The Last Voyage of Ibn Battûta – Michigan Quarterly Review

The Last Voyage of Ibn Battûta

Published in Issue 63.2: Spring 2024

Spring 2024 | Amira Géhanne Khalfallah Reads “The Last Voyage of Ibn Batt​​ûta” MQR Sound

A note about the short story “The Last Voyage of Ibn Batt​​ûta” from Amira Géhanne Khalfallah for MQR’s Spring 2024 issue “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations”:   Onboard The Amsterdam or Ibn Battûta’s Last Voyage follows Marouane, a 22-year old Moroccan man, from his hometown of Tangier to the far regions of the world he crosses unexpectedly in his quest for survival and freedom. It all begins when the young man, with dreams of reaching Europe, secretly joins the crew of a boat. But the Amsterdam, the Dutch warship where he hides, is on its way to Syria. During the Mediterranean crossing, Marouane is discovered by Ernst, the ship's captain, with whom he develops a relationship that neither of them fully understand. Both are soon initiated into an entirely new way of viewing the world. This novel is particularly attentive to the phenomenon of radicalization. It is also draws heavily from my investigative journalistic work. For twenty years, I reported on North Africa and Middle East. This experience allowed me to dig deeper into the question of why young men are drawn to ISIS. At the same time, this book is far from being a journalistic report; it is a story that questions identities, the meaning of exile as well as the nature of religion, and their relation to the world. It is a contemporary tragedy, the one we live everyday, through the media if we are lucky. It is the story of an ongoing war that might seem far away, but which hits us a little more every day until it reaches us in the most intimate places.

Why We Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Molly Mittelbach on why she recommended “The Last Voyage of Ibn Battûta” for the Spring 2024 issue. You can purchase the issue here.

In Amira-Géhanne Khalfallah’s Tangier, every surface seems to live and breathe. Colorful tiles and “what remains of the frescoes” cling to walls that drip with condensation in the summer heat. Inside “a dilapidated house in the medina . . .foam padding emerging from the seams” of velvet upholstery seems “to challenge the past’s silence.” A ceiling teems with “cobwebs and blue mold, sometimes pink or green depending on the season.” For protagonist Marouane Bouderaa, a recent tourism school graduate who fantasizes about leaving his mother’s apartment to start a new life in Spain, but isn’t even legally allowed to travel there, these time-worn, barometric facades and interiors are both comforts of the place he calls home and reminders of its inescapability and dwindling opportunities. The arrival of summer tourists should bring in the seasonal work Marouane’s livelihood depends on, but though the sun is out and the terraces are packed, his phone has yet to ring with a single job offer. 

Khalfallah chronicles one of Marouane’s unemployed afternoons with sublime prose that replicates its languor, charting his progress from bed to couch to bar to beach. The couch belongs to Marouane’s elderly friend Ouardia, once Tangier’s “most famous” sex worker, and on it the unlikely duo bask in a haze of Ouardia’s reminiscences and Marouane’s weed. A segment of their favorite reality TV show (“orchestrated for maximum drama”) plays in the background while Ouardia educates Marouane on “art, fashion, dance, the First World War—and of course . . . sex.” That her histories are partially fabricated doesn’t matter to Marouane, who considers Ouardia “better than Wikipedia.” In turn, Ouardia never questions the anecdotes that Marouane, for his part, clearly “uses his imagination to invent.” The stories and perspectives Marouane most values are not those that the world around him seems to privilege.

This excerpt from the novel Onboard the Amsterdam or the Last Voyage of Ibn Battûta, co-translated from French by Khalfallah and Jennifer Grotz, does not reveal how Marouane’s own story will end, or rather, how it will begin. Perhaps Marouane will one day travel “beyond Chaouen into Assilah’s underworld, into impetuous Casablanca and the infamous outskirts of Settat,” as Ouardia did in her youth; perhaps he will attempt to cross the strait to Spain. It’s just as likely that “his frail legs [will] inevitably lead him back to Derb el Hemir”—his own neighborhood—as they do every summer evening. Khalfallah renders the minutiae of this young man’s daily life with such singular detail that whatever comes next is sure to captivate either way. 

