Circumnavigating the Canon:
Amitav Ghosh’s Antique Land between ‘Elliptical Refraction’ and ‘Double Mirrors’
Each of these documents has a story of its own: of travel from Aden and Egypt, to Malabar and Sicily and then back again to Cairo –medieval histories that somersault into a further chronicle of travel and dispersal in modern times. Their history has the baffling elusiveness of lights seen in parallel mirrors: they are both the stuff of history and history itself, as real as a battle or a temple; they are each a living history and a commentary on the writing of history; a mocking aside on how histories are stolen, bought and traded in the marketplace. The story of the slave of MS. H. 6 is one tiny spark within the bright lights of this looking-glass chamber, faint, elusive and often jeering. [My italics]
Amitav Ghosh, “Slave of MS. H. 6” (167)
World literature is an elliptical refraction of national literatures ….[W]orks become world literature by being received into the space of a foreign culture, a space defined in many ways by the host culture’s national tradition and the present needs of its own writers. Even a single work of world literature is the locus of a negotiation between two different cultures. The receiving culture can use the foreign material in all sorts of ways: as a positive model for the future development of its own tradition; as a negative case of a primitive, or decadent, strand that must be avoided or rooted out at home; or, more neutrally, as an image of radical otherness against which the home tradition can more clearly be defined. World literature is thus always as much about the host culture’s values and needs as it is about a work’s source culture; hence it is a double refraction, one that can be described through the figure of the ellipse, with the source and host cultures providing the two foci that generate the elliptical space within which a work lives as world literature, connected to both cultures, circumscribed by neither alone. [My italics]
David Damrosch, What is World Literature? (282-83)
This chapter will examine how Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land (1992) sheds light on and stands in dialogue with key travel writing in Arabic produced during the 10th-13th centuries in the Afro-eurasian world by the region’s (s’) various inhabitants. Quoted in Antique Land and in Ghosh’s essay “The Slave of MS. H.6” on the same subject in Subaltern Studies, the Arabic travel texts are part of the material that Ghosh excavates, but their circulation histories also provide a practical illustration of pre-modern cultural exchange in light of Ghosh’s call for a kind of ‘world without borders’ and a resistant, also subaltern historiography. Seen through the critical and organising lens of Amitav Ghosh’s Antique Land, the Arabic texts shed light on what a World Literature in pre-national, pre-modern times might mean, specifically by dwelling on pre-modern ‘global’ networks and forms of cultural dominance and resistance. The travel texts show how travellers helped draw the assimilative ecumenical concept of the ‘abode of Islam’ (dār al-islām ) for their multi-cultural and multi-lingual audiences, and also how the travellers complicated the concept of ‘the abode of Islam’ by revealing the abundant beliefs, customs, and histories acknowledged, subsumed or suppressed within the Islamic world. Drawing on some of the debates of World Literature and Postcolonial theory, and in light of the general objectives of the study as a whole, this chapter aims to challenge the way that supposedly unique (in this case religious) customs and beliefs are understood as a pre-modern source for some pure and homogenous ‘Arabic-Islamic’ affiliation, propagated in both Eastern and Western academic writings, and a vision which, because of its exclusionary and homogenising, not to mention limiting and stereotypical, impulses, whether manifested in the political sphere or the cultural one, needs to be challenged and subverted. Towards this end, rereading some of the works of the most orthodox denizens of classic Arabic literature in the golden age of Islam, from our viewpoint in the present, seems to be a good way to start. In order to ‘expand the Arabic canon’ in search for silenced ‘Others’, this chapter will necessarily require laying some groundwork discussion about Arabic literature, then looking closely at the texts, and after that discussing some of the ways the travelogues circulated. In acknowledgement of the fact that no literature exists in isolation, and because of the creative distinctiveness of Antique Land on this topic, the discussion of Arabic literature will be prompted by Amitav Ghosh.
