In an Antique Land
by Amitav Ghosh is half historical narrative, half anthropological study of a small town in Egypt, where Ghosh spent time as a young graduate student studying the lost city of Alexandria. The book examines Ghosh's own heritage and experience beside the culture of both ancient and contemporary Egypt, and the story of a Jewish trader who owned an Indian slave back in the twelfth century. The result is part personal reflection, part historical understanding of Ghosh's relationship as an Indian man to the history of medieval Egypt.
Ghosh begins with his time as a young graduate student of cultural anthropology studying at the University of Alexandria. Years earlier, he had discovered a manuscript detailing the existence of a Jewish trader in a small town in medieval Egypt in the twelfth century, who was known to have kept an Indian slave. Obsessed with identifying the Indian slave and learning more about his relationship with the Jewish trader, Ghosh began to investigate the daily life of the trader and his slave to learn more about their relationship.
Meanwhile, in 1980, Ghosh settled into a small farming town in Egypt called Lataifa. Egypt was rapidly changing, particularly in rural areas where young people were moving away from tradition into more modern and globalized lives that offered opportunities for wealth and career growth. Ghosh writes extensively in the book about his experience as a Hindu Indian man living in this predominantly Muslim Egyptian culture, warmly telling stories about some of the eccentric characters he meets during his time in Lataifa.
As Ghosh settles into Lataifan society, he begins to learn more about himself – namely about his religion and how it differs from the belief systems of those around him in fascinating and peculiar ways. He also studies, with a sympathetic eye, some of the changes that have come to area from young people leaving the country to find lucrative jobs in wartime Iraq, and how modern appliances, such as refrigerators and televisions, become increasingly present as family ties and ties to the homeland become less common among the youth.
As he looks at the world through the eyes of a foreigner, Ghosh is also intensely studying the past – specifically, the journals of the Jewish trader that he found in a synagogue in Cairo, which detail his life with his Indian slave. Ghosh fills his book with these details of daily life in Medieval Egypt, including the interesting fact that the Jewish trader's slave represented him in all financial dealings. Ghosh provides data on daily life during this period, painting a portrait through narrative and more concrete facts about the life of his countryman, who also found himself in a strange, foreign land many centuries before Ghosh's Egyptian adventure.
Overall, Ghosh is interested in the lives and views of outsiders, including his own view as an Indian man living in contemporary Egypt. His focus on the Jewish trader and his Indian slave are wrapped up in their perspectives and experiences as outsiders – both of them persecuted foreigners, one more than the other, who eked out a living during a period when they were likely in the minority among their fellows. As an outsider living in Egypt during the 1980s, Ghosh sympathizes with both of these outsiders, examining his own role as a student of cultural anthropology and a foreigner during his time living abroad.
Amitav Ghosh is an Indian author of English fiction and non-fiction. Born in Calcutta to a Bengali-Hindu family, he received degrees from a number of prestigious universities in India and a doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Oxford in England. Ghosh now lives in New York City with his wife, Deborah Baker. His novels include The Circle of Reason
, the Ibis Trilogy
, and The Shadow Lines
, among other works. He has also written a number of works of non-fiction, including The Great Derangement
, a book that examines literature and its role in the mitigation of climate change, The Imam and the Indian
, and In an Antique Land
. Ghosh has won dozens of awards from countries including France, Israel, the United States, England, and India. In 2018, he was the first Indian author writing in English to receive the Jnanpith award.