In 1992, at the age of thirty-six, the Kolkata-born novelist Amitav Ghosh published a sort of breakthrough book that was a mixture of travel writing, investigative reporting, and history. The muskily titled In an Antique Land has as one of its points of departure Fustat in Old Cairo, a place greasy with dust and pollution where, as the narrator tells us, were found “huge quantities of Chinese pottery” and “valuable fragments of Indian textiles.” Ghosh locates this dun-brown wasteland in Egypt’s sprawling capital at the center of medieval global trade routes: attesting to an Indian Ocean world that melded Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism long before the divisions erected by twentieth-century area studies. Indeed, the Afro-Asian Middle Ages were defined by a rich confusion of accommodating cultures, without the communal partitions wrought by modernism. In this early book, Ghosh was well on...


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