Once upon a time an Indian writer named Amitav Ghosh set out an Indian slave, name unknown, who some seven hundred years before had traveled to the Middle East. The journey took him to a small village in Egypt, where medieval customs coexist with twentieth-century desires and discontents. But even as Ghosh sought to re-create the life of his Indian predecessor, he found himself immersed in those of his modern Egyptian neighbors. Combining shrewd observations with painstaking historical research, Ghosh serves up skeptics and holy men, merchants and sorcerers. Some of these figures are real, some only imagined, but all emerge as vividly as the characters in a great novel. In an Antique Land is an inspired work that transcends genres as deftly as it does eras, weaving an entrancing and intoxicating spell.
Not as tedious as Shadow Lines was. Sorry, I know there are many fans of Shadow Lines, but it's just too complicated to keep track of! However this is an easy, smooth read and a smart way of showing how some things are historicised and some are not - it's the alternative histories that the author chooses to tell.read more
mitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land is a hidden history of India and Egypt during the 12th century in the disguise of a traveler's tale. Amitav accidentally stumbled upon some letters of correspondence between Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish merchant living in India, and Khalaf ibn Ishaq from Egypt in 1132. In the margins of these letters Ben Yiju's slave Bomma was often mentioned in passing with a special note of affection. No sooner had Amitav discovered about Bomma than he, out of volition, ventured out to Egypt, sifted through fact and conjecture, through a large number of letters and manuscripts referring to the trade between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean, piecing together Bomma's journey from India to Egypt.In 1980, Amitav arrived in Egypt and over a span of five years he stayed in the villages of Lataifa and Nashawy. While Amitav diligently tried to fill in the details of the slave's life, whose record in medieval history was completely out of the ordinary, he befriended with enthusiastic Muslims who found him fascinating but incomprehensible. Amitav's landlord, Abu-Ali, was an obese, inimical, petulant man who was diligent in exploiting all moneymaking possibilities of his strategically located house. Shaikh Musa, who referred Abu-Ali obliquely to his avarice and acrimony, always watched out for Amitav and cautioned him to evade certain people in the village. Ustaz Sabry, a well-read history scholar who taught in Nashawy, and his students Nabeel, who aspired to work in the government but left stranded in Baghdad, Iraq at the outset of the Gulf War, cultivated with Amitav a friendship that later proven to be indomitable.Amitav did not always meet the usual hospitality. To the eyes of Muslims for whom the world outside was still replete with wonders, a Hindu was uncivilized for the practice of "burning the dead". Villagers often stigmatized Hindus and admonished Amitav to civilize his country and people. Others attempted to convert him into the study of Quran. Even the children jeered at his lack of perspicacity in politics, religion, and sex. In one occasion, at the house of Imam Ibrahim, the healer and prayer leader of Nashawy, Amitav unwarily trespassed on some deeply personal grief that haunted the Imam and his family for years. The unfortunate and unintentional solecism incurred in the Imam an enmity toward Amitav.In An Antique Land unveiled the mystery of Bomma whom Ben Yiju adopted into his service as business agent and later incorporated into his household. In unraveling the life of this Indian slave across some 800 years, Amitav deftly sheds light on the life of his master Ben Yiju and nature of patron-client, master-apprentice relationship in disguise of a master-slave one during the 12th century. The relics about Bomma was limited but the unexpected outcome of the search manifested a compendious picture of his master, Ben Yiju, who as a junior associate, partnered with a merchant Madmum. The letters between these two were full of instructions and certain peremptoriness prevailed beneath the usual courteous language. Madmum's warm and occasionally irascible tone suggested that Madmum regarded Ben Yiju with an almost paternal affection.In An Antique Land delivers a tale of a quest that moves between the present and the past, between Amitav Ghosh's own life and the slave's. The narrative is rich in layers, cultural overtones, historical relics, and anecdotes. Readers will find arresting images of India and Egypt hidden under a deceptively plain surface of prose.read more
This is both an account of an Indian slave who was owned by a Jewish merchant in the 1100's, and an account of the time that Ghosh spent in Egypt.Both accounts were interesting. I found passages about trade among the Middle East, N. Africa, India and Southern Europe during the Middle Ages to be especially fascinating. Ghosh's attempts to uncover the identity of the slave and to learn about his life are also interesting, though it seems to me that his conclusions were almost all pure educated speculation based on too lttle evidence. The slave's master makes up almost all of the narrative of the slave. Given that there is, of course, so little written material concerning the slave, or any of the lower classes of that time, it's to be expected.The account Ghosh gives of his several visits to Egypt over a decade or so are also interesting.read more
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