Thursday, August 14, 2014

History and People

The heart of Amitav Ghosh’s book In an Antique Land is not linguistics but people. It’s an elusive book, in a way, telling several stories – of Ghosh himself, of the modern and very poor rural Egyptians he becomes friends with while trying to do research, and of the twelfth century Jewish trader in Egypt, Yemen and India named Abu Yiju and his slave – or perhaps more accurately his assistant – whose Indian name, Bomma, is part of what Ghosh uncovers in the book. Ghosh doesn’t usually say, or at any rate doesn’t usually highlight, how these stories intersect, though they seem to resonate with each other again and again.

But at the end he makes himself clear. He finds himself back with his Egyptian friends in their village as the first Gulf War is beginning. They are glued to the TV, not out of general interest but out of acute concern for another of the villagers, a friend of Ghosh’s whom he calls Nabeel. Nabeel, like many Egyptians, had gone to work in Iraq; Iraq wasn’t kind to them, but it was profitable. But now war was falling upon them, and the villagers back at home are watching the footage of an “epic exodus” of people fleeing the coming fighting. Ghosh writes:

            There were more than a dozen of us in the room now. We were crowded around the TV set, watching, carefully, minutely, looking at every face we could see. There was nothing to be seen except crowds: Nabeel had vanished into the anonymity of History. (353)

Ghosh is no fan of History. I think what he believes in are people, individual people. The friends he describes in Egypt are not prominent men and women in any sense, but they come vividly and movingly alive in his telling. The twelfth-century merchants whose stories he unearths are now known only to specialists – and even to them only because of an amazing storehouse of documents piled up over more than 800 years in the “geniza,” a special chamber in the Synagogue of Ben Ezra in Cairo (documents which, by virtue of the forces of History, made their way out of Egypt by 1914 and apparently are now largely in Western hands (80-95)). The slave, mentioned in the documents, emerges only as a result of Ghosh’s research as the bearer of a name likely derived from that of an Indian deity, a deity itself disregarded in conventional accounts of Indian religion. (251-54, 264)

So, too, there is a story to be preserved about the holy man whose tomb Ghosh attempts to visit at the end of a trip to Egypt, who turns out to be a saint revered by both Jews and Muslims (342). Ghosh goes home and finds, first under “anthropology” and “folklore” rather than “religion” or “Judaism,” accounts of “a famous line of zeddikim – the Jewish counterparts of Islamic marabouts and Sufi saints, many of whom had once been equally venerated by Jews and Muslims alike.” (342) But he has already sensed, in trying to explain to the suspicious local authorities his own interest in the tomb (as a person neither Jewish nor Muslim),

that there was nothing I could point to within [the official’s] world that might give credence to my story—the remains of those small, indistinguishable, intertwined histories, Indian and Egyptian, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Muslim, had been partitioned long ago. (339) 

Those words are all the sadder because Ghosh himself experienced as a child some of the anguish that followed the Hindu/Muslim "Partition" of India and Pakistan. (204-10)

Ghosh does not care for History. He does care for individual people and the decisions, some good and some bad, that they made as they lived in the world where they found themselves.

That seems very important, in a summer when Robin Williams and other artists who gave us joy have died, and in a summer when History, not least the History made by Jews and Muslims, seems to be taking so many unpleasant turns.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Egypt's real name

Reading Amitav Ghosh’s remarkable book In An Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale (1992) is eye-opening in many ways. Here’s one small instance: the Egyptian name for “Egypt” isn’t Egypt, or even anything close. Apparently the term “Egypt” “is related to the word ‘Copt’, the name generally used for Egypt’s indigenous Christians.” (32) Ghosh, no friend of Western power, says that “Europe’s apparently innocent ‘Egypt’ is … almost as much a weapon as a word.” (33)

