Travel Literature and its Role in Intercultural Communication and Dialogue for Peace

Mohamed Chtatou
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Saudi and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East and Islam and teaching Community Based Learning and Amazigh ...
Travel Literature and its Role in Intercultural Communication and Dialogue for Peace

RABAT - Travel literature whether inspired by pleasure, pilgrimage, official duty, geographical exploration, or profit emerges as a prominent genre in virtually all times and cultures.

Travel narratives mediate between fact and fiction, autobiography and ethnography, combining a number of academic disciplines, literary categories and social codes. They also raise issues concerning power and self- perception, cultural representation as well as imagination.

Travel literature is travel writing considered to have value as literature. Travel literature typically records the people, events, sights and feelings of an author who is touring a foreign place for the pleasure of travel. An individual work is sometimes called a travelogue or itinerary.

To be called literature the work must have a coherent narrative, or insights and value, beyond a mere logging of dates and events, such as diary or ship’s log. Literature that recounts adventure, exploration and conquest is often grouped under travel literature, but it also has its own genre outdoor literature; these genres will often overlap with no definite boundaries.

Travel literature is a popular genre of published work today. However, it is rarely a dispassionate and scientific recording of conditions in other lands. As a literary genre, it has certain conventions. Readers are generally seeking the exotic, the other, the different in the places they explore in literary mode.

Travel literature may be cross-cultural or transnational in focus, or may involve travel to different regions within the same country.

The role of travel literature in intercultural dialogue

If we are to believe the major myths and tales, travel is part of the human adventure. Whether man embarks for good or toward a promised land (Abraham or Moses), experiences numerous tribulations before returning to his point of origin (Ulysses), takes to the road to seek wisdom through multiple encounters (Buddha) or goes off to discover terra incognita (Christopher Columbus or Marco Polo), he enriches his perception of the world. This is all in an era when travel is part of our daily lives.

Maybe one of the best illustrations of applied intercultural dialogue is travel literature, for over centuries people have moved from one geographical location to another for work, education, trade, diplomacy, or leisure and have come in interaction with other people of different color, culture, or creed. These interactions occur in different ways, they can be violent and disruptive or peaceful and amicable, and obviously when we talk about violence we do not mean occupation or conquest but merely erroneous cultural approach resulting from lack of communication due to preconceived ideas. The truth of the matter is that humans build far too many walls around them and too few bridges to meet. Is it fear? Is it superiority? Is it hatred? Or is it all these things put together? Actually, there is no ready-made answer but a multitude of scenarios…

In this regard, by undertaking research on travel literature, culture experts aim at advancing cultural exchange in the field of literature and translation through multilateral cooperation encompassing policy research and analysis, publications, translator training and skills development, joint participation in international book fairs, literature festivals and other forums, organization of larger-scale projects, as well as conferences, seminars and workshops.

The major objectives of their efforts can be summed up in the following:

- Dialogue through encouraging travel literature and its translation;

- Improve access to lesser-known travel literatures, particularly those written in the less widely-used languages and those underrepresented in the international arena;

- Encourage greater diversity in international literary events and in the publishing of literature for all age groups;

- Develop innovative approaches to literary creation, promotion, support for translation and training of literary translators working in less widely-used languages;

- Act as a catalyst for new multilateral contacts, collaborations and innovative projects bringing travel literature into interaction with other art-forms and exploring the social and political role of writing;

- Stimulate debate on relevant intercultural issues; and

- Create opportunities for the exchange of ideas, transfer of skills and knowledge, and sharing of experiences and resources amongst organizations and institutions in order to encourage intercultural dialogue and communication in the best ways possible.

Examples of renowned travelers

From the Muslim to the non-Muslim World and the West

14th Century

Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1368 or 1369), Moroccan world traveler

Rihla (1355) — literally entitled: “A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling”.

