Archive for April, 2013

My review of John Updike’s ‘Terrorist: A Novel’

April 29, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This review was published in the The Washington Post on June 4, 2006]


John Updike: Terrorist: A Novel

Alfred A. Knopf, June 2006, 310 pp., $25.00.


John Updike’s new novel is set in a New Jersey mill town that has fallen on hard times. Once home to energetic white immigrants from Eastern Europe, this city, New Prospect, has decayed to the point where “those who occupy the inner city now are brown, by and large, in its many shades.”

Brown-ness and its discontents are central to the novel and Updike is acutely aware of the many tints and gradations of this colour. The novel’s principal character, the nineteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Malloy, is from the lighter end of the spectrum being the product of a short-lived union between a red-haired Irish-American, Beth, and an Egyptian exchange student whose ‘ancestors had been baked since the time of Pharaohs in the hot muddy fields of the overflowing Nile.’ Although Ahmad’s colour is darker than ‘the freckled, blotchy pink of his red-haired mother’, it is paler than his father’s, whose skin is described as being ‘perfectly matte, like a cloth that’s been dipped, olive-beige with a pinch of soot or tar in it’. Ahmad is, in fact, ‘dun, a low-lustre shade lighter than beige’. It would seem that the lack of a lustrous complexion has played no small part in giving Ahmad a sense of miscegenation, putting him at odds with the world around him: he is embarrassed by the mismatch of his dun skin with his mother’s freckled pinkness, which ‘seems unnaturally white, like a leper’s.’

Ahmad’s own preference is for ‘darker skins, cocoa and caramel and chocolate…’ – and these tastes are well served by his inner-city high school which is, as a confluence of muddy hues, the match of any tropical delta. At school Ahmad’s gaze is drawn most often to one particular redoubt of brown-ness – Joryleen, an African-American with a ‘smooth brown body, darker than caramel but paler than chocolate’. Although his interest is amply reciprocated, Ahmad gives Joryleen no encouragement, having been warned by his mentor in Islam that ‘women are animals easily led’. Besides, Joryleen already has a boyfriend, Tylenol, who is not just of a very precise shade of brown – ‘the color of walnut furniture-stain while it’s still sitting up wet on the wood’ – but is also a football player and a gymnast. Tylenol is contemptuous of Ahmad: “Black Muslims I don’t diss, but you not black, you not anything.”

Actually, since the age of eleven, Ahmad has been a regular at the local mosque. Having abandoned the family when Ahmad was a baby, his father has played no part in this choice. A free-thinking Bohemian and amateur artist, his mother has let her son choose his own path and it has led him into the hands of the mosque’s Imam, one Shaikh Rashid, who is descended from ‘generations of heavily swathed Yemeni warriors’. The heavy swathing has spared the Shaikh’s ancestors a baking of the kind that fell to the lot of Ahmad’s forefathers, in Egypt: his complexion is ‘waxy white’. This hue may also account for the cadences of Rashid’s English, which are curiously like those of the predatory Cambridge Arabists of another era. Vaguely effeminate in appearance, he tells Ahmad that he is a ‘beautiful tutee’ and frequently coos the words ‘dear boy’.

Ahmad’s speech has a different but equally curious timbre. Although he is a native-born American and has never left the United States, he speaks as if he had learnt English at a madrasa run by the Taliban: “I of course do not hate all Americans,” he says. “But the American way is the way of infidels. It is headed for a terrible doom.” The accent may explain why Ahmad has no friends, despite being bright, polite and quite good looking in his ‘flawless’ dun pelt. His isolation, in any event, is complete, and it is the source of both his religious and his suicidal impulses: when he thinks of Allah, ‘alone in all the starry space’ he burns with ‘this yearning to join God, to alleviate his loneliness.’ His naïve but deeply-felt religiosity makes him an easy tool for the cynical Shaikh Rashid, who steers him in the direction of a terrorist cell that is plotting to blow up the Holland Tunnel. It falls to a teacher at Central High, Jack Levy, a non-observant Jew, to make a last-minute attempt to pull Ahmad back from the edge.


Updike once wrote: “in the strange egalitarian world of the Novel a man must earn our interest by virtue of his … authentic sentiments.’ [1]

Authenticity is, to my mind, a tall order for any novelist – mere plausibility would be enough. But there is nothing plausible about the characters of this book: only two of them are half-way believable, and they are Jack Levy and Ahmad’s Irish-American mother. It is no accident perhaps that neither of them is brown.