Egypt’s own name for itself is Maṣr. (I’m not sure what the sound of that “s with a dot under it” is, but I’m guessing it’s a somewhat thicker sound than the “s” of “slither.”) Apparently that’s also the name by which everyone in Egypt outside Cairo calls Cairo; in this sense, as Ghosh says, “Cairo is Egypt” and the Egyptian name is a kind of metaphor, equating city and nation (33). It’s an old name, predating Islam; Ghosh says it's been used as the name for the country "for at least a millennium." (32)

All this is interesting. Ghosh observes that “most of the cultures and civilization with which [Egypt] has old connections” use a name for Egypt derived from this name, and he cites three Indian languages as examples. What’s also interesting is something Ghosh does not note, which is that the Egyptian name for Egypt seems to be preserved in at least one other tongue, namely Hebrew, in which the word for Egypt is “mitzrayim.” That usage would date the Egyptian name back much further than a single millennium, but the coincidence of the sounds of the Egyptian and Hebrew words is hard to ignore.


According to the text on Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, the name is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” (mi, “from,” tzar, “narrow” or “tight”). When God took us out of Mitzrayim, He extricated us from the place of constricted opportunities, tight control, and narrow-mindedness, where movement was severely limited.  

This is a poetic reading, but as actual etymology it strikes me as unlikely. “Mitzrayim” looks to me as if it is simply a variant on the Egyptians’ name for Egypt itself – which is what you would expect in an account of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt. They didn’t like life in Egypt, but they certainly knew the name of the country in the local language, and they pretty accurately carried it over into their own.


One more thing: the Egyptian word has its own etymology, and it’s far from the Hebrew words for constriction. Ghosh writes that it is “a derivative of a root that means ‘to settle’ or ‘to civilize.” One of Ghosh’s themes is the invention of history, and if a name connoting “civilization” has been reframed as one implying “oppression,” that's an irony of historical invention that he would appreciate.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A classified ad from the matrimonial columns of the Sunday Times of India

A matrimonial ad from the Sunday Times of India, June 1, 2014 (which my wife brought back from a trip there), under the heading "Matrimonials – Wanted Grooms – General – Caste No Bar":

SM 4 Pretty hindu veg girl
5’6” born 07/09/1985 on the
day of Krishna Janam
Ashtami 03.35 am. wheatish
complexion MBBS pursuing
MD from Roosevelt Hospital
New York affiliated to
Columbia University dollar
60,000/- p.a. in first yr,
handsome tall teetotaler
NRI/HIB/Green card holder,
Dr. MD/Engineer preferably
MS U.S.A interested in
pursuing carrier in 
U.S.A (New York) preference
to boy from defence family
background. Caste no bar,
sorry for ST/SC.

The spelling and abbreviations (some of which I don’t understand) are all as in the original; I’ve omitted only the email address and phone numbers that conclude the ad. This one is unusually long, but it’s one of many matrimonial ads in several long, thin columns of newsprint.

I don’t mean to criticize the woman on whose behalf this ad was placed, or the society in which all these considerations seemed important to spell out. A lot goes into finding a spouse in any society, and the pathways for doing so in one place will likely look quite startling to those in another.


All that I want to say is that there is a lot of human need in these staccato words.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why does "what the ----" mean what it means?

Let's start gently. If someone says "What the heck are you doing?" we know what he or she means. Adding the words "the heck" to the question "what are you doing?" makes clear that the speaker is expressing at least as much criticism as inquiry.

But why does the phrase mean this? How does "the heck" come to mean something like "madness" or "folly" - so that "what the heck are you doing" means "what folly are you committing?"

I'm not sure what "the heck" is. Is there even such a thing as a heck? Probably not, but there is a thing, or at least an idea, of "hell" and pretty clearly "what the heck" is a softened version of "what the hell."

But what does "what the hell" mean? Just reading these three words, by themselves, it's hard to figure out what they could possibly mean. But I guess they are a contraction of a phrase that would have some meaning: "what in the hell." Then the speaker is saying that what you're doing is something that fits in hell.

Fine. But why "what in the hell?" instead of "what in hell"? No one says "go to the hell" or "not till the hell freezes over." And they do sometimes say "what in hell" - those very words, which seem to do the job precisely. So where did the "the" come from? And where did the "in" go? Somehow, it seems, "in" got traded for "the."

