SURF AND TURF – Arab Travelers in China and India

‘The inhabitants of China, rich and poor, wear silk in summer as in winter: the finest fabrics are reserved to princes, and all the rest dress as best they can. In winter, men wear a number of pairs of trousers: two, three, four, and even five, if they can afford to. This is their way of keeping the lower parts of their bodies warm, afraid as threy are of the cold and the dampness of the ground beneath their feet. In summer all they wear are silk shirts and the like. They do not wear turbans. Their staple food is rice, to accompany which they sometimes prepare stews (kushan) and eat the whole lot all mixed together all mixed together. The princes eat corn bread and the flesh of any animal, including pigs and others still. They eat fruit such as apples, peaches, limes, pomegranates, quinces, pears, bananas, sugar cane, melons, figs, grapes, striped water melons, plain water melons, lotus fruits, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, plums, apricots, sorbs, and coconuts. There aren’t all that many date palms in this country, just the the occasional isolated specimen here and there, in the grounds of a few private dwellings. They drink a beverage made of fermented rice, because there are no grapes to make wine with in their country, and no one has ever brought wine here so no one is acquainted with it and hence no one drinks it. With rice they also make vinegar, cakes and the like.’

This description is taken from a bilingual (Arab-French) edition of the Arab manuscript entitled Akhbar as-Sin wa-l-Hind (News from China and India), which dates from the year 851, and whose author, despite much historiographical research, continues to remain anonymous. An accession to Colbert’s library of in Aleppo in1673, today the manuscript is housed at the Département des manuscrits orientaux (Department of Oriental Manuscripts) of the Grande Bibliothèque de France in Paris. It would appear that other similar works published in the same period, such as The Marvels of India and the Marvels of the Sea, enjoyed great popularity in Iraq. Here was a literary genre designed to satisfy the curiosity of an cultivated urban elite constantly in search of something new, sensational, and, to use a contemporary term, exotic. Four centuries before Marco Polo, Arab travelers sailed to China, more often than not in Chinese junks, making the best of the Monsoon winds.

‘The merchant Sulayman narrates that, in Canton, the city in which merchants meet, lives a Muslim who was encharged by the chief of the Chinese to solve the conflicts between the Chinese and the Muslims who travel to the region; all this was done according to the precise wishes of the sovereign of all China. […] The way in which the man performs his task is by no means criticized by the Iraqi merchants, since his sentences are respectful of justice, of the precepts of the Book of God omnipotent and grand, and of Islamic law.’ Four centuries later, during the dominion of the Mongols, Ibn Battuta was to describe a then flourishing Muslim neighborhood of Canton, with a mosque, a hostel, a bazaar under the authority of a sheik al-islam and of a cadi.

The author explains how Chinese ships loaded their cargoes in Siraf, a port in the Persian Gulf, whose ruins can be seen in the locality now known today as Bender Tahiri, in modern-day Iran. Until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 977, Siraf was the main center of trade between India and the Far East. The Arabs used this port on account of the difficulties the Chinese junks used to encounter as they sailed towards the inner part of the Gulf, forever obstructed with silt from the Tigris and the Euphrates. Merchandise arrived from many places, including Bassora and Oman.

‘We get our fresh water supplies at Mascate, where there’s a good well, we can also count upon plenty of sheep from Oman. From here ships set out for India and Koulam-Malaya, and, with fair winds, the route from Mascate to Koulam-Malaya can be covered in a month […] Then the ships head towards the sea of Harkand, after crossing which they come to a place called Langabalous, where the inhabitants understand neither the language of the Arabs nor those known by merchants. These are people who wear no clothes, who have a pale complexion, and who and are.beardless. Women are never been seen here. It is the men who take to sea from their islands in canoes hewn out of single blocks of wood and carry to the merchants’ ships coconuts, sugarcane, bananas and coconut wine. .This wine is a white beverage, as sweet as honey if you drink it immediately, freshly extracted from the nut. It only takes a short time to become wine, and after a few days it turns into vinegar.’

Whi knows which the Arab voyagers liked best; fresh coconut milk or coconut wine?

Akhbar as-Sin wa-l-Hind (851) – Relation de la Chine et de l’Inde, Text in Arabic with French translation and notes by Jean Savaget, Société d’édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1948

Lilia Zaouali is a lecturer in ‘Anthropology of the Islamic World’ at the University of Jussieu, Paris

Adapted by John Irving

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