Confessions of a Xenophile

To be here today is a matter of the greatest pleasure for me, because next to my own country, India, there is no place in the world that has been more important to my development as a writer than Egypt. It is now nearly twenty-eight years since I first landed in Cairo, on April 19 ,1980: I was then twenty-four years old, and I had come to explore what was to me a new, but not entirely unknown world. The immediate pretext for 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. My home there consisted of a recently-vacated chicken coop on the roof of a mud hut; at the time there was no electricty, although there was, as I recall, a supply of piped water.
            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 communication broke down, we would burst into song – this was no small accomplishment on my part as I am a terrible singer. But many of the younger people in the village sang very well and knew innumerable Hindi songs. Indian filmi music thus became a shared language and opened many barriers and earned me many invitations to meals. The Hindi films that were best known in Lataifa were of the fifties vintage – films that featured such stars as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Padmini, Manoj Kumar and Babita. The good-hearted vamp and cabaret dancer, Helen, was another well-known figure. 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 fifties. Often children would be called out to perform, which they would do with the greatest gusto. There were even minor specializations, 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 see young jallabeyya-clad fellaheen 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. Hindi films also provided me with a certain name-recognition, for although the mega-star Amitabh Bachhan was not as well-known in the Middle East then as he is now, there were plenty of people who knew of him. It was thus not as difficult as it might have been to introduce myself.
            Yet, while I had reason to be grateful to Hindi films in some respects, there were others in which they made my life exceedingly difficult. One of these was the matter of cows. 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 Hindi films. Every day, several times daily, I would have to deal with barrages of questions on the matter of cows: did I worship cows (inta bita’abud bi bagara? – literally ‘are you a devotee of the cow?’) At what time of day did I conduct my devotions? Could they please witness my prostrations? Was there not a risk of being splattered with dung? Had I ever considered transferring my allegiance to the camel? And so on. Although these interrogations were often wearisome, there was also something touching about the attitudes of my friends. When we were out walking in the fields they would slow their pace when we were passing a cow: it took me a while to understand that they were allowing me time to perform my secret oblations. In the ploughing season, it often happened that we would pass a field where a team of oxen was being driven on with a stick or a whip: on many such occasions my friends would run ahead to berate the poor ploughman, telling him to stop beating his animals for fear of hurting the sentiments of Doktor Amitaab. In vain would I try to persuade them that cows were frequently beaten in India: they wouldn’t believe me, for they had not seen otherwise in Hindi films?
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. The purchasing of a water pump was a great event, and the machine would be brought back on a pick-up truck, with much fanfare, with strings of old shoes strung around the spout to ward off the Evil Eye. 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. Often people would look crestfallen, imagining, no doubt, that I had detected a fatal flaw in their machine and was refusing to divulge the details. This would not do of course, and in order to set everyone’s fears at rest, I became, willy-nilly, an oracle of water-pumps. I developed a little routine, where I would subject the machine to a minute inspection, occasionally tapping it with my knuckles or poking it with my fingers. Fortunately no machine failed my inspection: at the end of it I would invariably pronounce the water-pump to be a makana mumtaaza – a most excellent Kirloskar, a truly distinguished member of its species. 
            Yet, even as I was disclaiming my relationship to those water-pumps, I could not but recognize that there was a certain commonality between myself and those machines. 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 decolonization that held sway over much of the world in the decades after the Second World War; this was the political ethos that found its 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; today the movement is often dismissed not just as a political failure, but as a minor footnote to the great power rivalries of the Cold War. It is true of course, that the movement had many shortcomings and met with many failures. Yet it is also worth remembering that the Non-Aligned Movement as such was merely the institutional aspect of something that was much broader, wider and more powerful: this, as I said before, was the post-war ethos of decolonization, which was a political impulse that had deep historical roots and powerful cultural resonances. In the field of culture, among other things, it represented an attempt to restore and recommence the exchanges and conversations that had been interrupted by the long centuries of European imperial dominance. It was in this sense, the necessary and vital counterpart of the nationalist idiom of anti-colonial resistance. In the West Third World nationalism is often presented as an ideology of xenophobia and parochialism. But the truth is that many of these movements of resistance tried very hard, within their limited means, to create an universalism of their own. 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 - a feeling that lives very deep in the human heart, but whose very existence is rarely acknowledged. People of my generation will recall the pride we once took in the trans-national friendships of such figures as Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Sukarno, Chou En Lai and others. Nor were friendships of this kind anything new. I have referred above to the cross-cultural conversations that were interrupted by imperialism. These interruptions were precisely that – temporary breakages – the conversations never really ceased. Even in the 19th century, the high noon of Empire, people from Africa, Asia and elsewhere, sought each other out, wrote letters to each other, and stayed in each other’s homes while traveling. Lately, a great number of memoirs and autobiographies have been published that attest to the depth and strength of these ties. It was no accident therefore that Mahatma Gandhi chose to stop in Egypt, in order to see Sa’ad Zaghloul before proceeding to the Round Table Conference in London. This was integral to the ethos of the time. Similarly, it is 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 without 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.
