A conversation in the PEN America Journal between Amitava Kumar and Ilija Trojanow includes the following wonderful bit about the uselessness of Thomas Friedman and the 12th century trade routes of the Indian Ocean — brought up in a discussion of Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land.
Trojanow: … So I suppose I have learned from Indian writers the width of freedom that one has as an artist in this world, so long as you refuse to acknowledge cultural boundaries that other people build up.
Kumar: That’s beautiful. Ghosh’s book In an Antique Land is a great example of that. It follows two parallel narratives, both describing Indians in Egypt. The first begins in 1148 and the second in 1980. In the first, a slave from India is serving an Arab master and going to Arabia. Eight hundred years later this document about him is discovered in the Cairo Geniza, in a synagogue, because the man was Jewish. Of course, the document doesn’t become intelligible until someone takes it to Princeton after the Second World War. And then a young scholar at Oxford, Amitav Ghosh, finds it. He sees this Indian name and thinks he’s entitled to visit the Geniza to research its origins. In going there and in learning the Egyptian language, he meets these new migrants, devout Muslims who act as his guides as he, a Hindu, pieces together the journey of the slave from India to Egypt. These migrants later leave to work in Iraq.
This enormous mix of things confuses us because we don’t have a sense of history. Read, say, Thomas Friedman, who says that the world is flat, and you’d think that globalization was suddenly discovered by Thomas Friedman when he woke up one day. But globalization did not happen yesterday, and global exchange and global commerce and the sharing of goods and bodily fluids across all kinds of boundaries happened in other centuries too, often in easier ways.
Trojanow: That’s one of the myths of globalization. Samuel Huntington is ignorant beyond belief when he says that, in today’s world, suddenly cultures are coming together. The Indian Ocean, for example, was one big area of interaction, throughout many, many centuries. It was much easier for someone, say, three hundred years ago, living on the seaboard of the Indian Ocean, to have cultural exchange with someone else than it is today. For an Omani trader, or a Persian trader, or an Indian trader, or an Indonesian trader, there were certain highways—very seaworthy routes—defined by the monsoon. And today it’s quite difficult for a trader from Bihar to go to Mombasa, for example. He needs a passport, which in India is not easy. Then he needs a visa, which is even more difficult. And then he needs to save money for a plane ticket, which is almost impossible if he’s a small-town trader.
Worlds separate as they seem to come together; foreign students and young Syrians in internet cafes in Damascus talk to friends and relatives across the globe on Skype and we think communication is the key here — the two are more and more alike, dressing more and more alike, riveted by their online social networks, talking the world over. But in the livelihoods of the foreigner and the local disparties grow — the foreigner might leave Syria often, for weekend holidays, to Beirut or the Dead Sea, or even farther south, to the country whose stamp will deny you reentry into Syria — while the latter maybe never leaves, because he is harassed at the airport, or simply cannot afford it, and most certainly cannot enter Palestine. Travel eases for some while it constricts for others, and the world doesn’t flatten.