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Zanzibar: Love and Exile


by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Pantheon, 262 pp., $23.00

In 1872, the year Henry Stanley returned to Zanzibar from the East African interior with the letters that made both him and the supposedly lost Dr. Livingstone famous, Richard Burton published his two-volume travelogue Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast. Perhaps he wanted to remind the reading public in Europe and elsewhere that he had been looking for the source of the Nile back in 1856, long before Dr. Livingstone came to brood on the edges of Lake Tanganyika. Burton’s work mostly reminds us that the slave trade in East Africa had been as widespread as it was in West Africa, if not more so. Like the Bible, the Koran does not prohibit slavery and in the early nineteenth century Zanzibar derived most of its wealth from slaves. However, the British Empire that had been created by slave labor no longer needed the slave trade, and in 1847 the British government persuaded Zanzibar’s sultan, Seyyid Said, to sign a treaty outlawing it, though once it was signed the British navy had trouble enforcing it.1

A meeting place of Arab, Indian, European, and African commercial interests, the slave depot at Zanzibar supplied labor for the date palm plantations on the Arabian peninsula and the tea plantations on the Indian subcontinent, and for sugar plantations as far away as Southeast Asia and the Americas. Burton had heard about “the terrors of the middle-passage,” the atrocities of capture and the brutalities of purchase. Only one in ten of the slaves selected to be eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire survived the unhygienic castration.

Burton estimated that two thirds of Zanzibar’s population were slaves, but in Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast he writes as if he doesn’t know who the black or brown people are or where they came from. Zanzibar’s population was so variously descended, from Africans, Arabs, Persians, and “Asiatic settlers and colonists,” that Burton felt himself “in the presence of another and a new race.” The “African element,” the Wasawahili, comprised of the Mahadimu, or “serviles,” and the Shirazi, or “nobles” who claimed Omani Arab origins, were, to Burton, a half-caste or mulatto people who differed from their Egyptian, Nubian, Abyssinian, Galla, Dankali, and Somal “cousins” in the crucial respect of their “negro effluvium.”

I am compelled by its high racial significance to offer a few words upon this unpleasant topic. The odour of the Wasawahili, like that of the negro, is a rank foetor, sui generis, which faintly reminded me of the ammoniacal smell exhaled by low-caste Hindus, popularly called Pariahs. These, however, owe it to external applications, aided by the want of cleanliness. All agree that it is most offensive in the yellow-skinned, and the darkest negroids are therefore preferred for domestic slaves and concubines. It does not depend upon diet. In the Anglo-American states, where blacks live like whites, no diminution of it has been remarked; nor upon want of washing,—those who bathe are not less nauseous than those who do not. After hard bodily exercise, or during mental emotion, the epiderm exudes a foetid perspiration, oily as that of orange peel: a negro’s feet will stain a mat, an oar must be scraped after he has handled it, and a woman has left upon a polished oaken gun-case a hemispherical mark that no scrubbing could remove. This “Catinga,” as the Brazilians call it, taints the room, infects every part of the body with which it comes in contact, and exerts a curious effect on the white races.2

The British had strong influence over the Zanzibar sultans during much of the nineteenth century and in 1890 they made the island a protectorate, seizing control of its administration and the sultan’s revenues. When Sultan Hamid died in 1896, the British bombarded the palace and deposed Khalid, a young slaveholding prince regarded by the people as the rightful heir. In 1897 a new sultan put in place by the British issued a decree abolishing slavery, but the price of being black—that is, the cost of someone else’s being white or even brown—remained high.

A century after Burton’s sojourn in East Africa, Evelyn Waugh’s A Tourist in Africa (1960)—so distant from the colonial ignorance of his Remote People (1930)—expresses unease with what he regards as the hasty British departure from Zanzibar in the 1950s. Writing in a period of political turbulence in the protectorate, Waugh doesn’t trust the strength of the institutions the British were leaving behind. His reservations were not unfounded: when independence came at the end of 1963, because of British policy Arabs were in the ascendant on Zanzibar. (Indians, creditors of the sultans, were the chief financiers.) Africans were dismissed from the police force. The clash between landless African laborers and the landowning Arab minority soon turned into an uprising in 1964, during which Arabs and African-Arabs were massacred in the hundreds. Thousands more were detained by the new African regime and the sultan was forced into exile.3 After the revolution, rickshaws were banned, and Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika. The new country, Tanzania, lived through decades of economic decay brought on by Julius Nyerere’s generally benign but ineffective “African socialism.” Travelers to Zanzibar found a forgotten place; the trade routes of the monsoon winds that blow in one direction during one season and in the opposite direction in the next were no longer so important to its life.4

The novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Muslim African born on Zanzibar in 1948, is an eloquent chronicler of the tragic backwater’s modern history. In his first novel, Memory of Departure (1987), the narrator reflects that “in years gone by, slavers had walked these streets. Their toes chilled by the dew, their hearts darkened with malice, they came with columns of prime flesh, herding their prize to the sea.” Gurnah writes of the Muslim world on the island and along the East African coast, particularly of the upheavals and destruction visited on the small shopkeepers and large mercantile families after Zanzibar became independent. Arab, African, Indian, and Comorian lived side by side, had intermarried, and the Zanzibaris thought of themselves as a moderate, civilized people. But in his novel Admiring Silence (1996), the unnamed narrator, an Indian-Arab exile from Zanzibar, remembers, “In reality, we were nowhere near [a] we [a united people], but usin our separate yards, locked in our historical ghettoes, self-forgiving and seething with intolerances, with racisms, and with resentments.” It was not that they didn’t know from their “colonized history books” about the “savage in the interior” who was taken captive, Gurnah’s exile continues; they had just assumed everyone would forgive the slave past and embrace national unity:

But they [black people] 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.