Updike has clearly been at some pains to familiarize himself with Islam: not only has he read the Qur’an carefully, he has also delved into Orientalist scholarship on the subject. The novel features many quotations from the Qur’an, in Arabic, with all the scholarly paraphernalia of diacritical marks etc.. Yet the end result is that Updike is unable to cut his brown characters loose from texts, scriptures and ideologies. As for his belief that elaborate descriptions of skin colour are a form of insight, it is not wholly without merit for it does ar least serve to occasionally enliven the prose.

The flow of The Terrorist is constantly punctuated with riffs and diatribes on the state of contemporary America, national security, foreign policy, popular culture, technology and so on. Shaikh Rashid, Ahmad, and even the Secretary of Homeland Security are given their say. Yet, their harangues are always delivered in a slightly satirical key, as if none of it really mattered. When the terrorists’ arguments are answered at all, it is usually in a register of sardonic and grudging nationalism, by conjuring images of a past and future America: no one takes the trouble to defend secular forms of justice or government as an aspect of the modern world’s shared heritage. More puzzling still, no one makes any claims on behalf of that secular realm of expression that permits the practice of such arts as fiction itself. With innumerable lives at stake, when Jack Levy finds himself faced with the task of giving Ahmad a reason to live and let live, he says: “Hey, come on, we’re all Americans here. That’s the idea, didn’t they tell you that at Central High? Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans; there are even Arab-Americans”’. Not a word about humanity, family, friendship, sport, poetry, love, laughter: it is as if a belief in American multiculturalism is the only good reason a human being could have for staying alive. Why indeed do the billions of non-Americans who walk this earth refrain from blowing themselves up? I suspect that Updike really cannot see that they have any good reason not to.


Amitav Ghosh



[1] In a essay entitled ‘The Future of the Novel’, Picked-Up Pieces, Knopf, 1975, p. 19.

A Reader’s Circle in Venice

April 26, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)




I first visited Venice in the summer of 1981 (when I should have been working on my thesis).







One day I got lost in the city’s winding lanes and stumbed upon a ‘festa’ – in this instance it was an open-air party, in a quarter that was not much frequented by tourists. An accordion was playing and many couples, young and old, were dancing in the bright sunlight. On one side, chess games were under way, on tables that had been set up along a canal. There was food too, and wine, and passers-by was invited to join in.

It was a wonderful event, welcoming and joyful, and I was astonished when I learnt that it had been organized by L’Unità, the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party. It was impossible to think of such an event being hosted by Gonoshokti, the organ of the CPM, which was then ruling my home state of West Bengal.

That festa is still one of my most vivid memories of Venice. I was reminded of it last week when I went to visit a group of Venetian readers who have been reading In An Antique Land (I included some of their responses to the book in my post of April 9).



The group is called Circolo ARCI Franca Trentin Baratto: it takes its name from Franca Trentin Baratto a political activist who was a partisan during the Second World War. Later she taught French at a university in Venice. The reading circle is a part of a wider body called ARCI (pronounced ‘archie’) which is descended from the SOCIETÀ OPERAIE DI MUTUO SOCCORSO (Working Class Societies of Mutual Help) founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.






My Italian translator, Anna Nadotti explains that ‘Mutuality, justice, freedom were their main issues.  And from the beginning education campaigns were one of their main activities – they especially promoted literacy for the working class, male and women. In the early 1900s,  CIRCOLI  and  CASE DEL POPOLO (former SOCIETA’ OPERAIE) were places where to meet, discuss, learn writing and reading, organize antiwar battles, and later support to soldiers and their families.Politically they espoused a mix of Mazzini’s ideals, of anarchism and socialism. Fascism accused them of subversiveness and outlawed them. Never mind if the members had bought or built such places,  “liretta su liretta” as they used to say, meaning that they had saved money (lira) to have their own ‘circle’ and ‘house’.  Only after the war could they function freely, and in 1956 they were united in the ARCI ( ASSOCIAZIONE RICREATIVA CULTURALE ITALIANA ). Democracy and antifascism, antiracism and sustainable development being their banners. Culture, sport, music, theatre their  activities, but also part of the movement, from ’68 to Seattle and Genova. They are active in the slowfood movement and in bio-agriculture.’



DSC02855The group meets in a room that was given to them by one of their founder-members, Anita Mezzalira.  I was taken there by an old friend, Marina Scalori, who is a teacher, trade union activist and an enthusiastic reader.










Slivia Marri introduced me and served as the translator for the event.





Later she sent me this copy of her introduction.

Dear Amitav,

we are greatly honoured and deeply touched by your visit.

You collect stories and drive them through time and space until they become part of our story.

Thanks to you we have strengthened our feeling that it’s necessary to defend the human factor at any cost. The rest, as a famous rabbi said about the essence of Thora, is but a commentary.

