“In an Antique Land” a Novel by Amitav Ghosh Essay
In his book “In an Antique Land,” author Amitav Ghosh provides an analysis of his experience in a small village in the Nile Delta, Egypt, during his visit between 1980 and 1981. Seven years later, Ghosh returns to the village, only to find the reality of the fast-changing society, where the flow of money, change of culture, and increased shift from the old to the new style of living are evidenced (Srivastava, 2008, p. 63). In the second narrative, which is primarily fictional, but based on the author’s return to Egypt in 1988, a constructed history of the return of Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish merchant returning to an Egyptian village, is parallel to the writers return to the village.
Here, the author attempts to show how the local communities are affected by modernization, revolutions, change of culture, and increased economic benefits at the expense of other societies facing revolutions. In the last section known as “the return,” Ghosh (1994, p. 321) says, “…it was not just that the lanes were now different or that so many of the traditional adobe houses had been demolished and replaced with modern bungalows… another important thing had changed as well… the relations between the different kinds of people in this village had experienced significant changes through upturning and rearrangements.”
Arguably, the in-depth meaning of this phrase is that the overall economic progress in Egypt was gaining from the revolutions in the Middle East, especially in Iran, because most of the local young people were getting better jobs in Iran during and after the revolution and were sending money back home to build their villages. In addition, the increased inflow of cash in the village had caused a revolution of the relationship between individuals because new people were coming and others leaving while the increase in the village’s economy changed the mindsets of some people while others retained the old mindsets.
Thus, it is arguable that the phrase tends to show how the society is struggling through the conflict between the old style and the dynamism of the late 20th century that is backed by increased cash flow and change in mindsets. The author’s use of his experience in Egypt provides highlights of the possible events that occurred in medieval times, which is exemplified by Ben Yiju’s story in the text. The author starts with citing the physical changes in the village, which provides the reader with insights enough to note that the village, representing the whole Egyptian community, was benefitting from the revolutions in the Middle East.
This is backed by a number of facts that the author presents before writing the phrase. Preceding the phrase is a narration of the author’s experience after returning to the village seven years later. For instance, he visits Nabeel’s family in the village and finds the reality of the economic and social changes that have also affected the people’s behavior. The author realizes that the village people were no longer lagging behind news and technology. He finds that the family has a Television, a washing machine and a number of other technologies. In addition, he finds that the family is building a modern house, a bungalow that is similar to those in Cairo and other urban areas. The main force behind these changes in the family is Nabeel’s new assignment. Like other young men in the village, Nabeel is now working in Baghdad, Iraq. He is one of the several young individuals from Egypt hired to work for the military in Iraq, but obtained well-paying jobs after the revolution. According to his wife, Fawza, “…Nabeel is now working in a studio… and is making money outside (Ghosh, 1994, p. 324).
The author finds that Nabeel, like the other young individuals working in the Middle East nations, is striving to help his family compete with the other families. They are sending back home substantial amounts of money, which is driving the modernization. In addition, the author notes that the families are able to access telephones and are communicating with their children who are “…earning money outside” (Ghosh, 1994, p. 325). Therefore, it is evident that the author’s first sentence in the phrase was meant to describe these changes.
The impact of the massive exodus of the young people from the village to the Middle East nations seems to be changing the landscape of the villages (Srivastava, 2008, p. 139). Most families are pressing their sons “outside” to compete with their colleagues in building their families’ decent and modernized houses and providing them with technological equipment (Ghosh, 1994, p. 325). The author’s in-depth meaning in this phrase is Egypt’s position as the main beneficiary of the revolutions and political situations in Iraq. The author tends to argue that the Egyptian government and the society, in general, were taking advantage of the situation in the Middle East to gain economically, while the locals in the affected nations were suffering. Moreover, the author seems to be concerned with human nature that is exemplified by the people in the villages.
Despite being Arabs and Muslims for that matter, the Egyptians seem to be happy with the situation in the Middle East. They are less concerned with the plight of their fellow Muslims and Arabs in Iran who are suffering due to the revolution, yet they share the same religion and race. For example, Fawzia says, “Nabeel always says that life is good… and they have received additional salaries…” (Ghosh, 1994, p. 326). The author uses Fawzia as an example of the people in the village with this mentality. Fawzia, Nabeel’s wife, is the family’s main decision-maker after the parent’s death. She represents the villagers and other Egyptians across the country who are directly benefitting from the problems facing the Middle East. She is proud of her husband’s fortunes and uses his money to improve the quality of life for the family. She says, “they were not fortunate to experience the good life we are experiencing…” (Ghosh, 1994, p. 324).
In the second phrase “something else had changed- the relations between different people in the village…” is used to provide the author’s main observation that the impact of the Iranian revolution is a complete change of the social system in Egypt (Ghosh, 1994, p. 321). In his first visit to the village between 1980 and 1981, Ghosh had found the society to be relatively homogenized, with the community divided between the poor majority and the rich minority. The relationship between individuals was based on the social class to which an individual belonged. The author cites the example of Khammes’s, the Nabeel’s, and the Amm Taha’s families that were extremely poor during his first visit.
