East with Ibn Battuta

1. Cairo 1326

Cloisters (khanqahs) of Darvishes   
Built by aristocrats
Have silver rings on their doors   
The mystics sit down to eat
Each from his private bowl
Each drinks
From his own cup
They are given
Changes of clothing
And a monthly allowance
On Thursday nights
They are given sugar
Soap and oil
For their lamps
And the price of a bath.

In the great cemetery   
They build chambers   
Hire singers
To chant the Koran
Day and night among the tombs
With pleasant voices.

Convent at Dayr at-Tin:
A piece of the Prophet’s
Wooden basin with the pencil   
With which he applied kohl
The awl
With which he sewed his sandals   
Bought by the founder
For a hundred thousand dirhams.

2. Syria

Ma’arra and Sarmín: towns   
Of abominable Shi’ites
Who hate the Ten Companions   
And every person called Omar

In Sarmín (where scented soap   
Is made and exported   
To Damascus and Cairo)   
These heretics so hate the Ten   
They will not even say “Ten”
Their brokers at auctions   
When they come to “ten”
Say “Nine-plus-one”

One day a faithful Turk
At one of their markets
Heard the broker call “Nine-plus-one”
He went for him with a club, shouting   
“You bastard, say TEN!”

“Ten with a club”
Wept the broker.

3. The Nusayris

These heretics hate all true believers and when ordered by   
       the Sultan
To build mosques build them far from their homes   
Keep asses and cattle in them let them fall into disrepair.

If a true believer coming from another country
Stops in a ruined mosque and sings the call to prayer   
The infidels say: “Stop braying,
We will bring you a little hay.”

Once a stranger came to the Nusayris and told them he was   
       the Mahdi
He promised to divide Syria among them   
Giving each one a city or a town.
He gave them olive leaves and said:
“These will bring you success. These leaves   
Are warrants of your appointment.”

They went forth into city and town
And when arrested, each said to the Governor:   
“The Imám al-Mahdi has come. He has given me   
       this town!”

The Governor would then reply: “Show me your warrant”

Each one then produced his olive leaves
And was flogged.

So the stranger told the heretics to fight:
“Go with myrtle rods,” he said   
“Instead of swords. The rods
Will turn to swords at the moment of battle.”

They entered a town on Friday when the men were
       at the mosque.
They raped the women and the Muslims
Came running out with swords   
And cut them to pieces.

News was sent to the capital by carrier pigeon.   
       The Governor
Moved out with an army. Twenty thousand heretics   
Were slaughtered. The rest hid in the mountains.   
They offered one dinar per head if they were spared.   
This news went by pigeon to the Sultan
Who said: “Kill them.”

But the General
Said these people could be useful   
Working on the land
And their lives were spared.

4. Mecca

“The Meccans are very elegant and clean in their dress, and most of them wear white garments, which you always see fresh and snowy. They use a great deal of perfume and kohl and make free use of toothpicks of green arák-wood.

“The Meccan women are extraordinarily beautiful and very pious and modest. They too make great use of perfumes to such a degree that they will spend the night hungry in order to buy perfumes with the price of their food.

“They visit the mosque every Thursday night, wearing their finest apparel; and the whole sanctuary is saturated with the smell of their perfume. When one of these women goes away the odour of the perfume clings to the place after she has gone.”

5. Isfahan

In Isfahan the fair   
Surrounded by orchards
(Apricots and quinces   
Pears and melons)
The people out-do one another
In banquets
“In the preparation for which
They display all their resources”
One corporation entertained another with viands   
Cooked over candles
“The guests returned the invitation
And cooked their viands with silk.”

6. Delhi

In the Sultan’s apartments   
I saw a Júgí
Sitting in midair
I fell in a faint
They had to give me a drink   
To revive me

And there he was   
Still sitting in midair   
His companion
Took a sandal from a bag   
Beat it on the ground   
Til it rose in the air   
All by itself and poised   
Over the floating one
And it began hitting him   
On the back of the neck   
Until he floated down   
And landed.

“I would tell them to do something else,”
Said the Sultan, “If I did not fear   
For your reason.”

7. Calicut

Chinese vessels at anchor in the harbor   
One of the largest in the world. Malabar   
Coast of ginger pepper spice
Four decks with cabins saloons
Merchants of Canton Sumatra
Ceylon stay locked in cabins
With wives and slave girls
Sailors bring their boys to sea
Cultivate salads and ginger
In wooden vats

In Calicut I missed my boat   
To China and my slave
Girls were all stolen by the King   
Of Sumatra and my companions   
Were scattered over China
Sumatra and Bengal

When I saw what had happened   
I sailed for the Maldives
Where all the inhabitants
Are Muslims

Live on red fish lightly cooked   
Or smoked in palmleaf baskets   
It tastes like mutton

These natives wear no pants   
Only aprons
Bathe twice a day
Use sandalwood and do not fight   
Their armor is prayer.
Thomas Merton, “East with Ibn Battuta” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1968, 1969 by The Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1977)
More Poems by Thomas Merton