Myths of discovery: notes from “Other Routes”

A few highlights from the introduction to
Khair, Tabish, Justin Edwards, Martin Leer and Hanna Ziadeh, ed. Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing. Oxford: Indiana University Press, 2006.

[T]he true corollary of a genuine sense of wonder is not fancifulness but, on the contrary, a certain meticulousness… A recognition that what is common sense for [the observer/traveler] need not be so for the rest of the world. For this recognition to exist there has to be a certain openness to surprise, an acknowledgement of the limits of the knowingness of the witness… It is this openness, this sense of wonderment, that sets [travel accounts by Asian and African travelers] apart from travel writing of the kind that is guided by notions of “discovery” and “exploration.” In that tradition, travel is a means of laying claim to the world, imaginatively in the first instance, but also politically.. Often there is an intricate braiding of the two, so that the imaginative claim becomes, as it were, a fact realized by political means. [p ix]

The truth is that the muth of discovery is much more saleable than the story of the tenacious persistence … [p xii]

Travel! Set out and head for pastures new –
Life tastes the richer when you’ve road-worn feet.
No water that stagnates is fit to drink, For only that which flows is truly sweet…
[Attributed to al-Imam al-Shafi’i (orthodox Sunni-Muslim scholar of the eighth century)]

[A]lways a movement away and return that is never to the same place (even when it is to the home town) [p 1]

Contrary to the common stress on the secularity of travel writing, it can be argued that “travel writing” grew in and from the “spiritual space” that, according to Ratzel, surrounds every society – the space narrated in the imaginational and actual travel reports available to that society – and that travel tales in ancient epics or folk stories are the earliest extant defintions of this spiritual space in that particular society. [p 2]

… discursive maps of he “self” and the “other”, “home” and “foreign lands”. The earliest such epic travel can be traced back 5,000 years: The Epic of Gilgamesh, incidentally a text from outside Europe. But, of course, other records of “travel” predate this long poem. These records do not exist in writing: they exist in the form of shards of pottery, items of exchange, early coins or their equivalents. And they also exist in what we have been able to unearth about the history of human movements: those prehistoric waves or groups of human beings traversing entire continents, sometimes in a generation or two, sometimes over centuries.

Bhakti and Sufi poets in medieval times wrote travel-based poems.

Recognition of this heritage of “travel poetry” is necessary not only because poetry creeps into various Chinese, Arabic, Persian and Japanese travel texts of later centuries, but also because it enables us to highlight: 1) the antiquity of human travel, 2) the fact that much of early literature presents actual experiences of travel in “symbolic” or even “spiritual” forms, 3) the fact that much of the earliest travel writing existed as poetry (not least in oral forms), 4) the intermingling of “fact” and “fiction” that was and remains (in more self-conscious forms) and aspect of much of travel writing, and 5) the fact that such works created the necessary vocabulary, different in different cultures, that would be employed to record first-hand experiences of travel in later centuries. [p 3]

The written script is always an indicator of movement across space and time. In that respect, the meagre difference between the Arabic word for “travel” (safar) and that for “writing” (sifar) is full of significance. [pp 3-4]

Travel writing is a “discourse designed to describe and interpret for its readers a geographical area together with its natural attributes and its human society and culture.” (Roy Bridges) To this I would add that travel writing also entails defining, consciously or unconsciously, the writer’s relationship to a geographical area, its natural attributes and its society and culture; and just as significantly, the writer’s relationship to his or her own society and culture. [p 4]

“Exploration” … highlights how current definitions of both travel and travel writing are embedded in a distinctive cultural and historical experience: that of the European age of expansion and colonization stretching from the fifteenth century to the twentieth. It is not surprising, then, that much of what is considered travel writing is attributed to Europeans writing in exactly that period. [p 5]

Mongia notes that travel is not just “about physical movement and the journey from here to there” but that it is also – primarily, she claims – “a figure for different modes of stasis, movement, and knowledge.”

The Innuit travelled for years by sledge or boat and the knowledge they accumulated was used by Europeans travelers to “discover” their regions: the former narrative has largely disappeared; the latter has usurped nearly all tropes of discovery and travel in those regions. Similarly with the Gypsies or the slaves of the Atlantic Trade or with the Ayahs and the Lascars from India or with the Black sailors who accounted for a quarter of the British navy by the middle of the colonial period. These travellers often appear to have left nothing or little in writing. Hence the feeling grew – and it persists in the present – that until recently non-Europeans did not travel or hardly travelled. If many historians in the past and even some “post-colonial” writers today are to be read (or read between the lines), it would appear as if Africans ad Asians simply stayed at home discoursing about karma or Allah, shorn of curiosity and enterprise. [pp 5-6]

Travel and travel writing were (and are) about the gaze of power. It is this that helps explain how the movements of some (non-European) peoples were effectively frozen under that narrative gaze, even when European travellers noted the presence of non-European travellers in the margins of their texts… The kind of “general knowledge” that enfolds the travels of Columbus or Cook or Marco Polo never extends to Asian or African travel narratives. [p 7]

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