“I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
- Langston Hughes
Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, tenth-century Arab writer and envoy of Abbasid caliph Muqtadir, explains that The Book of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan 921-922 “tells of all he saw in the lands of the Turks, the Khazars, the Rus, the Saqaliba, the Bashghirds and others, their various customs, news of their kings and their current status” (3). More ethnographic than official, Fadlan’s travelogue poses intriguing departures for both medievalists and postcolonialists seeking to deconstruct European discourses of Otherness and narratives of both subject individuation and modern development. Ibn Fadlan’s travelogue gives evidence of a non-European medieval sensibility already attuned to constructions of exoticism and Orientalism, of cultural translation and acculturation, and of tourism and migration. Oft referenced for its early insights into Viking culture and burial practices, Fadlan’s text remains largely a historical artifact outside the scope of Anglophone literary studies. That Fadlan has been hitherto overlooked in literary circles is unsurprising; medieval literature in the West has traditionally assumed a European center and a European gaze. That Richard Frye’s 2005 Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia is marketed as the first ‘complete’ English translation of Fadlan’s text demonstrates glaring omissions in the medieval archive.
As postcolonial studies has gone great lengths to challenge and revise European subjectivities, literary and historical archives, and modernities, medievalists have begun to find postcolonial models useful for understanding the movement and subjectivities of the Middle Ages. Akin to the ‘transnational turn’ in postcolonial studies, the ‘postcolonial turn’ of medieval studies is in concert with anxieties around periodical, disciplinary, and national borders. This turn, which I understand to be a reconstituting of relationships between the Middle Ages and modernity and the pre-colonial and the postcolonial, coincides with the mobility of global capitalism, complex negotiations of national identities, and the transnational nature of language and literature. Inasmuch as Edward Said and Fredric Jameson have forced scholars to redefine ‘modernity’ in concert with the postcolonial and neocolonial worlds, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s 2000 edited work, The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altshul’s 2009 edited collection, Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of ‘the Middle Ages’ Outside Europe, compel scholars to reconsider the “middle.” Cohen, Davis, and Altshul, along with their constituents, debunk the false characterizations of the “medieval” as a fixed Euro-Christian identity and the Middle Ages as “hard-edged alterity,” a dark, innocuous, staging ground in the trajectory towards modernity (Cohen 4).
If postcolonial studies has had success in shifting medieval positionalities, the current transnational moment should prompt us to expand the temporal limits of the postcolonial archive. The tremendous momentum of globalization and traveling cultures initiated by international trade, migration, re-mapping of national boundaries, and technology gives evidence for the porosity of national, cultural, and temporal borders. While postcolonial studies may traditionally be interested in a certain ‘national’ historical moment, neither the colony nor the nation-state can be utterly abstracted from its pre-colonial past. Medieval texts like Ibn Fadlan’s give evidence of early confrontations between East and West and developing representations of transnational trade, movement, and identity negotiations. Not unlike postcolonial and transnational texts, Fadlans’ text reflects anxieties about difference, the risks of migration, and the development of identity against an exoticized Other, a process so endemic to the modern and global world.
Though this project claims nothing as comprehensive as the aforementioned collections, it does seek to intercede in a direction of medieval literature that troubles the boundary between temporalities, territories, identities, and histories in hopes that we might open up new temporal alliances and fresh territory for postcolonial studies. Inspired by Stephen Clingman’s 2009 The Grammar of Identity, James Clifford’s 1997 Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, and Mary Louise Pratt’s 1992 Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, I consider how river crossings specifically orient Ibn Fadlan’s 10th century travel narrative’s intimate negotiations with Otherness. His narrative not only poses an alternative locus and direction for the medieval gaze but also exemplifies the “middle’s” continued structural and thematic investments in issues of border mediation often deemed so characteristic of our postcolonial, transnational, and global positionalities. I argue that through the river motif, Ibn Fadlan’s text enacts a series of complex boundary crossings as a means of geographically and textually mediating what Cohen calls the “intimate alterity”of the Other. As neither utterly monstrous nor essentially familiar, the ‘difference’ Ibn Fadlan encounters poses problems of physical and textual translation made most manifest through Fadlan’s river crossings. In Clingman’s terms, the river, as the site of navigation, is also the site of transformation and, relatedly, transmission (22). Because “intimate alterity” collapses the distance between monstrous and man, the river becomes a space of both intersection and production. In other words, even as the river separates Ibn Fadlan from the foreign Other he encounters (the Bashgirds, the Bulghars, and the Rus), it configures a “contact zone”which produces anxiety even while allowing for proximity.