            If I am to think of what drew me to Egypt in 1980, it was, at bottom, the very impulse that I have been describing here – a kind of xenophilia, a desire to reclaim the globe in my own fashion, a wish to eavesdrop on an ancient civilizational conversation. Admittedly, this impulse could have taken me to many other places, but the opportunity presented itself at a time when I was just becoming aware of the ties that had once linked Yemen and China, Indonesia and East Africa – and most significantly for me, India and the Middle East. As one of the centres of the world, Egypt has always had a special attraction for travelers and it seemed natural that this was where I would come. Thus it happened that in 1980 I found myself living in a small village in the governorate of Beheira.
            I have said earlier that the Non-aligned Movement was merely the institutional aspect of a much broader and older cultural and political tendency. But it needs to be acknowledged here that neither I nor any of the other elements of India that were present in rural Beheira – the pumps and the Hindi film songs – would have been able to find a place there if not for the existence of the Non-aligned Movement. In its absence the people of Lataifa would not have known of any foreign films other than those produced by Hollywood; their water pumps would have been of European or Japanese make; and as for myself, I would either have failed to get a visa or would not have been permitted to reside in the countryside. It was only because of the good relations that prevailed between India and Egypt that I was able to do what I did. It is important I think to acknowledge this, for no matter how sincere an individual’s desire for cultural communication might be, it is impossible for such exchanges to occur in the absence of an institutional framework.
            In other words, it was decolonization and its aftermath that made it possible for me to live for a time in Egypt. I say this in a spirit of the deepest gratitude for this experience was critical to my development as a writer: it was my equivalent of writing school. While living in Beheira I maintained a detailed journal, in which I made extensive notes about my conversations with people, and the things I saw around me. Not only did this teach me to observe what I was seeing; it also taught me how to translate raw experience on to the page. It was the best kind of training a novelist could have and it has stood me in good stead over the years. Much of my writing has been influenced by this experience.
            For any writer, reading is as essential as writing, and in this regard too, my time in Egypt was absolutely essential to my literary formation. Although I have always been a voracious reader, I have never in all my life, read as much as I did in Lataifa. This was possible partly because there was not much else to do: like most rural communities, Lataifa was a quiet place where nothing much happened. It was in Lataifa that I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and I would not perhaps have felt its influence as powerfully as I did if I had not been living there. One Hundred Years of Solitude alerted me to the possibility that the movement of time may most often be felt most powerfully in places that appear to be far removed from the main currents of history: Lataifa was one such place, an Egyptian Macondo.         It was in Lataifa also that I discovered contemporary Arabic fiction. I had of course, heard the names of such writers as Taha Hussein and Tawfiq al-Hakim, but their work had a special resonance because I was living in a place that was so much like those they described. A writer who was to prove particularly significant to me was Tayyib al-Salih: his novel, Mowsam al-Hijra ila ash-Shimaal  (‘Season of Migration to the North’) was to have a powerful influence on my own work. Dislocation and migration, the crossing of boundaries and borders are central to this novel, and these were themes which resonated very powerfully with me: my first novel, The Circle of Reason, was about a group of migrant workers who travel from India to the Gulf, and it reflects some of the same concerns that Tayyib al-Salih addresses in his seminal book.
            And then of course there was the towering figure of Naguib Mahfouz. To me, as to many others the world over, the situations and characters that Mahfouz wrote about were instantly recognizable, intimately familiar. One reason for this is that Mahfouz’s entry into the world of his characters is often through the interior passageways of the family. Of course the family is a one of those territories the novel, as a form, has most successfully claimed for itself everywhere: all around the world there are novelists, who, like Mahfouz, build their books on families and their histories, on the endless cycle of birth, marriage and death. But in Mahfouz’s hands this invitation into the family has an extra dimension of excitement. This is because in Egypt, as in India, the family is often a secret, curtained world, protected from the gaze of outsiders by walls and courtyards, by veils and laws of silence. To be taken past those doors, into the forbidden space of failed marriages and secret desires, the areas that lie most heavily curtained under the genteel ethic of family propriety, is to prepare oneself for the the pleasurable tingle of the illicit. And once past that curtain we discover, with an almost-guilty delight, a quiet murmur of furtive gropings, dissatisfaction, and despair that confirms everything that one has ever suspected about one’s neighbours – no matter whether they be in Calcutta or Cairo. In Mahfouz’s hands the intricacies of family relationships become a kind of second language, with which he demonstrates the dangers that lurk at the margins of a world that strives for an unattainable respectability in circumstances of poverty and deprivation. The predicaments he presents are the stuff of life in the crowded, teeming cities of India as well as Egypt: this is a world of despair, aspiration, and hypocrisy, where people look for meaning and authenticity while being marooned between great wealth and unimaginable poverty.