Here, too, we collect and tell stories, real-life stories, sometimes passionate, sometimes dramatic, anyway stories which are our common chant. Sometimes they are close and contemporary, sometimes we must preserve them from being forgotten, sometimes they belong to us or sometimes we try to make them ours even if they come from afar.

Anita Mezzalira (a trade unionist who lived in the first half of the XX century) and Franca Trentin (a partisan, a teacher, a committed woman who lived in the second half of the XX century) lived and worked here in Venice. Their stories were and are part of the lives of a lot of people who tried and still try to achieve dignity, rights and democracy.

We do our best to follow their example, their love for people, their strong belief in everybody’s right to have a decent and just life.




Your visit touches us because it makes us feel that culture doesn’t belong to academic institutions only, far from common people, but it can reach the elderly who gather in this room to play cards, or the people who live in this lively neighbourhood. You make us feel important as you did with Bomma and maybe we’ll be able to prevent Nabeel from being devoured by the chaos of our world.

Thank you again and, if you accept it, we would like to appoint you member of the Circolo Arci Franca Trentin.   




I was then admitted as a member of the Circle, as proof of which I was issued this card!













It was a lovely event, in a hall that was hung with pictures of left icons




– including a rather unusual picture of Che Guevara (on the left).

[I was to discover later that Il Gazzetino di Venezia had photographed me taking this picture.]








I was delighted to meet Anita Baseggio, who is 93 years old and an avid reader.




Her husband was a famous actor, Cesco Bassegio.











The members had brought  food,















including this wonderful tiramisù.
















People often talk of all the crises and catastrophes that beset Italy today. Groups like this readers’ circle  serve to remind one of the reasons why, despite all its problems, Italy is so consistently and surprisingly resilient – and has been so for thousands of years!





Thanks to everyone who signed Igiaba Scego’s petition!

April 25, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



In my post of April 15 I wrote about the Italian-Somali writer Igiaba Scego:




‘Like many in Italy Igiaba is deeply concerned about recent attempts to rehabilitate Fascism in public memory.’







I also posted the text of Igiaba’s recent petition to the President of the Lazio region, protesting against the building of monument to Rodolfo Graziani, a Facist general responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia and Somalia. The post included a link to a page where the petition could be signed and I believe many readers responded.

Yesterday  I received this joyful message from Igiaba saying that the President of the Lazio region, Nicola Zingaretti, had announced that funding for the monument would be withdrawn.


The Lazio government and the president of our region remove all allusions to Graziani (the butcher of fezzan), both direct and indirect, from the memorial.

We’ve won the first fight. I’m so happy!!!

I want to say thank you again. Your post help our struggle.

We’ve Won this Round, but the Fight Is Not Over!

I Hope in the future to do something more. For examples in schools. Because Italy need memory.


Here is a link to an interview where Igiaba discusses the issue and the outcome.

Another correspondent, Ilaria Rigoli, has sent a link to the updated page at, with the following translation of the text:

Nicola Zingaretti (president of the region Lazio) says no to a monument to commemorate a war criminal and colonialist murderer

Igiaba Sciego’s campaign on to ask Nicola Zingaretti to remove the commemorative monument to Rodolfo Graziani, a fascist commander who has been included in the UN’s list of war criminals has been successful: just a few days after the petition was launched and with 13.000 supporters, today Zingaretti has announced his stop to the monument.

Here are Igiaba’s words to the supporters:
In such a difficult moment in the history of our Republic you have sent, with your support and belief, an important message to our country. All together we have avoided our beautiful Italy to become the world’s joke.
I (as you, after all) was deeply unset for that monument to a fascist commander. I coudn’t bear such an insult to my region, my country, and to the republican constitution. From the beginning of this obscenity I was feeling bad and trying in evey way to do something in order to remove or change the destination of the monument. Then, one day I launched this petition on and in a few days the fight of a little group has become the fight of a whole country.
Now my hope is that this victory will be able to start something good and positive in our country. 


Ilaria adds:

Amitav: I also want to thank you for this; I didn’t know anything about Igiaba’s petition until I read about it on your blog. I advertised your post to my network of friends, and I know many of them have signed because of it. Thank you so, so much.


It’s nice to know that my post led many people to the petition. I’d like to extend my personal thanks to all who signed it!



Evocations of connected histories – Kerala, Venice & Guangdong

April 23, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


Sometimes we stumble upon objects and practices that are separated by immense distances and yet seem to bear a resemblance to each other.


For example, in August 2001, I was at this



boat race in Kerala.