Ibn Fadlan’s text is, of course, part of a larger collection of eastern and western medieval travel narratives that grapple with the ‘wholly Other’ in terms of representation, identity, and locatedness. We see similar productions of spectatorship in the writings of other medieval travelers: Abu Hamid, Geoffrey of Villehardouin, Marco Polo, and Ibn Battuta. However, Ibn Fadlan’s narrative contributes to the medieval conception of the Other in particular ways, as it is more concerned with the mediation of Otherness than with the identity formation of the subject. For Fadlan, the river marks the physical and epistemic distance between himself and the foreigners he meets. There is a boundary there, but one that can be crossed, however treacherous. His focus on these geographic crossings makes plain that the text is no bildungsroman. Providing scant detail about his internal world, Fadlan stubbornly resists the narrative of one-directional subject formation. Neither is his an even or direct journey from the known to the unfamiliar. The text, rather, charts a halting narration—one that ebbs and flows in its movement towards contact with an unknown Other in an unknown land.
“I’ve Known Rivers”
Thus far I have attempted to position Fadlan as part of a larger conversation that examines the Middle Ages as unbounded, a “contact zone” revealing the ‘always-already’ inextricability of temporalities made disparate. In such a context, Fadlan’s rivers function as the contact zone for the “intimate alterity” of the medieval and point to its trans-historical, trans-literary present. As readers, we cannot extricate the Jayhun, the Yaghindi, and the Jayik rivers of Fadlan’s text from the Homer’s Acheron, Conrad’s Congo, or Hughes’ mighty Mississippi. Though alternately poised as territorial, periodical, or cultural boundaries, rivers reach both ways: backwards to the Greeks and forwards to Europe and the Americas. Almost uni-directional, the river as both geographical feature and literary symbol resists beginning and end. Poised in the midst of a large body of literary crossings spanning millennia and oceans, Ibn Fadlan floats uneasily in the contact zone, always-already in between and in motion.
It is the river’s very ‘middleness’ that makes it an apt representation of both the text’s placement within a longer historical/literary trajectory and Fadlan’s anxiety about coming in proximity with the Other. Simultaneously demonstrating that literary history (medieval, modern, postcolonial) is always in flux, the river reveals that identity is equally mobile and mediated. In only fifty-three pages of manuscript, the text records twenty-three river crossings: the Jayhun, the Yaghindi, the Jam, the Jakhsh, the Udhil, the Ardin, the Warsh, the Akhti, the Wabna, the Jayikh, the Jakha, the Arkhaz, the Bajagh, the Samur, the Kinal, the Sukh, the Knunjulu, the Uran, the Uram, the Baynakh, the Watigh, the Niyasnah, and the Jawshir. While Fadlan does not rehearse every crossing in detail,he provides three longer narrations at the crossing of the Jayhun, the Yaghindi, and the Jayikh rivers that emphasize the difference between ‘here and there’/ Self and Other, the complexities of narrating the place of contact, and the anxieties of being in proximity. Fadlan, like Homer, Conrad, and Hughes before and after, suggests that the crossing is at times both otherworldly and otherwordly—dangling somewhere in the periphery of both place and language. For, in the middle of the current, the traveler is caught between the riverbanks, curiously fixed within the margins of territory and location.
While Fadlan’s first fording, of the Jayhun, reveals much about constructions of Otherness, the text elides the actual moment of contact. Profoundly emphasizing both the dislocation of the subject and deferral of narration, Fadlan’s difficulty in crossing mimics his difficulty in accessing the unknown. Refusing to annunciate the actual event, the text stages a physical and psychosocial transference that either occurs outside the boundaries of the text or never actually occurs. Oddly silent about both the nature of the inhabitants and the experience of crossing, Fadlan’s copious details regarding his mission’s three-month delay, the severity of the winter freeze, and the extensive preparations necessary to cross the river illuminate the ineffable and perhaps illegible point of contact. The reader literally has access only to what occurs on the edges and thus learns more about the nature of the boundary than the actual crossing of it. That Fadlan cannot or does not translate the corporeal ‘slap of oars on water’ but does narrate the intensity of the climate, signifies that transmission and mediation are often displaced. It is not that mediation or contact exists outside of language but that Fadlan’s physical proximity to the Other produces a textual anxiety which renders the moment of contact unnarratable.
