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.

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