Ghoshwood’s Mendacity

by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Claire Chambers.

Novelists Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood have accepted the Dan David prize at Tel Aviv University, an institution at the heart of Israel’s military-industrial complex. By doing so they have spurned Palestinian civil society’s call for boycott, divestment and sanctions on the Zionist state. Atwood has specifically ignored this wonderful open letter from the students of Gaza. The shared prize money amounts to a million dollars, of which 10 percent will be handed back to support Tel Aviv’s graduate students.

Of course it would be a mistake to expect writers to attain to higher moral standards or to to display more political intelligence than anyone else. Two things stick in the craw in this case, however. The first is that both Ghosh and Atwood have made names as ‘progressive’ and ‘postcolonial’ writers. We aren’t surprised when an openly-declared Zionist like Martin Amis visits Israel, but when writers who sell books on the basis of their opposition to oppression visit, the resultant hypocrisy is quite nauseating.

Atwood is supposedly a feminist writer. (Helena Cobban notes, however: “all of her novels are about women trapped in helplessness.”) I wonder what Atwood would say to the struggling women of Palestine – the poets, journalists, protestors, stone throwers, organisers, the widows and bereaved mothers – were she to meet them. But she won’t meet them. They aren’t sipping wine at the Tel Aviv reception; they are locked up in their ghettoes and mourning their dead. They are wondering how to educate their children when their children don’t have enough to eat, when they can’t find pencils in the market, when the local school is a smouldering pile of debris.

The second thing in our craw is this: Not only did Atwood and Ghosh choose to accept the cash, they used the occasion to launch a diatribe against the BDS strategy. I didn’t want to publicise their screed by linking to it, but I will, because it makes our argument for us. For a start, it could have been written by any half-conscious sixteen-year-old, so poor it is in both style and logic.

Ghosh and Atwood imply that the boycott is self-righteous and propagandistic. On the other hand,

the novel is a creature of nuance: of perhaps, of maybe. It concerns itself, not with gods and demons, but with mortal people, with their flawed characters, their unsatisfactory bodies, their sufferings, their limited and often wrong choices; with the dubiousness of their own actions and the unfairness of their fates. … Writing a novel often requires you to see life through the eyes of those you may not agree with. It is a polyphonic form. It pleads for the complex humanity of all human beings. … Worldwide, novel-writing is under constant pressure, both from political groups who want to co-opt it, and from powerful governments who’d like to silence it. Around the world, novelists have been shot, imprisoned, and exiled for their failure to toe somebody else’s line. But they continue to write stories.”

The tone of wounded nobility intensifies:

Writers have no armies. They have no militant wings. The list of persecuted writers is long, ancient, and international. We feel we must defend the diminishing open space in which dialogue, exchange, and relatively free expression are still possible.”

This is what I meant by the half-conscious sixteen-year-old. On the surface, to someone with little experience of life and of the abuses of language, the freedom rhetoric sounds admirable. But the assumptions on which the rhetoric rests are thoroughly dishonest. Who in Palestinian civil society or the international BDS movement is calling for an attack on ‘polyphony’ or pluralism? Surely the battle against Zionism and for civil rights is a battle on behalf of pluralism, for a plural Palestine-Israel built on equality. Does acting against the seige, the ethnic cleansing, the apartheid mean not seeing things through the eyes of those you disagree with? Atwood opposed South African apartheid – did this result in an inability and unwillingness to understand the fears and hopes of white South Africans? Would a boycott of Nazi Germany have signalled an unreasoning, narrow-minded hatred of Germans?

Or is it that certain racisms, certain colonial-settler projects, are more acceptable than others?

Appallingly, our two heroes associate themselves with writers who have been shot, imprisoned and exiled. In the context, this is analagous to Nixon identifying with a napalm victim. Have Ghosh-Atwood not heard of the millions of Palestinians in exile, in refugee camps, among them many writers? Have they not heard of Ghassan Kanafani, who would have been one of the world’s greatest literary figures had he not been murdered by Zionists as he was growing into his prime? Have they not heard of Mohammed Omer or any of the other journalists tortured and imprisoned and prevented from travelling by the apartheid regime?

The great principle our valiant postcolonialists claimed in Tel Aviv was “keeping doors open.” In other words, communication. Engagement. Dialogue.

Let’s put to one side the simple fact that the Palestinians experience only the dialogue of occupation (which seems rather like a monlogue to me). Let’s focus instead on the mendacity of the Ghoshwood assumption. If writers wish to communicate with Israel they can write articles in newspapers and magazines. They can write books. They can read articles and books written by Israelis. They can telephone Israel, or chat with Israel on the internet. Nobody is asking them not to. The BDS strategy is in itself an act of communication. Ghoshwood could have written an open letter to Israeli newspapers explaining that they would not accept the prize until Israel transformed itself from an apartheid state and ended its illegal occupations. You can bet that communication would have been much more widely heard than the ridiculous Tel Aviv speech.

