Compared to the world of Mazid ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi, I live in a paradise. Whenever I have a question, I have access to an incalculable amount of information. I can call up Google, Wikipedia, and the catalogs and databases of two libraries at any time. Mazid, however, has to travel across deserts, mountains, and seas to get to libraries that may or may not have copies of books that can answer his questions. He also has to contend with growing sectarian violence, anti-intellectualism, and fracturing caliphates on his way to those libraries. Omaima al-Khamis takes us to the second decade of the eleventh century and drops us onto a caravan route between Baghdad and Jerusalem in The Book Smuggler, translated with a lovely medieval flavor by Sarah Enany.
All Mazid has ever wanted was to read books and learn. Once he is old enough, he leaves the Arabian desert and travels to Baghdad. Unfortunately for Mazid, Baghdad is no longer the shining city of learning that hosted the House of Wisdom. There are some remnants. Mazid’s abilities as a scribe and his love of learning help him find those remnants, but it isn’t long before increasing fundamentalist violence sends Mazid out into the world again—this time with a precious cargo of books full of translated Greek philosophy and science.
The Book Smuggler chronicles Mazid’s travels across the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Córdoban caliphates, from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Cairo and finally to Córdoba. (At the time, Córdoba was believed to be a haven for science, literature, and the arts). It’s a journey that takes Mazid years to complete as he moseys his way across the Islamic world. I’m not terribly familiar with medieval Islamic writing, but al-Khamis (via Enany’s translation) sounds medieval to me. Mazid interrupts his narration with side stories and the text wanders as much as he does. He also has a habit of falling instantly in love with the women he encounters. He spouts poetry at the drop of a hat and blames any bad health on imbalanced humors. The medieval flavoring takes some getting used to. Once I was in, I was hooked.
Mazid’s physical journey is mirrored by his intellectual journey, which I found almost as interesting. (I love a book that can transport me from my couch in the twenty-first century to a camel in the eleventh.) When we first meet young Mazid, he is in awe of the people and places of Baghdad. It is the city he always dreamed of as a child at his grandfather’s knee. He has complete faith in the Qu’ran and Mohammed. Although he remains a faithful Muslim, he starts to have serious questions about the imams who teach in the mosques and their followers who “police” the streets. The philosophy he reads add to his questions.
It’s never easy to be a questioner, but Mazid has a mission to guide him. Before he leaves Baghdad, he is inducted into a society called the Voyagers. These men shepherd books—especially translations of the ancient Greeks and radical thinkers from around the Islamic world—from city to city. They sell the books to intellectuals who share their questioning values, but mostly they want to make sure that these books will be safe from anti-intellectuals who want to burn anything that might make them question what they’ve been taught.
The Book Smuggler was an amazing read. It was the closest I’ve ever come to time traveling I’ve ever had while reading.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.