he thought women should be like.
He was struck by the equality of Turkish women and the courtesy they commanded by their menfolk; impressed by the horse-riding women of East Asia; shocked by the Maldivian women who did not cover their upper bodies; surprised at the intelligence and education of South Indian Muslim women; and bemused that Malian women walked about without a stitch of clothing to cover their nakedness. I was glad to read about the diversity of women of the Middle Ages and to know that all along, women belonging to whichever century have found a way to make their presence felt.

How do you think Ibn Battuta has impacted Lankan culture?

For me, personally, Ibn Battuta is of vital importance because he is one of the few pre-colonial figures who has written about our country. Too much of what we know is gleaned from colonial writings and influenced by their biases and prejudices. 

Ibn Battuta reveals a country that grew cinnamon and thrived on trade, where women adorned themselves with jewellery; a country with two powerful kings, each of them rich beyond measure – but most importantly, he showed us a country and a people that prided themselves on religious tolerance and co-existence. Rather than examine how Ibn Battuta impacted Lanka, we should reflect on what can we learn from the 14th-Century country that Ibn Battuta visited, and ask: How did we travel so far from those values?

Chasing Tall Tales and Mystics – Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka: A personal journey is available for sale at Sarasavi Bookshops, Vijitha Yapa Bookshops, The Jam Fruit Tree Bookshop, Expographics Books, Urban Island, MILK, Barefoot, Pendi, Kalaya, Cargills, and online at https://www.pererahussein.com.