It was the annual




Nehru Trophy Vallamkali, held near Allapuzha (Alleppey).








Many different kinds of boats contest the races, but the best known among them is probably the ‘Snake Boat’ (Chundan Vallam).












I was told that the teams are recruited from villages, communities and clubs, and that the passions that are invested in the races are expressive of many kinds of rivalry.







A few weeks later the same year





I watched








this boat race





in Venice, Italy.









It was the annual Regata Storica which is timed to coincide with the Venice film festival (I happened to be on the jury that year).





There are races for many different categories of boats.









One of the most popular events is a race between gondolas.














The population of the entire Commune of Venice, which is a network of many islands and territories, consists of less than three hundred thousand  people – a tiny figure by contemporary standards. Yet the Commune is home to many communities with intense local loyalties – several of them have even preserved their own distinctive dialects.




In the past the rivalries between parishes and islands were so fierce that men would fight battles on bridges, either with their fists or with sticks that were known as Canne d’India.









There is even a bridge called the Ponte dei Pugni (‘Bridge of Fists).



Joseph heintz il giovane, competizione al ponte dei pugni, venezia, 1673. Wikimedia Commons












The boat races were yet another venue for the expression of these rivalries.






Some years ago, while traveling in Hong Kong and Guangdong,



Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons



I heard about the ‘Dragon Boat’ races that are held throughout the region at the time of the Duanwu festival (which is usually in June).







Here too the teams are fielded by villages and communities, and the races are contested with great passion.






No doubt the resemblances between these races, and the vessels that contest them, are purely coincidental. Yet, I find it interesting that these areas have long histories of connection. Kerala’s connections with China are commemorated in both words and objects. One authoritative Malayalam dictionary[1] has three pages of words that are prefixed with cina and cini .




The entries number in dozens and include words for many kinds of plants, textiles, food items, flowers, spices, instruments, such as the telescope (Cina-k-kulal) and of course the famous fish nets of Cochin (cina-vala).





In Cochin harbour I’ve seen many boats that have reminded me of the Dragon Boats of China and the gondolas of Venice.






As for Venice, it was the birthplace and home of Marco Polo, perhaps the most famous traveler ever to visit China. To this day many objects from Guangdong are on display in the city’s palaces and homes.





For example this fine pair of










‘Nodding Head’ dolls




which were among the most popular souvenirs produced for foreign visitors in 18th and 19th century Guangzhou.










Of course, all of this could have come about even in the absence of  ‘connected histories’ §. It is increasingly clear that people and places have communicated with each other in many different ways, not all of which involved direct contact.

Even bacteria ‘have elaborate chemical signaling systems that enable them to communicate within and between species.’  And bacteria, after all, are our ancestors.


[1] A Comprehensive Malayalam-Malayalam-English Dictionary on Historical and Philological Principles, ed. B.C.Balakrishnan, Univ of Kerala, Trivandrum, 1985. Vol V, pp: 462-468

§ This phrase refers to Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s brilliant book Explorations in Connected History


A Hazara Writer from Mazar-e-Sharif

April 18, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



A little more than a year ago



DSC03324 (640x480)


I was writing blog posts from Kabul.










One of the most moving experiences of my stay there was when



DSC03089 (480x640)

I visited the Kabul Public Library, which has somehow managed to keep going, despite many adversities.











I was reminded of that visit last week when I went to listen to




Mohammad Hossein Mohammadi, a Hazara Afghan writer. He told the audience that war is not all there is to Afghanistan: despite the many years of conflict there is still such a thing as everyday life – and this is indeed the principal subject of his work.











Mohammad Mohammadi was born in 1975 in Mazar-e-Sharif but he was mainly educated in Iran where his family moved when he was eleven. As a student he went to Balkh, in Afghanistan, to study medicine, but had to return to Iran when the Taliban took power. After the fall of the Taliban he returned again to Afghanistan. He now lives in Kabul where he has founded a publishing house that promotes the work of young writers.




Mohammad strives particularly to write about the everyday world of women in Afghanistan, an endeavour that presents many challenges. Language is not the least of these challenges since Afghan women use a distinctive register of their own. To put some of their words into print, Mohammad explained, can lead to trouble with the censors.










‘In my writing’ said Mohammad, ‘I like the idea of making the reader participate in a continuous process of recreating, with words serving to excite fantasies… I hope my father won’t read my writing. He is a very religious person and he would find it hard to understand my themes.’

Unfortunately only one of Mohammad’s stories has been translated into English. It is called Dasht-e-Leili  and it can be read here.

