Abdulrazak Gurnah, Winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature: A Memory of Zanzibar Exile
Maïlys CHAUVIN, “Abdulrazak Gurnah, Winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature: A Memory of Zanzibar Exile.” Mambo! Vol. XIX (2), 2022.
This text is the translated version of “Prix Nobel de littérature 2021, Abdulrazak Gurnah” published on the Lamenparle blog by the research unit Les Afriques dans le monde (LAM).
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This Thursday October 7th 2021 is a day for celebrating Abdulrazak Gurnah in Zanzibar and the diaspora. The Royal Swedish Academy has just awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature. The residents of Malindi, a neighborhood of Stonetown where the writer grew up, are proudly circulating a short clip made in his honor. On BBC Swahili, in London, the respected journalist and analyst Ahmed Rajab speaks with pride about his old classmate. Once again, the global Zanzibar community is connected around its talents. Gurnah is one of them!
The author of twelve novels, three of which have been translated into French (see the list at the end of this article) and Professor Emeritus in Literature at the University of Kent, Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. Zanzibar, a small archipelago belonging to the Swahili speaking and predominantly Islamic coastal community, is part of a long history of mobilities and long-distance relations and networks between the shores of the Indian Ocean, Europe, and South-East Asia that shaped a cosmopolite urban culture. Formerly the capital of the Sultanate of Oman under the British protectorate, Zanzibar – many may not remember – gained independence on December 10th 1963.
A month later, on January 12th 1964, the government was overthrown. The insurrection went along with unprecedented violence and resulted in massacres targeting people of Arab and Indian descent. Many Zanzibaris fled the country while others were imprisoned or disappeared. Those who left to study overseas in England or, later, in the socialist states of Eastern Europe, would not return. In the official nationalist narratives, the day is known as Mapinduzi, “revolution” in Swahili. This event marked a rupture in the history of the archipelago and led to the formation of a diaspora, based on former roots and activity of Zanzibaris abroad.
The People’s Republic of Zanzibar, headed by Abeid Karume, was soon absorbed into the United Republic of Tanzania on the 26th of April 1964. Julius Nyerere proposed this Union as a federation that in reality has never come into being. Zanzibar lost its sovereignty and became an autonomous entity of the new state which is still today controlled by the party-state known as Chama cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution).
Gurnah left Zanzibar after the revolution. He studied in the United Kingdom and, like many from his generation, was unable to return to Zanzibar and settled there. He became a lecturer and started to write. His novels are set in East Africa and England, in colonial and post-colonial contexts. They are crisscrossed by family and love stories that begin in the coastal towns but which stretch across the continent and towards the shores of the Indian Ocean. They also deal with experiences and routes of post-revolution exiles.
While I was researching on East African mobilities and towns, Gurnah’s works of fiction such as Memory of Departure (1987), Paradise and Desertion offered a fine and varied representation of the activities, relations, and journeys that shaped the identities and the spatial and temporal experiences of the coastal people. Indeed, the writer gives us a sense of people’s ways of living in Mombasa, Malindi and Zanzibar, the sister coastal cities that sit as pivots within the mobilities and networks of these communities. He tells us about the motivations and paths of movement that structure their extended social space: visits to cousins, weddings, adventure and curiosity, seafaring activities on dhows and cargos, jobs along the caravans or in the stores of small urban centers in Burundi, northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, as well as studies in Makerere (Uganda), Nairobi or Cairo, and commerce and trade to the Gulf and India. He shows us how coastal people move, connect and intermingle, giving us a glimpse of their extravert worldviews. A number of itinerant figures inhabit his stories: Hussein, in By the Sea, is a travelling merchant hailing from Bahrain and arriving in Zanzibar every year with the mausin, the monsoon winds that carried the dhows towards the East African coast; Farida is a young Zanzibari poet who marries in Mombasa and later travels to Rome in Desertion; the young Hassan in Memory of Departure (1987) leaves the coast and his unfortunate family for Nairobi, where he broadens his horizons and allows his identity to blossom.
