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In an antique land The cover proclaims IAAL “History in the guise of a traveller’s tale,” and the multi-generic book moves back and forth between Ghosh’s. Once upon a time an Indian writer named Amitav Ghosh set out to find an Indian slave, name unknown, who some seven hundred years before had traveled to. Such is the underlying motif of IN AN ANTIQUE LAND, Amitav Ghosh’s fascinating study which blends a historical detective story with his own experiences as a.

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Search the history of over billion web pages on the Internet. This curious book [is] a mixture of history, travelogue, social anthropology and personal memoir.

Ghosh skillfully draws our attention to parallels and contrasts to both the medieval and the modern stories. Ghosh uses his writing skill to create captivating vignettes, [and] offers a subtle glimpse into ordinary life in contemporary rural Egypt in a manner that at times rivals anything by the masters of social realism in modern Egyptian literature.

The painstaking research and astonishing attention paid to minute details [are] admirable. In an Antique Land revolves around Egypt past, present and metaphorical, and relies on a large assemblage of characters to give [it] shape. Ghosh details the various stories in this book with energetic descriptions and his own research. Ghosh’s closeness to the villagers gives life gbosh color to his gradual discovery of their customs, history and culture.

A refreshing reversal of the usual power relationship between the observing European travel writer and his indigenous subjects.

The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

First published in the United States by Alfred A. Ghosh, Amitav — Journeys — Egypt. Ben Yiju, Abrahim 12th cent. Merchants, Jewish — Egypt — Biography. Slaves — Egypt — Biography. His was a brief debut, in the obscurest of theatres, and he was scarcely out of the wings before he was gone again — more a prompter’s whisper than a recognizable face in the cast.

The slaves first appearance occurred in a short article by the scholar E. Strauss, in the issue of a Hebrew journal, Zion, published in Jerusalem. The article bore the title ‘New Sources for the History of Middle Eastern Jews’ and it contained transcriptions of several medieval documents. Among them was a letter written by a merchant living in Un — that port which sits, like a fly on a funnel, on the precise point where the narrow spout of the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean.

The letter, which now bears the amitxv number MS H. The address, written on the back of the letter, shows antiqie Ben Yiju was then living in Mangalore — a port on the south-western coast of India. In Strauss’s estimation, the letter was written in the summer of ad.

In the summer of its writing, Palestine was a thoroughfare for European armies. Accompanying the king was his nephew, the young and charismatic Frederick of Swabia. The Germans struck fear into the local population. Travelling with him was his wife, the captivating Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest heiress in Europe, and destined to be successively Queen of France and England.

It was a busy season in Palestine. On 24 June a great concourse of the crowned heads of Europe gathered near Acre, in Galilee. Between festivities, the leaders of the crusading armies held meetings to deliberate on their strategy for the immediate future.

On 24 July ad the greatest Crusader army ever assembled camped in the orchards around Damascus. Its leaders had some successes over the next couple of days, but the Damascenes fought back with fierce determination and soon enough the Crusaders were forced to pack up camp.

But Turcoman horsemen hung upon their flanks as they withdrew, raining down arrows, and the retreat rapidly turned into a rout.

After this battle ‘the German Franks returned’ wrote the Arab historian who had so dreaded their amitqv, ‘to their country which lies over yonder and God rid the faithful of this calamity.

Nowhere were there more than in the area around Alexandria; the Afrika Ghoshh and the Italian Sixth Army, under the command of Erwin Rommel, were encamped a bare forty miles from the city, waiting for their orders for the final antiuqe into Egypt, and in the city itself the soldiers of the British Eighth Army were still arriving — from every corner of the world: That summer, while the fates of the two armies hung in the balance, Alexandria was witness to the last, most spectacular, burst of cosmopolitan gaiety for which the city was once famous.


Within this tornado of grand designs and historical destinies, Khalaf ibn Ishaq’s letter seems to open a trapdoor into a vast network of foxholes where real life continues uninterrupted.

Full text of “In an Antique Land”

Khalaf was probably well aware of the events taking place farther north: They made it their business to keep themselves well-informed: They were always quick to relay news to their friends, wherever they happened to be, and they are sure to have kept themselves well abreast of the happenings in Syria and Palestine.

But now, in the summer ofwriting to Abraham Ben Yiju in Mangalore, Khalaf spends no time on the events up north. He begins by giving his friend news of his brother Mubashshir who has set off unexpectedly for Syrialetting him know that he is well.

Then he switches to business: He informs Ben Yiju that he is sending him some presents with the letter — ‘things which have no price and no value. Khalaf ibn Ishaq makes a point of singling him out and sending him ‘plentiful greetings. But the reference comes to us from a moment in time 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 the sultans, the chroniclers and the priests — the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time.

But the slave of Khalaf s letter was not of that company: It is nothing less than a miracle that anything is known about him at all. Thirty-one years were to pass before the modern world again caught a glimpse of the slave of MS H.

The Slave’s second appearance, like his first, occurs in a letter by Khalaf ibn Ishaq, written in Aden — one that happened to be included in a collection entitled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, translated and edited by Professor S. Goitein, of Princeton University. Like the other letter, this one too is addressed to Abraham Ben Yiju, in Mangalore, but in the thirty-one years that have passed between the publication of the one and the other, the Slave has slipped backwards in time, like an awkward package on a conveyor belt.

