Striving to be the first is the essence of everybody’s life. If everything in the world was equal and a certain hierarchical structure was absent the world would be in chaos as throughout the centuries people were in need of those who would rule them. The thing is that everybody has his or her own point of view and as it is impossible to act in a way so that everybody could be pleased the necessity of somebody who would take common decisions suitable for everyone arises. Originally, hegemony denoted a social group that dominates over the other group this is why all the subordinate groups should express their consent with it. When it comes to talking about international relations a hegemon is a state or a power that is the strongest one and inspires other states’ respect by its being invincible and unconquerable. The desire of the West to dominate over the other countries has been growing throughout the centuries and very soon the Western Hegemony started deeply affecting European and Eastern countries: “The management and integration task for the Western Hegemony was still a significant one. Western ideas and practices had to be made plausible to doubters, dissidents marginalized or brought to order, and markets extended to all potential customers. The Western Hegemony was good at accomplishing these management and integration tasks”. (Simon Murden, p. 8). This process acquired with time a global scope and affected most European and Asian countries which were forced to accept the idea that global markets were their only chance for development.
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The book “In an Antique Land” by Amitav Ghosh “is a book written to recall the spirit of a world that no longer exists.” (Shubha Tiwari, p. 5). The book describes Amitav Ghosh’s studies conducted in Egypt, a country that was also affected by Western Hegemony. The book in general is about the exploration of the mysterious Egyptian culture. To achieve successful results in this exploration Amitav Ghosh was thoroughly studying rare ancient archives, finding fragments of the letters, “things which have no price and no value” (Amitav Ghosh, p.16) written hundreds of years ago and interpreting them. His book “In an Antique Land” abounds with different characters and in it “The daily encounters of these characters are shown. Their religious rites, social customs along with their eccentricities and whims are effectively portrayed. A tale grows into a story; ordinariness becomes history, and anthropology mixes with fiction.” (Shubha Tiwari, p. 42). Amitav Ghosh himself is an Indian and as Egypt and India are in friendly relations Amitav counted on the citizens’ support and assistance in what he was up to. What united India and Egypt were that both countries were poor and were trying to cope with the problems and damage inflicted by hegemony: “The Indian Ocean trade, and the culture that supported it, had long since been destroyed…” (Amitav Ghosh, p. 80). Egyptian trading culture was also practically destroyed by Western influence and what Ghosh observes while his research is its recovery. The expansionism was very destructive not only for Egypt but for a range of other countries: “She had become a province of the Ottoman Empire, which itself enfeebled now, allowed to keep its territories only by the consent of Great Powers”. (Amitav Ghosh, p. 80). One of the main reasons why the damage was so great was that most of the countries were not ready for all those innovations the hegemony brought with it this is why their economies crashed.
As a parallel story in his book ”In an Antique Land,” Ghosh tells about the difficulties the traveler may come across when coming to a foreign country. The distinction between different parts of the world has always been evident and getting into a foreign country one gets into a foreign world. The problems may arise not only because of the language barrier but because of misinterpretation of certain notions: “You mean,” he said in rising disbelief, “there are some people in your country who are not circumcised?” In Arabic the word “circumcise” derives from a root that means “to purify”: to say of someone that they are “uncircumcised” is more or less to call them impure. “Yes,” I answered, “yes, many people in my country are ‘impure.’” I had no alternative; I was trapped by language.” (Amitav Ghosh, p. 62). He discovers the meanings of the words and associations which local people have with words familiar to them: “Europe’s apparently innocent Egypt is therefore as much a metaphor as ‘Masr’ but a less benign one, almost as much a weapon as a word.” (Amitav Ghosh, p. 33).