There's another problem. We can understand "what the heck/hell" as a somewhat garbled reference to a locale where bad things are to be found. But what about "what the f---?" (I won't spell it out, this being a family-friendly blog.) "The f---" is not a place. I guess the usual human ambivalence about sex could make being "in" or associated with that activity a bad thing. But I still don't see where the "the" comes in.


Of course, we could explain "what the f---" as just a more surly or sexual version of "what the heck/hell," and that phrase, again, as meaning "what in heck/hell." But I wonder whether the whole location explanation (based on the invisible "in") is just after-the-fact rationalization. Maybe people just like to throw nasty words into their sentences, and like it so much that they happily throw grammar and literal meaning out the window in the process. 

After all, language serves us - not the other way around. The rules of grammar are rules we make. But I still don't get what the heck the rule is that explains "what the heck."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why fanaticism comes in handy

Why do people believe with such intensity in things that have no direct bearing on their lives at all? Why, for example, would people kill each other because they disagree about the nature of the afterlife?

One answer is that the question of the true nature of the afterlife is important, and I’m willing to agree with that. But it’s still, shall we say, abstract. And someone else’s misconception about it doesn’t have much direct impact on us. So why do we get so upset about questions like this? And isn’t it a big disadvantage for us as a species if we get so irrationally upset?

Another answer is that we don’t actually get upset about questions like this; we get upset about other, much more material and rational questions – wealth, power and so on – and mask them in the language of ideals and abstractions. There’s certainly some truth to this too.

But that answer makes the assertion of our ideals seem like a charade, and a pretty transparent one at that. I think the capacity to believe, sincerely and even fanatically, in ideals is not a charade and not entirely a weakness. If people need to be part of groups to survive, then they need something to make those groups hold together, and hold together even when rational temptations might cause them to dissolve. Holding ardent, shared beliefs is a group-promoting behavior.

So it seems to me that over human history the capacity to become deeply attached to ideals was probably a useful survival strategy. Even martyrdom in the name of those ideals was probably useful – not to the individual giving his or her life, of course, but to the group of which the martyr was a part.


Certainly it might be argued that what was useful to our ancestors, living on the border of the state of nature, is now just dangerous for us. Fanaticism is dangerous for us – not only for the innocent victims of the fanatics’ zeal but even for the fanatics and their causes. To be clear, I'm not in favor of fanaticism at all. But still I fear we have not moved so far from the state of nature that group solidarity, which ardent belief fuels, has lost its value.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Visiting Norway's fjords

My wife and I have just been vacationing in western Norway, a very beautiful place. After I attended a conference of the International Association of Constitutional Law in Oslo, we headed west in a rental car to see the fjords. They were spectacularly beautiful – the sort of place you’d want to stay forever, if only Norway wasn’t so expensive, and if only the wonderfully long summer days weren’t inevitably followed by extremely long winter nights.

What’s more, the fjords are very accessible: Norway has built a network of roads, ferries and tunnels that make getting from place to place quite straightforward. The tunnels, in particular, are quite remarkable – they can be over 20 kilometers long and a couple of them included roundabouts like the roundabouts at road intersections above ground!

But here’s a funny thing: we were interested in learning something of the country, and so we would sometimes ask the employees in the hotels or restaurants we visited to tell us where they were from. The answer, repeatedly, was: not from Norway. We met a Swede, a Finn, and a German.

A few conversations aren’t a study, to put it mildly, but if we did stumble on an actual social phenomenon, perhaps it’s not so surprising. One person told us that Norwegians didn’t like to work in “service”; I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but Norway wouldn’t be the first country whose people delegated less desirable jobs to foreigners. I’m more partial to the theory a second person offered: that some Norwegians didn’t want to stay in the out-of-the-way fjord country. We thought staying there would be great, but we weren’t actually planning to stay, and fjords and mountains for many people don’t offer much of an answer to the question “what can I do on Friday night?”


Human beings aren’t an easy bunch to satisfy!