Textual deferral or absence connotes an epistemic displacement realized through the geographic materiality of the river and its limitations. The cold codifies the hard-edged alterity of the Other while illuminating Fadlan’s persistent anxiety of and desire for mediation. He explains that the ice was “seventeen spans thick” and was “solid and did not crack,” creating “cold and hardships” that forced them to stay in Jurjaniya by the banks of the Jayhun river for over three months (Fadlan 8). Noting that even his beard froze, he characterizes Jurjaniya as “a land which made us think a gate to the cold of hell had opened before us” (Fadlan 8). The ice presents a physical boundary that animates the psychic distance between self and Other, marking both difference and proximity. His emphasis on the river’s depth and the ‘solidity’ of the ice accentuates the perceived distance between Fadlan and the Jurjaniya and the limitations inherent in crossing over. No arbitrary association, Fadlan’s chronicling of the cold is more than a symbolic manifestation of ethnic difference. In his 1992 publication, “Barbarians in Arab Eyes,” Aziz Al-Azmeh ably articulates that medieval constructions of racial ‘othering’ in the Arab mind do not imitate Anglo-European models but, rather, follow what he calls an ethnology “governed by a natural-scientific ecological determinism” (6). Azmeh intones:
Briefly stated, medieval Arabic culture followed the Greek conception of the inhabited world as consisting of seven latitudinal zones that began slightly north of the equator and ended in the realms of perpetual darkness in the north. Beyond the zones (aqalzm, from the Greek klimata) human habitation was not possible, and within their boundaries the nature of the changing environment prescribed different temperaments to the inhabitants. The four primary qualities of dryness, humidity, heat and cold, attached to the four elements, entered into four combinations that yielded the basic somatic humours of blood (hot and humid), phlegm (cold and humid), bile (hot and dry) and atrabile or black bile (cold and dry). Embryonic growth was the result of the “cooking” together of these four humours. (6)
Discursively coded in the medieval mind in terms of geography and biology, Fadlan’s careful chronicling of coldness and its effects on the body codifies the Otherness that he cannot articulate and reiterates that he is not like them. The river, the cold, and the ice, are both sites of deferral and agents of textual production.
Fadlan’s anxiety about the Other is as much about desire as it is fear. If we think of the river as producing Otherness, it is through that very production that Fadlan can make contact. Both boundary and conduit, the river enables mediation even as it forecloses understanding. Returning to his description of the Jayhun river valley as “a land which made us think a gate to the cold of hell had opened before us,” Fadlan signals that his anxiety is mitigated by wonder (8). For ‘to wonder’ is to fear and to desire. James Montgomery rightly notes that Fadlan’s interests are largely anthropological; thus his is not an overtly supernatural or fantastic tale like others from the period (6). That Fadlan uncharacteristically invokes the marvelous or “heavenly” here, even through metaphor, seems indicative that the text is attempting both to cross into a different space of desire and to insinuate that strangeness is not wholly foreign. While it is unclear whether or not the “gate” references a specific location in the Islamic afterlife, Fadlan attempts to make what is foreign, familiar. The wondrousness suggests an unknown and, thereby, ‘marvelous’ locale which contextualizes his desire, however unconsummated, for making contact.
