In an Antique Land was a unique book for me, as its two threads focus on a small town that I grew up in for the first 20+ years of my life and a Country that I have lived in for the last 3 years. So I had a unique connect with this book.
Not so suprisingly, the description of my hometown did not ring a bell as it focussed mostly on the town as it existed 800+ years ago. The description of rural Egypt created a veritable clang in my head as I kept thinking to myself "How true" or "Yes, I know someone who would have reacted the exact same way"
This is a book of non fiction. Amitav Ghosh chanced upon a letter between Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish merchant living in Mangalore, India, and Khalaf ibn Ishaq from Egypt, written in 1132AD. Part of this narrative focuses on Ghosh's search for more documents relating to Ben Yiju and part of the narrative tries to imagine the world that Ben Yiju lived in.
The other narrative in the book, covers Ghosh's stay in rural Egypt (Mashawy and Lataifa) and it was this section that I found infinitely more interesting and hence hope to pick up his book of essays The Imam and the Indian which promise to shed more light on this phase of his life.
It is in this second narrative that Amitav's gift of story telling is showcased, while in the first narrative it feels stilted, focussed on facts and doesn't flow as naturally. Blending history with a a current travelogue is an art perfected by William Dalrymple and sadly in comparison, Ghosh didn't match up.
While Ben Yiju did spend time in Egypt and his letters were written to people living there and most of the surviving documentation came from the Geniza Documents cache from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Coptic Cairo area of modern day Cairo and Fustat of Ancient Cairo, this is the only point at which the two narratives seem to meet. For the rest of the book, they just continue parallel to each other.
In the final chapters, when Ghosh heads out towards the tomb of a Jewish Saint in rural Egypt venerated by Muslims and Jews alike, I hoped it would bring about a meeting of the parallel stories, but unfortunately it didn't.
Both narratives on their own are great and very illuminating, I just didn't see the point of putting them together.
Its a great read for someone visiting the Fustat area or interested in observations/revelations from the Geniza Cache or life in Rural Egypt.
Also Published on desicritics