They had lived in mud houses and had no access to proper food, medication, and communication. Yet, they were among the wealthiest families during the author’s second visit. Thanks to the problems facing the people in Iran, these families now have bungalows, bank accounts, and technological gadgets, which were obtained in less than five years. This shows the extent to which Egypt benefitted from the problems facing the Middle East. The author argues that the revolution in Iran had caused a revolution in Egypt, only that the Egyptian revolution was economic and social in nature, unlike the military and political and military revolution in Egypt. For instance, the author says, “I could not have imagined a change of this scale taking place in less than eight years… it looks as if the village has been drawn in the Iranian revolution…” (Ghosh, 1994, p. 329).
The author further uses this phrase to show the differences between the points of view between the educated and those with little or no education in the village. For instance, in a conversation with Ustaz Sabry, a teacher by profession, but with no employment in Egypt, the author realizes that learned people were set to gain better jobs in the Middle East. For example, Sabry himself was set to take up a new teaching job in the Gulf. Unlike Fawzie and other less educated villagers, Sabry recognizes the impact of the Islamic revolution in Iran and Iraq’s interference in the region. For example, he tells the author, “… we have been the actual gainers in the war because the rich Arab nations have been paying the Iraqi government to break the Islamic Revolution in Iran in order to keep themselves in power. While the other nations were taking advantage of the war to gain wealth, the Iraqis were suffering…” (Ghosh, 1994, p. 324).
In addition, Sabre’s education status allows him to note the nature of the revolution and its possible impact in the long run. For instance, he says that the situation in Iran and Iraq, “…will not last long (Ghosh, 1994, p. 328). The money we are gaining is forbidden and tainted, and we will have to pay the price later” (Ghosh, 1994, p. 328). This phrase is used to indicate that the other Arab nations were making fortunes by making the Iraqis invade Iran, yet they did not note the long term impact of their actions. However, the author thought that the phrase “…paying the price…” that Sabre was referring to was the long absence from the village by some of its members (Ghosh, 1994, p. 329). Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Sabre’s knowledge allowed him to note that the long-term effect of Egypt’s involvement in perpetrating violence in Iran through by using the Iraqis was a bad idea, probably because the violence could have resulted into a possible war between the two nations, which could have affected the lives of the millions of Egyptian workers.
The story of Bomma and his close relationship with Ben Yiju and his family is used to reflect the nature of the relationship between different communities in Egypt, India, and the Middle East before colonialism. In particular, the story of Bomma is an interesting tale that contributes to the development of this theme. Bomma was an Indian slave that Ben Yiju hired during his stay in India. Bomma negotiated many trade agreements with various parties in India. He was Yiju’s main trade agent. The author uses Bomma’s story to describe a historical period that is almost forgotten. In Bomma’s India, there is a free interaction between Indians, Egyptians, and Arabs.
Bomma’s society is highly cosmopolitan. The cities and towns in India and Egypt have mixed populations of Indians, Arabs, and Jews. The Indian Ocean trade, which Bomma actively takes part in, is not controlled and offers freedom for trade and interrelation between the communities on both sides. In addition, the author uses Bomma’s story to show the freedom of relationship between various groups in India. During Bommas’s time, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India were the same community with the little rivalry between them. However, on his return, the arrival of the Portuguese has made an impact on society. They are now controlling the Indian Ocean trade, the gulf coast, and other aspects of the trade. The rivalry between groups of individuals has escalated due to European interference. Gosh criticizes the efforts of Europeans to establish boundaries with the aim of dividing people based on cultures. He writes, “…within the European records, the unarmed nature of the Indian Ocean trade was often represented as a failed black affair that could only be effective with European intervention…” (Ghos, 1994, p. 358).
Using the examples of Ben Yiju and his personal experience in Egypt, the author says that culture transcends national, regional, and international boundaries. For example, the finding of Chinese Objects in India, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, as well as the discovery of Egyptian objects in India, provide evidence that Ben Yiju’s society was involved in trade and exchange activities that led to the cultural integration and development of a relatively new culture. While the rapid changes in the case of Egypt are supported by the author’s personal experience, the case of Ben Yiju’s society is supported by excerpts from early Egyptian literature. Although the author notes that “…these are speculations…” it is clear that he uses the rapid change in Egypt to show how societies have experienced changes due to social, cultural, and economic integration (Ghosh, 1994, p. 331).
It is evident that he uses his story to justify his research on Ibrahim Ben Yiju and the Indian-Jewish integrations. In fact, this shows that the fiction story about the author’s story of the Egyptian village was meant to describe the possible situation in medieval times. In addition, it is an indication that the researcher uses friction to justify his hypothesis.
Ghosh, A. (1994). In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale. New York: Vintage Books. Web.
Srivastava, N. (2008). Amitav Ghosh’s Ethnographic Fictions: Intertextual Links between In an Antique Land and His Doctoral Thesis. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 36(11), 45–64. Web.
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