Lure of Yemen sparks extraordinary connection for top travel writer

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, John Murray, €13.20; Kindle €£6.39

IN 2005, the BBC journalist John Simpson told me he’d love to visit the Yemen. He told me the BBC had simply refused permission. I was astonished that, back then, Beirut was considered ok, and the mostly peaceful Yemen not so.

Since then the Yemen has become more dodgy. There’s now massive civil unrest in the capital, with rocket attacks and gun battles involving deserter units. Yet the English travel writer, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, continues to live there.

Tim has lived in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a for 25 years. He fell in love with the city the moment he saw it at 21.

“It’s a magical place,” he tells me, when we meet in west Cork. “I remember arriving and it was dark. There were these voices crying from upper-storey windows.

“There was that jewel-like coloured glass and the alabaster. It was like a time slippage; a little island in time which doesn’t fit anywhere. It felt, very much, where I should be.”

Living there has never been easy. There’s often a shortage of fuel, and constant electricity cuts. And in recent months, with anti-government forces desperate to topple Ali Abdullah Saleh, life has been particularly precarious.

“At times, with the fighting in Sana’a, it has been grim. There were two big nights when the city was lit up. There were bangs of rockets and there was heavy artillery fire about a mile from where I live. I watched it, and at one point two tracer bullets came towards me. I’m not scared for myself,” he says, “but I worry on behalf of the people I love there.”

They include a Yemeni family with six children who have taken Tim under their wing.

“I’m a kind of surrogate uncle. I play music with the children. One morning, when the fighting was still going on, I played Humperdinck’s Evening Prayer with one of the girls on a recorder.” His eyes fill with tears. “We thought, those buggers are shooting each other and here we are doing something beautiful. This is what life is about. Not fighting and lunacy.”

Mackintosh-Smith’s first memory is of music.

“I remember lying in my cot listening to my father and his friends play a Brahms String Quartet downstairs. A schoolteacher in Bristol, he ran an orchestra and taught strings too.”

As for Tim, he studied the organ at Clifden College in Bristol; he was an organ scholar at Oxford, and, at one stage, a Cathedral organist.

Tim recently completed his trilogy following the travels of Ibn Battutah across the Islamic world. Probably the longest travel narrative since Ibn Battutah’s book was published in 1355, the book took Tim to 14 countries on three continents.

“I’m not obsessed with the Arab world,” he claims, “but I am obsessed with the Arabic language and literature.

“I’ve always loved words and languages,” he says. “I remember going to church aged three or four, listening to the canticles from the common book of prayer.” He laughs. “When I was young I wanted to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. And I still have faith.

“I became a classicist, but I got fed up with all that Homer and Virgil at Oxford. I wanted something more challenging and interesting so I went on to Arabic.”

Mackintosh-Smith has been compared to Erik Newby, and DH Lawrence. He’s been named one of Newsweek’s top 12 writers of the past 100 years; and at 48, he’s the youngest listed.

Yet he needed a nudge to get going as a writer. And it came from Edna O’Brien.

“She was visiting the Yemen through the British Council when I was teaching as their resident Arabist. I showed her around, and she said, ‘It’s a crime to live here and not write about it.’ Another teacher said, ‘she’s right’.”

And, clearly she was. Mackintosh-Smith’s book on Yemen won the 1998 Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Award and is regarded as a classic. His trilogy has met with extraordinary acclaim; the first two books became a TV series. And this latest, Landfalls, is a stunningly written account of Tim’s travels from Zanzibar to the Alhambra. Full of anecdote, and empathy with all he meets, he gels the present with history. It’s written with a keen ear, and is full of humour, joy, and sheer exuberance.

How, though, did his association with Battutah start?

“A potato seller mentioned that the word for potato in Yemeni came from ‘Battutah’. I realised I should have read him, I bought the book, and dipped into it where he described the Yemen. He told how he’d had lunch with Yemeni’s ruler. I read this, and there was a knock on the door. It was my friend, Hassan. He said the ruler was his ancestor.

“So I was reading about this guy 600 years ago, and here was his ancestor. It was like standing on a cliff edge feeling I could jump off and reach the past. My journey with Battutah has been my attempt to experience that emotion again. I’m trying to grab the past and link it to the present. In a sense I’m trying to suggest that part of being human is to travel, and is a way in which we can surmount time. That is what my books are about.”

“In India IB witnessed a ceremony surrounding a suttee. He described a hollow, and in the middle of the hollow was a tank of water surrounded by four temples. The whole was overhung by trees that were so densely intertwined that the sun could hardly penetrate. From here he walked down to a low lying area where the pyre was. I found this spot. I saw some of the original trees. I followed the track and saw the stone which is still blackened. It was like seeing a ghost only the scene didn’t melt away.

“I felt a moment of extraordinary connection with Battutah. It was as if I had walked into his memory. I was almost surprised that he hadn’t mentioned me in his book!”


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