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‘In my mind I live there’


by Jane Bryce


‘You’re kidding me.’ When Abdulrazak Gurnah was told, on the line from Stockholm, that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021, he was taken by surprise. He wasn’t the only one – bookshops were so unprepared for the sudden rise in demand for his ten novels that they were scrambling for stock and queuing for more to be printed.

Not to say that Gurnah was unknown, far from it. He has long been celebrated among readers of African writing, of what is called postcolonial writing, and stories of an Islamic world, migration and cultural crossing. The Nobel committee, apparently, had also been following his writing for a long time, undismayed by its relative lack of commercial success or a mass readership. All that has changed now – new editions, translations and foreign rights have no doubt fallen on him in torrents. But what was it the Nobel committee saw that the English-speaking literary establishment had seemingly missed?

The first part of the Nobel citation, for ‘his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee…’, is about right. Gurnah’s characters are often unregarded people – children, women hidden behind veils and screens, slaves, men contending with more powerful men or with seismic shifts of politics and geography. Refugees. People whose past is suddenly expunged, who have to recreate themselves in an alien environment, and do so, rewriting their stories as they go. 

It’s the rest of the citation I can’t come to terms with: ‘… in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ Doesn’t ‘gulf’ connote something uncrossable, a chasm, a space of incomprehensible strangeness? If so, it strikes me as expressive of a western perception of Africa as homogenous, bounded and abidingly ‘other’. To read Gurnah is to be brought into the orbit of a sensibility formed in the context of Zanzibar, surely one of the most creolised places on earth. The 1964 revolution that sent him on his own refugee journey upended a culturally syncretic society formed over generations. You could trace it back to the nineteenth century, when Zanzibar became the seat of the Sultan of Oman, or to the seventeenth century, when Oman defeated the Portuguese further north in Mombasa and took control of most of coastal East Africa, intermarrying and bringing into being the Swahili – people of the ‘sahil’, the coast. This region, from Somalia and Djibouti, through Kenya and Tanzania down to Mozambique, is marked by multiple influences, heritages, oceanic linkages. It faces outwards across the Indian Ocean to Yemen, Oman, Iran, Pakistan and India, extending to Indonesia and China, as well as inwards to the vast interior of Africa with all its different peoples, cultures and religions. 

As Gurnah’s novels show, coastal people felt themselves infinitely superior to the people of the interior, and people of Arab descent formed the ruling class and built the palaces in Zanzibar. But a wave of early twentieth-century migration to Zanzibar complicated the picture, with many ordinary Omanis arriving to work on the plantations, sometimes with family servants who were themselves descendants of slaves originally from East Africa. Gurnah’s own father and uncle (according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica) were businessmen from Yemen, so presumably part of this later migration. British Saudi scholar, Madawi al-Rasheed, has argued that the ‘Zanjibaris’ (a composite name that marries Zanj, the pre-Omani indigenous culture, and Swahili syncretism) are ‘a truly trans-national community whose identity is anchored in multiple localities.’ 

This is important in the light of a question that arose when Gurnah won the Nobel Prize: who is he really, and where does he belong? Is he Zanzibari, or Tanzanian? Is he, after more than 50 years in Britain, British? Asked about his feelings for Zanzibar, Gurnah replied, ‘In my mind I live there.’ If his Zanzibari identity is alive in memory, how about being Tanzanian? The union of Zanzibar with mainland Tanganyika that created Tanzania was a political expediency to contain left-wing insurgency and stabilise Zanzibar after the 1964 revolution which Gurnah fled. Many Zanzibaris chafe against it and long for self-determination, feeling themselves distinct in history and culture. Britain, meanwhile, is where he has lived the longest, written all his books, pursued a career as an academic, established a family. So who claims him?

After the award of the Nobel Prize, Al Jazeera reported a mixed reaction in Tanzania. President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who happens to be Zanzibari, declared: ‘The prize is an honour to you, our Tanzanian nation and Africa in general.’ Hussein Ali Mwinyi, President of the autonomous region of Zanzibar, went further: ‘Such landmarks bring honour not only to us but to all humankind.’ The irony is that few people in Tanzania will have read Gurnah since KiSwahili is the lingua franca and English, the language in which he writes, the medium of a rejected colonial ideology. Yet, as Iranian-American professor of comparative literature, Hamid Dabashi, points out: ‘Calling authors like Gurnah diasporic, exilic, or any other such self-alienating term conceals the fact that English was native to him even before he set foot in England. English colonial officers had brought it home to him.’ As Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe always asserted, English is an ‘African’ language. Gurnah’s work is available in multiple foreign languages, but translation into Swahili is only now being undertaken by Dr Ida Hadjivayanis, a Swahili studies lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, who is in the process of translating Paradise. For her, exile does not cancel out the author’s identity, but his books do need to be translated and made available in schools. They need, in other words, to be read ‘at home’.