What’s more, some background on the history and traditions of the foreign country is what may be very useful while one is trying to explore its culture. Some countries have very strict laws and traditions and, as it is known, the ignorance of the law does not exempt from the responsibility. Amitav Ghosh in “In an Antique Land” also tells about some principal Arabian laws and traditions. Though those traditions are ancient and most of them are not observed in modern society, they still play a great role in forming the idea about the people who are the bearers of them: “That was the law of the Arabs: “Me and my brother against my cousin; me and my cousin against the stranger.” This was a serious matter: if a man killed someone, then he and all his male kin one the paternal side could be killed in revenge by the dead man’s family” (Amitav Ghosh, p. 69).
Apart from studies conducted, Ghosh also introduces the story of Abraham Ben Yiju, “a Jewish merchant, originally of Tunisia, who had gone to India by way of Egypt, as a trader…” (Amitav Ghosh, p. 19). Ghosh reconstructed a lot of fragments of letters which at least somehow related to this person and could tell the story of his life, the letters which he collected carefully for not to lose a single piece of information: “a letter written by a merchant living in Aden – that port which sits, like a fly of a funnel, on the precise point where the narrow sprout of the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean. The letter, which now bears the catalog number MS H.6…” (Amitav Ghosh, p. 13). Moreover, being an anthropologist, Ghosh compares the histories of two countries, India and Egypt. Both of them sought modernization and experienced colonial violence. He describes in detail the process of trade between India and Egypt in the Middle Ages and compares which relations the countries have in the twentieth century. He also draws a couple of other parallels between these two countries and observes their similarities in culture, etymology, and religion. What was the most difficult for Ghosh in exploring this foreign culture was the fact that these people, their lives, and their culture were mentioned in all other sources in a very obscure way. The only information about the people of those times is a mere description of the lives of those who were either rich or prominent but not of the people who remained unnoticed throughout their lives. The way people behaved and their attitude towards each other is what Amitav Ghosh discloses in “In an Antique Land”.
The most interesting part of Ghosh’s exploration of Egypt is when after having spent some time in this country he comes back there in seven years. He is pleased to observe the changes which occurred in the country and its. Those he used to know as children have grown up and are already working in Iraq. Their prior purpose is to earn money to help their families financially this is why working in Iraq they send money they earn to their homes. The Iran-Iraq war forced most young male Egyptians to go to the front or work in construction. Ghosh is surprised to see that most homes in Egypt now have refrigerators and television sets. There are no mud huts in villages anymore and people build bungalows instead. Those young men who are working in Iraq are not very welcome there. When they come back home they have to be careful when walking the streets at night because local people often attack them. What they are not satisfied with is that Egyptians take the jobs the local people could take while they, local people, are fighting and dying during the war.
These changes in the country so thoroughly explored by Amitav Ghosh end the book “In an Antique Land”. Ghosh also explains the notion of slavery here but he treats it not as a crime but as a certain social institution which the country had to go through to become what it is now. This book which took him so much time and effort were really worth it as people who read it find out a lot from the studies he conducted and appreciate the work he has done: “Ghosh’s In an Antique Land is like a breath of fresh air […] It is an interaction of the author with at least four languages and cultures spread across continents and centuries.” (Shubha Tiwari, p. 42).
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There is no doubt that Western Hegemony, as described by Amitav Ghosh, has produced a significant effect on the Asian countries as well as on a lot of other countries. The consequences of it were very destructive but just like something else which brings positive results these destructions was what the better life demanded. Modern technologies and innovations imposed on the countries by the West make our life easier and more comfortable and this is difficult to deny. Taking into consideration the victims this modernization demanded it can be noted that in fact, it was worth it. If it were not for the Western Hegemony most of the countries which are now developing would be still underdeveloped and people living in these countries would hardly be glad for the life they would have. Amitav Ghosh’s “In an Antique Land” is a valuable piece of writing as it comprises not only the description of lives of people the world would have never known about but also shows the effect produced by the Western Hegemony on different countries of the world.
- Amitav Ghosh. In an Antique Land. Ravi Dayal Publisher, 1992.
- Simon Murden. Islam, the Middle East, and the New Global Hegemony. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.
- Shubha Tiwari. Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Study. Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2003.