In March 2008, author Amitav Ghosh spoke at the Arab Writers’ League Conference in Cairo. The essay Confessions of a Xenophile is adapted from that address. Voila, some of my favourite bits from the essay:
“It is now over 28 years since I first landed in Cairo, on April 19, 1980: I was then 24 years old, and I had come to explore what was to me a new but not entirely uknown world. The immediate pretext of my journey was research: a short while before I had won a scholarship that took me from Delhi University to Oxford, to study social anthropology. My dream was of writing fiction, but like many an aspiring novelist I felt I lacked the necessary richness of experience. The writers I admired – V.S. Naipaul, James Baldwin and others – had gone out into the world and watched it go by: I wanted no less for myself. The scholarship was a godsend because it allowed me to choose where I wanted to go and in my case it was Egypt. Through the good offices of Dr. Aly Issa, an eminent anthropologist from Alexandria, I was soon installed in a small village in the Governorate of Beheira, near the town of Damanhour: in my book In An Antique Land I gave this village the name Lataifa.
“Lataifa and I were undeniably a shock to each other. There was the question of language to begin with: I spoke very little Arabic, and what I knew was of a laboriously classical variety. Thus even simple operations, such as asking for water, could cause great outbursts of laughter. In the process, however, my hosts and I discovered one medium of communication where we were on equal terms: this was the language of aflaam al-Hindeyya – that is to say, Hindi film songs. When all other efforts at communcation broke down, we would burst into song – this was no small accomplishment on my part as I am a terrible singer.
“The Hindi films that were best known in Lataifa were of the ’50s vintage – films that featured such stars as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Padmini, Manoj Kumar and Babita. … Everyone in the village had a few favourite scenes and I would often be asked detailed questions about these episodes. This was a great trial to me, as I was by no means an expert on the films of the ’50s. Often children would be called out to perform, which they would do with the greatest gusto. There were even minor specialisations, some boys being regarded as particularly good performers of Raj Kapoor numbers, while others were experts in reciting dialogues and soliloquies. The performers were almost always boys as I remember, and it was quite a sight to se young jallabeyya-clad felladeen attempting to imitate the dance numbers of scantily-dressed actresses like Helen. Even more astonishing were the recitations, for it would happen sometimes that children would recite large chunks of Hindi dialogue without knowing a word of the language.
“I must admit that until I went to live in Lataifa I had no idea that cows played such an important part in Indian films: from the recurrence of this animal in everyday conversation, one might well have imagined that Bollywood is a veterinary enterprise, and that cows, rather than Raj Kapoor and his ilk were the true stars of the film.
“The other principal association that rural Egypt had with India was the matter of water-pumps, which were of course very important in rural communities. In those days Egypt imported so many water pumps from India that in some areas these machines were known as makana Hindi – or simply as Kirloskar, from the name of a major pump-manufacturing company. … Long before the machine made its entry into the village, a posse of children would be sent to summon me: as an Indian I was expected to be an expert on these machines, and the proud new owners would wait anxiously for me to pronounce on the virtues and failings of their new acquisition.
“Now it so happens that I am one of those people who is hard put to tell a spanner from a hammer or a sprocket from a gasket. At first I protested vigorously, disclaiming all knowledge of machinery. But here again no one believed me; they thought I was witholding vital information or playing some kind of deep and devious game. … in order to set everyone’s fears at rest, I became, willy-nilly an oracle of water pumps.
“In a way, my presence in that village could be attributed to the same historical circumstances that introduced Indian pumps and Indian films to rural Egypt. Broadly speaking, those circumstances could be described as the spirit of decolonisation that held sway over much of the world in the decades after the Second World War; this was the political ethos that could ints institutional representation in the Non-Aligned Movement. We are at a very different moment in history now, when the words Non-Aligned seem somehow empty and discredited…. Yet it is also worth remembering that the Non-Aligned Movement was much broader, wider and more powerful… in the field of culture, it represented an attempt to restore and recommence the exchanges and conversations that had been interrupted by the long centuries of European imperial dominance. … Those of us who grew up in that period will recall how powerfully we were animated by an emotion that is rarely named: this is xenophilia, the love of the other, the affinity for strangers…. People of my generation will recall the pride we once took in the trans-national friendships of such figures as Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Chou En Lai and others. Nor were friendships of this kind anything new. …. It was no accident that capitals like New Delhi, Abuja and Tunis have many roads that are named after leaders from other continents. Sometimes these names are unpronounceable to local tongues and then they cause annoyance or laughter, and invite dismissal as empty gestures. But the fact that such gestures are not wthout value becomes apparent when we reflect that we would search in vain for roads that are named in this fashion in such supposedly global cities as London, New York and Berlin. These gestures, in other words, may be imbued with both pomposity and pathos, but they are not empty: they represent a yearning to reclaim an interrupted cosmopolitanism.
“One of the outcomes of the horrifying attacks of 9/11 was that it led to an extraordinary rehabilitation of imperialism, not merely as a political and military force, but also as an ideology – one that has led to the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq.
“Empires are not the sole threat to the continuation of our conversations: over the past 15 years, in many parts of Asia and Africa, we have seen a dramatic rise inviolent and destructive kinds of fundamentalism, some religious and some linguistic. These movements are profoundly hostile to any notion of dialogue between cultures, faiths and civilisations. They are movements of intolerance and bigotry and they mirror the ideology of imperialism in that they seek to remake the world – or at least their corners of it – in their own images. … If these fundamentalists – no matter of what stripe – are allowed to have their way, it is not merely conversation that will cease; art itself will no longer be tolerated.”