The idea of ‘elliptical refraction’ in this chapter is used as it is referred to by both David Damrosch and Amitav Ghosh. The phrase, of course, is Damrosch’s, who uses it to describe the movement of literary texts which circulate influentially beyond the readership of the local or ‘home’ communities in which they were produced, as these Arabic travel texts once did, gaining different interpretations or serving different reading purposes from one culture to another, or standing like the figure of the “pushmi-pullyu” in the Dr. Dolittle series: looking to past and present at the same time (Damrosch What is World Literature?). Alternatively, Ghosh describes a similar process of “lights seen in parallel mirrors” (“Slave of MS. H. 6” 167). In this movement literature serves to enlighten readers on the connections between people, places and times by creating an effect of lights being endlessly reflected in double mirrors; and so the traveller’s movement between recent and ancient histories in Antique Land constructs a tense, continuously-reflective space between East and West, ‘antique’ and ‘modern’ worlds.116
By delving into what the Arabic texts reconsider of the relations between individuals and communities, this chapter argues that the travelogues circulated as non-religious reading/recited material, posing a trans-local 'canon' of belles-lettres for a ‘sub-elite’ common reader. This ‘canon’, seen in secular perspective, thereby emphasises one of the aspects central to World Literature (whether in pre-modern, non-postcolonial contexts, or in post-modern postcolonial contexts): that extended communication routes and economic exchange entail an expansion of cultural relations, which in turn requires a suitably widened critical approach. Reappropriated through Ghosh’s modern work, the Arabic travel texts pose an alternative vision to a monolithic and unchanging Islamic Empire, an epithet used academically (and often politically) today to refer to a region that was actually far from being homogenous. Like the other works by Ghali, Kundera, Dangarembga, and Ahmed previously discussed in this study, Amitav Ghosh’s Antique Land and the Arabic texts it engages with construct a resistant and diverse, political/community identity: in this case, an ‘everyday nation’ engaged in cultural and economic transactions.
Transiting-Nations and Narration
In An Antique Land is an account of Amitav Ghosh’s field experience in Egypt undertaken as part of his doctoral degree in anthropology. Written as a travelogue, Antique Land is also punctuated with short history lessons and political polemic on issues as varied as colonialism, religious tolerance, and migration of labour. As Ghosh narrates the events of his sojourn he also reconstructs in alternate sections the stories of ‘parallel’ travellers from ancient times, piecing them together from the large store of Jewish mediaeval documents, known as the ‘Geniza documents’, found in Cairo, but also from other sources such as early Arabic travelogues. The main story recounted in tandem with Ghosh’s own experience among the peasants of the Nile Delta in Egypt is that of a twelfth-century Jewish trader, Ben Yiju, who lived between Aden, Mangalore, Tunis and Cairo, and often travelled with his Indian slave Bomma, whose origins may have lain in south India. As if to put a final seal on the image of travel routes that criss-cross many centuries and vast geographical terrain, the title of Ghosh’s work is divided into two parts, conjoining both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ traditions of scholarship on travel and history writing. The first part, ‘In an Antique Land,’ alluding to Shelley’s Ozymandias, and taken along with Ghosh’s strong critique of imperialism in his book, is a clear reference to Western travel (conquest, science, tourism) especially of the times of Romanticism, but also beyond (D’haen “Antique Land, New Worlds?”). The sub-title, however: ‘history in the guise of a traveller’s tale’ also acknowledges the ‘Eastern’ tradition of travel writing. Conjoined, the two parts of the title indicate the cohesion and sometimes antagonistic interdependence of culture, history and literary traditions.
Because it draws upon both historical documentation and field experience, Ghosh has stressed that In an Antique Land was not written as a novel, even if it may be and, often has been, read as one.117 A large number of the reviews show befuddlement at its ‘mix’ of genres and disciplines: ethnography, travel writing, anthropology, etc. Even intuitive and positive reviews such as Clifford Geertz’s, while appreciating the stories as such, miss or question the link: the book has “a sense of incompletion about it; of something not said about then, and, even more, about now” (41). The ‘foreignness’ of the form appears implicit too in its various reviews, described alternatively as “a multi-cultural bazaar” (Geertz 40), “a passage to India” (Geertz 40; Adams 134), and even, on the less scholarly side, “a tangy literary masala” (Black 5).