The story’s opening reminded me of Ghassan Kanafani’s unforgettable Rijjaal fi’ ash-Shams  (‘Men in the Sun’) but it veered quickly in a different direction. It’s a powerful, vividly tactile piece of writing and it made me eager to read more of Mohammad’s work: I hope there will soon be more translations.

Dasht-e-Leili  was translated by Anders Widmark, who is also the author of this excellent essay: ‘The View From Within: An Introduction to New Afghan Literature.’

Widmark writes: ‘What … can be said to epitomize Afghan literature of today, is its high degree of responsiveness and immediacy—in many other literatures a national trauma often demands some sort of “incubation period” before the topic can be processed; in Afghanistan, traumas are attacked by the pen simultaneously as they occur… The immediacy and responsiveness I mention is clearly reflected in both Zalmay Babakohi’s poetic short story “The Idol’s Dust” and in the very physical “Dasht-e Laili” by Mohammad Hossein Mohammadi. Here, two national traumas are dealt with: the Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001, and the Dasht-e Laili Massacre in December later the same year.’



A Somali-Italian Writer’s Campaign Against a Fascist Monument

April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


Igiaba Scego’s story Salsiccia (‘Sausage’) won Italy’s Eks&Tra prize in 2003 and her novel La mia casa è dove sono (‘My home is where I am’) won the prestigious Mondello prize in 2011.







Igiaba’s novel La nomade che amava Hitchcock (‘The Nomad who Loved Hitchcock’) was published in 2003 – sadly none of her novels have been translated into English, even though there is already a dissertation in English on her work.












Igiaba is a graduate of the University of Rome, La Sapienza, and is currently working on a doctorate in education. She describes herself as ‘Somali by origin; Italian by vocation’.




This is a picture of Igiaba with Gabriella Kuruvilla, author of the novel Milano, fin qui tutto bene (‘Milan, So Far So Good’). Gabriella’s father is from Kerala and her mother is Italian. She grew up in Italy and is a journalist by profession. Unfortunately her book has not been translated either – I am sure it would find many readers in India, in Malayalam as well as English.






Like many in Italy Igiaba is deeply concerned about recent attempts to rehabilitate Fascism in public memory. This is how James Walston, a professor in the American University in Rome describes the current situation, in a recent article:

Like the odour of a stale changing room, the smell of fascism keeps on reappearing… Last week, a Rome high school teacher admonished a Jewish student telling her “in Auschwitz, you’d have been more diligent” when the girl left class because she was feeling sick. When the class accused the teacher of being racist, she made things worse, “I’m not racist – I just meant a place that was well-organised”… eh? To make matters even worse, the headmistress said “the teacher didn’t mean what she said and… she didn’t want to offend anyone and so she wasn’t reprimanded.

On Thursday, the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno organised a demonstration in front of the Coliseum in favour of the Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen. For a start, he ignored an order from the Superintendent of Fine Arts not to put up a stand (authoritarian if not fascist) and then, alongside the San Marco Brigade pennant (the marines) and the city flag was a banner of the Decima MAS, the brutal special forces which worked alongside the SS in Mussolini’s puppet republic between 1943 and and 1945 murdering partisans and civilians.


Recently the mayor of a village called Affile, near Rome, which is known, as this New York Times article puts it  ‘for its fresh air, olive oil and wine — and its residual appreciation of Benito Mussolini‘  unveiled a memorial to Rodolfo Graziani, one of Mussolini’s generals, who was responsible for ‘killing hundreds of thousands of people — sometimes with chemical weapons — and wiping out entire communities, especially in Eritrea.’

There were many protests, including this demonstration by the Ethiopian community in Washington D.C.. There was even a demonstration in Affile, which is heartening.

Igiaba was moved to write this petition to the President of the region of Lazio:




Dear President Nicola Zingaretti,

My name is Igiaba Scego, I am a writer, born in Italy, daughter of Somali people.

I am one of the so-called “second generation”. A woman who proudly feel herself both Somali, Italian, Roman.




I am writing to you because on the 11th of August 2012, in Affile, a small town in the province of Rome, it was inaugurated a monument in honour of the fascist Rodolfo Graziani. The monument was built with a loan of 130 thousand euro from the Lazio region, a fund originally intended to finance the Radimonte park.

Rodolfo Graziani, as you know, was one of the most ferocious commander that fascism has ever had. He was found guilty of war crimes in Cyrenaica and Ethiopia; the massacre of deacons in Debra Libanos and the use of prohibited gas during the colonial war of ’36 are just two of those massacres that can be mentioned.

After the end of World War II, the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, firmly asked for Rodolfo Graziani to be included in the list of war criminals. The Commission of the United Nations War Crimes placed him at the first place in that list.