My friend Claire Chambers has something to add. It seems that Amitav Ghosh can sometimes be very brave – when the prize money on offer is much less and when he hasn’t much hope of winning anyway, and when the issues involved are far more nebulous. Claire Chambers is an expert on postcolonial and British Muslim literature at Leeds Metropolitan university.

In March 2001, Amitav Ghosh caused something of a literary sensation by withdrawing his novel, The Glass Palace from the Commonwealth Writers Prize, for which he was Eurasia regional and had been nominated for the overall prize. In a letter to the prize’s organizers, Ghosh argued against the category “Commonwealth Literature”, suggesting that the term subsumes the myriad concerns of fiction under the residues of imperialism. He also objected to the fact that the Prize is awarded only to Anglophone writing, which, he rightly contended, “excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of [‘Commonwealth’] countries”. His refusal of potential prize money of £10,000 seems in many ways like a principled stand by a writer who has long been hailed as a poster boy for postcolonialism, and certainly Ghosh’s stated anti-colonial, and pro-regional language, aims are laudable. That said, he was by no means certain to win the prize, and cynics have noticed that his refusal of the prize was accompanied by a slick marketing campaign on his website (since removed) and by appearances on Radio 4 and other media.

Fast-forward to 2010 and Ghosh is now, alongside that other doyenne of postcolonialism, Margaret Atwood, sharing $1 million of prize money from the David Dan Prize of Tel Aviv University. What has happened to his anti-colonial and postcolonial credentials? I will leave it to Robin to speak to the obfuscation and platitudes in this surprisingly badly-written speech. But as a former expert on Ghosh’s writing, I want to put on record how disappointed, upset and angry I am with Ghosh’s and Atwood’s decision. I do understand some of their ambivalence about the Divestment, Boycott, Sanctions campaign, but when they criticize an “all or nothing” approach on the prize, it seems to me that a middle ground would be to accept the very large fee and not attend the event, or attend and make a speech critical of Israel’s actions last year in Gaza and beyond. I’ve been thinking for a while about some rather troubling aspects of Ghosh’s writing, not least what now seems like his political quietism on the issue of Israel in In an Antique Land, and below is a short piece I wrote on it last year. Now it seems my instincts were right and he’s more of an apologist than I’d thought.

In this brief commentary, I analyze the significance of Ghosh’s decision not to discuss the modern-day Palestinian-Israeli conflict explicitly in his generically-indeterminate text, In an Antique Land (1992). The Israeli state is never to my knowledge directly referred to in In an Antique Land. The conflict itself is only mentioned in one oblique passage, in which Ghosh compares the partitioning of histories on national lines to the physical division of Palestine (95). In this section of In an Antique Land, not only does Ghosh contest depictions of Judaism and Islam as implacably opposed religions, but he also suggests that religions themselves are not stable, monolithic entities. He suggests in this text that all orthodox religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, have a “hidden and subversive counter-image” (263) of magical or esoteric practices that manifest themselves in remarkably similar ways. In an interview he argues that these mystical sides to the major religions are overlooked by mainstream history:

More than two-thirds of the Geniza consists of magical documents and amulets, and none of that is ever dealt with. I think it’s just regarded as non-Jewish. Similarly, all the Sufi stuff is traced back to a kind of proto-Jewish mysticism. I mean, the very fact of that interchange with Islam is completely disregarded. (Silva and Tickell 175)

In this quotation, Ghosh indicates that both Jewish and Muslim historians seek to erase any suggestions of mysticism from representations of their communal pasts, blaming the other religion for any magical elements.

At the end of In an Antique Land, an incident occurs which reinforces this point that religions are heterogeneous, containing folkloric, mythical and magical “counter-images.” The event also bolsters Ghosh’s claim that Western modes of knowledge cannot easily account for historical periods when cultural exchange and tolerance took precedence over enmity and competition for land and power. This incident occurs when Ghosh goes to see the shrine of Sidi Abu-Hasira, a Muslim saint who is revered in the Egyptian city of Damanhour, but who was born a Jew in the Maghreb, and only went to Egypt and converted to Islam in later life. Ghosh is stopped by the Egyptian police, who cannot understand his interest, as a Hindu, in a Jewish/Muslim religious figure. He thinks of telling the policeman the story of Bomma and Ben Yiju, but realizes that this will sound incredible, as in modern-day Egypt there is so little evidence to support his story of the close relations that had existed between Hindu, Jew, and Muslim in the medieval ocean trading area. Later, Ghosh tries to find out more about Sidi Abu-Hasira by looking in the religion section of several libraries, but draws a blank, just as he had when trying to find out about mirrored riots in Calcutta and Dhaka in The Shadow Lines. It is only when he looks for the saint in the anthropology and folklore sections that he has any success, because according to academic norms, this syncretic saint is “an anomaly within the categories of knowledge” (340) deemed important by the West.

