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July 2022 Issue [Reviews]

When the Monsoon Winds Turned

The lost worlds of Abdulrazak Gurnah
Illustration by Diana Ejaita

Illustration by Diana Ejaita


When the Monsoon Winds Turned

The lost worlds of Abdulrazak Gurnah

Discussed in this essay:

Memory of Departure, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Bloomsbury. 208 pages. $17.

By the Sea, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Bloomsbury. 245 pages. $12.

Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Riverhead. 320 pages. $28.

Admiring Silence, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Bloomsbury. 272 pages. $18.

Desertion, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Anchor. 262 pages. $23.

Paradise, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. The New Press. 256 pages. $22.95.

A tree-lined street in Southsea, on the southern coast of England, is not where the Sultanate of Zanzibar would have been expected to come to an end. But it was there, behind an imposing red door, that Sultan Sayyid Jamshid bin Abdullah Al Said spent almost six decades of exile before he was permitted, in September 2020, to return to his ancestral home of Oman as an elderly and reduced member of the royal family. It was a long history with a sudden, brutal end: from 1698, when the sultan of Oman expelled the Portuguese from the Swahili coast; to 1832, when the Omanis moved their capital from Muscat to Zanzibar; up to 1964, when the sultan was forced to flee the violent Zanzibar revolution, which led to the massacre of local Arabs, Afro-Arabs and South Asians. The particular world they had created of Indian Ocean trade, slavery, and an Islamic creole culture had seemed permanent, but evaporated within a few years. Abdulrazak Gurnah, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021, was born into the twilight of that world in 1948, an African boy of Arab heritage (Yemeni rather than Omani) whose mixed inheritance would displace him, both geographically and artistically. His ten novels are littered with men who wander the world aimlessly, on old dhows or modern ships, and seem to seek a home that never materializes.

Twenty-four Victoria Grove in Southsea was no palace, but for Jamshid bin Abdullah, who had escaped Zanzibar with sixty-one of his closest relatives and aides, London and its extravagant hotels proved too costly. The British government, with its own expensive royal family to keep, gave the sultan a £100,000 payoff and a monthly stipend of £1,500, and he slunk away to a quiet, uneventful retirement as they had hoped. The semidetached villa was a sensible purchase for a man who had presumably never worked or budgeted in his life, and he chose an unexpectedly literary neighborhood. Southsea was part of the busy port of Portsmouth and had become a favored seaside resort in the nineteenth century. Arthur Conan Doyle had rented a villa on Elm Grove, a ten-minute walk away, and set up a makeshift doctor’s surgery in the front room, where he wrote the first two Sherlock Holmes novels in his spare time. Even closer to the sultan’s home, a mere three-minute stroll, is a detached house with a blue plaque stating that the Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling lived there between the ages of five and twelve, exiled from India for the sake of an English education, in a boarding house he called the “house of desolation.” In his autobiography, Kipling writes of life in that gloomy and violent abode as “calculated torture—religious as well as scientific.” Nevertheless, he continued, “it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort.”

When Kipling’s eyesight and mental health began to deteriorate, and he threw a negative school report away rather than present it to the madam of the house, she beat him and made him walk to class with a placard reading liar around his neck. Petty violence, small-town life, the impassive sea; these are the ingredients of much of Gurnah’s work, too: the violent father who beats his son almost to death in Memory of Departure, the whispers surrounding the relationship between the Persian trader Hussein and the teenage Hassan in By the Sea, Hamza’s melancholy walks along the docks in Afterlives. Gurnah began writing as a twenty-one-year-old exile in England, building on the Islamic literary influences he had brought with him and reading Naipaul and other postcolonial literature that chimed with his condition. It took twelve years for his first novel, Memory of Departure, to find a publisher, but then his nine succeeding novels—set in Britain, Germany, Zanzibar, and along the East African coast from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first—have found critical acclaim and a small but committed audience. To read Gurnah is to encounter a cacophony of gossipy voices arguing over one another, but the silence or absence of certain voices is what lingers: the girls kept in seclusion or unhappy marriages, the villagers attacked and humiliated by colonial forces, the downhearted young men who sneak off to sea, never to be heard from again.