Yet travel writing, and in addition to everything else Antique Land may be it is also very much that, has always tended to be a combination of (constantly redefined) sciences and genres: of ethnography and anthropology (or natural science), representation (narration) and presentation (documentary), history and geography, anecdote and reportage (or data collection), field experience and research, hearsay and conjecture.118 As Hooper et al note:
One of the most persistent observations regarding travel writing is its absorption of differing narrative styles and genres, the manner in which it effortlessly shape-shifts and blends any number of imaginative encounters, and its potential for interaction with a broad range of historical periods, disciplines and perspectives. In much the same way that travel itself can be seen as a somewhat fluid experience, so too can travel writing be regarded as a relatively open-ended and versatile form, notwithstanding the closure that occurs in some of its more rigidly conventional examples. (3)
The difficulty of categorising Antique Land does not stem from the ‘form’ alone, but also from the position of its very aware narrator who purposefully and clearly critiques the relation between power systems (specifically empire and modern nations) and knowledge on one hand, and wryly but systematically debunks his own authority on another. Ghosh employs the writing forms used by imperialist powers to circumscribe and subjugate other peoples (often with their consent) and write the main narratives of history now referred to as Orientalism, but ironically, Ghosh uses it for counter purposes, presenting a kind of ‘good’ Orientalism (which gives the subject agency and power to write history) to counter a ‘bad’ Orientalism (which robs the subject of the gaze from its agency).119
One of the many effects of the work of scholars in the last few decades has been to foster a healthy scepticism towards representation of peoples and places, especially in travel writing within frames of empire and rising nationalism (Said (1978); Hulme (1986); Clifford (1988; 1997); Pratt (1992)). The range of Ghosh’s critique, like Said’s Orientalism, is not an all-out attack on ‘Europeans’ or the ‘West’, but a critique of the way knowledge is produced and propagated by dominant (military and economic) bodies, held by these bodies as the only valid form of knowledge, and then further institutionalised by the politically-dominated themselves. Ghosh’s critique, like Clifford’s in Predicament of Culture, is as much a critique of a method of representation as it is of the idea that any culture can be in its patterns of ‘dominance’ or ‘acquiescence’ either an untouched superior propagator or a passive receptacle of influences. As such Ghosh’s critique covers not only Western high culture and imperialism, epitomised in the story of the appropriation of the Geniza documents, but extends to the locals complicit in the theft, the locals who have continued placing themselves as subjects within a progressive march of history that begins with their primitive selves in an ‘antique land’, passes them by and ends at modern, first-world civilisation,120 and finally, in the case of Egypt, to the actual alternatives these now ‘post-colonial’ locals have offered. (What, after all, has Egypt done to preserve its remaining monuments, or, more importantly, to safeguard its minorities?) Debunking the narrator’s own authority in Ghosh’s travelogue marks a personal attempt to grapple with these issues as a cultural actor or producer himself ‘in the know’, and so the narrator implicitly: 1) acknowledges the difficulty of distancing oneself from the major epistemological change engendered in entire communities and native subjects who have grown up believing in certain structures of knowledge, 2) admits that the veracity of any knowledge or perception is questionable and arguable, and 3) intentionally distances himself from the unquestioning and confident centrist perspective of previous narrators –Europeans, Arabs, Indians, or otherwise– who have had the power of the gaze.
