If you’re curious about the journeys of 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta, you can always read his own account of the decades he spent traveling in India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. But if you prefer a more tactile and commercialized approach to medieval Islamic travel narratives and you happen to need a new pair of sneakers, then think about hopping a flight to Dubai, where the Ibn Battuta Mall is open for business.
According to the latest issue of Saudi Aramco World Magazine, “the largest themed shopping center in the world” is divided into six courts based on the lands Ibn Battuta visited. If you’re but an amateur Battutaologist, never fear: you can partake of an “interactive learning experience” about the intrepid rambler:
The cultural message was getting through to the mall’s younger visitors, too. A screen showing the animated adventures of the Young Ibn Battuta (in appearance an Arab cousin of Pinocchio) attracted a small but enthralled audience. But for one of these at least, there was another star that even the cartoon hero couldn’t upstage: Adam Bashir, aged eight, from Manchester, England, didn’t have to think twice when I asked him what was the best thing in the mall. “The elephant!” he declared. (“Phew!” said his father. “I thought he was going to say McDonald’s.”)
My cynical self was by now so thoroughly disarmed that I went and had my photo taken with Ibn Battuta, or rather the young cartoon version of Ibn Battuta, brought to life by a roaming actor in a padded suit. I could see the real Ibn Battuta having some reservations about being played by a character out of Disneyland’s central casting, but at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that he might have rather approved of his mall. After all, his own aim, stated in the introduction to his book, was to offer “entertainment … delight … edification … interest”—and what is that but “edutainment”?
Incidentally, if you don’t get Saudi Aramco World, why not subscribe? It’s free, it’s edutaining, the photos are lovely, and you’re already paying for it at the pump.