June 30, 2014 by Lo
Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land
I discovered this book and Ghosh though my friend Matt Ellis, who teaches Modern Middle East history at Sarah Lawrence (and who had to share an office with me at Princeton when we were grad students).
It’s a difficult to describe book, part history, part memoir, part present day sociology. It describes Ghosh’s experience living in a rural Egyptian village in the 1980s, where he was learning conversation Arabic towards the completion of his anthropology PhD, alternating with an account of the Jewish 11th century merchant who was the central figure of the dissertation. It weaves the personal and the political, the historical with the present, so deftly and organically, it doesn’t seem at all contrived.
One of Ghosh’s themes, both here and in the Ibis trilogy which I also strongly recommend, is diversity and overlapping, coexisting cultures — in particular, here, the contrast between what he presents as the relatively tolerant world of Indian Ocean traders in the medieval period and the atomized, separated, suspicious world of the present. In former times, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Parsee merchants coexisted, sometimes at arm’s length, sometimes with the mutual respect derived from the brotherhood of commerce. The centrality of world commerce in the Indian Ocean world of the 11th c. also contrasts ironically with the clear sense of impoverished Egyptian villagers today that they are on the periphery of the fast moving global capitalist economy. TVs and hydraulic wells appear in their village, but instead of being seen as signs of progress, they only serve as reminders that innovation and profits are mostly happening elsewhere.