Rising to Ghosh’s project makes it important to read his engagement with the body of European travel writers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Imperatively, however, and challengingly, it requires departing from that corpus to highlight the submerged voices Ghosh intends to give agency to. It requires first, departing from classic European travel literature in content, by visiting Eastern writing on Eastern history, specifically by reading Ghosh’s work as an engagement with (or an ‘elliptical refraction’ or ‘double-mirroring’ of) the writings of the peoples who have lived in and travelled between these regions many centuries previously. Secondly, it requires a departure in time, by visiting a pre-modern period before the rise of the nation-state or ‘modernity’ in order to rethink the beginnings of global, or more accurately, unprecedentedly-widened networks. Yet, as posited in this study, if one of the aims of seeking new forms of transnational relations is to resist cultural homogeneity, rising to Ghosh’s project (focusing in this instance on the Middle East and India) requires not just adding Eastern texts to the literary corpus but also delving deeper in these Eastern key texts to uncover what voices they –as cosmopolitan and travel-wise as their authors may have been– silenced in turn, such as the voices of women, slaves, non-Muslims, non-Arabs, and the unlearned.121
Although the globalised world of modern nation-states is central to the examination of the circulation of texts in World Literature theory, “globalization in the sense of relations over long distances can also be seen as extending far back in human history, with intercontinental trade, forced or voluntary population movements, and political colonialism as conspicuous ingredients” (Goldmann et al 10). Indeed, “much of the ethnic and cultural diversity which characterizes various territories in the present is the enduring result of long-distance migrations that occurred centuries ago” (Goldmann et al 10). In the absence of the nation-state in the period discussed here, peoples and their texts can be seen to travel around what Braudel (1979), Abu Lughod (1989) and Gunder Frank et al (1993) have referred to as one or a series of pre-modern ‘world system(s)’122 –specifically what Abu Lughod has expounded on as a series of connected urban systems of production, of varying sizes, from Flanders to Canton. Dividing the semi-global Afro-eurasian system into a connected “archipelago of towns” (348) Abu Lughod examines the remarkable degree of congruence between these cycles, arguing that the towns resembled “nodal points” in a larger system, and were, in fact, the only comparable units in a world system that included everything from city-states to loose confederations and extensive empire-capitals (39).123 Abu Lughod draws attention to various towns or town-clusters that pose major locales of communal affiliations or collective imaginaries, although existing under the otherwise homogenising entities of the Islamic or Byzantine or similar ‘empires’. The economic affluence of these centres which made them major producers of (bookish) culture and scholarship also made them pre-modern ‘imagined communities’ and ‘ethnies’ (A D Smith 1971; 1999),124 some of which have survived today in the ethos of capitals and urban centres in modern nation-states.125
The significance of Abu Lughod’s map of linked sub-systems is that it also renders less significant the strict geographic and cultural barrier suggested between the ‘Islamic empire’ and the ‘rest of the world’, while acknowledging at the same time a series of self-enclosed autonomous sub-systems designated by political and cultural frontiers. The Arabic travel writings extrapolated by Ghosh appear to have travelled across the different linked sub-systems along the nodal points of towns and via the trade routes, whether within the changing borders of the ‘abode of Islam’, or outside of it. Since Abu Lughod’s analysis only refers to a certain period (1250-1350), and since this chapter refers to a longer duration, references to the Middle East or the ‘Islamic’ or the ‘Arabic-speaking world’ here refer to a region or sub-system whose borders changed with time, whose links to other sub-systems changed as well, and within which its city-centres and their dynamics (trade, traffic, regional affluence, etc.) changed too.126 The one constant assumed when referring to the ‘Middle East’ and the ‘Islamic world’ is to view this area as a potential designated unit in itself that is always linked to other sub-systems.
Hence, this chapter will contextualise the function and readership of a number of major texts that circulated well-enough to be considered an Arabic corpus of letters by the thirteenth century, discussing what a secular, pre-modern world literature in Arabic may mean, and taking into consideration how this writing has been reread in contemporary times by Ghosh. Along with the celebrated Geniza documents, Antique Land builds on the ‘core canon’ of travel texts written in or translated into Arabic from the 10th-14th centuries.127 All of the texts chosen in this chapter are autobiographical, widely-circulated travel writings produced in or translated into Arabic from about 900-1300 by self-defined Arabs and non-Arabs, all of whom quote from each other (and most of whom continue being quoted by subsequent travellers, centuries afterwards). All the works, except one, are also alluded to in Ghosh’s Antique Land and his essay “The Slave of MS. H. 6”. The works discussed here will be: The Journey to Russia (Kitāb ilā malik al-saqāliba) by Ibn Fadlan (c. 922- life details unknown);128 Volume 1 of Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems (Murūj al-dhahab wa ma‘ādin al-jawhar) by al-Mas‘udi (?- d.957);129 The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (Rihlat Ibn Jubayr) by Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217);130 The Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands or The Book of Roger (Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi-ikhtirāq al-āfāq) by al-Sharif al-Idrissi (1100-1165);131 and Volume 1 of The Dictionary of Countries (Mu‘jam al buldan) by Yāqūt al-Hamawi (b. Anatolia 1179-d. Aleppo 1229). The Safarnameh or Travels132 of Naseri Khusraw (b. Qibadyan, Iran ca.1004-1088), originally written in Persian but well-circulated among Arabic-speakers might possibly be the earliest, or one of the earliest, literary travelogues in the full modern sense, and is thus too important to be left out.