Gurnah left Zanzibar in 1967, three years after the sultan, as there seemed to be no future for Arabs, Indians, or other outsiders in a country that was now firmly in the hands of the long-oppressed black majority. Thousands of Arabs were killed in the first weeks of the revolution, and rapes, arrests, and the nationalization of property soon followed. The Gurnah family lost the large store emblazoned with their surname in Zanzibar Town, the island’s capital, and sent both sons, Abdulrazak and Ahmed, to England. The bitterness of that period is best expressed in his 1996 novel, Admiring Silence:

Six-o’clock curfew until further notice, public gatherings of more than three people are illegal until further notice . . . all passports are invalid, all travel is illegal, all land is nationalized. Gangsters roamed the streets with gleaming guns they had liberated from the riot-police arsenal, plundering where they chose, demanding a display of timid submission from everyone, seeking out those with whom they had scores to settle, making a point of calling on the proud and arrogant to humiliate and abuse them.

This was a time for submission, as the mirage of Arab power was stripped away. The seemingly insatiable slave trade that had operated between Zanzibar and the Persian Gulf (as well as the Ottoman Empire and other parts of East Africa) had forced hundreds of thousands of captives from as far as the Congo and Nyasaland (now Malawi) into exile, and those who remained in Zanzibar were forced to work on clove and sesame plantations, as maids and artisans and as concubines and cooks. The bodies of those too sick to sell were thrown to the sharks in the Indian Ocean, their remains washing back with the tide and filling the humid air with the smell of decomposition. The slave trade was abolished in 1873, but slavery remained legal until 1897. An agent of the Anti-Slavery Society who was sent to Zanzibar on a fact-finding mission in May 1895 claimed that the sultan alone owned thirty thousand slaves, and that a brisk trade in slaves still operated outside of British view, from the islands’ many creeks and mangroves. “The blanched bones which strew the ground passed over by the Slave caravans on their funereal march to the coast,” he wrote in his report, “the blood and desolation that have always followed in the wake of Slave-hunting, all cry for reparation and vengeance for the crimes of ages.” That vengeance came just sixty-nine years later, leading the unnamed narrator of Admiring Silence to mull over what had happened to his kind:

So when the time came to begin thinking of ourselves in the future, we persuaded ourselves that the objects of this abuse had not noticed what had happened to them, or had forgiven and would now like to embrace a new rhetoric of unity and nationalism. To enter into a mature compromise in everyone’s interest. But they didn’t. They wanted to glory in grievance, in promises of vengeance, in their past oppression, in their present poverty and in the nobility of their darker skins.

In England, Gurnah and many of his lonely characters—refugees, teachers, academics—would meet a tribe even more naïve in their expectations of ignorance, amnesia, and forgiveness. Great Britain had diminished rapidly from a globe-spanning superpower to a sad, insular island, and after granting its former colonies independence, it was now expected to grant asylum to those it had left abandoned and vulnerable: a mob of dark-skinned, nominally British natives whom the British could not readily tell apart or welcome home. This double chastening is at the heart of what propels Gurnah’s fiction: the impossibility of belonging, and the way rootlessness thwarts a sense of a real future anywhere. In his 2001 masterpiece By the Sea, the elderly furniture seller Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick Airport and claims asylum. He pretends to be unable to speak English, as advised by the trafficker who had arranged his flight from Tanzania, but thinks as he is interrogated by the immigration official:

Do you remember that endless catalogue of objects that were taken away to Europe because they were too fragile and delicate to be left in the clumsy and careless hands of natives? I am fragile and precious too, a sacred work, too delicate to be left in the hands of natives, so now you’d better take me too. I joke, I joke.

While in Admiring Silence, the narrator grieved that the British had taken the loot of empire and left them with the angst, Saleh Omar transforms himself into the loot, to be sequestered safely and anonymously in the metropole’s detention centers and boarding houses. Too Arab in Zanzibar and too black in Britain, Omar must make himself small, smaller still, and accept whatever advice or kindness comes his way. His precious casket of ud-al-qimari, the perfumed wood of the Khmers, is stolen from him by Kevin Edelman, the gatekeeper of Britain, who takes it as a kind of tribute—the price of asylum.

In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, Gurnah recounted his own arrival at Gatwick Airport in 1968 as a bespectacled, studious teenager running away from state “bullies.” “What you don’t know in those situations is what it is that you’re kind of giving up . . . that you’re leaving behind,” he said. “So going to England was like an adventure in some ways, but it was also a great loss.”

