By Clifford Geertz

(book review on:)

In an Antique Land
by Amitav Ghosh
(Knopf, 393 pp., $23)

The world, by now, is fairly well cut up into distinct pieces, stretches of space with borders around them and inhabitants within them. People move about a good deal, and some may change their residence and become inhabitants of some other piece. Nor are the pieces themselves entirely fixed; they can merge, divide, swallow one another up, or, like the Soviet Union, just disappear. But all of this occurs against the background of the peculiar idea that all individuals, however drifting, belong somewhere, to some bounded territory housing some population, even if they may have to be deported or walled in before they will live there.

One part of the globe where this conception of social and geographical interconnection was never very strong, however, is that great strip of mercantile civilization that, from about the tenth century to the sixteenth century, ran from Fez and Seville in the West, through Cairo and Aden around the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean to Calicut and the Malabar coast. In this mobile, polyglot and virtually borderless region, which no one owned and no one dominated, Arabs, Jews, Iberians, Greeks, Indians, various sorts of Italians and Africans pursued trade and learning, private lives and public fortunes, bumping up against one another and against various sorts of political adventurers, but more or less getting along, or getting by, within broa d and general rules for communication, propriety and the conduct of business. It was, we might say, a multicultural bazaar.

Today this part of the world is divided, like the rest of the globe, into singular and separated national states, a number of them at each other's throats. But, in part because the division is so recent, in part because it was to such an extent imported from outside by imperial powers, the echoes of the cosmopolitan past remain perceptible--faint, perhaps, but persistent. The sense of the artificiality of borders, and even of the religious and racial distinctions most emphatically insisted upon by the ideologically inflamed, still lingers in the popular mind. Footloose mobility and multiple connection, the setting aside of cultural differences in streetcorner negotiations, the freedom to truck, barter and exchange with anyone who is up for it, continue to attract, however overridden they may be by immediate passions. An area that has become the very image of parochial conflict retains, almost as a sort of background energy left over from its creation, the traces and the intimations of a much less constricted form of life.

It is into this equivocal world, an "elusive and mysterious antique land," that Amitav Ghosh, a young novelist and anthropologist, born in Calcutta and trained in New Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria, dropped himself in the early '80s in an attempt to gain some understanding not merely of it, but also, for reasons that never become altogether clear, of his own relationship to it. His way into this region was by means of his discovery, in a collection of commercial letters edited by S.D. Goitein, the great scholar of the period, of the existence of an Indian slave in twelfth-century Egypt.

The slave, about whom virtually nothing is known save his name--it was "Bomma"--and his position--he was his owner's "business agent"--belonged to a Jewish merchant installed for the moment in Mangalore on the Malabar coast. He is mentioned in a letter written by the merchant's patron back in Aden who, somewhat surprisingly, sends the slave his personal greetings. This discovery, made in an Oxford library while thrashing about for a thesis subject, not only determined Ghosh to go to Egypt for his fieldwork, it also necessitated his doing so: it saddled him with a vocation. "The next year ... I was in a village ... a couple hours to the southeast of Alexandria. I knew nothing then about the slave except he had given me a right to be there, a sense of entitlement."

The book that Ghosh writes about this experience, or study, or adventure, or quest, weaves back and forth between the immediate realities encountered in his village and in another village down the road to which he later moved, and his search through the documentary record in England, North Africa, Princeton and Philadelphia for, if not the person of Bomma, which proved largely unrecoverable, then for whatever he could discover of the life immediately surrounding him--that of his owner and his owner's relatives, rivals and associates.

The ethnographic side of things, the description of village life (Ghosh was there in 1980-81 and 1988-89, returning briefly in 1990 at the outbreak of the Gulf war), consists in a series of detached vignettes, strung together, as indeed a novelist, or anyway an impressionistic novelist, would string them together, to characterize a mood rather than to analyze a state of affairs. There is his "profoundly unlovable" landlord, fat, miserly, immobile all day on his veranda divan watching everything that passes, elaborating intricate schemes to protect his wealth. There is his dignified, recently widowed neighbor, an upright paterfamilias, proud of his sons and grandsons, just remarried to a girl a fraction of his age. There is a learned scholar, pious and political, and baffled by Hinduism, "this `Hinduki' thing." There are young blades restive under the constraints of village life, arrogant policemen randomly throwing their weight around, reformist religious teachers hopelessly inveighing against local superstitions, traditionalist mullahs enamored of modern armaments but hostile to everything else in any way strange.

The picture is one of an extremely agitated standing still; of a kinetic society that doesn't much move. But if the society doesn't move, a fair number of its people do--mainly to Iraq, where jobs are available and the money is good. When Ghosh returns for his second stay in 1988, most of those he had known as impatient young men seven years earlier are gone:

There had always been a fair number of people working "outside" ... but now it was different; it was as though half the working population had taken leave of the land and surged into Iraq. The flow had started in the early 1980s, a couple of years after the beginning of the war between Iraq and Iran; by then Iraq's own men were all tied up on one front or another ... and it was desperately in need of labor to sustain its economy. For several years around that time it had been very easy for an Egyptian to find a job there; recruiters and contractors had gone from village to village looking for young men who were willing to work "outside." People had left in truckloads; it was said at one time that there were maybe 2 or 3 million Egyptian workers in Iraq, as much as a sixth of that country's population. It was as if the two nations had dissolved into each other.

Not for very long, of course. After the end of the war with Iran, the Iraqis wanted the jobs back. Instead of encouraging foreigners to come, they began to drive them out. With the Gulf war, the break was complete; the exodus a flood. Most of the migrants drifted back, changing things a bit materially (televisions, refrigerators, washing machines), but more or less returning to what they had left: energy and restlessness locked in place.

Ghosh's pursuit of intelligence about his twelfth-century second self, that offstage slave, is much less straightforward. Interleaved in his narrative with the quick-sketch reports of his village encounters, it is a wandering, parabolical tale, derived from searching for incidental references and uncertain clues in documents difficult to find, difficult to read and even more difficult to interpret. If his modern Egypt is concentrated and brightly lit, his medieval Egypt is scattered and hard to see.

The documents concerned are those recovered from the famous Geniza of old Cairo. A geniza is a storehouse in which the members of a synagogue entomb virtually every scrap of writing so as to avoid desecrating the name of God. The Cairo Geniza was opened up to Western scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century and its contents progressively removed, colonial style, to Britain, Russia, Palestine and the United States. It contained 800 years of everything from ship invoices and divorce settlements to medical treatises and biblical texts. It is on these materials that Goitein based A Mediterranean Society, his magnificent synthesis of medieval society in the region, one of the most considerable historical works of our time.

It is to these materials that Ghosh looks for traces of his Bomma, for the slave's owner, a certain Abraham Ben Yiju, was (like Maimonides) a member of the congregation to which the Geniza belonged. He doesn't find all that much, and what he does find has more to do with Ben Yiju than with Bomma. Ben Yiju was born in what is now Tunisia to a merchant family engaged in the eastern trade. He moved to Cairo, and thence to Aden, the Red Sea port, in the 1120s. There, "well enough educated to have become a scholar himself and ... very well versed in doctrinal matters," he entered the circle of some of "the most well-traveled men of the Middle Ages, perhaps of any age before the twentieth century ... witness to a pattern of movement so fluent and far-ranging that they make the journeys of later medieval travelers, such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, seem unremarkable in comparison."

Apparently Ben Yiju got into some sort of trouble--Ghosh imagines a blood feud--and fled, after about a decade, to Mangalore, a small port on the Malabar coast. He remained there for eighteen years, amassing a fortune and dispatching Bomma to Aden to prosecute his affairs as the occasion warranted, which seems to have been often. He married another of his slaves, an Indian woman he manumitted and converted to Judaism, and had a number of children by her. Eventually the trouble in Aden was regulated, and he returned with his wife and his family, and with Bomma, to the Red Sea area, where they spent the remainder of their days, moving about and struggling as ever to keep an itinerant life in workable order.

It is this sort of life that Ghosh wishes to place in counterpoint to the different yet reminiscent one that he found in the villages around Alexandria, in order to give the past a continuing reality and the present a resonant depth. (He even journeys to Mangalore, to get a feel for what "it must have been like" for Bomma and Ben Yiju and Ben Yiju's wife to live there amid Yemenis, Persians, Sumatrans and Chinese, all of them surrounded by Malabar fishermen, and also to get a feel for how it now looks--bustling and built-up--to the modern eye.) In this he succeeds well enough. He has produced an original, moving and suggestive work; well researched, carefully constructed and beautifully written.

Yet, perhaps because his natural reticence, his wish to stay apart and self-possessed, prevents him from examining very closely or very deeply his personal investment in the figure of Bomma, what it is, exactly, that draws him with such force to this near invisible presence so far back in time in so distant a setting, his book has a sense of incompletion about it; of something not said about then, and, even more, about now. It tells its stories, it constructs its ironies, and it leaves it at that.


A passage to India, in: The New Republic, vol. 209 no. 8-9 (1993), pp. 38f.


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