Abdulrazak Gurnah
Abdulrazak Gurnah; drawing by David Levine

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.

Gurnah’s most recent novel, Desertion, begins in East Africa under the British, in 1899, two years after the abolition of slavery, and thirteen years after the sphere-of-influence accord between the British and the Germans, which gave the British Kenya and the Germans Tanganyika. In this new era of imperial expansion owing to the rubber trade and the building of the railroads, Martin Pearce, an English gentleman and Orientalist, is brought into the lonely life of Rehana Zakariya, an Indian-African woman isolated in a crumbling town down the Kenyan coast from Mombasa. A century later, the story of their secret affair captivates their descendants, who are strangers to one another, but in whom, in their avid, forgiving curiosity about the lovers, East and West will meet again.

When the novel opens, Rehana’s brother, an Indian shopkeeper, finds Pearce collapsed from exhaustion in a square, in front of a mosque, and takes him to his shop. For a moment, Rehana thinks the semiconscious figure may be the husband who abandoned her years before, a merchant from India who simply went back when it suited him. The unexplained appearance of a European, or mzungu, is an event and as soon as Frederick Turner, the colonial administrator, hears of Pearce, he ventures into streets he finds disgusting in order to rescue the white man from his brown Samaritans. Swahili is the common language and there are people who speak Arabic and Gujarati fluently, but before Pearce stumbled into town, Turner has had only a drunken rubber plantation manager for English conversation and white male companionship of his own class. The plantation manager tends to hold forth about how the inevitable Darwinian disappearance of Africans will make room for white settlers throughout East Africa. “This continent has the potential to be another America.” The harvests had been profitable, until one English manager took it upon himself to free the sultan’s slaves and reemploy them as wage labor, at which point they ran off. People won’t work anyway.

“In slavery they learned idleness and evasion, and now cannot conceive of the idea of working with any kind of endeavour or responsibility, even for payment,” Turner observes, a creature of his prejudices, too. Indians had been there before the Portuguese. “If you see an Indian trader setting up in business, you can be pretty certain there is a penny or two to be made in the place,” he says. A cultivated man, as Gurnah portrays him, Turner is nevertheless a mere wheel of the colonial administration who had been more comfortable in India than in small, bypassed Zanzibar. “No African language had writing until the missionaries arrived,” he reminds Pearce.

While convalescing at Turner’s house, Pearce tells his story, which Turner misunderstands, because he assumes that Pearce’s attitudes toward Africa and Africans are like his own. Pearce tells Turner he was a historian and a linguist, and had been traveling in Abyssinia, working on a book, when he met an Englishman who invited him to join his hunting expedition to Somalia. Since he had hardly traveled there, he couldn’t resist going along. “The white hunter organized everything, the camels, the guides, the provisions, like an angry quartermaster most of the time.” They killed every day. “It was unbearable destruction.” Slaughtered meat, drying hides, flies. He protested, until he was allowed to head for the coast with Somali guides, who eventually abandoned him rather than kill him.

Because Pearce can speak Arabic, as well as some Swahili, he can avoid discussions with the other white men about “the hubris of Empire” and make his own contacts among the townspeople. “He loved the way his halting knowledge of the language had always won him friends in his travels, and now here too. He was not at a loss to understand why.” When invited by Rehana’s brother to lunch, he readily accepts. While Turner behaves in an insulting and threatening manner toward the shopkeeper and his family, Pearce is conscious of his debt to Rehana’s brother, not doubting that “natives” are entitled to a gentleman’s consideration. He is introduced to Rehana. “That was what he saw first, those eyes.”

Gurnah shows what the colonizers think of the colonized, but also what the local population thinks of Europeans in their power. While Turner’s first thought is to get Pearce away from the local people, they see only the arrogance and ignorance of his precipitous actions. The differences in perception and the cultural misunderstandings between brown and white people make for Gurnah’s deeper subject in the novel. Unfortunately at the point in the story where Rehana and Pearce begin their affair, the narrative ends, and Rashid, a man of this century, an Indian in exile from Zanzibar living in England, takes over in the first person. He says he does not know how Rehana and Pearce became lovers and can’t imagine how they circumvented the woman’s guardians. Moreover, “the people [Pearce] was among [i.e., the local British] would have been curious of how he went about his affairs. They would have kept their eye on him.” Rashid toys with different versions of how the affair may have started. He knows from his brother that Rehana followed Pearce to Mombasa and that they lived together until Pearce, it was said, “came to his senses” and returned to England.

What Rashid knows about their story comes from his brother, Amin, because the love affair had consequences for him. Desertion now becomes a novel about the involvement of the twentieth-century characters in the lovers’ past: “about how one story [the love affair between Rehana and Pearce] contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time”—that is, the twentieth-century characters will become part of this unknown past.

The novel abandons the story of Rehana and Pearce’s love affair to tell the story of Rashid, his brother, Amin, and his sister, who all grow up after World War II in crumbling Zanzibar. Rashid and Amin progress from Koran schools to state schools. Amin enrolls in a teachers’ college. They do not know that they are trying to work out their futures between the end of one age and the beginning of another.