Gurnah did not have to is dhiib, or give himself up, as Somalis call the humiliating act of submitting yourself for asylum at the airport. Gurnah and his brother arrived on tourist visas, but entered college and remained in the country without the authorities seeming to notice. The flush of arrivals from East Africa led to a surge in racist political rhetoric and street violence, all of it given a veneer of respectability when, in 1968, the Conservative shadow secretary of state for defence, Enoch Powell, gave what later became known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Powell had previously boasted to the editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star: “I’m going to make a speech at the weekend and it’s going to go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket; but whereas all rockets fall to the earth, this one is going to stay up.” Stay up it did. His primary focus was opposing the Race Relations Bill of 1968, which the Labour government had proposed to make housing and employment discrimination on racial grounds illegal. In florid words, he ranted and raved about a future in which “I am filled with foreboding,” and “like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ” He described a future where “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” and respectable, elderly white women are “followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.”

The whip, the water churning with the blood of innocents, the slow decline into race war: these images must have struck young Gurnah and made him feel as if he had fled one form of chaos for another. The racist language of that time—of piccaninnies, darkies, wogs—litters his novels. Decades later, in By the Sea, as Saleh Omar and his old neighbor Latif Mahmud navigate Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, they still hear the old invective. In one scene, a university professor walks to work near Tottenham Court Road in central London when an “older man in a heavy and expensive black coat” hisses at him, and after catching his attention, says, “You grinning blackamoor.” With decades of experience of this kind of thing and a bookish frame of mind, Gurnah thinks about the provenance of that anachronistic word:

Such a strange word, blackamoor, that a between black and moor bothered me at once, and habit or training made me start thinking about when it came into use, whether it was in use in ordinary parole, to the extent that people wandered down the street and accosted a strolling darkie with it.

Gurnah seems to swill the word in his mouth before spitting it out. There is humor in this experience, and also when the two Eastern European refugees lodged in the same decrepit bed-and-breakfast as Omar laugh at his rejection of ham for breakfast: “Muslim man, he don’t eat pig, he don’t piss alcohol. Clean clean clean, wash wash wash. Black man.” This comedown in station and dignity is something that washes over both men.

Over Gurnah’s ten novels there is a perceptible shift in perspective, language, and stance: from the angry young man raging at Tanzania’s stinking alleys and crusty latrines, and the small-mindedness and casual violence (both domestic and political), to a mature, broad-minded curiosity about how it all came to be; the one who left vacating the stage for all the ones who stayed behind. In Desertion, published in 2005, he examines how one scandalous affair between an Afro-Indian woman and an English traveler in 1899 creates turmoil decades down the line. Gurnah shows that even though the story had ended for the traveler when he returned to England, it hadn’t for the other parties. It is, he writes, “about how one story contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time, and about how stories capture us and entangle us for all time.”

Even in his 1994 novel Paradise, dedicated to his mother, some of the beauty of the place he had left and lost starts to creep in, from “the best Peshawar rice, glistening with ghee and dotted with sultanas and almonds” to the “crushed garlands of marigolds and jasmine” strewn across the paths. The novel, set in colonial East Africa, follows Yusuf, who is sold into indentured servitude at the age of twelve to pay off a family debt. There are journeys, but not the modern exodus to Europe; instead, there is “upcountry” Africa to venture into, with its “savage” hordes of Somalis, Oromo, Nyamwezi, or Maasai, or the Indian Ocean to traverse by dhow or steamer—an ocean that welcomes all “coast people,” whether Arab, Malay, or some mix of everything. There is love in Paradise as well as brutality. Foreign traders, who have stopped at a character’s home, are described as having “slept under the breadfruit trees in the clearing and shared the food of the house, repaying their hosts with small gifts and courtesies.” Gurnah is reclaiming the history of the monsoon winds, which created a specific and disappearing culture in Zanzibar and along the East African coast. He is not nostalgic about this past, but he wants it recorded, measured, and weighed, from the drum, horn, and tamburi that played whenever a trading caravan set off for the interior to the clash of many cultures, each trying to make a buck from the other. As the trading caravan in Paradise goes farther upcountry, the nudity of African women and the effect it has on these foreign traders is examined: “Her chest was uncovered, revealing her breasts. She took no notice as Kalasinga stirred near her, making noises of desire.”

