Amitav Ghosh – “In An Antique Land”

An Indian anthropologist made fun of by the Egyptians.

In An Antique Land is written by the anthropologist, Amitav Ghosh and the publishers marketed it as ‘..a subversive history in the guise of a traveler’s tale… a magical, intimate biography of a country, Egypt, from the Crusades to Desert Storm.’

The basic gist of the book is that Amitav Ghosh has been given some cash to pursue his PhD in social anthropology and, at a loss what to study, he comes across the mention of a slave in the letters of a Jewish businessmen living in Egypt in the 12th century. For no apparent reason other than that this businessmen spent a good deal of time in Ghosh’s homeland, India, he devotes the next few years of his life to tracking down rare archives, interpreting fragments of letters and, in short, immersing himself in the fossils that make such a feast for dedicated academics.

As a parallel to the story of his research, Amitav Ghosh relates anecdotes and musings about his life in a poor Egyptian village where he improves his colloquial Arabic necessary for deciphering old scripts and generally gets a better understanding of what the Middle East is all about. Fortunately, this makes up the bulk of the book and the academic bits can be skipped without missing much. Ghosh reveals himself to have an accomplished turn of phrase and a humble voice that lends itself to evoking the values and beliefs of a poor, peasant society. It makes the reader wonder why he attempted the dual narrative approach at all.

That said, Ghosh’s politics are in the right place and he illustrates the arrogance of his predecessors with acute perception borne of placing himself in the shoes of others. He relates how an English academic came to Cairo to plunder a cache of ancient documents and who, in his letters home, complained of all the baksheesh he was obliged to pay to the natives.

“(Lord Cromer) would have been in complete sympathy with a view of the world in which the interests of the powerful defined necessity, while the demands of the poor appeared as greed.”

Ghosh comes into his own as a travel writer with his character descriptions that have the read grinning or scowling along with him as he paints his landlord, Abu-Ali, the richest and most influential man of the village. Faking a leg injury in his youth, Abu-Ali was allowed to go to school rather than work in the fields and, due to the contacts he made there, he was given a monopoly to sell all the essential goods in the area. Now he spends his days lounging on the porch, patting his enormous belly and watching the traffic go by.

Yet when he finally gets up it’s to show off his wealth and his acquisition of a Japanese moped. Somehow the vehicle stands his enormous weight and:

“… it was like watching a gargantuan lollipop carried away by its stick.”

Perhaps the funniest part of Amitav Ghosh’s presence in the village is the continual pestering of the Egyptians who want to know is it true that in India they worship cows? And do they really burn their dead? And, in a hushed whisper, is it true that the men and women there are not pure (uncircumcised)?

Ghosh is lectured time and time again about the primitive practices of his people who follow no prophet mentioned in the Koran and he takes it all with the humility of his calling. He allows himself to be thought a heretic or a simpleton and rarely takes it personally, instead looking beyond his own chagrin to understand the point of view of the Egyptians he studies.

So when the learned elders interrogate him at a wedding and refuse to believe that India could be as poor as Egypt, he realises that they see themselves as the bottom rung of the development ladder.

“… I understood that their relationship with the objects of their everyday lives was never innocent of the knowledge that there were other places, other countries which did not have mud-wall huts and horse-driven ploughs, so that those… were insubstantial things, ghosts displaced in time, waiting to be exorcised and laid to rest.”

Still, for the average traveler it’s fun to read about someone else being pestered, hassled and ridiculed on a day to day basis. Despite Ghosh’s adamant denials, rumours spread that he bowed down to pray to the cows in the fields. No, no, I tripped, he protests but no one listens and then the final coup de grace is delivered with the declaration ‘and they burn their dead in India’ – a statement which invariably calls forth many supplicant prayers to Allah to protect them from such evil.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the time Amitav Ghosh spends in the Egyptian village is when he returns 7 years later and sees the changes. The kids who used to pester him have now grown up and many are working in Iraq to send money back home. The Iraq-Iran War meant that while Iraqi men were at the front, young Egyptians were called to go and work in construction and make comparatively big bucks.

The money they sent home means that most homes now have novelties like refrigerators and television sets. When Ghosh visits his former landlord Abu-Ali, trays of electronic calculators, transistor radios and lighters with a torch at one end are paraded before him as a display of wealth. The mud huts have largely disappeared and bungalows have sprung up in their place.

Yet the young men working like dogs in Iraq pay the price. Seen as parasites by the locals, they hide away at night, sharing crowded rooms to cut costs and working only to send money back home. A friend recently back from Baghdad tells Ghosh:

“Egyptians never go out there on the street at night; if some drunken Iraqis came across you they’d kill you,, just like that, and nobody would even know, for they’d throw away your papers. It’s happened, happens all the time. They blame us, you see, they say ‘You’ve taken our jobs and grown rich while we’re fighting and dying.’”

Amitav Ghosh ends his tale there and tries to wrap up his historical thread also, drawing tenuous parallels between modern times and a story that he is largely obliged to guess on the basis of some ambiguous letters. He includes some explanations on the nature of ancient slavery as a social institution rather than a crime and he also sheds some light on the destructions of Arab-Indian trade due to the conquering navies of Europe who, seeing that no one else claimed the naval traffic for themselves, reasoned that it must be up for grabs.

In an Antique Land isn’t an anthropologist trying to cash in on years of tedious study because Ghosh writes with great care and tenderness and is honest, funny and wry – all the great qualities of a travel writer. The only shame is that he overstretched himself with the dual narrative theme, a challenge that few ever manage to pass off successfully and even more unlikely a stunt when dealing with ancient anthropology.