Speaking of celestial rhumbs, Ibn Mājid is constantly going back to fine points of astronomical observations, how one star is “fettered” to another and how each one pertains to a rich interplay of positions. “Look at it when it is rising, then what is at the zenith and four fingers to the north at the same level. Then look at it when it is culminating, and check what is level with it and what is setting and rising at the same time…” and so on and so forth to a point of baffling complexity. It was the business of the pilots, who watched through the night and recognised the different configurations, as is encapsulated in the following advice:
If you persevere from its rising to its setting, from the beginning to the end of the night, you will see how all the configurations of its altitude measurements take shape through the sky.
Shapes seen in the sky by more than thirty different civilizations.
Design by Eleanor Lutz.
We had had occasion to comment on this “figurative” view of the stars, including its artisanal aspects and some of its more abstract associations. What is peculiar here is the emphasis on the prolonged observation to get “the full picture”, the direct relation between the tenacity of the practitioner and the access to the whole of the material, as it where.
In a few words we get a vivid and timeless picture of the Indian Ocean pilot’s discipline: watching through the night, patiently, registering the manyfold complexity that made wayfinding possible. I wonder to what extent this applies to the proficiency in other arts and techniques: the relentless attention, watching while everyone else sleeps, absorbing those guiding, principial forms—in the end, this is as good an image as it gets of what “in-formation“ used to mean; not just being exposed to data, but imbibing knowledge through the night with diligent eyes, to find a way. [JA]