Ghosh compares History’s compartmentalizing tendencies with the partition of India and Pakistan. He describes the academe’s refusal to acknowledge anomalous stories such as that of Sidi Abu-Hasira as “the partitioning of the past.” With this image, Ghosh hints that just as the politicians had drawn their borders between India and Pakistan in 1947, hoping to eradicate the centuries of shared history between Hindus and Muslims, so too imaginary boundaries have been erected to divide histories as well. In characteristic style, Ghosh goes on to argue that his antagonistic encounter with the Egyptian police is due to the fact that he “had been caught straddling a border, unaware that the writing of History had predicated its own self-fulfilment” (340). Ghosh is keen to avoid the kind of writing that merely finds evidence to back up its own assumptions, in the “self-fulfilling” manner he criticizes. In An Antique Land’s multidisciplinary approach to anthropology and history may be read as an attempt to straddle several disciplinary borders in order to challenge the rigid categorization of the Western academy. Given this, it is extraordinary that he fails to extend his discussion of partitions and bloody borderlines to Israel/Palestine, which of course now incorporates the formerly Egyptian territory of the Gaza Strip.

Yet the Palestinian struggle haunts In an Antique Land, because the story of Ben Yiju’s Jewish community working and trading side-by-side with Arabs contrasts so starkly with current realities. I used to think that this elliptical allusion, like many of Ghosh’s others, is more effective than an explicit attempt to tackle the subject. By leaving the reader to make comparisons between Ben Yiju’s tolerant society and today’s post-Nakba world, my argument went, he creates a silence at the heart of his narrative more poignant than any polemic. Equally importantly, this lacuna, in conjunction with occasionally pessimistic overtones in the text’s otherwise upbeat celebration of medieval syncretism, illustrates the argument that flows throughout In an Antique Land that all narratives are partial, they can only tell one story and things inevitably get left out of the frame.

However, more recently, in conjunction with my developing research and political interests in literary representations of Muslims, I have come to wonder whether the omission is part of Ghosh’s strategy to indicate that all narratives are partial, or whether it is part of a wider tendency in postcolonial studies to evade discussion of the conflict in the modern Middle East. Perhaps Palestine/Israel’s uncertain status as a “post-colonial colony” (Massad), formed to house Europe’s persecuted Jewish population at the expense of the indigenous population, obliges its exclusion from postcolonial studies, which is in any case riven with debate about the meaning of that four letter word, “post” (see, for example, McClintock, Dirlik, and Appiah). Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that this crucial geopolitical issue has been shunned by the field. This is evidenced by even a cursory glance at the indexes of the many postcolonial textbooks,[1] pertinently discussed by Graham Huggan in a section on this burgeoning market in The Postcolonial Exotic (228-230). As Derek Gregory provocatively remarks:

One of the ironies of postcolonialism is the way in which many of its practitioners recognize Edward Said’s crucial role in laying the foundation stones for its politico-intellectual project, only to pass over in silence the dispossession of the Palestinian people that animates the spirit of the examination of the sutures between “culture” and “imperialism.” (183)

Apart from Said’s well-known role as an outspoken proponent of the Palestinian cause, the two other members of Postcolonialism’s Holy Trinity, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, have commented only sparingly on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The sole book on this specific issue is a collection edited by Donna Robinson Divine and Philip Carl Salzman, which is pro-Israeli, anti-postcolonialism and counter-Saidean. In contrast, Joseph Massad, now also a Professor at Columbia University, continues but radicalizes Said’s legacy, while Ella Shohat and Amir Mufti are other postcolonial critics to speak out on the Palestinian cause.

Ghosh is thus far from being alone in his decision not to examine the conflict in any detail, but I now want to question his related analysis India’s riotous recent history in isolation. In a paper on The Shadow Lines (Chambers “Riots”), I examined, among other things, Ghosh’s treatment of communalist violence in that novel, concluding that Ghosh’s belief that riots are exceptional to South Asia is problematic. Ghosh reiterates this conviction in In an Antique Land when he again describes childhood memories of Hindu-Muslim conflict:7

The stories of those riots are always the same: tales that grow out of an explosive barrier of symbols ¾ of cities going up in flames because of a cow found dead in a temple or a pig in a mosque; of people killed for wearing a lungi or a dhoti, depending on where they find themselves; of women disembowelled for wearing veils or vermillion, of men dismembered for the state of their foreskins.

