‘In An Antique Land’ by Amitav Ghosh was published in 1992. I read about ‘In An Antique Land’ as a reference to the travelogue/ wanderlust genre written by an Indian Author. It was intriguing to know the premise of this book being exploring Egypt of the 12th century. A Wikipedia search on this book landed me with very little information and then, just like that, I found ‘In An Antique Land’ at the Oxford Bookstore stall during a book sale.
Amitav Ghosh takes you through the parallel worlds of 12th century Mangalore (India)-Egypt trade route and the lives of people in 20th century Mangalore (India)-Egypt. So, you read two narratives simultaneously. One, the reconstruction of Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish merchant and Bomma, his Indian slave through documentary proofs and second, Amitav Ghosh’s experience in the villages of Egypt in 1980s during his doctoral research.
The last line of the book says, “Nabeel had vanished into the anonymity of History”.
Nabeel was one of the many citizens from the villages of Egypt who migrated to Iraq to earn better and was caught in the war. Though Ben Yiju and his slave or rather the trade agent Bomma survived the wrath of time, the history of their lives was preserved in the documents of Geniza. Indeed, history records the lives of leaders and important persons, the common people are lost. So, it is interesting that the author chooses two non-eminent persons from the past to narrate the history of 12th-century relation between Egypt and India.
As Amitav Ghosh writes in the Prologue on how he stumbled upon this fascinating adventure, “The slave of MS H.6 first stepped upon the stage of modern history in 1942. His was a brief debut, in the obscurest of theatres, and he was scarcely out of the wings before he was gone again – more a prompter’s whisper than a recognizable face in the cast.” This romanticized beginning is the reference to the short article by E.Strauss published in an issue of Hebrew journal, Zion titled ‘New Sources for the History of Middle Eastern Jews.’ The article consisted of various transcriptions, amongst which was a letter from a trader in Aden addressed to his friend Abraham Ben Yiju in Mangalore, written in 1148 AD.
Now between deciphering all the written evidence between Ben Yiju and Slave MS H.6 later named Bomma, Amitav Ghosh spins the tales from villages of Egypt where he was stationed for completion of his doctorate in Social Anthropology. For this, he had learned Arabic in Tunisia. The young Amitav Ghosh of just 22 years lived in Lataifa and Nashawy, two villages in Egypt. The anecdotal details of Amitav Ghosh’s stay in these villages take you vicariously through the lifestyle of people in Egypt in 1980’s – their religious beliefs, practices, ceremonies, socio-economic and political structures.
Though I must admit the author challenges you to keep up with the details regarding Ben Yiju and then switches to the colorful lives of the people in Lataifa and Nashawy. It does get difficult given a culturally different context to keep up with the reading.
One of the most interesting portions pertains to the preservation of written communication by the Jewish community in Egypt.
“The Geniza, in fact, contain innumerable Scriptural and rabbinic documents of great importance, Biblical manuscripts in particular. But it was neither a religious library nor an archive: it was a place where the members of the congregation would throw all the papers in their possession, including letters, bills, contracts, poems, marriage deeds and so on.”
The same piece of paper contained several information; for paper was very expensive during the middle ages. And, then there were more documents thrown in too in the subsequent years with little thought at maintenance and cataloguing. Later on, some of the important papers were shifted to Universities across other continents for preservation and research.
Back in Mangalore, there is quite some effort put in to even find the correct name of the slave addressed as MS H.6. From BMA that may have resonance to Brahma, the Hindu Deity of the highest order to its presumption in the final name of Bomma, ‘the toddy-loving fisherman from Tulunad’.
While deciphering the communication between Ben Yiju and Bomma, the author learned Judaeo-Arabic, colloquial dialect of medieval Arabic, written in Hebrew script. Well, atleast he had a script, Bomma is traced back to Tulunad with no written script for their language. The little preserved culture could only be translated through Kannada.
There are references to the traders who were among the first to travel back and forth between the Indian Ocean and the Middle East, charting the eastern trade. Ben Yiju’s travel is traced from Egypt through Aden to India. There is a reference to Aidhab, a port on the coast of Sudan that was one of the most important halts on the route between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean for more than five hundred years, faded to oblivion by the fifteenth century.
The author tries to trace the reason as to why Ben Yiju left for India and limited his stay and trade within Mangalore and its vicinity. During his stay, he released a slave girl by the name of Ashu and married her on 17th October 1132. But, eventually, he has to return and Ghosh takes us to trail the journey back to Egypt.
However, the book slants more towards providing details of Amitav Ghosh’s experience of living in the villages of Egypt for months at a stretch. There is a persistent question regarding Hinduism, the Indian practice of burning the dead and cow worshipping. I can imagine how difficult it would have been for an Indian to live in those distant villages with no communication (as available in the modern world). There are also some heart-warming moments. One time, a diesel water pump was brought to Lataifa, the first of its kind and it was known as ‘al-makana-al-Hindi’, the Indian machine.
By the end of the 1980s, in Ghosh’s second visit, he is able to see the transformation in the lifestyle with television dotting these villages and other household luxuries – washing machine, a refrigerator that have transpired from Iraq to this place. This was also a time when inclination for Middle East migration for financial prosperity was driving Indians as well during this period.
It is interesting how the author lets us see the repercussions of world affairs on the minuscule level in an uncharted area.
The book leaves you with mixed feelings as if you also got a slice of Amitav Ghosh’s autobiography especially his revisit to the horrors of the riot during the India-Pakistan war while his family was posted in Dhaka.
The Yom Kippur war had perhaps erased the memory of Bomma from History and Nabeel was evaporated in the Gulf War. Until an author took upon himself the task of writing their stories.