Travellers ancient and modern
In twentieth-century Egypt an anthropologist uncovers the lives of mediaeval traders and slavesBy John Ryle • 27 June 2016 • Independent on Sunday • Travellers In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh • Posted 2016 • 684 words
Amitav Ghosh, an Indian social anthropologist and novelist, lived in Lataifa, a village in Lower Egypt in the 1980s. His research took him from the village to the library of a synagogue in Cairo and a hoard of letters that had been discovered there between Jewish merchants in mediaeval India and their counterparts in the Middle East. In An Antique Land is an account both of Ghosh’s life in Egypt as a field researcher and of his scholarly pursuit of the Slave of MS H.6, a twelfth-century Indian man who worked as a business agent for one of the Jewish merchants, and who appears, sometimes drunk, in occasional sentences and asides in the letters preserved in the synagogue library.
These references to an illiterate slave, Ghosh writes, come to us from a moment when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual existences are the literate and consequential, the wazirs and sultans, the chroniclers and the priests—people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time. Ghosh’s slave is an anti-Ozymandias, one who never expected to be remembered, who is miraculously ransomed from the rubbish-tip, from the abandoned scriptorium of history; Ghosh himself is an indefatigable traveller to shrines and libraries in pursuit of this historical phantom. The parallels between his life, the life of the twentieth-century field researcher, and that of the slave and his master in mediaeval India begin to resonate when Ghosh returns years later to Lataifa to find that his own letters to his former hosts are kept there, sealed in plastic bags.
Lataifa is not the village of classic anthropological monographs, the locus of an unchanging peasant world. These villagers are travellers too, labour migrants to Iraq and the Gulf states, pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, soldiers in Yemen. Some of them, Ghosh writes, “had passports so thick they opened out like ink-blackened concertinas”. The anthropologist is outflanked by the subjects of his research, by a village that begins to resemble an airport transit lounge. In this sense Lataifa is an emblem of modernity, of the post-colonial world. They—we—are all travellers now. Only an unconventional account has any chance of doing justice to the dislocations of the present, that is to say an account that, as E.M.Forster said of the Alexandrine poet C.P.Cavafy, stands at an oblique angle to the universe—both to the universe of scholarship and the universe that scholars attempt to describe.
There is a honourable element, albeit a touch Quixotic—in Ghosh’s attempt to reincarnate the Slave of MS H.6, to evoke a time when India and Egypt were entwined by trade, when a synagogue in Cairo could be a centre of learning and a Hindu would not be mocked, as the villagers mock Ghosh when he lives there, for cremating the dead or venerating cattle. The implied parallels between his life and that of the mediaeval Indian Ocean trader, or his slave, sometimes seem strained; but this sense of strain is also true to the spirit of modernity, where everything is juxtaposed and nothing quite coheres.
One of the achievements of this book is to show, with affecting detail, how the ascendancy of a single civilization has simultaneously forced people together and estranged them from one another. In a public argument with the local imam Ghosh is struck by this.
“We were delegates from two superseded civilizations,” he writes of the dispute. “Despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both travelling, he and I: we were travelling in the West.”
In an Antique Land belongs in a rare genre of non-fiction—John Berger’s Pig Earth is another example—where the vigour of participant observation is married even-handedly with scholarly exactitude and literary aplomb. In the insights and perplexities of an Indian-born, western-educated intellectual dwelling among the peasantry and rural petit-bourgeosie of a non-western culture that is not his own, we see arresting reflections of the cultures and civilisations that surround the West, worlds on whose resources we all depend. ★