The monument to Rodolfo Graziani is therefore a tragic paradox, a stain on our democracy, an insult to our constitution born from the struggle against fascism.

In the recent days, the neoparlamentari Kyenge, Ghizzoni and Beni filed an interpellation to address this problem to the Government.

I am somehow trying to be with them, by asking to you, Mr President Zingaretti, a real commitment against this monument of shame. I am not only asking for words but for a real commitment (demolition and / or conversion of the monument) that can let the sun of democracy to shine again in Italy, approaching  the 68th anniversary of the April 25.

My grandfather had to translate Graziani’s crimes, he was a colonial victim, and had to translate the horror, against his will. Today in 2013, his niece, has another destiny. For me and for all I am asking to you a serious commitment on this crucial issue of democracy.


The petition can be signed here.


Venice – Crossroad of Books & Words

April 9, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)


This month I am participating in an event called Incroci di Civiltà in Venice, along with many other writers including Adonis, Bi Feiyu, Stephen Greenblatt, Gabriella Kuruvilla, Edmund de Waal, Yasemin Amdereli, Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding.



Pia Masiero (picture courtesy Shaul Bassi)



Pia Masiero is the Director of the event, which is supported by Venice’s Università Ca’Foscari.










Shaul Bassi, who is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Comparative Cultures in the Università Ca’Foscari, is on the committee that runs Incroci di Civiltà. This is how he describes the event: Incroci di Civiltà is a literary festival promoted by the City of Venice and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice since 2008. Like crossing, the Italian word incrocio means simultaneously intersection, crossroads and crossbreeding. Venice has been for centuries a city where different civilizations come into contact and a place where people and cultures transform each other, offering a model of cosmopolitan coexistence. This event is the felicitous intersection between a university where over forty languages are taught, and a municipality committed the highest international standards in culture and hospitality. Filling a gap left in a city where all the major arts had an internationally renowned event except literature, Incroci has proven itself as a place for the study and comparison of different languages and cultures, attracting over 100 writers from all continents so far.



My event, which is scheduled for April 13, will be an on-stage interview with Anna Nadotti, who has been my Italian translator for twenty-five years.



This is a picture of Anna Nadotti (right) with her friend Marina Forti, who has covered the Indian subcontinent for decades as a journalist. Marina’s  book Il cuore di tenebra dell’India: inferno sotto il miracolo (India’s Heart of Darkness: the Inferno behind the Miracle) has just been published in Italy. I am told that it is about mining in central and eastern India, and the economic, political and ecological problems that have resulted from it. I hope it will soon be translated and published in India.






Recently Anna received a letter from a readers’ group in Venice called Circolo ARCI Franca Trentin Baratto. The members of the group are all women and for the last few weeks they have been ‘traveling between Egypt and India’ by reading Lo schiavo del manoscritto (In an Antique Land). They read 50 pages each week and hold weekly meetings  to discuss the  issues in the book.

Marina Scalori, a member of the group, sent Anna a beautiful photograph of (I think) Solomon Schecter working on the Geniza archive; and this note, which Anna was kind enough to translate for me.

«Lo schiavo del manoscritto is a rich and gripping travel» we read on The Times. But our first thought, beginning our trip, was, What an impressive amount of notes! What kind of book is it? An anthropological essay or a novel? The notes seemed at the beginning an  insourmountable problem. What were we supposed to do? reading note after note according to the indications in the pages? reading them all at the end of each chapter? Not reading them…?

But almost immediately it was the accuracy of the notes themselves that gave us the certitude of the soundness of the sources of Ghosh’s book. A look is enough to realize they provide details and descriptions indispensable for our trip.

See n.8 of the Prologue: we learned merchants exchanged any kind of informations and were the explorers of the world. An explanation as a brush stroke giving us a precious insight on Abrahan Ben Yiju, who lived in Mangalore around 1150 (half XIIth century).

See n.10 of the chapter Lataifa: brick and straw as a deep link between human beings, everywhere in the world – ancient Egypt or Latin America – houses and villages and towns were built with adobe, from the arabic al-tub. In the old times and still today. Adobe as a link of many stories, small and great, private and collective stories.

It’s behind adobe walls that we find the Geniza of Cairo synagogue, where 1000 years old documents were kept, as it was forbidden to destroy even a small fragment of paper where God’s name was written. Thanks to that forbiddance the writer could find and investigate, and we can read Ben Yiju’s and his slave’s story.