Later, focusing on the influence of Zanzibar’s political history on Zanzibari mobilities and urban citizenship, I interviewed Zanzibaris who had studied and lived abroad before and after the revolution, aiming at drawing up the formation of the post-revolutionary diaspora. Three geographical centers stood out: the Gulf, particularly Oman and Dubai; Northern Europe, especially the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany and Sweden; and, slightly later on, Northern America. Since 2010, many Zanzibaris from the diaspora – members of Gurnah’s generation –have been returning to Zanzibar. Arriving from Copenhagen, Liverpool, Sheffield, London, Muscat, Dubai, Berlin, or Stockholm, they are now retired and hoping for some appeasement on the islands since the Maridhiano agreement (reconciliation in Swahili) and the Government of National Unity had been established following the October 2010 elections. Some considered living part of the time in Zanzibar, working or investing there. Before the 2010s, the term ‘diaspora’ was relatively unheard in the archipelago and was mainly used among activists and associations overseas. The denial of the negative effects of the revolution was still strong among the party-state conservatives. Gurnah provides some insights into the space of post-revolutionary Zanzibari dispersion, and the complexity of the – sometimes indirect – itineraries taken by those who would eventually settle abroad. In By the Sea, Latif left on a government scholarship for the German Democratic Republic, but he abandons his studies and leaves the country for the United Kingdom. Several members of Gurnah’s generation took similar journeys. Many became engineers in the socialist states of Eastern Europe (such as Czechoslovakia and the GDR), following cooperation agreements with Zanzibar, before going to West Germany, Sweden, or Denmark. I then started to study the dynamics of this urban citizenship of return, and the role of these comings and goings in the re-shaping of urban space and identities among returnees.
After a long phase of interviews with returnees, I turned once again to Gurnah’s novels and focused on three of them: Admiring Silence (1996), Desertion, and By the Sea. In the foreground of the stories, Gurnah narrates the lives in exile and the geographical and psychological journeys of Zanzibaris abroad, looking at departures, arrivals, settling down and, on two occasions, returning (primarily in Admiring Silence and later in Gravel Heart published in 2017). On another level, in fragments as well as longer passages, Gurnah weaves the novels with micro-narratives of political events that help to contextualize the departures of the characters and their lives in exile. Such accounts – that of the unnamed teacher in Battersea in Admiring Silence, of Rashid in Desertion, and of Latif Mahmmud and Saleh Omar in By the Sea – shape the political and social memory of the regime, as well as the memory of the interrupted lives and the post-revolutionary dispersion as expressed from the position of displaced subjects.
Indeed, Gurnah explores the lives of individuals living in the UK. Mostly these characters had come to study shortly before or after the revolution and fond themselves unable to return to Zanzibar because of the political situation. They stay and become teachers or lecturers like Gurnah himself. With a sensitive and subtle pen, he depicts different kinds of departures from the archipelago and their contexts, grounded in the reflexivity of narrators situated abroad who analyze their own situations, describing their daily lives in the present and revisiting their past. He also narrates the young men’s arrival and the first months spent in a new environment: student life among other young Africans, Arabs and Indians, the harshness of interactions with the British and a new awareness of imperialism, disappointments as well as taste and enthusiasm for their studies and new friendships created at University.
He also evokes the moment when it becomes clear to the characters that they will not be able to return to Zanzibar, and the intensity of the sudden experience of their own foreignness. Rashid in Desertion is confounded for weeks by anguish upon receiving a letter from his father, posted from Mombasa, asking him not to risk returning home. Further he describes the challenges of marital and family life and the frustrations of professional life, expressing the difficulty of finding one’s place and being happy in the space of forced expatriation. The Battersea teacher discusses the misunderstandings and distance that arise between him and his partner Emma, as well as his daughter Amelia as she grows up, and the contempt of his parents-in-law. Following a failed relationship with Margaret and another with Angela, Latif, in By the Sea, prefers to live alone.
However, Gurnah is not only concerned with the exiles and their new countries. On the contrary, his stories include and relate to those who stayed behind: parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. The relation between the exiles and those who remained punctuates the narrative in tangible and imaginary ways. Characters recollect their families’ experiences of events prior to their departure, exchange letters between brothers (Rashid in London and Amin in Zanzibar), and tune in the BBC World Service (daily listening in London and in Zanzibar); some even return to their family (in Admiring Silence and Gravel Heart). These frequent comings and goings between lives in exile abroad and Zanzibar existences reveal a search for home, the difficulty of affiliation, and the need to understand.
