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A Dehistoricized Authority of Imperial Monopoly and Cultural Uprooting in Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land: A Study

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Organizer: Jebun Geeti

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In his critically acclaimed travelogue In An Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh journeyed to Egypt in1980 to trace the history of a medieval Indian slave “Boma” and his Tunisian master Abraham Ben Yiju. When he was studying his DPhil at Oxford, like many other researchers Ghosh also chanced upon some letters in a library at Oxford in 1978. These medieval letters originally written in 1148 in Aden addressing a medieval trader Ben Yiju, which came to the scholarly attention in 1942. These letters created scholarly curiosity in Ghosh that eventually led him to explore the medieval past, where he explores a contradictory relation between two worlds: the medieval past and the modern era. Ghosh identified the medieval life in Egypt as a cosmopolitan trading society, where the Christian, Jew, Muslim, and Hindu interact, do business, and form relationships. However, the purpose in this paper is to show how the western forms of knowledge are responsible for the dehistorization of Ancient knowledge of the past through the dispersal and housing of geniza documents in Europe and America, which were uninterruptedly preserved for hundreds of years in in Egypt. This paper also focuses on the imperial monopoly of several Western countries in Egypt, who have been destroying the “simplicity” of the world. This paper explores why these Geniza documents were scattered carelessly into various libraries in the western world ending up in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, St. Petersburg, and Philadelphia. According to Ghosh, the imperial strategy of negotiation and gaining ownership of the archived documents is more vicious than the physical threats of bomb or nuclear power. From Ghosh’s analysis, it appears that the historical documents of the past are another commodity to be bought and sold in the international marketplace. Ghosh made it clear that, West not only directs the markets of the colonial and neo-colonial eras, but also control and influence the traffic of information, knowledge, and History of the East. He clearly reminds us that the collection of the Geniza documents by the West was linked with the colonial appropriation of land, economic exploitation, and social subjugation. Interestingly, many of the critics of In An Antique Land interpreted this practice differently, but all those analysis equally emerged from an idea of imperial monopoly of the West. However, this paper also tries to interpret different views of the critics on Western politics of knowledge depicted by Ghosh in this text. One of the Indian critics of this text Nilanjana Gupta clearly focuses on the role of imperialism in determining the history of the world. Gupta noticed that the intervention of the West makes Third World people disassociated from the political process leaving them disillusioned with the power-hungry new rulers. She highlights that, India and Egypt had ancient ties for centuries, but it was the West who plays the role of a powerful interventionist in shaping their relationship. US-based critic James Clifford, and Australian critic Robert Dixon interrogate how the Egyptian community was judged incompetent by the West who had preserved the Geniza documents for nine hundred years which were indefensibly dispersed to the libraries in Cambridge, St Petersburg, and Philadelphia. Clifford’s analysis is a bit similar to the analysis of UK-based Javed Majid, who notes that the central concern of the text is less with diaspora as the migration of people, and more with diaspora as the dispersion of manuscript and archival materials from an original point of collection. Like Clifford, Majeed defines “migration” as an uprooting of archival material as one of the methods of European colonial expansion. Like Majeed, Clifford also emphasizes on the diasporic career of Cairo Geniza through his observation of the medieval master- slave story. He mentions, in1890s the Geniza was ‘rescued’ by European scholars which he notes as a decisive act of imperial monopoly. However, Indian critic Padmini Mongla’s assessment is slightly different from Clifford who thinks, those written documents were “stolen” rather than rescued in 1864 with the construction of the Suez Canal, when Egypt was under British control. From a different angle, UK-based Clare Chambers analyses that, the dispersal of Geniza documents suggests Ghosh’s argument about knowledge and power where ‘the husbandry of western academy’ (Ghosh 1992: 82) is a key word that reflect tangled greed and cultural usurpation. UK-based critic of this text Shirly Chew particularly criticizes the role of dishonest employees in Egypt, foreign buyers, high ranking British officials and the members of Western academy in their politics of knowledge in the East.

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