January 29, 2014 By KS Shameer

In An Antique Land: The Ironies of History

ghishAfter reading In an Antique Land, a cynic might say that Amitav Ghosh has contrived a novel. The novel, of course, attempts to create a landscape which shelters many mindscapes and social spaces using the building blocks of memory, history and an anthropologist’s dairy notes. Though a novelist needs to have raw materials to work on, we inanely believe that his success remains in the less control he has over his craft, allowing thereby the craft to steadily develop on its own beyond the confines of the raw materials. In an Antique Land seems to rarely grow out of the raw materials that Ghosh used: the Cairo geniza documents, his life in the rural space of Egypt and his memorable interactions with people there and the tale of Abraham Ben Yiju’s slave whose missives and communiqués with his master that Ghosh chanced upon among the geniza documents is the focus of the novel. The developments in the novel go according to the author’s plan and outline.

However, In an Antique Land is a brilliant narrative of Egypt as a metaphor. In the novel the land, now ransacked by geopolitical tensions, stands for life before and after the advent of modernity.  There is an invisible thread linking the Cairo geniza documents-despite their being Jewish records-with the present Egyptians (all Muslims) with whom Ghosh interacts. That thread is the nothing but the very life that people live uninhibited by their differences. Though cultural differences are expressed through jokes and sarcasm about the other (Egyptians often joke about the ‘strange Indian practice of burning the dead), conviviality and love is all that bypass the occasional surfacing of differences. Their co-existence is well reflected in the culture spread all across the world by the mystical stream of religion and preserved in the popular forms of religious observance including the maintenance of geniza documents and the celebration of mawlid. Though it is not as engrossing a tale as Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and the Glass Palace, it is a trance-like retelling of his life and encounters in a landscape, which cherishes so many dreams and tales, interactions and interventions, and the warmth of living together and the ruptures of breaking apart. That Ghosh does not miss any of these in the novel makes the book a must read.

In an Antique Land consists of four parts sandwiched between the prologue, which spells out the narrative thrust of the book-the author’s search for the identity of Abraham  Ben Yiju’s slave, and an epilogue, which briefly leads us to the framework of ideas and philosophy which motivated Ghosh to write the book. The parts are named Lataifa, Nashawy (two Egyptian towns) and Mangalore, the first two parts mostly being the writer’s life in the two Egyptian towns as a scholar doing research on anthropology with the parallel narration about his being introduced to Abraham Ben Yiju and his slave by the geniza documents. The author goes to Mangalore, where Abraham Ben Yiju lived for a while, to get a linguistic puzzle solved (i.e. slave’s name Bomma), the thrust of the part being the mutual love and care between a slave and master (which helps us doubt the modern academic narratives on the medieval slavery, aided further by the author’s elaborate narration on the practice as a ‘fictive tie of kinship’ mediated by intense love and belonging (‘I hesitate to call it love because documents offer no certain proof’).

There are many frameworks of ideas which went into the making of this book. There is this stratum of living borne out by the mysticism of Abraham Ben Yiju, his slave, the people of Egypt (in fact everywhere in the world); the geniza documents (the sheer example of perseverance when the Jews in Cairo decided to preserve whatever written documents in the geniza-literally ‘treasure house’ an older version of today’s archives); and the warmth of friendship and love expressed by the author’s Muslim hosts (‘The fact was that despite the occasional storms and turbulence their country had seen, despite even the wars that some of them had fought in, theirs was a world that was far gentler, far less violent, very much more humane and innocent than mine.

I could not have expected them to understand an Indian’s terror of symbols)’. This stand of living is a perfect foil for modernity and its politics, which is hoisted on structured violence shown by the police guards in front of the tomb of Sidi Abu Hasira.

I would like to encapsulate the whole novel, which is more remarkable for the novelist’s multifaceted scholarship-his Arabic; his taste for linguistic nuances as well as the history and anthropology of mysticism; an empathy with the popular forms of religion etc-than his craft, in a short paragraph about the Cairo geniza:

“The irony is that for the most part they went to countries which would have long since destroyed the geniza had it been a part of their own history. Now it was Masr, which had sustained the Geniza for almost a millennium that was left with no trace of its riches: not a single scrap or shred of paper to remind her of that aspect of her past.

It was as though the borders that were to divide Palestine several decades later had already been drawn, through time rather than territory, to allocate a choice of Histories.”

It is this irony of history and history writing that In an Antique Land narrates.

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