In Tangier, a loud noise wakes Marouane. He leaps from his bed and curses his mother for leaving the windows open, exposing their interior to the curiosity of passersby. Fatéma and her son live on the ground floor of a dilapidated house in the medina, which they rent from a distant relative for a modest sum. Before going out the mother always double-locks the door, counting on the noise coming in from the windows to wake up the apple of her eye, as she calls him. She loves him as she was taught to love: by kissing one cheek and biting the other. 

Marouane wakes up sad. Like he does every day. 

It’s not yet noon. His usual wake-up time. In Derb El Hemir, a crowded neighborhood in Tangier, the women get up at the crack of dawn to prepare food before going to work. Meanwhile the men sleep in and don’t rise out of their beds or their torpor before having smoked their first joint of the day and allowed its smoke to arouse their minds and irritate their lungs. After that they take their time sipping green tea from China saturated with sugar, mint, and pesticides. Growing up without a father, Marouane considers these men paternal figures. He trains himself to wake up as late as they do, always preparing a joint for the next morning before going to bed, but refusing to drink tea drenched with sugar and pesticides. He settles instead for coffee.

The young man lives with his mother, who gave up trying to wake him long ago. Thus he spends most of his time in bed, dreaming of being far away from their unhappy neighborhood populated by drug dealers and stray cats. But Derb El Hemir hasn’t always been associated with drugs and poverty, even if its golden age is now no more than urban legend, a fable that comforts its inhabitants with satisfaction. No one even bothers trying to disentangle truth from fiction here, where history exudes from every corner. It’s enough to pay attention to what remains of the frescoes clinging to the walls like tortured victims, to marvel at the always dazzling blue of the zellige tiles, to appreciate the delicacy and precision of the wood paneling proudly adorning doors and arches. All elements of ornamentation that no one, not even time itself, could destroy.

“The medina is the center of the world,” the elders like to repeat. Often delving deeper into their imaginations than into history books, the seasoned chroniclers recount the conquest of Spain that, they claim, started from this very place. “And when the Jews and Muslims were chased out of Andalusia by the Christians,” the storytellers continue, sometimes scrupulous with sincerity, other times appearing naive or deceptive, “the medina opened its doors to all who sought refuge.” Back then all commerce went through the medina on the back of a donkey, hence the name, Derb El Hemir. And it was here that the beasts of burden rested from their long days of work. 

“We’re the only asses left,” insists Marouane each time his mother reminds him of the neighborhood’s prestigious past.

Sometimes the alleys here are rectilinear. But often they snake and bend delicately to offer weary locals gentle slopes bordered by geraniums. Adorning the walls, colored tiles release the moisture that drips from them in summer. Often, small streams of water surfaces on blind walls. The rare tourists who find themselves in the neighborhood by mistake never drink from them. But this water is much better than what they carry in plastic bottles sold as mineral water. 

Everyone is thirsty in Derb El Hemir. Thirsty to live, to be, and above all to get out. Here, nothing happens anymore and almost no one passes through.

What can you do when you’re born in a neighborhood named after a beast of burden? Let yourself be treated like a donkey or sleep like a bear during the winter and wake up when the good weather arrives. Marouane chooses the second option. 

A recent graduate of an affordable tourism school, the young man has everything going for him except the poverty that has dogged his ancestors for several generations. Poverty takes hold of everything. 

Being poor is written in the sky, engraved on the earth, predicted by the stars. The whole universe seems to have decided on his misery. How can he escape it? However, during the “hot” season (as he likes to call it), he can earn up to four thousand dirhams a month, which he considers a real fortune. 

  Only in the summer can he live like any other boy his age. 