The river, however, allows for contact even as it imposes limits. Thus, while the text may eschew all physical and epistemic mediation between Self and Other, it does reveal a space of contact engendered through empathy. While the intemperateness of the boundary suggests the rigidity of difference, it enables Fadlan to come in proximity with the other. Thus, if the river designates on the one hand a material and natural limit imposed upon the travelers, it alternately marks the empathic possibility, however difficult, in crossing epistemic boundaries. Because he can occupy a shared space with others, Fadlan can experientially intuit what it might mean to be that Other. Consequently, the language of the text indicates that the narrator is coming in closer contact with his subject (moving from exterior to interior, from outside observer to inside participant) even while the climate itself prevents him from truly crossing over. Just by being in proximity, he is able to empathize with the Other. Noting both the social isolation induced by the extreme weather and the corresponding generosity that individuals show towards even their inferiors in the face of such “rough and violent wind,” Fadlan imagines Otherness without facilitating a direct, personal encounter (8). Understanding “how the intense cold made itself felt in this country” through shared experiences (“my cheek froze to the pillow” and “my beard [….] was a block of ice”), Fadlan laboriously approaches the place of contact (9).
The textual shifts that occur within this description reflect Fadlan’s empathic capacity and the text’s epistemology of negotiating individual and cultural difference. Understanding the boundary to include both the space of contact (the river, the ice) and the territory around it (the river bank, the Jurjaniya), the text shows traces of subtle linguistic/narratological movement. Through a series of narrative cues, the passage indicates a developing intimacy between narrator and Other. Regarding the generosity of friends, the narrator reports: “In this country, when a man wishes to make a nice gesture to a friend and show his generosity, he says: ‘Come to my house where we can talk, for there is a good fire there’,” (Fadlan 8). The narrator relates this anecdote without affect; the voice is flat and objective; an outsider’s perspective. Both the “man” and the “friend” are unnamed: abstract generalities rather than specific individuals. The narrator’s positionality changes, however, as the passage progresses: “I was told, in fact, that two men set out with twelve camels to load wood in the forest, but they forgot to take flint and tinder with them” (Fadlan 8-9). The speech tag “I was told” reframes the narration as conversation, indicating greater intimacy between narrator and subject. While the ‘telling’ has initiated some kind of personal exchange between individuals absent in the former example, Fadlan is still merely the receiver. Remaining in the passive voice, the text reiterates that Fadlan has not initiated transmission. By the end of the passage, however, the narrator is no mere interviewer; rather, as witness to the story he claims: “In truth, I saw [my emphasis] the earth split and great crevasses form from the intense cold. I saw a great tree split in two from the same cause” (Fadlan 9). As Fadlan’s experience of the cold facilitates greater understanding, the textual movement from unmediated reporting, to passive voice, to first-person narration and active voice reveals a renegotiation of his relationship to and familiarity with the Jurjaniya inhabitants. Though he may yet be an outsider, the narrator textually and experientially closes the distance between Self and Other.
If the text follows a current leading from outsider to insider, from Self to Other, the concluding preparations for the Jayhun river crossing reveals Fadlan’s sincerest attempt thus far in imagining the experience of the Other. Fadlan closes this account with a lengthy description of his company’s meticulous preparations to protect their bodies from the weather. He methodically records:
When we saw the reality with our own eyes, however, we realized that it was twice as bad as we had been told. Each of us was wearing a tunic and over that a caftan, on top of that a cloak of sheepskin and over that again a felt outer garment, with a head covering that left only two eyes visible. Each of us wore a plain pair of trousers and another padded pair, socks, horse-hide boots and over those boots, other boots, so that when any of us mounted a camel, he could hardly move because of all the clothes he was wearing. (Fadlan 9-10)
Fadlan’s rigorous cataloging surely brings to mind multiple literary genres: Greek epics, medieval romance, and nineteenth century African-American literature chart an indirect trajectory in which clothing functions alternately as badge and as disguise. For both armament and disguise have the potential to erase difference through performance. As Achilles’ shield may substitute somewhat for his weakness, Fadlan’s “caftan,” “sheepskin,” double-layered “trousers,” and “horse-hide boots” may compensate for Fadlan’s foreignness. By donning their dress, Fadlan embodies Otherness.
