Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Non-Western Literature Student Learning Analyses: Team Ghosh! on In an Antique Land

I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching project learning analyses from students in my Non-Western Literature course. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them.

Here's the second batch, from a team who named themselves Team Ghosh! and lead a great discussion on In an Antique Land.


Allison leads off:

In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh is not a book that you browse a bookstore, pick up, and say to yourself, “yes I’m going to enjoy this book.” This is not to say that it is not interesting or that I did not enjoy it; however, I do feel that it is the type of book that if you don’t read it in an academic setting you probably won’t read it. While I can see why many people in the class may have disliked the book, I enjoyed it. Reading this book was a different experience: it presents itself as a traveler’s guide, I read it as if it was a novel, and it was actually an autobiography. I was constantly looking for symbolism and meaning in everything that was written but it wasn’t there and I just had to come to terms with the fact that this was a real life experience and not everything had a calculated purpose, it just was.

Ghosh’s writing and travels show the merging of a lot of major themes; while he is looking for this slave he encounters conversation and challenging of religion, westernization, and orientalization. The town he stays in is this strange mix of old world traditions and longing for modernization. My favorite part of this book is when he is having a conversation and another person makes a comment about how he probably worships cows all day back home. This moment shows the assumptions that people make about entire cultures based on the little information they have. It me think about today and the war our country is fighting; we attack people based on assumptions, the US views itself as the world police, but who are we to say how things should be, as we are looking at things through our own cultural (or lack thereof) perspective and many times we don’t take into account an other’s cultural perspective. It is the things that Ghosh did not go looking for that made this book interesting; we never get a resolution when it comes to the slave, but you lose sight of that during the reading because his interactions bring about these other topics.

I believe that the reason that Ghosh is so fascinated by this slave is because he only discovered him by chance. If the slave had never been mentioned in the things that Ghosh was reading the slave would have been long forgotten about. It shows the power that language and literacy hold. The passing on of stories is what immortalizes events, places and people. It is the entire basis for the study of history. How often do we hear that unless we study history it will inevitably repeat itself? Whether Ghosh knew it at the time or not that is really the point that he was proving.


Anonymous Student #2 follows up:

After reading In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh there are many interesting things that I have learned about this book. First, I found it very interesting that this is a true story. When I first began reading this book I could not seem to put my hand around the idea that in the 1980s life was still very difficult for many Egyptians. Reading this piece of literature opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone lives comfortably and is able to get around in a car. I believe that I knew these things, but in his book Ghosh made me aware of the differences among people; at the same time I was able to see that while there are differences among cultures and religion, people are still the same. I believe that Ghosh uses this book to create a window into a less privileged world, to pull his readers in and make them care about the conditions and lifestyles of third world countries and the history among us.

Another interesting aspect of Ghosh’s book that I was able to pull out of the reading was that religion and trade are what bring people together; they are what lead to globalization. It is interesting to think that although there was such a strained relationship between India and Egypt they both desire the same thing, modernization; both want to increase the technology and want to better their lives. The racial tension and cultural differences throughout the book are some of the themes that I focused on heavily during my reading. I did outside research on the time period and was able to discover that the main reason for the tension between Iraq and Egypt in the 1980s was because the Egyptians were going to Iraq during the Iraq/Iran working and taking all of their jobs. So while, Iraq was at war, Egypt was benefiting from the jobs available.

The most interesting piece of information that I took from the novel is from the slave of MS H.6. I believe that what Ghosh was trying to do by including this character in his novel is show that history lives on through those where able to read and write, through their journals, letters, and records, and if he wouldn’t have found the letter that contained information about him we would never know about him. This sends a message to me that it is important to understand that there are misunderstandings in culture and history. Through Ghosh I have found myself able to look at both sides a situations and realize that we are all the same, fighting for the same things, with essentially the same goal, modernization, for better or for worse.


Steph bats third:

What I was most surprised to learn from simply reading In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh was his desire to get other people's stories on the page. He observes the culture of Egypt with tolerance and openness; he also has an ear open to the ancient Ben Yiju and his slave, and to what their significance may have been. He transcribes his day to day interactions with the Egyptian “fellahs” and in this book gives them a place to be observed by thousands and thousands of readers, making them more real and less of an “other.” This book must be a way of showing the reality of people other than ourselves and attempting peaceful interactions with them.

In the book, Amitav Ghosh reacted peacefully to cultural barriers between himself and the Egyptians. He does not get fired up over symbolic differences, as he knows from his own experiences that these symbols are what start wars. The Egyptians criticize his religion, the fact that Hindus cremate their dead, and the long-standing myth that Hindus worship cows. He takes these differences, and the way the Egyptians distort the information so that the Indians sound like the more barbaric culture, with an attitude of humility and tolerance.

I believe Ghosh's travelogue showed his personal desire to create bonds that are stronger than and reach past perceived cultural barriers (as well as the barrier of history in the case of Ben Yiju). I feel this even more strongly after researching some of Ghosh's other writings, especially from reading an essay entitled “The Anglophone Empire” posted on his website.


Owen Mayer hits clean-up:

Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land was, I believe, the first text I had read in an English class which was not a novel, poem, or an essay. If forced to describe the genre I may venture something like, “narrative history.” It did not come as a surprise to learn that Ghosh has taught at many universities not as an English professor but as a Sociology professor. When reflecting on this text it seems as though it was written with much more of a sociological leaning than a literary leaning. By comparing an ancient society with a modern society Ghosh questions social and technological progress.

In conducting further research on the book I was shocked when I actually took out a map and traced the paths of the characters in the book. Ben Yiju, the trader of the middle ages, began his life in Tunisia and traveled to the south western Indian coast. His “slave” was trusted with his business affairs and traveled between India and Aden, which is in modern day Yemen. I believe Ghosh purposely chose these two well traveled subjects to serve as a comparison with the modern characters, the Egyptian fellaheen (small-town farmers), most of which never leave Egypt. It is interesting to note the differences in travel, especially in what we often think of as a world which has been recently shrunk by modern transportation.

Much of the criticism on In an Antique Land, such as Anshuman A. Mondal’s “Allegories of Identity: ‘Postmodern’ Anxiety and ‘Postcolonial’ Ambivalence in Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land and The Shadow Lines,” discusses Ghosh’s (who is a Hindu from India) relations with the fellaheen (who are Muslim). Mondal describes how they perceive him as an “other,” a person outside their community, and can find no positive in his differences from them. The reader can compare this experience of Ghosh to the experience of Ben Yiju, a Jewish “other” living in a largely Hindu community in India. Compared to himself, Ghosh describes relatively few cultural barriers that Ben Yiju encountered in India. In an Antique Land frequently provides readers with opportunities to compare life in the Middle East and India across the borders of time; readers can make political, social, religious, and gender based connections.


Next up: Team Wiggityx4 Wack on V.S. Naipaul's A Way in the World!

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