Zanzibar Stories

© Nobel Prize Outreach. Photo: Hugh Fox

We take vicarious pleasure and pride in the achievements of those we love: family and friends, naturally. Beyond that this extends to people whom we can relate to on any number of levels. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah engendered such a feeling, and set me thinking about why it mattered. To those of us who have emanated from East Africa, the connection is obvious: he is `one of us`!  Taking our birth (with a seven-year age difference) and growing up in the region`s colonial past as the starting point to where we are now, here in Britain, the underlying common factor is the fact of migration, where nationality, race, ethnicity, religion also come into the equation.

On hearing of the award, I was immediately reminded of his By The Sea which I first read when it came out some twenty years ago.  What had struck me initially was the title.  Like its author, I too had grown up by the sea, in my case in Mombasa in the 1940s, and so much of its setting had a familiar ring against the backdrop of a predominantly coastal Islamic milieu.  Indeed, much of Gurnah`s writings (well critiqued by others in this issue) is rooted in his Zanzibari Muslim heritage, which casts a long shadow over the lives of most of his characters.

My interest was also aroused by the publicity about the book which highlighted the refugee asylum phenomenon, integral to the story, that was making a huge impact on British politics at the time, and has continued unabated since.

Saleh, the narrator of By The Sea, when he arrives in England claiming to be a refugee tells a complex tale of his antecedents and trajectory, but not in a linear fashion, or in one go, so that the sequential order of all that he describes only becomes apparent as the reader works out the chronology through the various clues and references scattered across the text. Even more daunting is the dense familial, personal and communal relationships among the numerous characters who inhabit the book. We learn that he is aged about 65 (even his asylum counsellor thought that a bit odd) and has adopted the name and identity of an old foe.  Precise dates are not given and often timespans are conflated, and all this is related in retrospect after his arrival sometime around 1995.

What has led him to flee his country is the conundrum that the reader has to grapple with. In the mid-1990s Britain`s asylum system was still at an embryonic stage, and so both our narrator and his considerably younger interlocutor/protagonist Latif (who happened to be a son of his assumed alter ego and who had also ended up in Britain albeit via a different route) have an easy ride. In my professional judgment neither of them would have qualified for refugee status under the much stricter asylum regime of later years.     

Coming to Britain was the outcome of a convoluted backstory. What both of them were escaping from was essentially the oppressive culture of their homeland that had stifled their individuality and selfhood within a vast web of immediate and extended family networks involving close social interactions and attendant obligations.  As they reflect on their past, one of them (Latif) says to the other (Saleh): ‘I was listening to you and thinking, Lord, that`s what it was like. That is precisely how it was. All that bickering and pettiness.  All that insulting.  Old people with their unending grudges and their malice. That was what it felt like as a child, whispers and accusations, and complicated indignations that stretched further and further back all the time’, and further: ‘I mean I don`t want recriminations, all this family business, all this muttering that stretches further back all the time. 

Have you noticed how the history of Islam is so tied up with family squabbles?  Let me put that another way lest I offend you.  I know what a sensitive lot we Muslims are.  Have you noticed the incredible consequences of family squabbles in the history of Islamic societies?’, reciting a long list of them from the Ummayads down to ‘the children of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, sitting on a sea of black gold, on a territory they call Saudi Arabia, after their family name.  I hate families’!  A damning indictment if ever there was, but to Gurnah`s credit he does not shy away from expressing it, from his authorial perspective.

There were other factors involved also: a litany of illicit sexual affairs and homoerotic allusions, betrayal and deceit, dodgy business dealings, property disputes, money troubles, political turmoil, revolutionary shenanigans, civil maladministration, physical violence, summary justice, incarceration and flight from Zanzibar.  But exile and the physical distance did not wipe out the memory or diminish the pain of what they had left behind.

According to the Nobel Committee, Gurnah`s literature has opened up ‘our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world’. In By The Sea he certainly did that. His earlier Paradise, published in 1994, delved into the much darker history of slavery and the clash of Islamic traditions with the values and dictates of the oncoming European rulers.  But the one that encapsulates the essence of the immigrant experience, with a variety of scenarios and people, representative of present-day Britain, is the more recent Gravel Heart which came out in 2017.  It is the chronicle of another Zanzibari, a young Salim, who makes his solitary journey to Britain and thereafter navigates an alien and hostile environment to a settled existence in maturity.  There are echoes of By The Sea in his life`s story as well, such as his antipathy to his own mother and her lover on account of their extramarital liaison (‘She knew I wanted nothing to do with that man whose name I never spoke’), not unlike that of Saleh`s mother (with `Uncle Hussein`) or even that of Latif`s mother (‘My mother was the Minister`s lover’) in By The Sea.  That apart, it is the extraordinarily varied nature of Salim`s involvement with a whole host of indigenous and immigrant folks that lends an authentic view of contemporary British and London society in particular, of which he had become part. 

When, for example, his employer Mark at the café where he worked asked him where he was from with a name like Salim, and he replied `Zanzibar`, Mark`s response was predictable: ‘Darkest darkest Africa …  Zinjibar, using its old Arabic name. We read about that as children in Lebanon’, which prompted Salim to observe, ‘His real name was Mousa, he said, but for business purposes he called himself Mark. It made customers feel more comfortable’. That was the outsiders` way of reaching out to the locals which, in the words of another Salim, from the opening line of V S Naipaul`s A Bend in the River, made ‘The world is what it is’!

While the Nobel award to Gurnah has put East Africa on the global literary map, for us readers of AwaaZ it is of course home ground. In that context, while to the world at large the name Zanzibar has always evoked an aura of romantic exoticism, we are more in tune with its true historical resonances. Gurnah`s award reminded me of another Zanzibar born British cultural icon: the winner of the prestigious Turner Prize for Art in 2017.  According to the Tate Gallery website, ‘Himid makes paintings, prints, drawings and installations which celebrate Black creativity and the people of the African diaspora, while challenging institutional invisibility. She references the slave industry and its legacies, and addresses the hidden and neglected cultural contribution made by real but forgotten people’.

I also thought about other Zanzibar connections.  In Shakespeare in Swahililand (reviewed in AwaaZ, Issue 2, 2016) the author, Edward Wilson-Lee (whom I later got to know), says he began his research in Zanzibar where he found that one of the first books printed in Swahili was a slim volume of the Bard`s stories, published as Hadithi za Kingereza,whose compiler Edward Steere had arrived there as a missionary in 1884.

Then I asked my friend, Rozina Visram – author of, among other books, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History and the seminal Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947, also born and brought up in Zanzibar and a close friend of Gurnah himself – whether she would like to contribute to this special issue but she declined, saying that she would not be comfortable doing so on account of their friendship.

I was also reminded of Judy Aldrick`s The Sultan`s Spymaster: Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar (reviewed in AwaaZ, Issue 3, 2016) which contains a fascinating chapter on Sultan Barghash`s incredible five-week tour of England in 1875 as an honoured guest of the British government during which he was feted at the highest levels of the imperial establishment.  The visit is well documented in the official archives and newspaper reports of that time which could provide rich material for a film or drama script.  We have had `Out of Africa`, so why not `Out of Zanzibar`, of an altogether different variety to `Road to Zanzibar` or `Mugambo` or `The African Queen`?

And another friend, and Gurnah`s near namesake, Abdulrazak Fazal, long domiciled in Dar es Salaam, who was a year ahead of Gurnah at the King George High School in Zanzibar during the mid-60s, offered to share this appraisal of him:

‘Gurnah’s achievement makes us Zanzibarians and in particular his schoolmates proud. We had a feeling about him that a star was in the making.’

I should add that I wrote a foreword to Fazal`s `Down Memory Lane` (privately published last year), an entertaining mix of stories about people and places, family and friends in Zanzibar and elsewhere, the very first chapter of which is titled Malindi Street where Gurnah grew up.

But of course no Zanzibar story would be complete without a mention of one of its most glamorous exports: Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara at Stone Town in 1946 of Indian Parsi parents, who mesmerised the world of western pop music with a universal appeal. His childhood home now features a monument to him on its façade and has become one of the island`s tourist attractions.

So, while we rightly celebrate the award of the Nobel Prize to Gurnah, equal plaudits are surely due also to Zanzibar for producing such iconic figures.  

To paraphrase Naipaul`s Salim, it is a small world!

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

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