The physical and narratological boundaries imposed upon the text delineate the site of difference between the Self and the Other, even as they illuminate the thorny and sometimes perilous process of mediation. Thus, though the previous moments give textual evidence that the traveler may close the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the text suggests that the mediation of that distance is never secure. While Fadlan does narrate the following two crossings explicitly, the passages reiterate the dangers characteristic of the boundary. At the rivers Yaghindi and Jayikh, which separate the territories of the Ghuzz, the Bajanak, and the Bashghirds, Fadlan’s company faces significant loss. At the Yaghindi he reports:
They took poles made from a wood called khadank [sic] and used them as oars. They continued to row like this, while the water carried them and they spun around, until we had crossed. As to the horses and the camels, they called them with loud cries and they swam across the river. It was essential to get one of the companies of men-at-arms over the river first, before any of the caravan crossed, so that they could form an advance guard to protect the others in case the Bashghirds fell on our people while they were crossing. (22)
The text intimates that the crossing is more legible here than at the Jayhun: both river and creature have agency. Yet, the crossing is ever beleaguered by the threat of contact. Again the river constructs a boundary that is replete with anxiety about and desire for the place of contact. At the crossing of the Jayikh, only one page later, Fadlan chronicles, “I saw a leather boat overturned in midstream and those who were in it drowned. Many of our men were carried away and a certain number of horses and camels were drowned. It cost us great efforts to get across that river,” (23). As in the crossing of the Jayhun, Fadlan use of the speech tag, “I saw,” indicates the nearness of the narrator to the subject. Participant rather than mere audience, it is Fadlan’s very nearness that heightens the danger in the crossing. We might expect, in other words, that the closer one comes to the zone of contact, the greater the risk to the Self.
The Final Passage
What, then, is the nature of contact, we might ask? Risk. In Fadlan’s every movement across, the “alterity” of the Other becomes more intimate. The traveler ultimately risks becoming an inhabitant. James Clifford concludes the first chapter of Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (1997) by reframing how we think of the “travelling anthropologist,” describing his practices as following:
My point, again, is not simply to invert the strategies of cultural location, the making of ‘natives,’ which I criticized at the outset. I’m not saying there are no locales or homes, that everyone is—or should be—traveling, or cosmopolitan, or deterritorialized. This is not nomadology. Rather, what is at stake is a comparative cultural studies approach to specific histories, tactics, everyday practices of dwelling and traveling: traveling-in-dwelling, dwelling-in-traveling. (36)
Clifford’s insistence that cultural studies develop a new model for study corroborates transnational studies’ instincts that neither “home” nor the “village” nor the “native” nor the “traveler” occupies a static location. Rather, movement across physical, social, and textual boundaries keeps identities in a perpetual state of mediation and formation. Thus, Fadlan is always-already in transit. But I believe we can extend Clifford’s injunction; redefining “home” and “native” requires that we also redefine “specific” literacies as well as “histories” (36). Thus, if texts like Fadlan’s might work to deconstruct the rigidity of literary history, they must also serve to blur the lines between the darkness of the Middle Ages and modernity.
I began this project under the auspices that the Middle Ages has achieved a new cogency (or at least an alternate identification). Postcolonial practices and assumptions have opened up the medieval world as one that is intimately connected to both modernity and the postcolonial. But, as Ibn Fadlan experiences, contact and understanding do not occur along a linear trajectory; as I think Cohen would corroborate, the Middle Ages is producing the postcolonial to the same degree as the postcolonial may refigure the “middle.”
Shortly before the text concludes, Fadlan records the elaborate funeral rites of a Rus (Viking) noble man. Fadlan’s focus, curiously, seems to be the slave girl who volunteers/is chosen to accompany her master to the afterlife. As aforementioned in this piece, critics and historians relish the account for its insight into early Viking culture, burial practices and beliefs, class distinctions, and gender roles but have perhaps occluded its equally useful interstices for understanding the text’s historical/periodical positionality. Fadlan’s fascination with the ritual is reasonable—the funeral seems oddly more of a human sacrifice than a celebration of the dead. Though there are many generative readings to be made regarding the agency of the slave girl, in terms of this project I am more interested in the final crossing that the text seems to prefigure. If the text ultimately performs the complex negotiations implicit to the contact zone, the mediations between Self (Fadlan) and Other (slave girl/the Rus) and the multifarious dangers, anxieties, and desires encountered along the boundary, the funeral stages the ultimate act of ‘crossing over’. The preparations of the body, the collection of food (fruit, basil, bread, meat, and onions), the sacrifice of animals (a dog, two horses, two cows, a cock, and a hen), the copulation between slave girl and masters, and the drinking of nabidh, all mimic Fadlan’s gathering of boats and arming against the cold. For, death, the text suggests, is the ultimate Other, the ‘familiar foreignness,’ and ‘intimate alterity’ undergirding each point of contact.
Yet, there are larger forces at play here, beyond the subjective experience of the Self. Part of Fadlan’s captivation with the funeral is in the spectators’ anticipation of the beyond. Shortly before the slave girl’s death, the crowd repeatedly hoists her up to look over what “looked like the frame of a door,” (Fadlan 52). Fadlan records the interpreter’s translation of the girl’s statements: “‘The first time they lifted her up, she said: [“There I see my father and my mother.”] The second time, she said: “There [I see] all my dead relatives [sitting].” And the third time she said: “There [I see my master sitting in] Paradise and [Paradise is green and beautiful.] There are men with him and [young people, and he is calling me.] Take [me to him….]”’” (52). While Fadlan faithfully and without commentary transmits the girl’s statements, we are unsure of what Fadlan sees. Similarly poised as Benjamin’s “angel of history” looking back while being propelled forward, both slave girl and writer envision a future history that always-already exists. If we consider the text as looking into a future literary trajectory, we see that that future “paradise” contains the new and the old, the middle and the modern and the post.
- Fadlan’s text is the first of two lengthier travelogues included in Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone’s 2012 translated collection of Arab explorers, Ibn Faldan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far East. Lunde’s and Stone’s translation is, by all appearances, only the second ‘full-length’ English translation and will serve as my primary source.
- The depth of scholarship in English is not extensive, typically providing a partial translation accompanied by historical overview of the period (in terms of travel or conquest) and/or the Abbasid Empire. Albert Stanborrough Cook’s 1923 “Ibn Fadlan’s Account of Scandinavian Merchants on the Volga in 922,” Archibald R. Lewis’ 1970 The Islamic World and the West, AD 622-1492, Daniel B. Baker’s 1993 Explorers and Discoverers of the World, David W. McCullough’s 1998 Chronicles of the Barbarians: Eyewitness Accounts of Pillage and Conquest from the Ancient World to the Fall of Constantinople, James E. Montgomery’s 2000 article “Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah, Richard Frye’s 2005 English translation Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth Century Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River, and more recently, Stewart Gordon’s 2008 When Asia Was the World: Travelling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the Riches of the East are representative of the few.
- Cohen concludes the theoretical framing of his introduction, ”Midcolonial,” with the following: “[T]he ‘middle’ of the Middle Ages is already forging a productive alliance with the nontemporal ‘post’ of postcolonial theory, both in this volume and elsewhere. It makes sense, then, to explore the complex ways in which the medieval touches the ‘midcolonial,’ making both more familiar and more strange” (6). While Cohen’s intent is not to carelessly plunk a 19th century European imperialism upon the pre-colonial medieval world, he does suggest that the postcolonial is as part of the ‘mid’ and ‘pre-colonial’ as the postmodern is upon the modern (3).
- Nizar F. Hermes 2012 book The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture: Ninth—Twelfth Century AD might provide a useful touchstone for scholars invested in re-orienting the medieval gaze.
- Cohen draws from Lacan’s concept of “extimacy” or “intimate alterity” which he says is “lodged deep within social and individual identity, a foundational difference at the heart of the selfsame” (5). This idea of familiar foreignness informs much of postcolonial and transnational literature. In such a model, the national is constitutive of the transnational, the ‘Otherness’ always-already a part of the ‘Self.’
- The “contact zone is a concept coined by Mary Louise Pratt in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992) to indicate those “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination—like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today” (4).
- Comparing the Abbasid The Book of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan with the nearly contemporaneous Anglo-Saxon The Wonders of the East (1000 C.E.) reveals some remarkable differences in constructions of otherness. The Anglo-Saxon narrator’s fabulous depictions of bizarre bodies with grotesque compositions contrasts significantly with Fadlan’s rather flat descriptions of the various people groups he encounters. For example, though Fadlan notes that the Rus are “the filthiest of God’s creatures” and “do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex” (46), he still maintains their humanity. For they are only “like [my emphasis] wandering asses” (46) not equivalent to.
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——– “Introduction.” Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. London: Penguin Books, 2012. Print.
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