In the summer, Marouane is stronger than the sky, the earth, and the stars combined. Each summer is when he meets the new love of his life and promises to join her on the other side of the strait come winter. But between the two seasons, the two shores, dreams of Al-Jaziras drown before reaching Gibraltar. And as if living in the donkey district weren’t humiliation enough, the young man’s name is Marouane Bouderaa, the one-armed man. He would’ve preferred to have his mother’s name, much more prestigious. At least according to his mother, said to be a descendant of the great medieval traveler Ibn Battûta. About whom Fatéma invents plenty of stories to show off. But her son knows she’s lying. If all the stories she tells were combined, Ibn Battûta would have lived several centuries, traveled in America, met Juba II, and fought alongside Cyprian after marrying Caracalla’s daughter under Scipio’s blessing. Marouane isn’t interested in history, but his brainy friend Hamid, who tries desperately to distinguish for Marouane between Rome, Carthage, and Byzantium, has told him of the impossibility of his mother’s account. Half of Tangier claims to descend from Ibn Battûta. Marouane is not particularly impressed by an explorer who traveled at a time when there were no visas or passports, much less police to prevent him. It’s the young Moroccans who manage to cross the strait that should be regarded with respect. Escaping the heavy security devices of the Moroccan and Spanish coast guards—that’s an extraordinary feat. But no one is interested in those brave young people. Worse still, instead of being awarded medals for their courage and ingenuity, when they get caught they get thrown in jail. 

Marouane doesn’t care for Ibn Battûta. Hamid once told him the famous traveler couldn’t even swim. A man from Tangier who’s afraid of the sea. It’s embarrassing. 

He, on the other hand, could float on his back all the way to Spain. Or rather, he could reach the peninsula just by swimming. His Moroccan nationality, his passport, is what shatters his dream; it’s a snitch that alerts of his unwanted presence at every train station, port, or airport. Legally, he can only go to Algeria, a country he considers even more miserable than his own.

This young man, unemployed, who sees himself as in between things, hasn’t slept enough, and the mother with whom he’s so good at arguing isn’t around. But as soon as his phone rings, he forgets his misery and, cheerful, talks to Safaa. The young woman’s voice is the shortest path that leads him from agony to enchantment.

He’s learned to control his mood swings the hard way. One after the other, his lovers have left him because of his sadness. One after another they helped create the fear that grew in his heart. Now he puts on a false joy the way one might embrace a new faith: with fervor and determination, never questioning or rejecting anything but also without quite managing to own it either. As for his deep sadness, he keeps that to himself and his mother. But there are days when it’s hard to pretend. For those days, he has his infallible medicine: Ouardia.

Frizzy hair turned skyward like sunflowers worshiping the sun, Ouardia is endowed with a mane that gives her a powerful presence despite her small, bent silhouette. Tangier’s most famous prostitute is now retired. Or, actually, a consultant, she clarifies. Wealthy men and women like to ask her advice. An expertise that she lends—with pleasure and eloquence—to those who seek assistance. In reality it’s her lightness and laughter one wants to get up close to. In her company, life is equal to death, tragedy has overtones of comedy, and existence is a kind of navigation with no lighthouse or ultimate destination. 

Fascinated by her scandalous reputation, Marouane tried everything to get closer to her, going so far as to sacrifice his weekly dose of cannabis to please her. 

The plant worked its magic, sealing their union forever.

If at the start Marouane went just to smoke with her, she quickly became his queen, his supreme curiosity. Ouardia is better than Wikipedia and has an answer for everything. Like his mother, she invents stories. Quite beautiful ones. The kind that give him hope. He tells no one about going to see her except Hamid. It’s also thanks to Hamid that Marouane found himself with the nickname of Petit Gerontophile. To Marouane’s ears his nickname sounds like Apprentice Doctor or Young Professor. He plays along with his friend’s fantasies about his attraction to Ouardia and sometimes finds himself surprised by his own fascination for the old woman whose seductiveness is now only legend and mythology. Ouardia knows as much about sex as Hamid knows about history. In her own way, Ouardia too is a historian. One might say a historian of art, fashion, dance, the First World War—and of course Ouardia is a historian of sex. But like the ancient scriptures, one must first decipher her before one can interpret. To make her talkative, he goes to Chaouen to bring her an apple-shaped mound with a floral smell, nicely called el beldia: a strain of Rifian cannabis with a low THC content, which leaves a sensation of roundness and delicacy in the mouth that’s nowhere to be found in today’s drug market, awash with hybrid plants. Marouane’s mission is to find this forbidden fruit for his friend, who generously rewards him with a quarter of the treasure he brings. After it’s crumbled and mixed with tobacco, the mood changes and Ouardia opens up. The rituals of their reunion are almost always the same. 

