London Calling – Karim Hirji and Me

I was drawn to Karim Hirji when I read Godwin Siundu’s review of his Growing Up With Tanzania: Memories, Musings and Maths (MMM for short here) in AwaaZ, Issue 1/2015. It was wholly positive, with no reservations, and conveyed the essence of the book as a brilliant representation of its long title.  And the picture that emerged of the author was of a rounded intellectual with a varied hinterland in terms of his background and trajectory.

What struck me most in the review was this passage: 

If the memoir starts off with unquestioning love for Nyerere and Tanzania, the passage of time, the numerous journeys to numerous places, and the ultimate return to Tanzania in 2004 after close to two decades abroad all open Hirji`s eyes to new realities of what Tanzania currently is.  

I had previously come across Hirji’s name only randomly but the review led me to take a closer interest in his writings, which strengthened the impression I had gained of him as a person of depth and principle.  It was clear that his love for Tanzania and its people, far from being diminished after an absence of some 20 years, was driving him to grapple with these ‘new realities’.

But all this for me remained at a distant, non-personal level.  So I was delighted when, in 2019, Zarina Patel invited me to engage with Karim Hirji, whom I will now address by his first name.  Reproduced below, with editorial indulgence, is what passed between Karim and me in the form of email exchanges (in chronological sequence, from which our respective addresses have been omitted):


Dear Karim

Thank you for asking Zarina to send me your two articles on Identity.  I am of course familiar with your writings (and dare I say vice versa?), so it is good to touch base with you.  

I have just finished reading ‘What is in a Name?’.  My goodness, you have covered the subject thoroughly.  Your personal experiences will resonate with most people of our generation and background.  Confusion over similar names is something that happens all the time.  But, as we all know, if you are caught up in the kind of scenario that you were in the US in particular, then it is not everyone who can come through intact as you were able to out of Fort Bend County, Texas. Even on your own home ground in Tanzania, negotiating the Kafkaesque bureaucracy to prove identity is an equally daunting task, as you have so graphically described. 

That said, I must say I was intrigued to read that in a random group of 25 persons, there is a more than 50% chance of two of them having the same birthday, and that out of a population of 5 million in Dar es Salaam, 20 people will have the same number of hair as oneself 😊!  The point, I am sure, you are making is that coincidences like these are built into our universal human condition.

From these superficialities, you have threaded a deeper philosophical message about the relentless march of our civilisation towards a dystopian future (‘transcending identity’); that is something to ponder.  

Anyway, this is enough for now.  As it happens, I am presently engaged in going through the first proof of my book line by line which, as you will know, is an exhausting and time-consuming task, but persist I must.  I am looking forward to reading your second piece in the coming week and will get back to you after that.  

Kind regards

Ramnik Shah      

Reply from Karim:

Dear Ramnik

And many greetings to you. Thank you for your warm, appreciative email. The issue of personal identity is a complex one; much related to brain function; and I have barely touched the surface.

Indeed, final editing of a book is a tedious job; in our part of the world, many authors neglect it and it detracts from the quality of the final product. May I know what your book is about?

Best wishes

Second email to Karim:

Dear Karim

Well, I have at last read your paper on Deconstructing Identity Politics.  Phew!  It is a masterpiece. My initial thought was that its length, subject-matter and topicality would have made ideal material for a BBC’s Reith Lectures programme.  As you may know, among the past African luminaries who have featured in the series were Robert Gardiner in 1965 and Ali Mazrui in1979) and more recently we have had Wole Soyinka (2004) and Kwame Anthony Appiah (2016).  

You have certainly set out your views forthrightly and clearly.  Incidentally, you have obviously taken a great deal of care in editing and proof reading your paper, because the final version is as perfect as it could be (I only came across only two or three typos!). But let me extrapolate a few passages from there to make some observations of my own as follows:

I think aspects of the conservative arguments against identity politics have a degree of validity. On the issue of monuments, minority groups and students from the US to the UK, from South Africa to Ghana, have demanded the pulling down of statues and historical monuments which they feel celebrate historic injustice, insensitivity and oppression. Yet, a plain removal simply erases memory; it does not more accurately present the past. And it indicates the lack of confidence in the ability of your own people to make valid judgements about the past. I say: Let even the most egregious monument remain in place. Then rectify its message by placing a prominent plaque stating the misdeeds of the person or event in question and erect other prominent monuments that serve to give a balanced picture.

We are in complete agreement on this. I wrote something along these lines in my piece that you have kindly cited but of course you have expressed it more thoroughly and elegantly.  You rightly point out that we still admire Charles Dickens for his writings about the plight of the under-trodden in Victorian Britain despite the fact that he had held racist views towards colonised people. 

Survey after survey, in the US and UK, indicate[s] that institutionalized discrimination in education, health service, employment, housing, etc., is an ingrained facet of life.

True, but then there are very few societies anywhere in the world where discrimination against some marginalised group or other does not exist. Here and in the US, the fact of disadvantage is the stuff of reactive pressure politics, because there are enough campaigning bodies to fight for their rights. 

  … calls for the ban of the head gear worn by Muslim women  …. the manner of coverage accorded to Islam in the main media fans the flames of aversion. No wonder then that a survey reported in February 2019 indicated that about a third of Britons felt that Islam is a threat to their way of life.

Agreed.  How Muslims are perceived depends largely on media myths and distortions. 

legitimate and valid criticism of the brutal actions of the State of Israel against the Palestinians

is undoubtedly translated as anti-Semitism, and indeed is at the root of the current debate about the state of the Labour Party.  You say:

Since its inception, Israel has in reality been an Apartheid-colonial state

I have always argued that what the policy of West Bank settlements has created is a string of Bantustans scattered across that ravaged land, with the Palestinians being confined to gigantic concentration camps.

You chide me for making only a cursory reference to Brexit and the politics of Trump at the end of my ‘Bleak Times’ article, but I am sure you will on reflection agree that to be unfair – for a non-academic column piece like that has its limitations in terms of space and content.  You may or may not be aware but I have written about these matters, quite critically as it happens, in AwaaZ (‘Brexit Blues’ – Vol 13/2/2016, ‘What Now?’ – Vol 13/3/2016 and ‘Trump’s New World Order’ – Vol 15/2/2018), and an earlier piece, ‘Europe’s Migrant Crisis: History Revenge!’ (Vol 12/3/2015), explored the whole global migration phenomenon in some depth.  Some of my other writings elsewhere too (included in my forthcoming book) also deal with these issues.     

On your stay with Phillip Lee Attakai, you say he was taken aback by your ‘forthright response’ (you probably meant ‘forthright criticism’, for that is what it was).  But his reply neatly put their situation in its historical context: after all they are victims of history, and it applies to all of us, ex-colonial peoples too.  What we are, where we are today, has a lot to do with what has gone on in the past, and we lack agency to undo what was done to us.  Take an example close to all of us: we are quite at home with the English language. We have in fact embraced and adopted it as ours – the legacy of Empire cuts across far and wide.

But of course you are right to say that

Exclusive adherence to specific identity issues and groups blinds us to crucial issues and problems in society ….

this with reference to the feminist lecturer’s fervent advocacy of equal rights for women, people of colour and those with alternative sexual orientation.  That said, what you say about affirmative action is right – that it has brought benefit to people at the top layers of society, while those at the bottom remain disadvantaged.  

And finally, your ‘slow death’ scenario:

Like the frog that burnt to death as the water in which it floated was heated gradually, humanity will remain unperturbed as the planet burns up politically

 yes, humanity is doomed.

To tie that up with your ending with a quote from Che Guevara, here is something along the same lines from Frederic Jameson’s ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (1991): ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.’  

Well there we are! E&OE, if you find any mistakes, for I have to go now.

Kind regards


Final reply from Karim:

Dear Ramnik

Many thanks for your lengthy, insightful comments on my paper. We are in accord over some issues and differ on other issues. But we have a common desire for social justice and humane politics. And that is how life should be.

I am flattered that you consider it fit for a BBC lecture. But I do not think it
reaches those esoteric heights. I hope your book will be available here as well. It looks quite interesting.

I am sharing our exchange with Zahid Rajan and Zarina Patel, the remarkable duo behind the amazing, unique Awaaz magazine. 

Best regards

                                                  —— End of Exchange ——

These exchanges are self-explanatory and do not require further comment, save that in one respect they underline the very concept of changing identities in a world of migration and global diasporas.  More importantly, what they show is Karim as a kindly and considerate soul who cares about the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised people everywhere. 

This then, dear reader, is my tribute to Karim, as an academic and a world citizen. My respect for him grew as I began to understand where he was coming from, and actually we agreed more than he seemed to think. Long may he remain blessed.

Ramnik Shah




  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. He is the author of ‘Empire’s Child’. See also