Artwork by Farah Nada
"Straddling the Imaginary Line:" Exploring the Threshold of Change in Amitav Gosh's In an Antique Land
By Farah Nada
Amitav Gosh’s novel In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale (1994) recounts two parallel narratives: the first is the personal narrative of the author who goes to a village in Egypt to do research on a Jewish merchant and his slave, and the second is a fictionalized reconstruction of that merchant’s life in 12th century Middle East. Together, the two narratives present readers with significant discussion on issues of race, class, and religion. Although they are about 800 years apart, Gosh draws various parallels between the narratives, and demonstrates that societies, albeit significantly different, still change and progress in similar ways. What is most alarming to Gosh, however, is the speed with which these changes occur, and how the perception of this speed also changes. To say, thus, that the novel deals heavily with elements of change would be an understatement, as a considerable part of the two narratives discusses how change is triggered and how it manifests itself across various societies, both overtly and covertly. In much of his novel, Gosh describes societies on the verge of change; thus, new and old, past and present constantly clash and are persistently compared to one another. By highlighting the way in which societies change, Gosh seems to suggest that societies exist on that threshold, with one foot caught in the far more traditional past, and one plummeting forcefully into a new and yet highly uncertain future.
In the final section of the novel, having returned to Egypt after eight years, Gosh states:
It was not just that the lanes looked different; that so many of the old adobe houses had been torn down and replaced with red-brick bungalows – something more important had changed as well, the relations between different kinds of people in the village had been upturned and rearranged. (In an Antique Land 321)
This particular passage is important because, in many ways, it is a reflection on the theme of change that is heavily present throughout the novel. In the passage, the author refers to the idea of “lanes” having changed; although this refers literally to the lanes in the ground, these lanes ultimately create a separation of traffic on the ground. If we choose to extend this metaphor slightly, it is possible, thus, that this idea of changing lanes could refer to the notion of the threshold of change, and the division between past and present, tradition and modernity. Similarly to Gosh’s novel, in Nostalgia for the Light, a documentary that also recounts two parallel stories, one astronomical and one political, an astronomer remarks that the present moment is so fleeting that it almost does not exist. There is, in reality, only past and future; this brief threshold between the two is what people call the present. Yet, it is so brief that it ceases to exist almost in the same moment that it comes to life. If, thus, this same analogy is extended to Gosh’s novel, it is possible to make the argument that the past and the future are constantly meeting at this point of continuous change; the moment of the “now” ceases to exist altogether.
In addition, in Gosh’s novel, much of the change appears to be taking place from within the community, and often goes unnoticed by its citizens; in this way, while societies do progress, they remain under the illusion of being stationary. This also makes sense in light of our understanding of the present as a brief, momentary illusion. If we never really see the present, then our notion of progress into the future is flawed, or altogether unfathomable. For example, at the start of the section titled “Going Back,” Gosh explains how Sheikh Musa seemed to not have noticed much of the change that took place in Lataifa until Gosh himself returned to the village. In this section, Gosh says, “I had the impression that he [Sheikh Musa] was looking back with new eyes, as though the sharp edges of my memories had served to strip away a dense layer of accretions that had gathered upon his surroundings, like bark” (In an Antique Land 291). Sheikh Musa, who has been in the village for the entire eight years, seems to have failed to notice the extent of the changes that have taken place around him. As a member of that community, he is less likely to see these transformations, for he is very much within this change. As such, the image of his metaphorical blinding in the aforementioned passage serves to accentuate the extent to which he fails to see these seemingly prominent differences of which Gosh himself instantly takes note. Here, the reference to the “layer of accretions” stimulates an image in the reader’s mind of a kind of buildup that seems to take place over time. The word, however, seems to carry a rather negative connotation. In fact, Gosh’s role as the person who metaphorically clears Sheikh Musa’s vision is seen as a largely positive thing, as though he has revealed to Sheikh Musa a reality that has been long obscured. What is rather interesting, however, is that these “accretions” are compared to the bark of a tree, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is possible, thus, that Gosh is acknowledging that this almost involuntary blindness is very much a natural occurrence, and that the nature of change is, in itself, subtle and imperceptible. Gosh, thus, acts as the external reference point to which the village’s past and present are compared. Gosh looks at Lataifa with a diachronic eye; only he is able to truly see, as he is not trapped in the invisible motion of the illusive “present.”
In the same way, the various references in the novel that draw attention to this notion of the “threshold” or the “edge” between two distinct entities, whether it be past and present, tradition and modernity, or even two nations or languages, suggest that change occurs as a result of clash, be it internal or external. For example, early on in the novel, readers are told that “Ben Yiju’s documents were mostly written in an unusual, hybrid language…[that] is known today as Judaeo-Arabic…a colloquial dialect of medieval Arabic, written in the Hebrew script” (In an Antique Land 101). This interesting piece of information demonstrates one important element in the novel: change, whether it is internal or external to the community, is triggered through a form of clash, or interaction, between two entities – any two entities. Here, the two languages appear to fuse together to create a new, “hybrid” language (In an Antique Land 101). The use of the word “hybrid” draws parallels with various themes that we have encountered across the readings in contemporary world literature, particularly the theme of transnationalism. Although Ben Yiju lived in the 12th century, he was a merchant, and trade was paramount. This global intermingling of cultures, thus, triggered various changes in various different places. Hence, Judeao-Arabic, the meeting point of these two languages, becomes the literal manifestation of this threshold at which most societies seem to constantly stand.
Gosh uses a similar metaphor to refer to the migration between Egypt and Iraq in the 1980s, suggesting perhaps a larger theme of transnationalism that is heavily present in World Literature. It is important to note that, historically, the two nations never united. The same is not true for the union of Egypt and Syria and, even earlier, Egypt and Sudan. However, while this particular interaction between Egypt and Iraq was more economic, it led to a strange flow of people from one nation to the other, and led to the economic prosperity of many Egyptians. One should note, though, that for much of the novel, anything beyond the borders of Egypt is referred to as “the outside.” The economic and cultural revolution that is taking place in Egypt is said to be taking place “in another country, far away” (In an Antique Land 321). And yet, when referring to the extent of the Egyptian migration to Iraq, Gosh states that “[i]t was as if the two nations had dissolved into each other” (In an Antique Land 293, emphasis mine). Similarly, a few lines before, Gosh uses the term “surged” to suggest the rapid flow of people in Iraq (In an Antique Land 293). Both “surged” and “dissolved” suggest movement that is akin to the motion of water or fluids, suggesting speed as well as possibly a seamless transition between two nations. This particular situation remained, for a long time, unique to those who had experienced life in Iraq or in the Gulf. Even today, those who live “outside” are often at the cross-section of two cultures, even if both cultures are Arab. This, thus, suggests that there is a new, imagined culture for those who had migrated for work that is shared only amongst them. Although a strange situation, it fosters a hybrid and transnational identity that only these workers can relate to: it is a change, much like Judeao-Arabic, that is the result of a clash of two nations or two identities. It exists on the threshold of two entities, and it breeds a third.
However, while the novel tackles change on multiple levels, such as economic, social and individual, there is an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, suggesting perhaps that this rapid and intense change is far more negative than positive. For example, when Gosh returns to Egypt and meets with Jabir again, he states, “it was neither Jabir’s grey hair nor the shape of his face that was responsible for the difference in his appearance: the real change lay somewhere else, in some other, more essential quality…a quiet hopelessness, an attitude of resignation” (In an Antique Land 307). Here, the contrast between what is internal and what is external highlights how change is often misunderstood to be merely superficial. In this case, Jabir’s physical appearance, much like Lataifa’s houses and lanes, is not the real or even the truly important change. What is important is what is changing on the inside, and how that affects the individual and the community. While externally there may be prosperity, it comes at the cost of a sudden loss of identity, a loss of culture, and a loss of order.
In addition, Gosh’s language often suggests that whatever is left in Lataifa is incomplete, and therefore flawed. For example, when visiting Nabeel’s house, Gosh first describes it as a “the unfinished shell of a large new bungalow” (In an Antique Land 318). Words such as “large,” “new,” and “bungalow” suggest the coming of modernity to the quiet town of Lataifa, which had previously had simple, straw huts (In an Antique Land 318). However, this image of the “unfinished shell” carries a negative connotation, implying that the house is sickly and un-kept. The sound of the word “shell” even suggests something hollow and abandoned, for it has been abandoned by its past, which has been rapidly replaced by an economic prosperity. As with many nations, modernity brings with it the heavy price of fragmentation, leading to the loss of individual identity. Moreover, a few pages later, Gosh remarks on the similarity between Nabeel and his brothers and says that he “could have been walking with ghosts” (In an Antique Land 324). By referring to “ghosts” Gosh is possibly attempting to show that Lataifa is a town haunted by the ghost of its past. Eventually, even Nabeel is absorbed and ceases to exist, for he “vanishes into the anonymity of History” (In an Antique Land 353). If we examine those few examples, thus, it becomes evident that whatever is left in Lataifa after the migration to Iraq is no longer whole or possibly not even real. The Lataifa of 1980 no longer exists.
Gosh’s In an Antique Land is a novel that deals with the dynamics of change. The novel examines the momentary threshold that seems to exist between various entities, such as past and preset, tradition and modernity, and demonstrates how clashes between such entities give rise to new changes. Gosh discusses how these changes appear to be taking place within communities, and often go unnoticed by its citizens. In addition, he focuses on how change occurs as a result of a clash between two entities, and how this clash leads to the birth of new categories, such as new languages, or new groups of people. At the same time, however, Gosh’s novel acknowledges that change is not always a positive thing, particularly with regards to the speed of change. In fact, Gosh suggests that the changes in Lataifa have left the town abandoned, and its people haunted by the past. Ultimately, it is this negotiation between the past and the present that drives people forward; however, Gosh’s concern remains a valid one, for his novel acknowledges the high price that comes with any change: the loss of culture, the loss of tradition, and the loss of the individual.
Ghosh, Amitav. In an Antique Land. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.
Farah Nada is a senior student at the American University of Sharjah. She is undertaking a double major in English Literature and Journalism. She wishes to pursue graduate studies in twentieth-century British literature, a career in publishing, and a grand adventure of teaching English in Italy. Her bookcase is her prized possession. Her literary passions involve modernism, World War One and trauma.