Top positive review
6 people found this helpful
on 16 August 2012
What do Egypt and India have in common? They are both predominantly rural, poor countries where ordinary people hanker after the trappings of modernity yet live immersed in the myths and practices of age-old traditions. But they also share a rich history of trade and migration, especially belonging to the Middle Ages. Such are the two strands from which Amitav Ghosh has woven In an Antique Land.
Gosh, otherwise a novelist, spent a number of years in rural Egypt in the 1980s on a historical research trip. Since his training was in anthropology, he also made meticulous notes of his everyday environment. The result is a volume that is both travel and history writing, and both sociological and private testimony. Gosh gives us Egyptian village life in moving detail: its family clans, its festivals, its preoccupations with money, jobs, marriage. The writer was there, took the time to learn the dialect, befriended his hosts and took a genuine interest in their lives. And if he was a Hindu, this only made him an attraction among a friendly and curious public. His book shines with simple but quirky anecdotes, and with dialogues more telling than any long rendition. Meanwhile, in filigree, Gosh also unfolds the story of Abraham Ben Yiju, an eleventh-century Jewish merchant, and that of his slave and business associate from Mangalore. Ben Yiju's tale provides a certain symmetry to the author's, since, originally from North Africa, the medieval merchant lived for a long time on the Malabar coast. But it is also genuine, and Gosh takes his reader through the fascinating story of the Cairo Geniza, one of the largest troves of medieval manuscripts ever unearthed, once attached to a synagogue.
In an Antique Land is anything but opinionated. Its writing is full of reserve and gentle understanding, and nor does it condemn. Yet at the same time it is subtly subversive of certain historical commonplaces: about the contributions of Western discovery, trade, and modernity or about Jewish-Muslim antinomy, for example. The trade routes that freely joined the Mediterranean to India and beyond were destroyed by monopoly-seeking Europeans. Gosh shows us a lost world that peacefully spanned two civilizations across the Indian Ocean and, through his portrait of contemporary Egypt, he shows how it still resonates, or how its loss is still to be felt on either side. Perhaps this is not news for readers already versed into pre-modern world history. Yet even for the knowledgeable, this gem of a book is sure to be filled with discoveries.