Just fragments, a window on everyday life. «Due vasi di zucchero, un vaso di mandorle e due di uvetta, in tutto cinque vasi» or when the misadventures of an old iron pan are narrated. Then our slave appears, to receive «moltissimi ringraziamenti». Just a thank and a name, but from an age where only artists and men of power seemed to have a right to existence, a right to find a place in history. The slave wasn’t parte of such a company, «nel suo caso fu un puro accidente se si sono conservate le tracce appena distinguibili che lascia la gente comune. E’ un vero miracolo che ci sia rimasto qualcosa di lui».

So we go on reading with great pleasure, taken by the narration rhythm, where words really are «musica di fondo»: «Partii dal Cairo in una giornata gelida, dal cielo intessuto di nubi pendevano veli sottili di pioggia».

Then hints to crucial events, when in the XIXth the Cairo Geniza with its heritage of stories, «fili intrecciati lungo i bordi di un gigantesco arazzo», was pillaged and scattered in private and public collections. It was a removing, a clearing away of the multeplicity of history. Something that was going to be repeated.

And simultaneously we are in Lataifa and Nashawy, two Egyptian villages, early 1980s. Fellaheen’s daily life, and we readers as witnesses of the very beginning of vicissitudes bound to become a burden for the present days, for us all.

Here we are, readers/travellers indulging in the pure pleasure of narration. Next meeting, we’ll try to discover the deep ties between past and present, and to go on in the unveiling of our slave and Ben Yiju.


The Italian title of In An Antique LandLo schiavo del manoscritto  (literally ‘The Slave of the Manuscript‘) – has a special resonance in Venice, for this city has played an important part in the etymological history of the word ‘slave’ (schiavo in Italian; esclave in French). All these words derive from the Latin Sclavus, the original meaning of which is ‘Slav’ as in ‘the Slavic peoples’. The derivation of the word is thought to date back to the reign of Otto the Great (912-973 C.E.), the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, during whose reign great numbers of Slavs were taken captive.

The Venetian Empire played an important part in the circulation of slaves in the Middle Ages. Its fleets transported thousands of Slavic captives from the ports of the Black Sea to Venice. From there they were sent on, not just to Europe, but also to Africa and the Middle East.

This history is commemorated in the name of one of the most celebrated landmarks in Venice, the Riva degli Schiavoni (‘Quay of the Slavs/Slaves’) – depicted here in a famous painting by Canaletto:






And in this photograph taken a couple of days ago.






In Memory of Ayaz Quadir

April 2, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (19)


In 2008, while traveling in Bangladesh, I was invited to go on a boat-trip in the Sundarbans. Amongst the group on the boat was a boy by the name of Ayaz Quadir, who seemed not much older than own teenage son (this was deceptive, for he was actually 22).

In the course of the trip I had several long talks with Ayaz and he struck me as an exceptionally gifted and thoughtful young man. Mostly we talked about music, which was his great passion.


He told me that his parents had left Bangladesh a long time ago and that he had mainly grown up in the United States with his mother (his father was in Europe). He played the piano, he said, and wanted to be a professional jazz musician.






Somehow, in the middle of the Sundarbans, Ayaz contrived to make me a CD of a musician he particularly admired, Brad Mehldau. At the end of the trip we exchanged emails, and after I had listened to the CD I wrote to Ayaz to thank him for it. I never heard back, but I added the CD to one of my playlists. Since then iTunes has occasionally served to remind me of Ayaz by choosing to play Brad Mehldau, and I’ve sometimes wondered what became of him.

I have never met Ayaz’s parents and nor had I corresponded with them until I received this letter, sent through my website.


March 11, 2013

Dear Mr. Ghosh,

I have been wanting to write you for sometime now. You may remember meeting my son, Ayaz Quadir, during a trip to the Sundarbans in 2008. He was very excited to have met you and spoke to me about it many times. Ayaz succumbed to his addiction to heroin August 8, 2009. He was 23 years old. This has been a difficult journey for us; first coming to terms with his addiction, trying to do what we possibly could to help him. Then  ultimately, a day out of rehab he was gone……

I believe he is at peace now.

Hope to hear from you.

Samina Reese


I was so shocked that I could not respond immediately. Five days letter, in an extraordinary instance of synchronicity,[i]  came another letter:


March 16

Dear Mr.Ghosh,

I just finished reading your marvelous The Hungry Tide and it reminded me of my son’s recounting of his meeting you when you were taking a trip to the Sunderbans (in Bangladesh) in the spring of 2008, if I am not mistaken.

A few months later he was visiting me in France and spoke of this extraordinary person (he wasn’t acquainted with your writings yet) he had met on the boat trip to the Sundarbans. A few months later in August 2008, Ayaz died… I don’t know if you can recall Ayaz, a shy but intense human being, who had focussed his passion on music and was studying the piano at McGill University, Montreal… He spoke very fondly of the man he had met, not the writer I know.

