Ameena Hussein

Of primitive carvings and primordial temples, ancient traditions and lost lifestyles, Ameena Hussein’s rediscovering of Sri Lanka as she retraces Ibn Battuta’s 14th century steps as a modern-day traveller unveils truths, long forgotten. What does it mean to perceive the bygone era in today’s context? In conversation with the esteemed author on her most recent novel ‘Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka’, she reexamines the cultural influences that have seeped in today’s context thereby re-experiencing a familiar space with a new perception. In doing so, ARTRA Magazine Apr/May E59 features a curated collection of selected four unpublished photographs of Ameena’s journey encapsulating her interpretation of the renowned traveller’s journey across Sri Lanka of profound symbolism to culture, space and sanctuaries, reflective of her own musings. 

Q| How was the experience of writing about 14th century Lanka, in today's context? 

A| It was a great experience for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have always loved history and this gave me an opportunity to research about the places I went to, and aspects that Ibn Battuta speaks about. For instance, he writes about seeing 500 dancing girls at the Devi Nuwara temple, which led me to research the occurrence of dancing girls in this country and the region. He also writes about cinnamon, rubies and ships that led me to not-so-little-side-trips within books to research them through colonial and precolonial writing. Perhaps the most frustrating and telling fact about trying to write about 14th century Lanka was that I didn’t have much access to ancient sources because either they are not translated or they didn’t explore these subjects. But all those who colonized this country, mostly the British and Dutch and to a lesser extent the Portuguese, the Arab and Chinese writers give us insight to medieval Lanka.  

Q| Why did you choose to write about Ibn Battuta? 

A| I had known that Ibn Battuta came to Lanka but hadn’t really known details. I didn’t know that he was a Moroccan, I didn’t know he came in the 14th century and I didn’t know that he had written about Lanka in his book. In 2014, I went for a Silk Roads conference hosted by the University of Iowa in the Maldives. The participants were from Krygystan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and I was struck by how Ibn Battuta came up in almost all our conversations, because we were all from countries of the Silk Road. Then one day, when we were on our coconut estate, Sam, my husband showed me a photograph he had taken in the town of Puttalam, and lo and behold, there was a street named after Ibn Battuta. In fact, at that time, I had no idea that he had landed in Puttalam and begun his journey from there. It was a very exciting discovery for me. This led me to being curious about what he might have experienced while travelling here, and I suppose, belonging to a minority community that is now seen as a threat, a misfit, the ‘other’ or the alien, I wanted to experience the journey he might have gone on through his eyes as well. 

Q| How did you begin tracking Ibn Battuta's journey in Sri Lanka? 

A| The journey initially began by going through Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, commonly known as The Rihla. It was quite difficult for me to get a hold of the book and once I laid my hands on it, I first had to read it to discover not only about what he had written of Lanka, but about his entire journey. Thereafter, I bought many one-inch maps from the Survey Department and attempted to track his probable journey. After which I embarked on my physical trip. I travelled for about a year, with breaks of course, and when I wanted to check on facts or details of a specific place, I went back, sometimes many times to experience it in different ways.

Q| Of Ibn Battuta's journey, what fascinated you most, and why? 

A| It’s difficult to focus on one aspect as there are many. Firstly, I was repeatedly struck by how multicultural my journey was. Within a few miles from each other, one could find a Buddhist temple, a Hindu kovil, a church and a mosque. Additionally, the off beaten historical and ancient sites fascinated me, most of which I came across were interestingly not included in the tourist track and therefore, somewhat neglected. I strongly believe that Panduwasnuwara, Kurunegala, Avisawella, and Deraniyagala have wonderful historical significance for Sri Lankans, and we should re-discover all aspects of our history, not just one part of it.

The fierce, and resilient appearance of Goddess Kali captured on the featured photograph on page 44 of ARTRA Magazine Apr/May E59, surrounded by countless figurines from other Gods of the Hindu pantheon and the Lord Buddha, reside at a wayside shop along the road by the Kovil in Munneswaram, which stands tall as one of its kind. Ameena explains that this lone statue stood out among others for its fearsome esoteric and aura.  As the author retraces the journey of Ibn Battuta, her exploration pauses at the Kovil and in discerning the significance of this stop, we find the featured photograph vivid in representing the nuanced power of the Goddess, painted in black and accentuated with gold outlines. As her hands outstretch to hold significant objects, what exudes is the conviction through which she is worshipped as the quintessential Goddess of time, doomsday and death as being symbolic to what we recollect from Ibn Battuta’s journey to the Munneswaram temple, situated in the Munneswaram village.

Q| What of Sri Lanka did you unravel, through the eyes of the traveller? 

A| I travelled mostly during 2015 to 2017 and I must say, I was warmly received wherever I went, but I could sense wariness and a suspicion whenever I approached a mosque and indicated that I wanted to speak with them. It was only after I had allayed their fears did they feel comfortable to open up. I believe the reason was the Aluthgama riots against the Muslims of Sri Lanka which happened in 2014 during which many Muslims if not most, were quite frightened of speaking to anyone, even if it was a subject as innocuous as Ibn Battuta. If I were to do this trip now, after the Easter Bombings of 2019, I am certain that it would be a very different trip yet again. I believe that just as Ibn Battuta saw a country that had citizens of different faiths living in harmony, we should work hard at trying to live with each other’s differences and emphasize our commonalities. We are after all, each and every one of us, Sri Lankans. 

The featured photograph of Deva Giri Maha Tampitta Vihara, in Bingiriya published on page 45 on ARTRA Magazine Apr/May E59 is one of Ameena’s personal favourites from Ibn Battuta’s trail. Adorned in frescoes and built with wattle and daub, the vihara is a two-story building held up with wooden pillars. Veering off her outlined path, Ameena stumbles upon this majestic work of art as an archaeological interest abundant in beauty. The frescoes painted are indicative of the time where the culture of its practice was widely popular and could be seen in many religious sanctuaries or prehistoric spaces such as the Sigirya frescoes. The journey of Ibn Battuta through the lens of a Sri Lankan native, allows the reader to recreate and comprehend diverse and multifaceted experiences of life, of the worlds then and now. Evidently, Ameena Hussein’s recollection of Ibn Battuta’s trajectory insightfully captures the multicultural perspectives and the indigenous nuances of the local society in their existence through a wide timeline of events. Her fervency for knowledge and curiosity for the culturally varying footpath is reflected in her novel, authored to satiate the wandering subconscious and the hungry traveller. Ameena conceptualizes the life of Ibn Battuta in ‘Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka’ not only through the perceptions of an intrigued voyager but of a native surveyor rediscovering.

The co-founder and creative force behind Sri Lanka’s leading English Publishing House, Perera-Hussein, an establishment founded in 2003 to enable and encourage Sri Lankan writers, Ameena Hussein has unfalteringly worked towards promoting local authors. Through a steady, albeit difficult upward trek of representing Sri Lankan writers locally and internationally, acclaimed author herself, Ameena has unsurprisingly surpassed ordinary standards in carving a platform for local novelists to explore their narrative with local and international audiences. As a publisher, she has been successful in critiquing the economic issues of privilege, deconstructing and dissecting them into elements of expectation and persistence through the relentless social obstacle courses. Ameena was celebrated as one of ARTRA’s Iconic Women in 2017 for her consistent efforts as a publisher of Perera-Hussein Publishing House in representing creative narratives characterizing the divergent personalities of Sri Lanka to the local and global readership.  

21st April, 2021 Written Art | Prose