This section of the novel concerns another illicit affair, between Amin and Jamila, a friend of his sister’s, a divorced woman six years his senior who lives in an apartment in her family’s house with her own street door. That she is of a higher class than Amin only seems to further darken her image in the eyes of his family. It turns out, Rashid tells us, that she is the granddaughter of Pearce and Rehana, a woman still notorious in their families. Though Jamila hasn’t been approved by his family, Amin dreams of their life together. “He walked home like someone remade, beautiful and loved.” The lovers are discovered and his parents force Amin to give her up.

Rashid’s reflections then go back to the year before independence, and he suffers guilt that he was too caught up in his own excitement that he was leaving to study in London to realize the depths of his brother’s heartbreak over the loss of Jamila. He recalls his own alienation as a student in Britain in the late 1960s, and remembers that it was years before he could write home about his doctoral degree in English, a long time after the brutal politics of the new Tanzanian regime back home had turned him into an exile. He remembers the telegram from his brother telling him that his mother has died. It has been twenty-two years since he last saw her. He gets a parcel containing his sister’s book of poems, published in Rome, and presumably written in Swahili, because Gurnah never specifies in which language a character is attempting to communicate (just as he never says what these people call themselves: black, brown, African, Indian). A poem about Jamila and Amin makes Rashid weep. After he learns that his brother has become nearly blind, he receives the notebooks that Amin kept in his youth, his melancholy, beautifully written record of his doomed affair and his account of Jamila’s later life as a mistress of a minister in the new government, and what Amin knows of her grandmother’s love affair with an Englishman back at the turn of the century.

Later, at “a conference on the treatment of mixed-race sexuality in English writing” in Cardiff, Frederick Turner’s granddaughter Barbara happens to be in the audience for Rashid’s paper on “race and sexuality in settler writing in Kenya.” In this speech he talks about what he then knew of Rehana’s story of desertion. “I did not at that point know Pearce’s name,” Rashid says. After he meets the granddaughter, he learns that Turner had written his memoirs, in which he had given a brief version of an affair between a native girl and an unnamed Englishman. Frederick Turner’s granddaughter is also Martin Pearce’s granddaughter. The two men had met again, it turns out, back in England and Pearce’s daughter by his white English wife later married Turner’s son. So Rashid has discovered Rehana’s name from his brother’s notebooks and Pearce’s name from Turner’s granddaughter, who is as interested in their story as he is. Rashid implies that he is having an affair with Barbara and that she is resolved to find Jamila and her other East African relatives. He thinks it is time for him to go home, too, “to put my fears to rest and to beg pardon for my neglect.”

It is too bad that Gurnah drops the story of Rehana and Pearce’s affair, because it is the best part of Desertion. The account of their illicit love is moving, whereas his later commentary on the cultural obstacles to their love is more essayistic. The supposedly postmodern strategies Gurnah uses in this second section, of fragmentary texts, historical self-consciousness, and miraculous coincidences, are far less satisfying than the straightforward tale of romance and taboo.

Rashid’s description of his hard times in London in the 1960s puts one in mind of Naipaul talking about London in the 1950s in The Enigma of Arrival, just as Gurnah’s exiles seem related to the cynical merchant and survivor in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Yet Desertion doesn’t read like an attack on contemporary African history, perhaps because Gurnah’s twentieth-century characters of Arab and Indian origin are too much at a loss in their improvised lives to come off as superior to black Africans. But the nineteenth-century characters in Desertion are as likely as the Europeans, the mzungu, to have “a mouthful of notions about the savage,” unpredictable in his anger, uncontrollable in his hungers. “An animal.” “Everyone told savage stories all the time.”

Zanzibar’s African and Arab history is not directly described in Gurnah’s work, including the difference that made coastal Muslims so anxious to distinguish themselves from their non-Muslim, tree-worshiping neighbors. Meanwhile, the part that Islam plays in the lives of his characters is clear, if unexamined. It is simply their identity, their family rootedness. When one of his deracinated young men from Zanzibar is mistaken for a West Indian, he tells himself that he wishes he had the heart to explain that he was “strictly in Indian Ocean land,” not Afro-Caribbean, that he had nothing to do with the Atlantic; he was Muslim.

It is the Muslim encounter with European imperialism, not Africa’s encounter with the Muslim empire, that Gurnah emphasizes. But Gurnah doesn’t seem interested in the problems among Indians, Arabs, and Africans in Africa, and he lets them sit just below the surface. He is thinking culturally, which isn’t always the same thing as thinking racially. And yet for his East African characters, their being Muslim can isolate them within English society, even when they are only nominally Muslim. It’s as though Gurnah’s characters don’t understand: they think they are representing a culture, whereas they are being perceived in racial terms. But maybe the insistence on looking at things culturally hides an unease about race, as if to be Muslim and of mixed Indian Ocean ancestry were to be brown, not sub-Saharan black. Something in Gurnah’s characters doesn’t want to admit that brown wants to have its own quarrel with white and doesn’t want to make common cause with black anymore.

And yet Gurnah belongs to the African exile. He has no trouble speaking of African writing, and identifies himself as being among the African writers who compose and publish in European languages.5 He belongs to Wole Soyinka’s generation, writers for whom the founding event was not the slave-trading past but rather independence; writers betrayed by politics, many of whom have not really gone back to where they came from, except in their minds.

This Issue

April 27, 2006