Ayaz’s aunt, my sister, Razia Quadir, has made a documentary on the Sundarbans a decade and a half ago, which I wanted to send it to you after reading your book. Just a thought or perhaps a sentiment connected to Ayaz… but should you find it interesting I would be happy to send it to you….

Warm Regards,



A couple of days later I wrote similar letters to both Samina and Riaz:

I remember Ayaz very well – he made a great impression on me because he seemed to be such a sensitive, deep-thinking boy. He gave me a CD of Brad Mehldau which is still on my playlist. I remember that I wrote to thank him for it but never heard back. I am truly shocked to know that he died so soon after that trip – it is horrifying.

I cannot imagine the pain of this appalling loss – you have all my sympathy.


I offered also to put up a post about Ayaz on this site. On March 28 I heard from Samina Reese again:


Dear Mr. Ghosh,

Thank you much for your response.  My apologies for not writing sooner. I am travelling now, to visit Ayaz’s resting place, which is in the mazar of our Sufi teacher near Philadelphia.

Riaz, Ayaz’s father e mailed me your corresepondence as well and I am just taken by the fact that I have been thinking about e-mailing you for 3 years and unbeknownst to either of us we got in touch with you at the same time. Coincidence? I don’t know. Some occurences are more than mere coincidence.

Whatever the reason, I thought to share a poem that “came” to me when I was on a flight back to Portland, Oregon from Philadelphia. I am not much of a writer and less of a poet and I feel as though it really did come from Ayaz.


From Ayaz:

Gone is the darkness for…

I am light

Gone are the deceptions for…

I have no shadow

Gone are the absences for…

I am here

And i am there


Gone is the fear for…

I am the warm sunshine on your cheek

I am the gentle breeze in your hair

I am the silent music that you hear


Gone are the chains of shame and sorrow for…

I am timeless, unfettered and present


Gone is the recluse, selfish and scheming, for…

I am in your tears and your laughter

In the rainbow and the evening sky

I whisper ” ma” …….

I am the tinkling of the chimes

I am the butterfly that alights on a flower

I am loving duty at our Teacher’s side.

I am peace within peace

I am here and I am there

I am everywhere.

I have been blessed with the presence of our Sufi teacher in our lives and when listening to one of Bawa’s discourses heard him talk about Light and Love having no shadow;  It brought to mind a dream shortly after Ayaz passed, of me trying to hug him and he dissipates much like a shadow… . the dream went on to give me hope that he is well…..


Samina also sent me links to Ayaz’s Facebook page (from which the picture above is taken) and to a poignant video of Ayaz performing compositions of his own: to watch it is to understand all the more forcefully the tragedy of the loss of this immensely gifted young man.


A few days later Riaz, Ayaz’s father, sent this poem:



I was reborn the day you died –

severing all ties that bound me to our shared past,

putting on pause the tracks that carried your notes,

while the noise carried on…

The part of me that echoed you, I froze;

setting aside my pain

in the fifth chamber of the heart,

where now you come alive with every beat –

and I can hear your music once again.


You – and your siblings too,

became my greatest teachers;

showing me – the pedantic, pretentious fool I was;

that only the living can teach of life!


Then you died…


And now you show me from the great beyond

that suffering must be our ultimate teacher…


Wisdom – at what price!

Were I just a happy fool…



29 June 2010


A couple of days ago Samina sent me a letter that Ayaz had written, at the age of 14, to ‘console friends and relatives at the death of his paternal grandfather.’ It says with extraordinary eloquence what those who had met Ayaz would want to say about him:

My Dada was an extraordinary man, and he has given us all so much…What I truly believe is that he has left us only in a very small way… Physical things occur over spans of time; they are not timeless. But in the prodigious scheme of the spirit, Dada is here with us all the time and forever. It is this True Spirit that is timeless.

Dada is with us even more so now than before. We may be unable to talk with him on the telephone or eat lunch with him, but our greatest fortune is that we get to live through him. He is within all of us… We must remember this and seek this spirit and roam in this essence in every aspect of life. We must force ourselves to go beyond this illusionary physical life that human beings are preoccupied with, and find the true peace and divinity that Dada has so beautifully portrayed for us.

It is now our duty and also our therapy to do this: to channel the positive living energy of this human being that we love forever and allow it to resonate through us and through our everyday lives.

I wish peace and strength to all of you. And may Allah bless our special loved one.

Ayaz Alam Quadir



[i] See my post of October 5, 2011 ‘The Tyranny of the Probable‘.




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