Ibn Battuta’s legacy brought to life in Tangier festival

Earlier this month the city of Tangier hosted a variety of academic, literary, and cultural events which brought to life the legacy of Ibn Battuta, the famous 14th-century wayfarer originally hailing from this coastal town. Tangier has a long-standing reputation as a city belonging to every nation and to no nation, as it passed through numerous influences and occupations. The roster includes neighboring Spain and Portugal, but Tangier even came briefly under the control of the English crown in the 17th century. Searching for the first official American landmark outside of the States? You’ll find it here: The Tangier American Legation, once the rough equivalent to a consulate, is now a library and a beautifully-curated museum in the medina. More recently, however, Tangier captured the imagination of American authors such as William S. Burroughs, John Hopkins, and, most famously, Paul Bowles. These wayfarers pictured the city as an ‘interzone’ in which rules did not apply and outcasts were welcome.

The International Ibn Battuta Festival’s roster was packed with activities, from workshops to theater performances to academic discussions, and several concerts featuring artists from Senegal, Morocco, the Middle East, and Europe. One of the descendants of Ibn Battuta was among the hosts, and opened the first night of the festival with a haunting recitation of the Qur’anic verse “We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other” [Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:13]. The entire presentation of the festival was very multilingual, with many speakers and performers switching between two languages while others presented in one language alongside participants who used another.

Another positive aspect of the festival was that exchange between Arabic cultures and European or Western cultures was not the sole focus or even the main focus of the events- one panel I attended explored migration from the Arab World to Latin America starting from the 19th century, and continuing to the present. Academics such as Wail Hassan have called for more emphasis on ‘South-South’ literary exchange (meaning exchange between cultures of the Global South) within the field of World Literature, and it was exciting to see this realized in a festival that was free, open to the public, and used a variety of mediums.

Director and founder Aziz Benami explained to me that part of the great appeal of Ibn Battuta’s legacy to him was the fact that this traveler did not simply traverse exotic locations and sightsee, but rather stayed for long periods of time and integrated himself into the communities he visited. He observed other cultures and recorded his observations without assuming that his surprise or discomfort at some aspects meant that they were inherently wrong. In a time when, unfortunately, xenophobic nationalist movements are gaining traction in Europe and North America, it is heartening to see a centuries-long legacy of seeking out and engaging with the other honored and brought to life in such an accessible manner.