Others disagree. Campaigning journalist Erick Kabendera, who was imprisoned under trumped up charges by Tanzania’s previous president, John Magufuli, gave a surprisingly hardline response: ‘One of the reasons Tanzania can’t allow dual citizenship is the fear that Abdulrazak Gurnah and his grandparents, who fled Zanzibar to escape the persecution of Arabs during the Zanzibar Revolution, would return and claim their stolen assets. And we’re shamelessly celebrating his victory?’ It’s unclear where the grandparents come in, considering it was Gurnah’s father and uncle who immigrated to Zanzibar. But Kabondera’s statement reveals faultlines in the union and the persistence of prejudice against so-called Arab Zanzibaris: from this perspective, Gurnah cannot be called a Tanzanian. 

This attitude has a long history. In Gurnah’s 2001 novel, By the Sea, the character Saleh Omar recalls how, imprisoned in Zanzibar by its post-revolutionary rulers, he is chided by his jailer for refusing to escape on a dhow to Oman: 

‘You should’ve gone with your brothers,’ the commanding officer said. ‘They’re your brothers too,’ I said… so mildly that I had to repeat it before he heard me. ‘Yes,’ he said laughing. ‘The Omanis fucked all our mothers.’
‘And this is as much their home as it is mine, as it is yours,’ I said.
‘Sote wananchi,’ he said satirically, booming with his knowing laughter. All of us are children of the land

So what about the British response to Gurnah winning the Nobel Prize? Despite the media frenzy following the announcement, the British literary establishment appeared to turn a frosty shoulder. No rush to correct the Nobel designation of him as Tanzanian and claim him as a British writer, except by the University of Kent – where he’s both an alumnus and professor emeritus – justly proud of its long association with him. No congratulations from the Queen or the political class. Maybe they were wrong-footed by not having read his novels. Or some deplore his explicit dissent from Brexit’s ‘take back control of our borders’ and the hostile environment. Asked about refugees, Gurnah routinely responds, ‘Let them come,’ pointing out that they have much to offer, that historically Britain has enriched itself by going around the world imposing itself on other cultures. This is spelt out when Saleh Omar, who becomes a refugee, says of his asylum interviewer: ‘Kevin Edelman, the bawab of Europe, and the gatekeeper to the orchards in the family courtyard, the same gate which had released the hordes that went out to consume the world and to which we have come sliming up to beg admittance. Refugee. Asylum-seeker. Mercy.’ Bawab, an Arabic word meaning doorman, but connoting jack-of-all-trades and odd-job-man, is distinctly disrespectful, and emphasises the humiliation of the refugee who has to apply to him for admittance. Not the cap-in-hand gratitude proper to those who have lost everything. 

I am not Zanzibari, but I did grow up in mainland Tanzania, and my family was thrown out around the same time as Saleh Omar – in 1968. Although I didn’t have to beg for admittance to the UK as a refugee, I recognise the terrible sense of loss and the disorientation of being uprooted from the place you call home. ‘In my mind I live there.’ As a reader, what Gurnah has given me is the same thing he claims for himself as a writer – restitution, reclamation and recall. I grew up in Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, and when I read Paradise (2004) it was the first time I’d seen the town represented in fiction. 

Set in the early years of the twentieth century during the German occupation of Tanganyika, Paradise tells the story of Yusuf, a young boy from the coast, who joins a trading caravan into the interior. The last part of the journey is made by train, on the line that runs from Tanga at the coast inland to Moshi – the same line on which I travelled to school. Eventually, they arrive ‘at a small town under a huge snowcapped mountain’ where ‘the air was cool and pleasant, and the light had the softness of early twilight reflected in boundless water.’ In Moshi, he stays with a man from the coast, a Muslim shopkeeper, Hamid, and his wife. One day he accompanies Hamid to trade at a settlement on the mountain. They stop ‘under a fig tree, by the bank of a tumbling stream’, the air full of the sound of rushing water. When he jumps in the stream, he’s surprised to find it freezing cold and Hamid tells him it’s melted ice from the mountain peak. Yusuf walks along the bank to a waterfall, and standing in the spray, thinks he can hear ‘the sound of the river God breathing’. They make a camp and as they lie down Hamid says, ‘Isn’t it pleasant to think that Paradise will be like this?’ Beneath the sound of the water, Hamid goes on to describe God’s garden – its waterfalls and its four rivers, water everywhere, ‘Under the pavilions, by the orchards, running down terraces, alongside the walks by the woods.’ The Garden of Eden itself. 

I know that place on the mountain, the waterfall, the earthly garden resembling the Garden of Eden. You can be expelled, but there are still ways to re-enter, and fiction is one of them, even though the place you re-enter can never be the same as the place you left. Through Gurnah’s writing, I have also come to know Zanzibar, which wasn’t part of my childhood, but is now part of my imagination, and no bawab can keep me out. The Nobel citation was wrong about the ‘gulf’ between cultures and continents. What Gurnah gives us is more like a mesh, weaving them together.

Photo by Amrei Marie