They also give us a sense of the complex feelings of loss, guilt, loyalty, and abandonment experienced by the exiles as well as – for different reasons – those who stayed and watched their children leave. When the Battersea teacher returns to Zanzibar, his family suggests he marries and introduces him to a young woman. When he explains that he is already in love and has a child, they express their disappointment and accuse him of bringing shame to the family. Showing their virility cruelly and authoritatively, his uncle and the local party representative declare him “lost”, not only to his country but also to himself. The party-state, omnipresent in the private lives of families, attempts another test of loyalty through the figure of the Prime Minister. Seeking to draw in new aid from European countries while he is implementing economic liberalization and a multi-party system (this context situates the story in the late 1980s), but lacking the skills to do it successfully, he flatters the teacher and invites him to stay and work with them on a project directly related to his skills (i.e. translation skills), adding that he must “not abandon them”! This policy of shame and contempt towards post-revolutionary exiles has been visible since 2010. Indeed, the government – belatedly – implemented a diaspora engagement policy that was not concerned with the recognition of past crimes and mistakes but, instead, sought to attract money and skills from Zanzibaris abroad. Moreover, the government rejected the idea of dual nationality and was reluctant to facilitate long-term residency permits.
The protagonists’ constant recollection of the past is an important element in the narrative structure of Gurnah’s fiction. Memories from the characters’ lives, family, and political events resurface regularly throughout the chapters, and are explored, described, and documented in detail. Under the pretext of explaining to the reader how their stories unfolded, the narrators –Rashid, Latif, the teacher in Battersea, Saleh Omar – (re-)trace family and island lives as if to locate and position themselves in the present. This impulse resonated with my research work, as “returnees” were constantly performing this process of recollection and elaboration, while they were now back at home. Faced with the reality of Zanzibar today, many were disturbed and disappointed. Places, ways of living and thinking, had changed and home as imagined in exile was no longer there. Wandering through the past and in the almost idealized Zanzibar of the time when they were young urbanites was very common. Alone, or meeting with others in cafés, they would pore over the stories, places, and events that had marked their neighborhood, their street or the country, searching for clarifications and hoping to understand. It seemed to me that they were not only re-engaging and re-defining a shared history but also finding a way to re-negotiate the relationship to home. Gurnah’s teacher experiences an “eviction” from his past and feels like “a refugee” from his life when he witnesses how much changed upon returning to Zanzibar. “This is no longer home”, the narrator thinks, a phrase from Gurnah’s Admiring Silence that often resonated during the interviews with returnees twenty years after he wrote the novel. The disillusionment upon their return illustrates a new loss of home and echoes a memorable phrase from Salman Rushdie’s search for an understanding of our “Imaginary homelands“: “Past is home.” Gurnah, like Rushdie, invites us to wander among the elements that shape our relationship to home. The Battersea teacher’s short stay in Zanzibar allows him to see his life in England from a new distance. And the reader realizes that his home is not situated in his new country but rather in the relationship and the world that he built with his partner Emma, whose image becomes a reference point to which he constantly clings when, surrounded by his family, he feels lost.
Within a framework of dislocated lives, Gurnah inserts elements of understanding of Zanzibar’s political history and crimes committed during the regime, focusing on the period that began with the revolution and lasted until the end of the 1980s. In his novels, this period is frequently used to mark a before and an after, demonstrating its role as a point of rupture in Zanzibari lives. He chooses to name it more soberly an “insurrection” or “uprising”. In Pilgrims Way, Gurnah describes the attackers’ violence and cruelty towards civilians through the memories of Daud, a victim and witness of the crimes. In Admiring Silence, he insists on the revolution’s effects and its prolongation in an authoritarian and violent regime, under the leadership of Karume, who he calls the “Father of the People” and a “great man”, but also “beast” and “monster”.
Zanzibar’s independence, on the 10th of December 1963, is seen through the eyes of Rashid who left Zanzibar three months earlier to attend university in London and now watches the celebrations on a television screen. He mentions the political figures who attend the ceremony – the Sultan, Prince Philip, and the British representative – and notes the parades of soldiers and the new flag flying over Zanzibar. His brother Amin described the same events in a letter sent to share this historic moment the day before. Independence heralded the coming of a new era for the urban youth of which Gurnah was a part. Those who had gone to study overseas were struck by a desire to return and contribute to the construction of the new state. But this construction did not take place. In the late 2000s, Zanzibaris entered a new phase of analysis of their past. They looked back through the events preceding the revolution and singled out the importance of Zanzibar’s independence, which had practically disappeared in the official narratives. They then circulated a video of the ceremony, taken from the colonial archives, on social media – a new resource that facilitated the re-appropriation of the past and helped to re-connect Zanzibaris abroad and on the islands.
