In An Antique Land, History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale by Amitav Ghosh
Vintage, New York, 1992
I own this, found it in a thrift shop. Amitav Ghosh is a favorite of mine, and with the events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East over the last few months I decided it was time to read it.
In An Antique Land is an interesting combination of history, sociology and memoir that reaches back into the twelfth century and connects it to our own time.
In the winter of 1978 Ghosh was studying for a degree in social anthropology at Oxford when he came across a book of translations titled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders by Professor S.D. Goitein. The letters came from storage chamber known as the Geniza, attached to an ancient synagogue in Cairo. One of them, catalogue number MS H.6, was written in 1146 AD by a merchant named Khalaf ibn Ishaq to a trader named Abraham Ben Yijû. At that time Ben Yiyû was living in Mangalore, on the south-western coast of India. The letter mentions a certain slave and sends him “plentiful greetings”.
Ghosh was hooked and soon found himself in Tunisia, learning Arabic. In 1980 he traveled to Egypt, living in a small village called Lataifa, and getting to know the Egyptian people.
From there the author traveled to another Egyptian village, Nashawy and then on to Mangalore, India, living with and getting to know the people in the towns and villages. He was attempting to track the travels of Ben Yijû and of his slave, a man Ghosh began to think of as Bomma.
What I found most fascinating was the interweaving of the time lines, Egypt and the Middle East in the 1100’s and in the late twentieth century, the mingling of history and social anthropology, Ghosh’s openness with the people around him and his awareness of the pressures of modernization. I admire his observation skills and his clarity. Here is his description of the village during Ramadan. He had wanted to join in but everyone had said he could not – he was not Muslim.
From the very first day of the lunar month the normal routines of the village had undergone a complete change: it was as though a segment of time had been picked from the calendar and turned inside out. Early in the morning, a good while before sunrise, a few young men would go from house to house waking everyone for the suhûr, the early morning meal. After that, as the day progressed, a charged lassitude would descend upon Lataifa. To ease the rigours of the fast people would try to finish all their most pressing bits of work early in the morning. while the sun was still low in the sky; it was impossible to do anything strenuous on an empty stomach and parched throat once the full heat of the day had set in. By noon the lanes of the hamlet would be still, deserted. The women would be in their kitchens and oven-rooms, getting their meals ready for the breaking of the fast at sunset. The men would sit in the shade of trees, or in their doorways, fanning themselves. Their mouths and lips would sometimes acquire thin white crusts, and often, as the hours wore on, their tempers would grow brittle. From page 75.
Ghosh threads history throughout this memoir, how the trading in Northern Africa was dependent on many items from India. How people worked, traveled and lived. How even the word “slave” had a very different meaning during that time. Reading this book was a reminder of how that area of the world was once, peacefully, inhabited by people of different races and religions. Why did that change? As he reaches the end of his journey along the west coast of India, Ghosh presents a theory.
The journey ends on a beach between ‘Fandarîna’ and Calicut, at a small fishing-village, hidden behind the shelter of a sand-dune. It is a quiet spot: a few catamarans and fishing-boats lie in a great crescent of sand, a vast beach that is usually empty, except when fishing boats come in. The village is called Kappkadavu an on one side of it beside the road is a worn white marker which tells the passer-by that this was where Vasco da Gama landed, on his first voyage to India, on 17 May 1498 – some three hundred and fifty years after Ben Yiyû left Mangalore.
Within a few years of that day the knell had been struck for the world that brought Bomma, Be Yiyû and Ashu together, and another age had begun in which the crossing of their paths would seem so unlikely that its very possibility would all but disappear from human memory. From page 286.
There is an interesting connection between this author’s fascination with the slave Bomma, the historical trading between India and Northern Africa and his novel Sea of Poppies. I cannot wait for the second book in the Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke.