Beyond the language of guns, bombs and development

In a wonderful, lyrical work, In an Antique Land, the novelist-anthropologist Amitav Ghosh charts the story of his fieldwork in the Nile Delta. Calcutta-born and Oxford-educated, Ghosh embarks on two parallel journeys. One records his attempt to ‘understand’ contemporary Egyptian village culture, which he always sees as fumbling, somehow an ‘impossible’ stab at cross-cultural ‘translation’ (an endeavour partly defined by the Oxford school of British social anthropology in which Ghosh was trained, but, as this book indicates, never felt at home in). [1] His second journey goes back in time. Ghosh attempts to unearth the history of Bomma, an eleventh-century Hindu slave of an Egyptian Jewish merchant, Ben Yiju, recorded fragments of whose lives were discovered in the nineteenth century behind an ancient Cairene synagogue. (Synagogues traditionally housed a repository, or geniza, to store any Hebrew-language papers or books out of reverence for the name of God, as in Muslim tradition, before they could be properly disposed of. The Cairo Geniza constitutes one of the richest archives of ordinary medieval life to be found anywhere.) [2]

A confrontation with a local imam during his fieldwork causes Ghosh to reflect upon the changed nature of the relationship between non-Western peoples both before and after European colonialism. Towards the end of their argument, the Egyptian imam and the Indian writer-anthropologist begin to compete in terms of their respective nations’ material and military progress — ‘our bombs and guns are much better than theirs’ — which has become the only common benchmark of value, or shared language, by which they might measure each other. Modern Egyptians and Indians thus speak a truncated language to each other, far removed from the complex nuanced relations Ghosh uncovers between Bomma and his master Ben Yiju nine centuries earlier.

We would probably have stood there a good while longer, the Imam and I: delegates from two superseded civilizations, vying with each other to establish a prior claim to the technology of modern violence.

At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both travelling, he and I: we were travelling in the West. The only difference was that I had actually been there…but…that was mere fluff: in the end, for millions and millions of people on landmasses around us, the West meant only this — science and tanks and guns and bombs.

…it seemed to me that the Imam and I had participated in our own defeat, in the dissolution of the centuries of dialogue that had linked us: we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak, as Ben Yiju or his Slave, or any one of the thousands of travellers who crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done: of things that were right, or good, or willed by God: it would have been merely absurd for either of us to use those words, for they belonged to a dismantled rung on the ascending ladder of Development. Instead, to make ourselves understood, we had both resorted…to the very terms that world leaders and statesmen use at great, global conferences, the universal irresistible metaphysic of modern meaning; he had said to me, in effect: ‘You ought not to do what you do, because otherwise you will not have guns and tanks and bombs.’ It was the only language we had been able to discover in common. [3]

If today we live in times where the language of tanks and guns and bombs predominates, of immense off-screen collateral damage and mega-death horror media events (as one sheikh has described them), we would do well to still resist the ‘irresistible’ language of Development to sing quieter songs of God, and of what is good and right.

[1] See the chapter ‘The Concept of Cultual Translation in British Social Anthropology’ in Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 171-199.
[2] S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
[3] Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (London: Granta, 1998 [1992]), 236-237.


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