But I was never able to explain very much of this to Nabeel or anyone else in Nashawy. The fact was that despite the occasional storms and turbulence their country had seen, despite even the wars that some of them had fought in, theirs was a world that was far gentler, far less violent, very much more humane and innocent than mine.

I could not have expected them to understand an Indian’s terror of symbols. (210)

This somewhat patronizing view of Egyptian “innocence” is belied by the country’s obstreperous postcolonial history. Egypt achieved decolonization relatively early, in 1922, and had a period of defiant pan-Arabism under Nasser in the 1950s, before succumbing to its position as what is now often regarded as a client state of America under the quasi-dictatorship of President Mubarak (Meijer 1-11, McDermott 147). Yet, notwithstanding Ghosh’s unsupported claims that the country was only “occasional[ly] troubled by “storms and turbulence,” it has actually been repeatedly shaken by sectarian and other violence. Apart from bitter conflicts with Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and the 1956 Suez War, which Ghosh barely deems worthy of mention, examples include the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s failed attempt to kill Nasser in 1954 and the subsequent crackdown on the organization; the successful assassination of Sadat by Islamist radicals in 1981 and an ensuing shortlived insurrection in Upper Egypt; and the execution of Sayyid Qutb in 1966, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading activist and intellectual.[2]

Although Ghosh is right to say that Egyptians might be bemused by such specific symbols as vermillion, dead cows, and South Asian clothes, they are no strangers to divisive religious images. There have been numerous well-documented attacks on the churches, property, and individuals of the country’s largest religious minority, the Coptic Christians. In nearby Palestine/Israel, of course, signs such as Stars of David and Palestinian flags have highly-charged resonances, and terrorism, riots, and civil unrest have characterized the state since well before the Nakba.[3] At stake in Ghosh’s definition of his own, and his narrator’s, Indianness, therefore, is a claim to uniqueness which might be challenged by residents of other nations beset by communalist tensions in recent years, such as Bosnia and Israel/Palestine. Why, for instance, does Ghosh argue in The Shadow Lines that religiously-motivated riots “set[…] apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent” (204)? One need only look to Northern Ireland’s incendiary Orange marches to see the myopia of this perspective. Indeed, as Joe Cleary’s pathbreaking study suggests, partition – a subject central to Ghosh’s fictional concerns – is or was a political reality in many regions, including Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Korea, Palestine/Israel, and Germany. In short, the strangeness of Ghosh’s exceptionalist claims about riots and religious symbolism in South Asia both underlines and undermines the broader choice to omit discussion of modern religious violence in the Middle East.

The lacuna may be explained to a degree by contextualizing the year of In an Antique Land’s literary production, 1992, which was a relatively uneventful time during which the PLO was greatly weakened by its recent support for Iraq in the Gulf War, the relatively conciliatory Labour Party formed a government in Israel, and peace talks were leading up to the arguably disastrous Oslo accords.[4] It may also partly be because his interest in the Arab peninsula and the Indian Ocean world encourages him to overlook the landlocked area of Palestine. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in the light of the tumultuous decade and a half that has followed In an Antique Land, with the second Intifada beginning in 2000; the recent rise of Hamas; and attacks on Lebanon (2006) and Gaza in 2008-9, the book seems almost to be espousing quietist politics. I do not mean to criticize a book that I have highlighted elsewhere for its subtlety (Chambers “Cultural Translation” and “Fragments”). However, it does seem strange that Ghosh is so conspicuously silent on this important issue, and in future research I hope to explore the question as to whether this omission is part of his fragmented strategy for history, or stems from postcolonial studies’ reluctance to grapple intellectually with the situation.
[1] Many of the indexes for these primers, readers, and anthologies don’t even feature “Israel” or “Palestine,” as in the cases of Barker, Hulme, and Iversen and Loomba, or only make passing reference to the issue (Childs and Williams, for instance, make some brief but insightful points). Even the recent Routledge Companion to Postcolonial Studies, edited by John McLeod in 2007, includes chapters on the post/colonial experiences of various parts of Africa, Asia, and the so-called New and Old Worlds, but has no separate section on the Middle East. The honourable exception to this worrying trend is Afzal-Khan and Seshadri-Crooks’ The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, which provides several essays on postcolonialism’s limited response to Zionism and multiple dispossessions in the region.

[2] For more on this controversial figure, see Judy’s appropriately contentious article.

[3] For a personal account of intra-Palestinian violence, and of Jewish terrorist activity by such groups as the Irgun and Stern groups in 1930s and 40s Palestine, see Karmi 9-12; 58-72.

[4] For discussion of Oslo and related issues, see Said (Oslo) and Soueif.

I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living Zero Waste, and reversing the effects of climate change.

Posted in Cultural Boycott
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