Commerce With the Universe; Afro-Jewish Encounters

In This Review

Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination
by Gaurav Desai
Columbia University Press, 2013
352 pp. $50.00
Afro-Jewish Encounters
by William F. S. Miles
Markus Wiener, 2013
262 pp. $24.95

Both of these books refute simplistic conventional portraits of the relationship between Africa and the rest of the word, which tend to suggest that the region was exposed to outside influences only as a result of European colonialism. Desai’s book relates the rich history of the relationship between South Asia and East Africa, which began with commercial links that stretch back as far as the Middle Ages. Through an analysis of a number of little-known or underappreciated literary texts, Desai assesses the impact of South Asian minorities on East Africa and the syncretic culture that has emerged owing to their presence. Desai’s savvy take on the nature of identity in diaspora populations presents readers with a new way to understand the culture of modern East Africa. Commerce plays an important role in his story, and many of the works he analyzes exhibit an interesting form of liberalism, portraying the free market as tempering the actions of the state, which often comes across as hostile or at least untrustworthy.

Miles’ book is less ambitious but just as compelling. It examines the Jewish presence in Africa and the history of interaction between Jews and Africans. During the early Middle Ages, Jews emigrated south from Spain and North Africa, across the Sahara, and Miles finds interesting traces of a Jewish presence across West Africa. A fascinating chapter discusses what Miles dubs “Jubos,” a community of Igbos, who live in Nigeria, that faithfully practices Judaism despite having no obvious Semitic past. Miles’ book is also a wise rumination on the nature of cultural exchange and religious tolerance. As a Jewish New Yorker who had his first experience of Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, Miles uses his personal exchanges with people in the region to discuss the nature of Jewishness.