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on April 19, 2001
I read IN AN ANTIQUE LAND because I greatly admire Amitav Ghosh's novels, and wanted to read more of him.
As the reader quickly discovers, Ghosh in this book works with three narratives. One is a 'detective' story, albeit in the most scholarly of veins. As a student Ghosh recounts how he came across a reference -- one line -- to an Indian slave who worked for a Jewish master, Abraham ben Yiju. Who was this most marginal of historical personages, whose name emerges -- the time is 1148 AD -- "when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual, existences are the literate and the consequential, the wazirs and sulatans, the chroniclers and the priests -- the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time...the slave of Khalaf's letter was not of that company: in his instance it was a mere accident that those barely discernible traces that ordinary people leave upon the world happen to have been preserved."
The detective search for more information on the slave, his owner, the world they both inhabited, leads Ghosh to Geniza of Cairo, a storehouse of Jewish documents which miraculously survived the destruction that seems to be the fate of most paper over the course of many centuries. The documents are themselves a diaspora in miniature: none remain in Egypt, being dispersed to St. Petersburg, Oxford, Cambridge, Philadelphia...and yet the book recounts how Ghosh tracks them down.
The second narrative requires Ghosh's novelistic gifts, as he attempts to reconstruct, from mere shreds of evidence, the life of Abraham and his slave. What results is a rich evocation of the way life was lived -- in Aden, Mangalore (India), Egypt, even Sicily and Yemen -- in the twelfth century; the life evoked is Jewish, Muslim, Hindu; it is Egyptian, Indian; it is mercantile, religious, familial. And it is, as stated, richly evoked.
The third narrative is one of Ghosh's life in rural Egyupt, as he works on his Ph.D. research by observing two small Egyptian farming communities. The focus here is seldom on Ghosh: although a memoir, it is primarily an evocation (another one!) of Egyptian life in the relatively brief period after liberation from the British, and before modernisation transforms village life. Even though Ghosh keeps himself in the background, there is a continual counterpoint between his Indian/Hindu/educated background and the rural community in which he lives: a counterpoint which emerges not because of his self-consciousness, but because his Egyptian neighbors -- who become his friends, and even his extended family -- themselves continually question him about his Indian roots.
Each narrative sheds light on the other. There is a point to the triple narrative, the point of view which motivates almost all of Ghosh's writing: it IS possible for human beings to live together, to live together harmoniously despite differences in religion, culture, language. But the imperatives of modern society -- be they of the nation-state, of capitalism, of narrow self-interest, of imperialism, of the need for conquest -- close off the rich possibilities of harmonious co-existence to achieve narrower goals.
Lest this book seem dry, academic, moralaistic, let me hasten to say that wonderful treasures emerge so frequently (insights into other cultures, historical and present), and so seamlessly (for the boundaries of past and present, here and there, melt away in the measured cumulation of the three narratives) that the reader is likely to be, as I was, entranced, educated, and changed.
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on May 30, 2000
But it does! This book takes three part-stories, dry academic scholarship, adapting to life in a completely different culture and a slave in 12th century Egypt, that are each individually neither compelling nor fulfilling. Yet the sum of the three parts is both compelling and fulfilling. The narrative jumps from story to story skillfully, creating tensions in each story line that would otherwise be absent and drawing the reader onward. Amitav Ghosh is a wonderful writer of lyric descriptions and this book is lovingly fulled with them, adding embellishments to the otherwise simple stories. Everything comes together to produce a book as good as his Shadow Lines.
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on August 8, 2003
Amitav 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. 4.0 stars.
Matthew Yau (10Q_boi)
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on May 8, 2000
This is a must read book. Ghosh somehow weaves together the history of Cairo, a traveling Jewish merchant, marginalization, the fate of 2nd world countries, and a diary of his time in Egypt-- and makes it really, lively, and relavant to anyone's life. and it is written in a lovely, lyrical style
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on June 8, 2001
This book is quite unique as it blends a travel account with the analysis of the history that covers the area from the Middle East to India. Ghosh, an accomplished scholar in social anthropology, provides a personalized view of the subject. Trading in the middle ages had many socio political implications and had many human tragedies. Indeed, slave trading can be seen as the worst form of human tragedy that we can imagine today. But in those days people of different religions and background profited from it.
Ghosh also provides a very readable history of the study of history, how the documents and information related to these periods were discovered. He has been very successful in holding the reader's attention. The book is worth reading.
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VINE VOICEon March 27, 2006
Although I was immediately fascinated by the historical and literary detective story of the 12th century Jewish merchant and his Indian servant, I did not fully understand Ghosh's mission in writing this book until nearly at the end. Then it became clear to me. This book is an elegy for a way of life that is forever lost. In the 12th century, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus worked in tandem as traders and merchants, with the only reprisals being angry remonstrances rather than armed violence. What we call sophisticated Western civilization has changed all of that.