With trade came romantic or sexual interactions that were often the cause of future antipathies: young African girls and boys abducted and sold as sexual playthings, African boys castrated so they could be put to work guarding harems, women tricked into marriage by Arabs, Persians, or Indians who returned to their real families when the winds turned, the subjugation of black women as public objects while Muslim daughters were kept safely out of sight in their homes. The hybrid culture created out of these violent and unhappy encounters was doomed to die; the one thing that has remained is the language, Swahili, which has captured that history like a fly in amber.

Even before the Zanzibar revolution, Gurnah intimates in his most recent novel, Afterlives, that his people had grown weary and compliant with the forces of history. Afterlives begins where Paradise ended, in the same volatile environment before the Germans had been ousted by the British. One of the novel’s characters, Ilyas, is reminiscent of Yusuf from Paradise in the lack of control he has over his own life, and is kidnapped by a soldier before ending up in the custody of a German farmer, who sends him to a mission school. Later he fought on the side of the Germans in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania) during the First World War. After the depredations of the slave caravans came the Germans and their Schutztruppe, who boasted about their exploits and “subdued and flogged and disciplined and terrified” the local population. That the First World War caused immense devastation in Tanganyika and Zanzibar is the first thing that Gurnah makes clear. Second is that there are no moral certainties to be found, that we are all made small by history and must grab whatever chance at survival we can. When people—particularly men—leave, they leave, and women and children must continue with their lives. Departure is now not a heroic escapade, but an act of folly or cowardice. In Afterlives, when the mystery of what had happened to Ilyas is finally unearthed in a German archive, it is a sad little story, with none of the patient optimism of the sister he had left behind in Zanzibar. After being released from British detention in Mombasa in 1918, he had made his way to Hamburg, where he performed in “low-life . . . cabarets” and marched alongside Nazis who wanted their colonies back (a sentiment Ilyas agreed with), only to be arrested for having an affair with an Aryan woman and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he died in 1942. The important thing about Ilyas is not what he did or where he went, but the absence he left behind, the vacuums that had to be filled after his disappearance.

What happens to the person who leaves home? Maybe there is a clue in Admiring Silence, when, at the end of his marriage, the unnamed narrator says, “I don’t know how I’m going to get through to the other side. I have to kill the person I know myself to be so as to find this other one I am going to become.” It is an idea reminiscent of a song by the acclaimed taarab singer Siti Binti Saad, who propagated the Swahili language through her hugely popular recordings in the early twentieth century. In “Kijiti,” she sings, “Kenda nae maguguni kamrejesha maiti  /  He took her to the bush and brought her back a corpse.” In Zanzibar, many people are undead, unburied, and always at the periphery of perception, seen in the children they left behind or in the ruins of their dwellings.

The Nobel committee awarded the literature prize to Gurnah for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” It seems fitting that even after this prestigious award he still does not fit neatly into one camp. The Tanzanian government quickly congratulated him on his win while the British government kept quiet, and he has belatedly come to the attention of Arab publishers and readers. It is all somehow humorous and depressing at the same time—a mixture of emotions that Gurnah has so skillfully portrayed in his writing. That he thought the phone call from the Swedish Academy was a prank is also not surprising—scheming merchants and resentful relatives play such cruel games in his novels. But it is suggestive of his modesty, and his ability to observe from and blur into the background, that he thought other writers were more predictable candidates—writers who had been accepted into the Heinemann African Writers Series while he had been declined. In his acceptance speech, he said:

Writing is not about one thing, not about this issue or that, or this concern or another, and since its concern is human life in one way or another, sooner or later cruelty and love and weakness become its subject. I believe that writing also has to show what can be otherwise, what it is that the hard domineering eye cannot see, what makes people, apparently small in stature, feel assured in themselves regardless of the disdain of others. So I found it necessary to write about that as well, and to do so truthfully, so that both the ugliness and the virtue come through, and the human being appears out of the simplification and stereotype. When that works, a kind of beauty comes out of it.

The determined nature with which Gurnah has memorialized the world he was born into and later lost is not unique, but shows a remarkable dedication to one project. Gurnah is a man of memory, of melancholy, of sly smiles and abrupt goodbyes, of the Indian Ocean and the English Channel, of those who stutter or stay silent, of women looking down from grilled balconies, of crushed marigolds and blood-spotted lanes, of those who are forced to run and those who decide to.

 is the author of three novels: Black Mamba Boy, The Orchard of Lost Souls, and the 2021 Booker Prize finalist The Fortune Men.

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July 2022

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