“You bastard, where have you been?”

“Hanging out with the asses,” he answers, disappearing into her enormous maternal arms, scrolls of smoke escaping from her rounded mouth. Ouardia always has a joint tucked between her lips. Her face hidden behind thick smoke brings back distant memories of when, as a child, Marouane caught sight of forbidden bodies through steam in the hammam. For him, women are like clouds without clear lines. You can neither grasp them nor see them too close up.

Ouardia insults him without his ever being offended. Such rhetoric is above all a sign of affection. His mother is the same way, calling him all sorts of names too. Educated in such sweet offenses, the young man treated his girlfriends similarly without worrying about the consequences. Though not all of his lovers, only the Moroccan ones. Europeans don’t take to being insulted and don’t understand double entendres. That’s connected to their culture, he decided.

Settled in a dilapidated house in the medina, Ouardia humbly receives her visitors like a marabout in his mausoleum. Her home isn’t adorned with green tiles as is customary in sacred places in Morocco, but it’s welcoming in its way. The ambiance in the main rooms where visitors are received is cozy. Reminiscent of the style of nineteenth-century brothels, finely-ribbed pink velvet absorbs every sigh, swallows up the slightest moan, and preserves the privacy of clandestine guests. However, the quilted fabric now exposes its foam padding emerging from the seams, as if to challenge the past’s silence. This dilapidation, which she assigns to the natural order of things, doesn’t bother Ouardia. “My body changes and so does my house,” she often repeats without trying to fix up the interior.

Marouane and Ouardia make themselves comfortable on the sofa, watching a rerun of their favorite show, The White Thread. A reality TV show that supposedly brings estranged family and friends together, although their reunions are clearly orchestrated by the show’s creators for maximum drama. Marouane and Ouardia are fans of the emotional show. As soon as the credits start, they usually start to role-play, take sides, argue, insult each other, then make up, letting their cathartic feelings pour out in a mixture of cries and laughter. Today, though, without uttering a single word, both watch the angelic face of a seventeen-year-old girl whose sobs render her words unintelligible. But the tears don’t last for long as the young woman, with a determined voice, uses her beauty and the sadness in her eyes to convince her lover to accept paternity of their eighteen-month-old son. As soon as she speaks, the young woman is no longer just seventeen. Her age is counted now in days, nights, months, and kilos as well. The presenter alternately takes pity on her or provokes her, throwing her in front of an impassioned audience. Like a caged animal, the girl of seventeen years and eighteen months and eleven kilos overweight, having no rights in the eyes of the law, uses the only means society concedes to her and launches into an emotional blackmail interspersed with Koranic verses, the profound meaning of which only she seems to know. Threatening and in desperation, she insults the presenter, her lover, and the still impassioned audience all at once. Whatever was angelic in her flies away and she is left alone with her extra kilos and her extra months and a rapt audience.

“The day that men understood we need them to have children was the end of our reign,” says Ouardia bitterly. 

“What are you talking about?”

“In the old days men didn’t make the link between copulation and the conception of a child. Because of the time that passed between the two, the notion of paternity didn’t exist, and so we were venerated as goddesses capable of giving life without anyone’s help. The secret was well kept for thousands of years but when it was revealed, men took over and now here we are today reduced to begging for the paternity of a child. What misery!” She turns up the sound of the television and adjusts her enormous glasses. 

Without thinking Marouane retorts, “Surely it was a woman who spilled the beans.” 

