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The Nile of Time : IN AN ANTIQUE LAND By Amitav Ghosh (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 352 pp.)

April 11, 1993|Pico Iyer

Modern Egypt is in part a swirl of Mexican restaurants and chador boutiques and guides speaking Japanese. But in its alleyways and souks, and all around the villages in the countryside, Egypt still clops to a surprisingly ancient rhythm: boys wandering through mazes of mud-colored houses, date-palms under washed-out skies as in every other 19th-Century English print, women carrying baskets of vegetables on their heads. In Egypt, as in India, centuries co-exist like artifacts on a museum wall (and sometimes weirdly intermingle too, as in the 3000-year-old treasures kept in 2000-year-old conditions in Cairo's infamous Egyptian Museum).

That sense of agelessness--and the way it translates into placelessness--is the driving engine of Amitav Ghosh's new book, a book that appealingly excavates a little-known corner of Middle Eastern history (the Jewish traders commuting between the Arab world and India in the 12th Century), and beautifully lights up the laws and losses of a typical Egyptian village today. In 1978, Ghosh, one of the leaders of India's New Wave of younger novelists (his "Shadow Lines" belongs on the same shelf as the best of Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry), discovered a letter written to a Jewish merchant from Egypt, Abraham Ben Yiju, who was living in India in 1148. Eager to learn more about these unexpected Egypt-Indian ties, Ghosh himself learned Arabic, and went to live in a tiny village two hours--and several centuries--southeast of Alexandria.

Settling down in his community of 400, Ghosh comes across as pretty much a model of the social anthropologist: modest, attentive, driven by openness and affection. He collects ghost stories and rites, records village rumors and feuds, finds his sibylline caretaker racing around his room one day, trying to brain a European bird called the hoopoe (he needs hoopoe blood, the old man explains, in order to cast a spell). And, with disarming simplicity and a plausible warmth, Ghosh makes small parables of his encounters with teen-age hopes, and TVs run on car-batteries, and a fat landlord disappearing on his beloved moped like "a gargantuan lollipop being carried away by its stick."

Rather like the British anthropologist Nigel Barley, in his similarly friendly tour of modern Indonesia ("The Duke of Puddle Dock"), Ghosh seems less an observer than a participant, and makes us feel as if we are seeing the village from the inside out. His episodes unfold with the leisurely intimacy of stories told around a family hearth, and one can almost see the smiles--on both sides--as schoolgirls tease him, and boys pester him for stories and mothers warmly remind him that "the people of Egypt and India have been like brothers for centuries."

For what gives all this an added force is that Ghosh is as much a source of wonder and fascination to his new neighbors as they are to him. "Curious," after all, has two meanings, and they point in opposite directions. In Ghosh's case, the anthropologist finds himself well and truly anthropologized. No, he is forced to admit to persistent questions, he isn't circumcised, and he doesn't shave his armpits, and he does come from a country where people defer to cows. Before long, in fact, the "Indian from Lataifa" is himself a subject of local folk-lore, and when people buy Indian-made water-pumps, "the doktor al-Hindi" is asked to pronounce judgment on them.

At the same time, however, Ghosh does fit into the village in a way that few Westerners ever could, coming as he does from a land of similar villages, and Muslims, and imperial memories. Egypt and India do have affinities, and they are as recent as the friendship between Nehru and Nassar and India's support of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. (I can attest to this first-hand: Walking through the back-streets of Cairo and Aswan two months ago, I could hardly move for hearty cries of "India! India very good! India-Egypt brothers!" and hosannas to various Hindi movie-stars.)

Beneath this cross-cultural cross-questioning, though, there is an undertow of sadness: for every time Ghosh tells his new friends why people in his country burn their dead, he is reminded that, in India, Hindus are routinely slaughtered by Muslims for doing so, and Muslims by Hindus for not doing so. And beneath this is the deeper sadness, common to many other countries, of seeing a village wisdom fade as the modern-minded young banish what they regard as "superstitions." When Ghosh returns to the area he loved after eight years, he finds the expected celebration becomes an elegy: the "spindly old moped" is now a "gleaming new Toyota pick-up truck" and the chicken-coop where he had lived is part of a three-story mansion. He catches the heart-breaking sadness of young boys going off to college--or to lucrative jobs in Iraq--only to return, with modern appliances and dreams, to homes where they will never feel at home again.

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