Monday, February 12, 2007

lunch with a tangerine

One book I've been reading slowly, long-term, and enjoying thoroughly (but not exactly speeding through, granted) is Tim Mackintosh Smith's excellent 'Travels With A Tangerine', the story of his recreating part of the journey undertaken by the great Muslim scholar Ibn Battutah in the 14th century. It's a stunning read, by turns funny, profound, learned and inspiring. Last night BBC4 aired the first episode of a new three part series on the same subject - it was similarly wonderful - more on it later, but in the meantime, a nice anecdote from Rob, who is not only a fan of Mackintosh Smith too but also someone who has met him, and shared an enjoyable afternoon with him in Yemen. Rob writes:

"Roughly twenty years ago, Hilary and I visited her cousin (and cousin's husband) in San'a in what was then the Yemen Arab Republic. We spent a fascinating couple of weeks exploring Yemen, which even now doesn't attract many tourists. The place reminded me forcefully of the pictures that used to illustrate Bible stories; it had only recently begun to bother with the twentieth century (San'a still had fairly complete city walls, and up to the mid-1960s the gates were closed at sunset in best medieval manner). Anyway, Hilary's relatives taught English at the British Council, and one of their colleagues was an Oxford Arabic graduate who had very definitely gone native. He lived in a wonderful house in the old part of San'a, [...] spoke fluent Arabic, and (like the Yemenis) spent his afternoons sheltering from the heat and chewing qat, which resembles privet leaves and contains a natural amphetamine. Come the afternoon you'll be hard pressed to find a Yemeni male anywhere whose cheeks aren't bulging like a hamster's with a wad of psychoactive privet.

He took us into the depths of the suk, where we had a very fine lunch in a restaurant none of the rest of us would have found, eaten sitting on the restaurant's roof along with packing-cases and a number of cats. Then we went qat shopping, then we retired to his flat and chewed away. I can't say it did very much for me, but as Tim says in the TV programme, it's a taste that needs to be acquired, rather like real ale. So it was very evocative to see Tim tonight, twenty years older, but still in the same house (at least it looked the same) and selecting his qat with the same care. He was very good company back then, and one feels he would be very good company still."
Interesting stuff - I'll try to get round to writing up the stuff I scribbled down while watching the show soon.

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