The size of the project makes it necessary not just to leave out more than is included but to leave out entire cultural zones as well. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of (to use a loose term very loosely) distant reading, also assumes the ‘view from the canon’, which is based on the assumption that some key texts can pose a common, major body of transnational reading material for writers who come from diverse cultures but are able to use the same language or read the works in translation. By reading and responding to the same material, the writers, whether intentionally or inadvertently, position themselves in dialogue with each other. In an attempt to start a discussion to a linked system of texts, there will be reference (usually through endnotes) to ongoing discussions of overlapping ‘clusters’ of travel writers or travel routes.
Although the later trajectories of these texts in modern times will not be discussed, it is important to note that they continued ‘travelling’ on different routes among different audiences to form ever-changing reading “maps”: “networks of partially overlapping ellipses in space and in time, leading to changing constellations over time” (D’haen “Mapping World Literature” 416). In Iran today, for example, Khusraw’s Safarnameh is often regarded as a collection of popular classical travel tales, while in Arabic letters, Khusraw is included in anthologies of travel writing or in literature courses as a ‘classical Arab traveller’. Khusraw, who came from what was then Persia, who wrote in Persian and faced severe religious discrimination for his ‘non desert-Arabian’ Ismaili Shi’ite beliefs in his time, would have been perplexed. Ibn Fadlan’s text was until recently largely ignored in Arabic, but had held a prominent place earlier among Russian historians and Orientalist scholars in the nineteenth century (Kratchkovsky “Muqaddima” [Introduction]). His work is currently enjoying a new popularity. Recently the work has inspired a rather bizarre Hollywood adaptation (The Thirteenth Warrior), while an annotated translation of the work in English appeared in 2012. Al-Idrissi once held an important place in traditional Latin cartography and geography, with his map of the world being considered the first ‘modern’ map in European science in the fifteenth century, but today, perhaps precisely because of the scientific observational tone he adopts, is rarely read. A complete annotated translation into English of his work is yet to emerge. The primary step, however, is to construct an idea of pre-modern Arabic travel writing as ‘world literature’.
What is Travel Literature in Arabic?
In an article on the definitions and terminology of travel literature Jan Borm comments that from the number of labels applied to travel writing in recent years, one may well wonder whether critics are discussing the same subject. Among the wide range of terms in use are: ‘travel book’, ‘travel narrative’, ‘journeywork’, ‘travel memoir’, ‘travel story’, ‘travelogue’, or simply ‘travels’, as well as ‘travel writing’, ‘travel literature’ and ‘the travel genre’. (13) The travel book may be “any narrative characterized by a non-fiction dominant that relates (almost always) in the first person a journey or journeys that the reader supposes to have taken place in reality while assuming or presupposing that author, narrator and principal character are but one or identical” (17). Taking his cue from the modern French and German traditions which distinguish between the genre of the travel book or travelogue, and ‘travel literature’ as an overall thematic category, Borm suggests that the travel book or travelogue is a predominantly non-fictional genre while travel writing or travel literature is an overall heading for texts whose main theme is travel (18-9). Ultimately, Borm stresses that the form of travel writing one will practise depends on what kind of writer one is or wants to be, but in essence, travel writing can be a useful heading under which to consider the multiple crossings from one form of writing into another and from one genre into another, making the most characteristic aspect of all travel writing, like travel itself, the idea of “shifting borders” (26).