Ibn Battuta was the only medieval traveler who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. He also travelled in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), China, Byzantium, and Russia. The mere extent of his travels is estimated at over 75,000 miles, a figure which is not likely to have been surpassed before the age of steam.

The famous traveler, Ibn Battuta, lived by the motto – “never, if possible, cover any road a second time.” Fifty years earlier than Marco Polo, he traveled, on horse, camel, foot, and boat, through all manner of lands, including West Africa where he visited Timbuktu, Mali and Niger. His interest was not only confined to geography. He vividly described the prevailing political, economic, and social conditions, the position of women and religious matters. He was appointed Qadi (Chief Judge) of Delhi, and spent the last twenty-three years of his life as Qadi of Fez, Morocco, writing his comprehensive travel document.

Ibn Battuta started on his travels when he was 21 years old in 1325. His main reason to travel was to go on a Hajj or the Pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca), as all Muslims are instructed to do. But his traveling went on for about 29 years and he covered about 75,000 miles visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries.

He met many dangers and had many adventures along the way. He was attacked by bandits, almost drowned in a sinking ship, and was almost beheaded by a tyrant ruler on his travels!

Near the end of Ibn Battuta’s own life, the Sultan of Morocco insisted that Ibn Battuta dictate the story of his travels to a scholar and today we can read translations of that story called “Rihla – My Travels.” It is a valuable and interesting record of places which add to our understanding of the Middle Ages.

19th Century

Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801–1873), Egyptian traveler to France

Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (“An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric (1826-1831)”, 1834)

Tahtawi was born in 1801 in the village of Tahta, Sohag, the same year the French troops evacuated Egypt. He was an Azharite recommended by his teacher and mentor Hassan El-Attar to be the chaplain of a group of students Mohammed Ali was sending to Paris in 1826. Many student missions from Egypt went to Europe in the early 19th century to study arts and sciences at European universities and acquire technical skills such as printing, shipbuilding and modern military techniques. According to his memoir Rihla (Journey to Paris), Tahtawi studied ethics, social and political philosophy, and mathematics and geometry. He read works by Condillac, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Bezout among others during his sojourn in France.

Rifa’aal-Tahtawi wasan Egyptian writer,teacher, translator, Egyptologist, and renaissance intellectual. Tahtawi was among the first Egyptian scholars to write about Western cultures in an attempt to bring about reconciliation and an understanding between Islamic and Christian civilizations. He founded the School of Languages in 1835 and was influential in the development of science, law, literature, and Egyptology in 19th-century Egypt. His work influenced that of many later scholars including Muhammad Abduh.

From The West to the Muslim World

17th Century

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) — known for the letters she wrote during several trips abroad, which were important for later female travel writers. These letters include:

Turkish Embassy Letters — letters describing her life as an ambassador’s wife in Turkey, important as one of the earliest discussions of the Muslim world by a woman

Between 1716 and 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu accompanied her husband during his appointment as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, travelling overland through Vienna, Belgrade and Adrianople, staying in Constantinople, and returning via Tunis, Genoa, and Paris. The Turkish Embassy Letters is a selection from the letters she wrote during that embassy; she worked on it during her lifetime but it was not published until after her death in 1762.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was described by a contemporary as “one of the most extraordinary shining characters in the world.” Her letters, collected here, tell of her travels through Europe to Turkey in 1716, where her husband had been appointed Ambassador. Her liveliness makes them delightfully readable, and her singular intelligence provides us with insights that were exceptional for their time. Her ability to study another culture according to its own values, and to see herself through the eyes of others, makes Lady Mary one of the most fascinating and accomplished of early travel writers.