He is nine years younger — the letter in which his name now appears was written by Khalaf ibn Ishaq in This is another eventful year in the Middle East: But as ever Khalaf, in Aden, is unconcerned by politics; now, even more than in the other letter, business weighs heavily on his mind.

In an Antique Land

A consignment of Indian pepper in which he and Ben Yiju had invested jointly has been lost in a shipwreck off the narrow straits labd lead into the Red Sea. The currents there are notoriously treacherous; they have earned the Straits a dismal name, Bab al-Mandab, ‘the Gateway of Lamentation’.

Divers have salvaged a few pieces of iron, little else. In the meanwhile a shipment of cardamom sent by Ben Yiju has been received in Aden, and a cargo of silk dispatched in return. There are also accounts for a long list of household goods that Ben Yiju has asked for, complete with an apology for the misadventures of a frying-pan — ‘You asked me to buy a amktav of stone in a case.

In an Antique Land – Wikipedia

Later on, its case broke, whereupon I bought you an iron pan for a nisafi, which is, after all, better than a stone pan. Then I read it, full of happiness and, while studying it, became joyous and cheerful You mentioned, my master, that you were longing for me. Believe me that I feel twice as strongly and even more than what you have described The Slave’s role is no less brief upon his second appearance than it was in his first.

But he has grown in stature now: The footnote is very brief. It merely explains him as Ben Yiju’s Indian ‘slave and business agent, a respected member of his household. They describe him as a Jewish merchant, originally of Tunisia, who had gone to India by way of Egypt, as a trader, and had spent seventeen years there. A man of many accomplishments, a distinguished calligrapher, scholar and poet, Ben Yiju had returned to Egypt having amassed great wealth in India.

The last years of his life were spent in Egypt, and his papers found their way into his synagogue in Cairo: I came upon Professor Goitein’s book of translations in a library in Oxford in the winter of I was a student, twenty-two years old, and I had recently won a scholarship awarded by a foundation established by a family of expatriate Indians.


It was only a few months since I had left India and so I was perhaps a little more befuddled by my situation than students usually arc. At that moment the only thing I knew about my future was that I was expected to do research leading towards a doctorate in social anthropology. I had never heard of the Cairo Geniza before that day, but within a few months I was in Tunisia, learning Arabic. I knew nothing then about the Slave of MS H. I would try to shut out the noise by concentrating on my book or my diaries or by turning up the volume of my transistor radio, but Abu-‘Ali’s voice always prevailed, despite the thick mud walls of his house and the squawking of the ducks and geese who lived around my room.

Nobody in Lataifa liked Abu-‘Ali; neither his relatives, nor his neighbours nor anyone else in the hamlet — not even, possibly, his own wife and children. Some actively hated him; others merely tried to keep out of his way. It was hard to do otherwise; he was profoundly unlovable. Still, dislike him as they might, Abu-‘Ali’s neighbours and kinsmen also held him in fear. The children of the hamlet were always careful to be discreet when they mimicked him: Everybody in the area knew of Abu-‘Ali’s temper and most people did their best to avoid him, so far as they could.

As for me, I had no choice in the matter: I was not the first person in the hamlet to find himself thrust into an unwelcome proximity with Abu-‘Ali. It so happened that his house sat astride the one major road in the area, a narrow, rutted dirt track just about wide enough to allow two lightweight vehicles to squeeze past each other without toppling into the canal that ran beside it.

The road served a large network of villages around Lataifa and a ragged procession of pick-up trucks roared up and down it all day long, carrying people back and forth from Damanhour, the capital of the Governorate and the largest city in the region. Abu-‘Ali’s house was so placed that it commanded a good view of the road and, being the man he was, Abu-‘Ali was diligent in exploiting the strategic potential of its location.

He spent much of his time on a small veranda at the front of his house, lying on a divan and keeping a careful eye on the traffic. At the busier times of the day, he would lie on his side, with one arm resting voluptuously on the gigantic swell of his hip, watching the passing trucks through a pair of silver-tipped sunglasses; in the afternoons, once he had eaten his lunch, he would roll on his back and doze, his eyes half-shut, like an engorged python stealing a rest after its monthly meal.

One of the elders of the hamlet, Shaikh Musa, told me once, when I was having dinner at his house, that Abu-‘Ali had always been obese, even as a boy. He had never been able to work in the fields because he had hurt his leg as a child, and had soon grown much heavier than others of his age. People had felt sorry for him to begin with, but later the injury had proved such an advantage that everyone had begun to wonder about its authenticity: Nothing was heard of his injury thereafter.

Later, he’d even gone on to college in Damanhour, which was unusual at the time for a fellah boy, the son of an unlettered peasant. Sure enough, he had seen to it that his time in college was well spent: It hadn’t surprised anyone when he succeeded in getting a permit to set up a government- subsidized shop for retailing essential commodities at controlled prices. That permit was to become Abu-‘Ali’s passport to prosperity: Often his customers were more supplicants than patrons, for there was nothing to prevent him from choosing whom to sell to: