Zanzibar’s Nobel Laureate

Afterlives – His Latest Book
Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Reviewer: Karen Rothmyer

When I started reading one of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novels 15 years ago, I had no idea what to expect. But having had my fill of books written by white Westerners about Africa in which other white Westerners invariably played the leading roles, I became an instant fan. Not only was the Zanzibar-born Gurnah an astoundingly beautiful writer, but he also placed brown and black people at the center of his stories. In the decade after that, during which I lived briefly in Zanzibar and then in Kenya, I came to appreciate both Gurnah’s novelistic skills and his ability to evoke the sights and sounds of the East African coast.

So it was with great excitement that after hearing that Gurnah had won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature a few months ago, I wrote to several friends in Kenya to share the good news. True, I told them, Gurnah’s win was not quite as thrilling as would have been the case with Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, long tipped as a Nobel contender. But Gurnah was still an East African—one cited by the judges for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

No one, however, apart from the members of my Nairobi book club, whom I had persuaded to read Gurnah’s Desertion, had heard of him. I think, although I’m not sure, that we had to order the book from the UK or the US, but I do remember clearly that it was the only book we read over half a dozen years that everyone praised.

The lack of awareness of Gurnah was even more true in Tanzania, where books written in English, like Gurnah’s, are expensive and not easy to come by. A Kiswahili translation of his best-known novel, Paradise, is forthcoming, but how well it will sell remains to be seen. “The middle-class will have read him, people who have been to university,” my Zanzibar friend Fatma Alloo told me, but not ordinary people.

Gurnah himself, at 73 an emeritus professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Kent, England, wryly noted in an interview in The Guardian after he’d won the prize that while he was content with the readers he had, he could certainly do with more. I hope that not only will he now get them, but that many will come from East Africa, because what Gurnah has to say is important for anyone trying to make sense of the colonial past. “Often as East Africans, we see the world through other people’s eyes,” a Tanzanian publisher told the BBC. “But with Gurnah, we can also see ourselves.”

Although Desertion remains my favorite of Gurnah’s novels, new readers would do well to start with Gurnah’s latest book, Afterlives. It explores not the relatively familiar British era of colonialism in East Africa but rather the far less well-known German one that ended after World War I. The main characters are the kind of people whom Gurnah might have known before he fled to England at the age of 18 following the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution: not high-ranking generals and international officials but rather ordinary people whose lives are irrevocably changed by events they barely, if at all, are aware of.

Hamza is a young man who, as a child, was given to a merchant to cover his father’s debts. He escapes his small town and small life by becoming a member of the Schutztruppe, the German troops raised from among their colonial subjects. In time, Hamza, a quiet and gentle soul, raises the ire of a German officer who deliberately maims him, but he also acquires, from another German officer, an ability to read and write that will later help him to get a job. Eventually he meets a young woman, herself a survivor of a cruel childhood, and together they have a son and build a modest life. It will be this son who eventually learns the fate of his uncle, also a one-time member of the Schutztruppe, who managed to get to Germany after the war only to die in a Nazi concentration camp after being convicted of racially forbidden relations with a German woman.

Thus, Gurnah shows us, colonialism continues to affect the lives of those it touches even after the colonialists themselves have long departed.

There are, without question, ample reasons to write about colonialism with anger and sometimes despair, as in a long line of African novels including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ngugi’s Weep Not Child. I still remember how the Kenyan students I was teaching a few years after independence fought over the right to be next in line to borrow my copy of Ngugi’s powerful story. But Gurnah’s approach is different. Aminatta Forna, the accomplished West African novelist, has said of Afterlives that its story “is one of simple lives buffeted by colonial ambitions, of the courage it takes to endure, to hold oneself with dignity, and to live with hope in the heart.”

Gurnah knows very well the colonial period of which he writes. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he commented that people of his generation in Zanzibar grew up in what he described as the period of “high imperial confidence,” and “perhaps did not see clearly, or in great enough depth, the way in which the colonial encounter had transformed our lives, that our corruptions and misrule were in some measure also part of that colonial legacy.” He also spoke of feeling the need to write about the colonial period as he and others like him remembered it, not as outsiders wanted it remembered. “It became necessary then to refuse such a history,” he said, and instead “to write of the persecutions and cruelties which the self-congratulations of our rulers sought to wipe from our memory.”

But there are no polemics in Gurnah’s writings. He is a novelist, not a political activist.  And he writes not just about the injustices of colonial rule but also about the unexpected acts of kindness. In Afterlives, a German family looks after Hamza following the brutal attack on him by the German officer, and many years later the wife in that family helps Hamza’s son in his quest to find out what happened to his uncle. Similarly, in Desertion, a local trader, Hassanali, looks after an Englishman whom he has found near death and who ends up falling in love with Hassanali’s sister.

Those who know Gurnah describe him as sharing some of the qualities that make many of his protagonists, including Hamza and Hassanali, so appealing. Fatma Alloo, who introduced Gurnah at a literary forum during Zanzibar’s Festival of the Dhow a few years ago, describes him as “very humble” and “a lovely, lovely guy.” Many of his family still live in Zanzibar, she says, and Gurnah regularly comes to visit them. Ahmed Rajab, who grew up in Stone Town at the same time as Gurnah and went to both Quran school and regular school with him, wrote in a Daily Mail article after Gurnah’s Nobel award that he remembered Gurnah as “a reserved, almost introverted boy.”  According to Rajab, Gurnah’s father was a successful businessman whose family came originally from south Yemen, thus accounting for the fact that they were among those targeted by the revolutionaries who sought to overthrow Zanzibar’s Arab-dominated elite. Gurnah himself has described the period after the uprising as one of “vindictive terror” in which escape seemed the only possible route. “I was ashamed of my country, of the brutalities and horrors we had inflicted on ourselves,” he wrote in a later article about refugees.

One theme that Afterlives only touches on, but which is the central theme of many of Gurnah’s other books, is what happens to those like himself who leave one world and enter another. Most often the place of exile is England, where the characters experience racism and condescension even when they succeed in building new lives. Guilt looms large for many, along with alienation and loneliness. It’s the story of our time—not just of those fleeing violence but also of those following a dream or a lover—and Gurnah’s depictions in novels like By the Sea accurately reflect these realities. But to me, the England of Gurnah’s novels always seems a bit lifeless. In contrast, the books of his that speak most insistently to me and I would guess to anyone who lives in, or knows, East Africa are those like Afterlives which pulse with a richness of character and setting.

This is of course hardly surprising; most writers, and especially those living far from their original homes, draw deeply from their childhoods. Fatma Alloo says that at the literary forum that Gurnah addressed, he told the audience that everything he writes comes from Zanzibar—that “Zanzibar is in my blood.”

Abdulrazak-Gurnah:  Abdulrazak Gurnah, who grew up in Zanzibar, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.
This article first appeared in Issue 100 of Old Africa Magazine, 2022.


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