In an Antique Land

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The past, as the English novelist L.P. Hartley once observed, “is another country. They do things differently there.” How much more different must the past appear when it is sited literally in another country, especially such a country as Egypt, where the past intrudes so insistently into the contemporary world, and where everyday life is a wondrous amalgam of successive civilizations and both their glories and discontents. 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 young Indian graduate student in the small Egyptian village of Lataifa, a few miles (and several centuries) outside the city of Alexandria.

In the 1980’s, while enrolled as a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Alexandria, Ghosh learned of the discovery in a Cairo synagogue of a cache of ancient manuscripts, some of them dating from the 12th century AD. The collection included letters from a Jewish trader who owned an Indian slave—a fact both intriguing and unsettling. Ghosh became first interested, then obsessed, with this minor historical mystery, and in his search for answers found himself drawn into the daily lives of two other outsiders, the Jewish merchant and his Indian slave in medieval Muslim Egypt. At the same time, and with equal mixture of mystery and fascination, Ghosh attempts to understand, and be understood by, the residents of...

(The entire section is 468 words.)