In Admiring Silence, Gurnah addresses Zanzibar’s demise as a sovereign state. The Battersea teacher describes the island as being “forced into marriage” with “the big state next door” (Tanganyika), recalling the power held by the “Rais of our Federal Republic.” Here he is referring indirectly to Julius Nyerere, who controlled the whole of Tanzania territory at the time, and soon established a party-state that continues to dominate the country today. Since then, the form taken by this union has been constantly contested and the resulting violence of the regime bolstered the emergence of a political opposition. This opposition only recently materialized on the mainland, particularly among young, middle- and working-class urbanites, following an attempt for a constitutional reform that consolidated anti-hegemonic contest prior to the 2015 elections.
In addition, Gurnah recalls the crimes of the regime: the arbitrary arrests, deportations, detentions and disappearances that every family in Zanzibar experienced or feared during those years. These are addressed at length in By the Sea in the account that Saleh Omar gives of his life to Latif, a former refugee in the UK who escaped the violence thanks to a scholarship in the GDR. He recalls his kidnapping, an act of revenge, and his consequent summons and trial by the Party Council. He is later detained in the town prison and transferred to an island where many Zanzibaris of Omani descent were deported, later to be assisted and sheltered by the Sultanate of Oman. Saleh Omar, however, is transferred again: to camps on the mainland, far away from Zanzibar, to Arusha in the North, and then to the North-West region. After spending eleven years in detention, he turns down the opportunity of an Omani convoy rescuing Zanzibaris of Omani descent to leave the country – as his guard recommended him to do – and decides instead to wait and return to Zanzibar to meet again his wife and daughter. When he finally arrives there, he is informed that the two of them had passed away ten years before.
In Admiring Silence, the Battersea teacher visits Zanzibar for two weeks, during an amnesty that allows exiles to return to the country, and after being away for some twenty-five years. The moment he sees his family and the city, he is flooded with grief and anger. As he interacts with his relatives and neighbors, observing their lives and their actions, he thinks back to the events that led to their misery and the decline of the country’s leaders and cadres. He remembers how the Zanzibari head of state and his men embarked on debauchery and the many forms of violence they exerted. He describes the terror that spread among Zanzibari families when a policy of forced marriages was imposed on young Arab and Indian girls in the name of pro-“African” racial justice. He raises the issue of the expropriation and nationalization of Arab and Indian families’ houses in Stonetown when the Battersea teacher mentions the office of the First Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, with a beautiful view of the sea. The office is in fact located in the house of an expropriated Indian family that was forced to leave the country. The Battersea teacher also remembers the evictions that happened in that period, when all foreigners were suspected of criticizing the regime, remembering – not without humor – the new term that had cropped up all over town: persona non grata.
Gurnah more generally depicts the decrepitude of the city, its buildings and public spaces: shortages of basic foods, water cuts and power outages, and the deterioration of the sewage systems. The teacher in Admiring Silence feels loss and sadness upon seeing the beach and the waterfronts, places where he walked and went on dates during his youth but deserted now to the crows, covered in fishermen’s waste, and the bay plastered with nondescript football pitches. Most of his protagonists are also ill: uncle Hashim is on Valium, Rashid’s mother suffers glaucoma in Desertion, while his brother Amin loses his sight in one eye, finding refuge in religion. Gurnah thus provides a counter-narrative to the official history of Zanzibar where the revolution continues to be glorified – a counter-narrative told by ordinary people who left or stayed behind. In addition to being a very deserved international recognition, this Nobel Prize for Literature highlights a little-known writer in France and attests to the creative power of exile. The next step would now be to reprint and translate this magnificent body of literature into Swahili!
Maïlys Chauvin is Associated Researcher at Les Afriques dans le Monde (Bordeaux, France) and Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique (Nairobi, Kenya).
 An earlier study on Zanzibar diaspora was written by Mohamed Saleh. Saleh M., 2008. “Zanzibar outre-mer : l’importance de la diaspora insulaire” in N. Bernardie-Tahir, L’autre Zanzibar. Géographie d’une contre insularité. Paris: Karthala.
Abdurazak Gurnah novels
Memory of Departure, Jonathan Cape,1987
Pilgrims Way, Jonathan Cape, 1988
Dottie, Jonathan Cape, 1990
Paradise, Hamish Hamilton, 1994. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize
Admiring Silence, Penguin Books, 1996
By the Sea, Bloomsbury Publishing, The New Press, 2001. Longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Desertion, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005
The Last Gift, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011
Gravel Heart, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017
Afterlives, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and longlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Novels translated in French
Paradis, Serpent à plumes, 1999
Près de la mer, Galaade éditions, 2006. Winner of the RFI “Témoin du monde” Prize in 2007
Adieu Zanzibar, Galaade éditions, 2009