An Indian in Egypt

Chitra Kalyani
7 Min Read

Aplatypus. A creature out of place. A worshipper of cows. An oracle of water-pumps. With such amusing comparisons, Amitav Ghosh evoked the puzzlement with which he was received in 1980 in a village in Egypt’s Beheira governorate while working on an anthropological study.

In a lecture held at the American University in Cairo last week entitled “The Making of ‘In An Antique Land’: India, Egypt and the Cairo Geniza,

Ghosh revived history with narrative, providing a guided tour of the places he’s visited and an overview of his research into the 200,000 Jewish manuscripts believed to hold a detailed historical account of the period between 950 and 1250 – also known as the “Cairo Geniza.

Gosh had published travel narrative “In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale, in 1992.

“Lataifa and I were undeniably a shock to each other, referring to the village with the fictive name provided in his novel.

The people of the neighboring village Damanhur could easily remember the name of the foreigner whose first name sounded much like Indian movie icon Amitabh Bachan. They even reproduced soliloquies and dance-numbers for the Indian audience member.

The audience at AUC relished Ghosh’s articulation of the queries regarding the manner, times and ways in which cows are worshipped in India.

“Would I not transfer my allegiance to the camel? produced much laughter.

Sister states in the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s, India and Egypt also co-operated economically. It was in that period when Ghosh found himself consulting in a little village in Beheira regarding a water-pump imported from India.

Comparing the Kirloskar-brand pumps to the newer Japanese ones he found on his last visit 12 years ago, Ghosh remarked that Egypt had undergone an “epidemic of prosperity.

Believed to be a bourgeois muwazaf (government employee), Ghosh nevertheless made close friends from among the peasant farmers. Carrying the rural dialect he learned in Lataifa, Ghosh “learned what it meant to be a fellah.

Long after completing his thesis, Ghosh revisited the 10-volume diaries on Lataifa and proposed writing a narrative intertwined with his quest for the Geniza documents.

In search of the medieval literature section in a library, Ghosh stumbled upon a passage concerning an Indian slave corresponding with a Tunisian Jewish merchant and traveler. The search for this slave’s story attracted Ghosh to

Egypt and the Geniza documents.

The Cairo Geniza is an accumulation of almost 200,000 Jewish manuscripts that were found in the genizah (a synagogue storage room for religious documents) of the Ben Ezra synagogue. These documents, which encompass a large number of books, are regarded by numerous historians as detailed records of the social and economic history for the period between 950 and 1250.

Access to the documents was not easy. Ghosh recalled having visited the site of Ben Ezra near Mar Girgis where the documents were first stored simply by being thrown into a cavity in the synagogue’s wall.

It was here where the letters of Abraham Ben Yiju, the Tunisian merchant, were first found. In the late 19th century, at the time of Lord Curzon’s presence in Egypt, the Geniza documents were taken away and have been archived in various Western institutions.

Ghosh advocated for these documents to be placed in a museum and archived in Egypt.

It was only in 1981 that Ghosh managed to get hold of the documents of Geniza. In the library in Oxford, he realized that the voice of an ordinary Jewish merchant in medieval Judeo-Christian Arabic sounded “uncannily similar to the colloquial Arabic in Lataifa.

On his return that year, he found that the damask paper used by Ben Yiju in 1132 must have come from a shop like a more modern one now behind El-Hussein Mosque.

It was not difficult for Ghosh to tie places in his narrative to contemporary counterparts. The result was a rich book filled with plenty of anecdotes, social and historical commentaries, revelations about a little-known aspect of Egyptian culture and the relationship that has developed between Ghosh and Ben Yiju.

It is no wonder that “In an Antique Land, published 16 years ago, has not dated.

Ghosh said initial sales were not noteworthy. Anticipating religious rivalries, and not wanting to pander to them, the author changed the original title of “An Infidel in Egypt to the anguish of his publisher.

The novel is essentially a friendly encounter between Egypt and India.

Ghosh’s interest in Cairo itself was the product of a strange moment of decolonization. The period of 1960s and 1970s was an “age of friendships akin to those between “Gandhi and Zaghloul, Nehru and Nasser.

Perhaps the novel remained popular, said the author, having “borrowed a lead from its characters and learned how to survive. Written in acknowledgment of existing conflicts, the book was also about accommodation, “a book about how people live and reconcile their memories.

Asked by an audience member whether he had found a home or continued to feel a sense of dislocation so salient in many of his works, Ghosh answered, “dislocation is my home.

Ghosh, who was awarded the Padma Sri, the highest honor in India last year, has made his peace with the dislocated lifestyle he found characteristic of modern life.

“Some people live with broken roofs.

In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale is currently available at Diwan bookstore.

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