            Over the years, although I have forgotten much of my Arabic, my work and my understanding of the world have been greatly enriched by many other Arab writers: Nawaal al-Sa’adawi, Abdel Rahman Munif, Gamal al-Ghitani, Elias Khoury, and Ghassan Kanafani, whose Men in the Sun I consider to be one of the finest works of post-war fiction. It is possible that I would have discovered these writers even if I had not lived in Lataifa, but I doubt that my readings of their work would have had the same resonance if I had not lived in Egypt.


The world today is very different from that of 1980, when I came to Egypt. The conversations and exchanges that re-commenced in the post-war period are now in danger of being broken off again. Today, especially in the Anglo-American world, capitalism and empire are once again being packaged together, in a bundle that is scarcely distinguishable from the old ‘civilizing mission’. Indeed 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.
It is strange to think that the fall of the Berlin Wall is still widely read as a vindication of ‘capitalism’. The truth is that the world’s experience over these last fifteen years could more accurately be read as proof that untramelled capitalism leads inevitably to imperial wars and the expansion of empires. If that were not the case, then surely the almost-uncontested reign of a single system would prove to be an epoch, if not of universal peace, then certainly one in which there would be a broad agreement on the means of ensuring peace? Yet what we see is exactly the opposite. We find ourselves in a period of extraordinary instability and fear, faced with the prospect of an endless proliferation of thinly-veiled colonial wars. In fact there is less agreement on the means of ensuring peace today than there was at the time of the founding of the United Nations.
Empires always profess, and sometimes even believe in, noble ideals: the problem lies with their methods, which are invariably such as to subvert their stated aims and ends. This is because the processes of conquest, occupation and domination create realities that become alibis for the permanent deferral of the professed ideals. Thus did some Jacobins argue for the necessity of slavery in France’s colonies; thus did the author of ‘On Liberty’ preside over hundreds of millions of conquered Indians; thus does torture come to be reconciled to the promise of liberty. None of this is new. Let us recall that the slave trade in the 18th century – arguably the foundational commerce of speculative capitalism – was long justified on the grounds that it bestowed freedom on Africans by removing them from the tyrannies of their native continent; let us recall that the export of opium to China, enforced by Western arms, was justified in the name of ‘Free Trade’.
The packaging of capital+empire is still beribboned with these processes of double-think. Those who set out to remake the world in their own image will not be satisfied with an imperfect portrait; for them the flaws in the depiction will be an invitation to rip up the old copy and start again. And since no copy will ever be as good as the original, the process will repeat itself again and again. Capitalism+empire is in other words, a program for permanent war – the prospect once beloved of Trostkyists, and now embraced afresh by neo-conservatives. Yet this is not the whole picture, for the West is not a monolith: even within the Anglo-American world there are powerful forces of resistance to the neo-imperialist model of politics, and as for Europe it has charted an entirely different course, in which negotiation and compromise have been given much greater value than confrontation and force.
Empires are not the sole threat to the continuation of our conversations: over the last fifteen years, in many parts of Asia and Africa, we have seen a dramatic rise in violent and destructive kinds of fundamentalism, some religious, and some linguistic. These movements are profoundly hostile to any notion of dialogue between cultures, faiths and civilizations. 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. What is more they are deeply and viscerally hostile to all forms of the arts: just as Mahfouz was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt, so too in India, have Hindu fundamentalists attacked museums and libraries, exhibitions and artists. 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.
Against this background it is tempting to look back on the days of non-alignment with some nostalgia: and indeed there was much that was valuable in that period. Yet it would be idle to pretend that solutions could be found by looking backwards in time. That was a certain historical moment and it has passed. If I have reflected on it here, it is not in order to suggest that we should try to turn back the clock – as religious fundamentalists seek to do – nor in order to fall back on an ideology of permanent victimhood such as that which the French rightly castigate as ‘tiers-mondisme’. I have pointed to that period rather, in order to evoke the desires and hopes that animated it, in particular to its strain of xenophilia, to its yearning for a certain kind of universalism – not a universalism merely of principles and philosophy, but one of face-to-face encounters, of everyday experience. Except that this time we must correct the mistake that lay at the heart of that older anti-colonial impulse – which is that we must not only include the West within this spectrum of desire, we must also acknowledge that both the West and we ourselves have been irreversibly changed by our encounter with each other. We must recognize that in the West, as in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, there are great numbers of people who, by force of circumstance, have become xenophiles, in the deepest sense, of acknowledging – as Tayyib Salih did so memorably in Mowsam al-Hijra ila-ash-Shimaal - that in matters of language, culture and civilization, their heritage, like ours, is fragmented, fissured and incomplete. Only when our work begins to embody the conflicts, the pain, the laughter, and the yearning that comes from this incompleteness will our work be a true mirror of the world we live in.

Amitav Ghosh
June 5, 2012

I owe the concept of ‘xenophilia’ to Leela Gandhi, who explored it brilliantly in her seminal work ‘Affective Communities’.