Just as Portuguese and Dutch invasions of the Indian Ocean ended the medieval way of cooperation, the quiet life of the Egyptian villages in which Ghosh lived also ended -- within our lifetimes. As televisions and refrigerators came to those villages, so did anger, strife, and urbanization. There was money to be made during the Iran-Iraq war if you were a young Egyptian man, but you would never return to your village.

This book was slow-moving in places but ultimately unforgettable.
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on September 4, 2007
If National Geographic stories reconstructing a stone-age human from its fossilized remains dug out of the ashes of a volcano (such as in physical anthropology) fail to engage your fascination, chances are that this story will seem more academic to you than the home work assignment to watch History Channel. I am one such history-averse person and the book was too slow to start. However, I finished it with a renewed respect for social anthropology and its relevance to the world we live in. The way a story of a 12th century Egyptian trader can be relevant to the social, cultural, political and business of our times is hard to ignore and not take heed of. Besides, it is fascinating to learn how a small set of information sources with varying degrees of reliability can be connected like dots that reveal the story of a 800 year old human life in all its aspects.

Some of the revelations in the book that left me agape were: the rich history of trade between Indian and Egypt that made a lasting impact on the evolution of both countries and her peoples; the complex way in which the social temper and cultural identity of a country are entrenched in religion, thus making religion the primary tool for governing powers to achieve political and business goals in ways that are irreversibly divisive; the power of a united few with a disruptive agenda over the divided many with a peaceful one.

Apparently, this book is part of the course reading for anthropology students at UC, Santa Cruz (and possibly many other universities worldwide), as I found out from a student sitting next to me in the plane. However, Amitav Ghosh's extensive research goes beyond anthropology and throws light on relevant topics of today such as Iraq & the Middle East, the cultural divide between Jewish, Muslims, Christians and Hindus, the Indian identity, and the massive social changes that conservative rural Muslims are grappling with.
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on November 19, 1997
This is a _very_ challenging and rewarding book. The interweaving of ancient and contemporary history summons the reader's skills of comparison and interpolation. Ghosh knew exactly when to switch time-frames in order to contrast regional attitudes then and now.
Especially interesting is the revelation of ancient slavery: it was not at all the brutal forced-labor familiar to American history; in this case it was more like the adoption of a foster son.

Highly recommended to those interested in an unusual slant on Moslem or Jewish culture.
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VINE VOICEon May 8, 2010
This book takes its title from the first line of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias": "I met a traveller from an antique land". None of the other reviewers, for whatever reason, have mentioned this extremely piquant fact. The reason for its piquancy is that Ghosh here explores the same theme as Shelley does in his poem: The passing of all things earthly.

Though it is more evident in Shelley's poem, the dual narratives in the book, one set in Aden, Malabar and other entrepots of a millennium past, one amongst the "fellahs" of Egypt in the decade leading up to the Persian Gulf War in 1990, point the reader to contemplate the ever-shifting sands of history and temporality, the ever-changing relationships of religion to religion, country to country, person to person.

The passage on Malabar, once a great trading centre, is exquisite:

"There is nothing now anywhere in sight of the Bandar to lend credence to the great mansions and residences that Ibn Battuta and Duarte Barbosa spoke of. Now the roads and lanes around the wharfs fall quiet after sunset; shipping offices shut their doors, coffee-shops pull down their shutters, and only a few passengers waiting to cross to the sand-spit remain. The imagination balks at the thought that the Bandar once drew merchants and mariners from distant corners of the world."

And, likewise, at the end of the book, during the onset of the Gulf War, when a great exodus of Egyptians - including Ghosh's friend Nabeel - are trying to make it back into Egypt, the scene portrayed on the TV set, conveyed in the last sentence in the book, is equally Shelleyan:

"There was nothing to be seen except crowds: Nabeel had vanished into the anonymity of History."

Though, at points, annoyingly disjointed, this volume manages - when considered as a whole - to convey the fleeting nature of human endeavour and so to remain true to its title's source.
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on May 25, 2003
I loved this book, it is a great book, very well written, very entertaining; you'll learn about the egyptians (villagers) their colorful lives, culture, traditions, religious and cultural ceremonies. You will also learn about India, the old trade,and culture. Jews in the arab world, old synagogues and much more.
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