Ouardia bursts out laughing and kicks him in the back, which makes him lose his balance and fall over. The old woman is often cheerful, even-tempered, and when she happens to get mad, her anger quickly subsides. Her mocking laugh doesn’t stop until the muscles in her cheeks are exhausted. She has the gift of laughter and Marouane the gift of listening to her. It’s a perfect equation that unites them. 

Sometimes it’s Marouane who speaks and his friend who keeps quiet.

“Have you ever thought of teaching?” he blurts out after taking a long drag. (This is usually when he’s best able to concentrate and think). 

“Me, teach? Teach what?”


  Ouardia laughs to the point of choking. Marouane tries to hold back his laughter and keep a straight face. 

“My geography teacher never left the suburbs of the medina and yet was pretentious enough to tell us all about these places he’d never seen. You can’t learn geography from books alone, don’t you agree? You have to explore, see with your own eyes, touch. You’ve travelled, gone far from home. Tell me what it was like.” 

Ouardia, who’d lived like a nomad for many years, could still describe the lands she’d crossed, the mountains she’d seen go by. She could also tell of the rivers and skies she missed. What she’d seen before her eyes and what she left behind. She had turned around a thousand times to take one last look at her native village. She’d walked on stones that cut her feet. Her body had been dragged beyond Chaouen into Assilah’s underworld, into impetuous Casablanca and the infamous outskirts of Settat. Yes, she certainly had some stories to tell.

“And then, at the end of the course,” continues Marouane, “you could teach the geography of the body. There again, no one can compete with you. In fact the most prestigious medical schools should invite you to be a speaker.” 

Ouardia takes a bottle of vodka, shares with her friend what’s left of it, and raises her glass. 

“To medical school!”

“To medical school!”

They drink, smoke, and stay inside for hours and hours, often until dawn, in this little two-room house with two sofas, two chairs, and two sinks (he never understood why there were two sinks). Ouardia, who lives alone, has a pair of everything, as if every part of the house is waiting for someone to arrive. This absent one who’s never come. Rather than going out, the old woman waits instead. 

She made up her mind years ago never to set foot outside again. She has her groceries delivered at night, out of sight, as if it were an illegal transaction. Marouane, determined to get her out of the house, tries every strategy but never manages to convince her. 

“Just once,” he insists. 

“I spent my whole life out in the world. I just need to be home,” she repeats, contemplating the ceiling invaded by cobwebs and blue mold, sometimes pink or green, depending on the season.

The sky inside Ouardia’s is never the same view twice. As superstitious as a sailor, the old woman looks with a benevolent eye at the presence of the Brazilian spiders in her apartment, which originally came inside the suitcase of a lover. “They weave the passing time,” she likes to say, counting what she calls her children. Like a good mother, she assigns each a name, rejoices in their achievements, and feels sorry for their setbacks. Malik’s the oldest, she explains, and he doesn’t like to share his territory. Lamia teases him but her ability to run away quickly protects her from his wrath. Mustapha is reckless and is often put in line by Laila. Monique died last week and her disappearance has disturbed Nour, who’s taken to weaving webs in the most unlikely corners of the house. The newcomers don’t yet have names because the sexagenarian can’t yet tell them apart. The spiders—their lives, their webs—occupy her life and take up her time, but memories of her past life resurface when she drinks. Marouane has become her memory’s repository. Without ever revealing their identities, claiming professional confidentiality, she often talks to him about the men she’s known. She takes immense precautions in describing them, inventing nicknames. Marouane is convinced were he to cross paths with one of them by chance, he would recognize it, so well has Ouardia depicted, mimed, animated, perhaps even loved him. Marouane’s aware she knows influential men in Tangier and that her reputation goes beyond the strait. He can imagine her in a 60s Mustang practically flying down the road to Fnideq. In her days of splendor, she allowed herself impromptu evenings in Spain, crossing the sea and sky like a fairy. Today, she’s no more than an old woman ruined by those same nights. Once her dresses were full of perfumes, glitter, and sparkles, her arms heavy with jewels. Now, bare, emaciated, she moves them carefully, her arms empty but filled with gestures of the past.