Often, in Gurnah’s novels, a desperate but lucky son of the house is going away to study, getting away from the new African state and its persecutions of Arabs and Indians, and promising never to come back. The place to get away to could be Kenya or the German Democratic Republic, as in the case of the exile in Admiring Silence, who had come of age in Julius Nyerere’s socialist state during the 1970s, when movements against South Africa’s apartheid government had their headquarters in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. After the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, a chorus of discontent with the US began to be heard across Africa, the narrator observes. China and the Soviet Union took up the aid projects the US refused to finance: “So halfway through the first decade of independence, we were jilted for flirting with the enemy.”

Ostensibly the exile has gone to East Germany to learn dentistry, but the first chance he gets he escapes to England. It is very much an English—not an American—exile that befalls Gurnah’s anxious men. England is a nightmare of cheapness and threatened racial violence for the Zanzibari hospital orderly in the edgy, bitter Pilgrim’s Way (1988). The revolution back home has long since taught him to be afraid and duplicitous, and he is morbidly sensitive as a foreigner in teeming London; he dropped out of university because the other students laughed when his stomach rumbled in class. He can’t bear to tell his family back in Zanzibar the truth about his failure to make it in England. A recurring theme in Gurnah’s work is that the discrepancy between what the nonwhite immigrant had expected and what he’d found in the rotting boardinghouses of London is part of his failure, what he can’t let them know back home.

Gurnah is concerned with the unbridgeable distance between the homeland and the new home, and the way one becomes a stranger in both places, gone too long from home to fit in anymore, and never completely accepted—or believing himself accepted—in England. In Gurnah’s portraits of both well-meaning and bigoted white British people, Zanzibar talks back to empire. Gurnah’s exiles and immigrants are very conscious of how being Muslims further complicates their distance from the life around them. In one novel, a man is afraid to tell his mother about his daughter, because his daughter’s mother is white, and not a Muslim, and he’s not married to her.

But in the beautiful, lyrical novel By the Sea (2000), an asylum seeker from a Muslim family in Zanzibar, who is considerably older than most of the refugees he meets in dealing with the British bureaucracy that handles cases like his, finds a measure of peace and tranquillity in England, wretched though the life of dependence in an alien society is. Gurnah also shows what it is like to return home years later to hear the oblique yet hurtful reproaches of family members who have stayed behind. Just as there is a son who gets out of Zanzibar in Gurnah’s novels, so, too, Gurnah usually provides the exiled son with an older brother who has sacrificed himself and his dreams to stay behind in Zanzibar with their parents, whose businesses and shops failed after independence, the time of the destruction of the Arab political elite by the new African government. They lost status, property, and sometimes their lives.

Most of Gurnah’s characters face eastward. Sometimes they are invested with a sense of belonging to the centuries-old Muslim trade diaspora around the Indian Ocean and to the untraceable migration of Muslims, Indians, Arabs, and Persians in the region. Paradise (1994) is set on the East African mainland in the early twentieth century, and is the story of a Muslim boy who is given by his father to a merchant in payment for a debt. The boy grows up working in a small shop in a coastal town until he is old enough to make the perilous journey with the merchant’s caravan into the interior seeking to trade for ivory. The caravan will be decimated by unprincipled African chieftains along the route. The boy hears stories around the campfire. One man claims that when Arabs first came to that part of Africa, they didn’t always capture their victims for the slave trade themselves, because there were plenty of people eager to sell their neighbors and cousins for trinkets. An Arab nationalist idea of the late 1930s held that “Arab slavery”—in Islamic regions—had been more benign and civilizing than Christian slavery in the New World, but this does not figure in the novel. Instead, Gurnah wants to show how destructive customs persisted among different peoples of African and Arab extraction around the turn of the century in East Africa, even as the brute force of German weapons was announcing their approaching occupation. (Tanganyika remained a German colony until after World War I.) Paradise ends ignobly, with the boy grown up and seeking the protection of employment with the new German masters in order to escape the wrath of the ruined merchant, whom he has also betrayed.

  1. 1

    As late as 1892, the Admiralty issued a manual of over a hundred pages to officers of the British navy setting out their powers to visit, search, and detain vessels suspected of engaging in the slave trade in East Africa. They were instructed to ask, “Have you any slaves on board the vessel, or passengers?” (Unao wateumwa ao abiria chomboni?)

  2. 2

    University Press of the Pacific, 2003. Burton had been on Zanzibar between 1856 and 1859, writing a series of reports for the Foreign Office and the Royal Geographical Society that then got lost in African colonial offices and society archives. He published First Steps in East Africa in 1856. See also Jonathan Glassman, “Slower Than a Massacre: The Multiple Sources of Racial Thought in Colonial Africa,” The American Historical Review, Vol. CIX, No. 3 (2004), and Beatrice Nicolini, Makran, Oman and Zanzibar: Three-Terminal Cultural Corridor in the Western Indian Ocean (1799–1856) (Brill, 2004).

  3. 3

    See Esmond Bradley Martin, Zanzibar: Tradition and Revolution (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978).

  4. 4

    See John Ryle, “The Lost Library of Zanzibar,” TLS, September 13, 1985, and his “Journey to Zanzibar,” Departures, November/December 1985.

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