As a boy growing up in Bristol, Tim Mackintosh-Smith read the adventures of Freya Stark and dreamed of going to Arabia. He wrote his first poem at five when his cat died, found the experience cathartic, and was delighted that people had nice things to say about the poem. In 1982, at the age of 21, he moved to Yemen to learn to speak Arabic properly. “I was reading tricky texts and writing pretty well,” he said, “but couldn’t have asked the way to the loo with any fluency.” It was only in 1990 that he considered writing his first book after the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien visited Sana’a and told him, “How can you live in a place like this and not write about it? It’s a crime.”
Sana’a is a sort of muse, Tim admits. He’s lived there for 30 years now, next to the modern donkey market. And while he complains about the paucity of electricity and the political situation, he’s cheered by the company of good friends, the climate and his addiction to qat. His first book, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and was followed by a trilogy about the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battutah — who, in Tim’s opinion, is the greatest traveller ever.
Recently, at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Tim talked about making the pilgrimage to the National Library in Paris where the oldest copy of Ibn Battutah’s book is housed. He described the experience of turning the pages of the book, seeing where the scribe had dipped the pen in the ink — how it goes from dark to light — where the pen is dipped again—as almost mystical. “I think when you’re trying to follow someone through the three-directional material dimensions,” he said, “the fourth dimension — time — ceases to be important. When you hear someone tell a story that Ibn Battutah heard 670 years ago (as I did in India), or see the same piece of furniture he described in a mosque in Turkey, the centuries just melt away. And Ibn Battutah fascinates, in a way, because he’s so honest about himself — you’re reading and travelling with a real bloke, not a dead historical figure.”
Aside from travel writing Tim has written about the ghost stories of M R James and a history of umbrellas. At the moment he’s working on a series of translations of Arabic poetry. “The great thing about poetry is that you can talk about huge, universal, cosmic, mind-boggling things on a very small scale. Poetry goes beyond words — I can’t recall which old Arab writer said, ‘In poetry, the sense goes straight to the heart before the heart understands the meaning of the words.’ Another Arab writer said that poetry is precisely that which is untranslateable. But I think you’ve still got to try.”
Later, in an apartment in Abu Dhabi overlooking the sea, amongst a gathering of writers, Tim recited this poem in Arabic by Musa Ibn Sai’id: “For far-off homes and friends shed not a tear/ turn with the twists of time, nor fear to roam/ make mankind everywhere your dwelling place/ and look upon the whole world as your home.” Despite the vagaries of translation, it is what has stayed with me.