Ouardia has hands as big as a man’s. Hands made for carrying. For holding the world. But her feet remained small, refusing to grow (or to walk). At sixty-four, Ouardia’s life is made of memories that have sculpted her body to the point of deforming it. When she puts her hands on her feet, her breasts pressed against her knees, her bent body seems ready to collapse. Crouched in this position in how she heals herself.

“I have never relied on a man. Never. Not even once, not even my own father. It’s them who relied on me.”

“Well, it’s time for that to change. You’re well aware that your neighbor has a crush on you.”

“The half-mad Catalan?”

“Think about the other half.” 

Ouardia remains silent and contents herself with inhaling the smoke from her joint, which stings her eyes. Marouane, playful, continues. 

“He told me he wanted to get married one day. But before that he’d have to convert to Islam and agree to be cut,” he laughs. And joining his index finger to his middle finger, he mimics the movement of scissors close to his crotch. 

Ouardia puts out her cigarette in the already overflowing ashtray, letting the fine ashes fly up and spread all over the apartment. 

“Do you know where the use of the word ‘tahara’ to mean circumcision comes from?” she asks. 

“I have a feeling you’re about to tell me.”

“It’s neither Muslim nor Jewish.”

“It comes from you!”

“It comes from the cult of Ishtar.”

“And who’s that again?”

“A goddess.”

“And so what went on back in those cursed times?” 

“Men gave up their masculine attributes, or parts of them, to get closer to the feminine divinity and enter the temple of the goddess. This is why we say ‘tahara’ in Arabic, which means purification. The word remained, but the practice has evolved. Human beings have a penchant for mutilation, that’s all.” 

“But what does this have to do with the Catalan?

“There’s nothing to cut from that poor moron, what little he has left.”

Marouane laughs nervously and tries to conceal his embarrassment. Deep down he feels knocked off balance. How does she come up with such stories? A life of prostitution alone couldn’t teach her all she knows. Marouane never knows how to take her. And this Ishtar bursting into his life right now! Is it true that men mutilated themselves for her? She must have been quite a beauty. As beautiful as the seventeen-year-old girl on TV. Ouardia hides many things from him, that he knows. But why does she cultivate such mystery and secrecy, like the upstairs room that’s always locked? What irritates him the most is how she provides answers to questions he’d never asked himself and returns to moments in history he’s never been interested in. Learning is about filling oneself with knowledge that soothes and gives meaning to life. Why does she aim to torment him? She’s really twisted. Deep down it annoys him how she messes up all the organized things in his life. This is why he prefers to see her only from time to time. Otherwise everything blurs in his mind and even the weed can’t do anything to put things back in their place.

Sometimes Marouane simply wants to smoke without talking. Without having to think. What really upsets him is feeling ignorant in front of her. What bothers him is lacking arguments at hand to contradict her. In those moments, he uses his imagination to invent things. Ouardia knows when he’s lying but never contradicts him. Fiction has always been integral to their respective lives. 

As soon as his hostess disappears behind the curtain separating the kitchen from the living room, Marouane rushes out and runs down the stairs as if being chased by a ghost. He always leaves without warning as soon as something disturbs him. Ouardia is never offended. She knows he’ll be back, that he will bring her the magic bag of weed, and they will sit on the purple sofa lighting a joint, watching TV together, arguing, laughing, and drinking until they forget the verticality of things.

Excerpted from the novel Onboard the Amsterdam, or The Last Voyage of Ibn Battûta

Translated from the French by Amira-Géhanne Khalfallah and Jennifer Grotz

To read the rest of this piece and much more, purchase our Spring 2024 issue (available in print and digital forms here.)

Amira-Géhanne Khalfallah is an Algerian playwright, novelist, and journalist. Having authored seven plays, she ventured into filmmaking by writing and directing the short film Miss, which received four awards, including the Jury Prize at the Berlinale in 2020. Her first novel, Le naufrage de La Lune, was published by Barzakh in 2018.

Jennifer Grotz is a poet and translator who teaches at the University of Rochester. Her most recent book of poetry is Still Falling (Graywolf, 2023). She directs the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences.

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