As the balance of power shifts from the Ottoman Empire to Europe following the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, despite the similarities in the subordinate positions of women in the East and West, the veiled woman becomes one of the most powerful symbols of the “irrationality” of Islam. The burgeoning industry of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel literature, which satisfied the desire for tales of the “exotic” East, reveled in stories of the oppressed veiled woman. These often “imaginary” accounts (men had no access to women’s quarters) of the women of the Orient found expression in such works as Aaron Hill’s A Full and Just Account of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire, Jean Dumont’s A New Voyage to the Levant, John Covel’s Early Travels in the Levant, and Robert Heywood’s A Journey to the Levant. At once voyeuristic and indignant, these travel narratives distracted attention from the gender inequities at home, presented the Orient as a place in need of rescue and secured the idea of Europe as free, fair and civilized, supporting the role of the Empire. These narratives also allowed the male reader to vicariously experience the role of hero while satisfying his fantasies of penetration and domination

However, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, one of the first female travelers in the Ottoman Empire, challenged these voyeuristic tales about Turkish women and their enslavement by insisting on the liberty of veiled women. In her Turkish Embassy Letters, she disrupts the pervasive orientalist discourse and the East/West divide by throwing into confusion the rhetoric of Western modernity and reason and Eastern barbarism and irrationality, at least as it is secured by the figure of the (un)veiled woman. In this description, Montagu invokes the tradition of eighteenth-century travel narratives that delight in imaginative descriptions of the abuse and enslavement of the oriental woman and “lament on the miserable confinement of the Turkish ladies” (134) but then shifts the gaze to her own imprisoned body. Teasingly opening her shirt and inviting rescue, she forces attention on the English social order and complicates the role of the heroic colonialist reader. This undressing or unveiling does not naively assume an unfettered freedom but rather displays a gendered social order that underlies the very rhetoric of reason.

Montagu’s writing about Turkey counters the prevalent orientalist assumptions in the travel accounts of her day, which support empire building, and opens up a space where colonialist impulses are subject to critique.

19th Century

John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852)

Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petræa and the Holy Land (1837)

Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (1838)

STEPHENS, John Lloyd, traveler, born in Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, New Jersey, 28 November, 1805; died in New York city, 10 October, 1852. He graduated from Columbia in 1822, and, after studying law in Litchfield, Connecticut, and New York, was called to the bar. He practiced his profession during eight years in the latter city, at the same time figuring occasionally as a public speaker at meetings of the Democratic Party, of which he was a warm supporter. His health becoming impaired, he undertook a journey to Europe for recuperation in 1834, and extended his travels to some parts of Asia and Africa along the Mediterranean. He wrote a series of letters describing his journey, which appeared in Hoffman’s “American Monthly Magazine.” When he returned to New York in 1836, he found that these letters had been the most popular feature in the periodical. This fact induced him to give a more detailed account of his travels, and he published “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Pertain, and the Holy Land” (2 vols. New York, 1837.)

Modern times: 21st Century

Omar Louzi (1964)

Tangier-Bejing: Following in the footsteps of the great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta.

Omar Louzi was born in Goulmima in southern Morocco on 15 November 1964 and studied there until he earned his baccalaureat, then moved to Rabat to study economics and later, continued his higher education in Switzerland.

Back home, he got involved in various militant activities for the recognition and the promotion of Amazigh culture in Morocco and North Africa. He was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the first Amazigh journal “Tifinagh” in the 1980s. He is, also, the founder and publisher of the Amazigh newspaper “Tawada”. In addition, he is co-founder of “The Congrés Mondial Amazigh,” the transnational Amazigh organization for the defense and promotion of Amazigh political and cultural rights.

He was, also, the president of the Moroccan Committee for the election and reelection of Barak Obama. He is currently the organizer of the Moroccan Film Festival on Human Rights.

He has published several books on Amazigh culture, mainly: «Saint Augustinus, Philosophe Humaniste Amazigh» and: «Amazigh, Peuple Autochtone ?»

To celebrate the tremendous achievements of the great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, he intends to go on his footsteps from Tangier, where this traveler started his trip on 14 June 1352, to go to Bejing.  Omar Louzi intends to start his travels on 14 June 2014 from Tangier to go to Bejing, with the aim to promote peace and brotherhood among people of all nationalities and ethnicities.

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