Letter from a historian

July 23, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

July 21

Dear Amitav,

We met briefly when you were in Abu Dhabi for their book fair in 2009.
At the time I was teaching at Zayed University there, but moved to
Qatar this past year. As a historian of China (and sometimes Mughal
and Raj India), and a voracious reader, I have loved your works. When
I finished “River of Smoke” last week, I wept, not just for Bahram, and the end of yet another thoroughly extraordinary novel, but for the image of the cut sleeve.

Although formally trained as a historian at Harvard, I have always
sought to bring voice to those whose lives are so often left
unnoticed, and have very much admired your ability to do that. My own
work focuses on Islam in China, and if there were ever a community
whose history was left unheard, it is that one.

Also, as someone who spent formative years in Thailand as a child, and
then Beijing in the early 80s as a student, I am also someone who has
come to appreciate the view one gets from the margins.

I am writing now to recommend, if you have not already done so, that
you see the current exhibit at Singapore’s Art/Science Museum,
“Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.” It’s only on exhibit
till July 31, and although it was supposed to be headed to the
Smithsonian next, complications have arisen.

It is an amazing collection of artifacts from a 9th century dhow that
was fully loaded with cargo from China and went down off the coast of
Indonesia on its way back to the Gulf. The exhibit reveals the extent
and range of trade that took place between the Abbasid and Tang
Empires at that moment in time. The level of craftsmanship and the
varied aesthetic sensibilities represented in the surviving objects is
stunning. The catalog is also excellent.

I saw the exhibit while I was in Singapore presenting a paper on the
revival of trade between the Gulf and China, the billions of dollars
involved, and the growing impact on people. If you have not already
visited Yiwu, a few hours south of Shanghai, I would highly recommend
it. As happened in Zaytun and Guangzhou over a millennium ago, tens of
thousands of Arab traders have settled there. There is a part of town
in which you feel as if you in the Middle East, with shisha cafes,
shwarma, backgammon, and of course Al Jazeera Arabic playing non-stop
in the background.

And finally, I’m presently putting together a roundtable proposal for
the next Annual Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies on how to
use your work in teaching the history of India and China.
Unfortunately none of my U.S. based colleagues have been able to get a
hold of “River of Smoke.” If you have any historian friends who have
used your work in teaching and might be interested in taking part,
please let me know.

As sad as I was when I finished “River of Smoke,” at least I knew I
could reread “Sea of Poppies.” I remember very clearly in Abu Dhabi
when several of us anxiously asked you when you might finish the next
volume, and you replied that in fact you were in no hurry to finish as
you had grown so attached to the characters. I think there was a
collective moan of despair amongst us, but now I have a much better
understanding of why.

I hope you continue to enjoy writing about the lives of these
characters you’ve created.

Take care,



Jackie Armijo
Associate Professor
International Affairs
Qatar University
Doha, Qatar


[A subsequent letter (for which many thanks Jackie) explains:

The catalog for the Singapore exhibit is available on Amazon, and
here’s the full citation.

Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,
Regina Krahl (Author), John Guy (Editor), Julian Raby (Editor), J.
Keith Wilson (Editor) (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2011)

The current controversy as to whether or not it will next move to the
Smithsonian as originally planned is covered here:


As a result, perhaps the exhibit in Singapore will be extended.]

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