Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Laureate in Literature, is among the most obscure writers to have won the prize in recent years. Better known as a scholar, Gurnah was not even a contender in the annual betting market run by Ladbrokes, the London-based gambling firm; the frontrunners from East Africa were Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (a perennial favorite, with odds of 8/1) and Nuruddin Farah (16/1). When the news broke late last year, a publishing industry insider from the U.S. calculated that Gurnah had sold about three thousand books in the country at that point in his career. Those would be bad figures for any writer, but what makes them truly miserable is the fact that Gurnah writes in English, not Swahili; he is not a foreigner but a contemporary who belongs to “our” language, our literature, our world.
Or does he? Caught off guard, the Anglo-American press reacted to Gurnah’s victory with cautious enthusiasm, celebrating him as the first Black African and Muslim to win the prize in many years (the name Abdulrazak literally means a servant of al-Razzak, which is another name for Allah). But when it came to telling us why Gurnah’s work matters, the reviewers seemed to falter, falling back into clichés about the afterlife of colonialism and the Zanzibar-born writer’s own bittersweet experiences as a migrant and refugee in the United Kingdom. Yes, colonialism was terrible, and the 1970s were not a good time for migrants in England, especially those who, like Gurnah, came as refugees fleeing authoritarian governments. While true enough, these are not sufficient reasons to pick up a new writer, to allow the pain of their lives to touch our own. Last year, Sumana Roy, in an article for this magazine, cautioned against conscripting writers from elsewhere into a compulsory moral struggle that yields an easy-to-digest lesson. But if not as a form of secular atonement, a “guilt tax” that we must pay to make peace with our own good fortune, why should we read Gurnah?
Many commentators, including Gurnah himself, have described his writing as a way of resisting European narratives about the world, but this is only partly true. The unquestionably brutal history of European colonialism in eastern Africa is indeed a major theme in Gurnah’s oeuvre. But in his best moments, Gurnah’s anger at colonial excess tends to be tempered by other emotions: guilt, bitterness, regret, nostalgia. These emotions hint at a complexity that goes beyond the powerful but fragile categories of colonizer and colonized, and the relatively short history they describe. European languages and maps do not mark the limits of Gurnah’s literary universe. What really haunts Gurnah’s prose is the centuries-long layered history of Arab and Indian presence on the Swahili coast, a history as beautiful and brutal, as ugly and bizarre, as a medieval sailor’s tale.
As Salman Rushdie has noted, the most significant events in a writer’s life invariably take place before they are born. In the nineteenth century, the island of Zanzibar, ruled by an Arab Sultan from Oman, had become the hub of a far-reaching trade in slaves, spices and ivory. Caravans from the island kingdom made their way deep into the interior of Africa, exchanging beads and cloth for ivory and slaves. With the incorporation of Zanzibar into the world economy, these ancient trade routes began serving a distinctly modern demand; carried to the ports of Zanzibar on the backs of thousands of enslaved or free porters, ivory from East and Central Africa would eventually transform into billiard balls in London, piano keys and combs in Massachusetts and bridal jewelry in India.
But the story of Zanzibar and the larger Swahili Coast cannot be told in simple black and white, as a parable about European greed and its impact on the non-white world. Before King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State, before Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz lost his soul in the “Heart of Darkness,” the African bush had already been plundered by traders from Zanzibar, led by men like Hamad bin Muhammad el Murjebi, better known to the world as Tippu Tip. (The source of this grotesque nickname was the “tip-tip” sound made by his guns, Tippu Tip would later boast in his memoir, said to be the first autobiography in Swahili). Ironically, it was the British who would finally put an end to what had become known as the “Arab slave trade” through legislation passed between 1873 and 1890; it is chiefly from the outraged accounts of hostile Christian missionaries that the European world came to know of its latter-day horrors. As the African continent came to be parceled up between rival European powers, the power of the Zanzibari sultanate faded, and the future of a polity dependent on the labor of the enslaved suddenly became precarious.
This was the world into which Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948, into a nominally Arab family. I say nominal, because in the cosmopolitan setting of Zanzibar, the word “Arab” did not imply a homogenous racial or ethnic identity—while the Sultan may have been from Oman, most of Zanzibar’s population was indigenous; even the likes of Tippu Tip were of mixed Afro-Arab heritage. But in the late colonial world, with the days of slavery still in living memory and the future of race and citizenship fiercely debated in newspapers and in the streets, it would have mattered that Gurnah’s family was in some distant way identified as Arab. It would certainly have mattered after Independence, when political parties in the islands of Pemba and Unguja (the Swahili name for Zanzibar island) organized themselves around ethnic schisms, schisms which eventually exploded into a violent revolution in 1964, just a few months after independence. Almost one of every four “Arabs” on the island was killed in the uprising, and many others fled, or disappeared into detention camps. Among those who left the island soon after the revolution was a young man called Farrokh Bulsara (who would later rename himself Freddie Mercury), and another called Abdulrazak Gurnah.
“When I left Zanzibar three or four years after the revolution, I went to England completely reckless, not knowing what I was doing,” Gurnah would later recall. “I began to write in the bitterness of the experience of those years in England.” Bitterness and its cousins, anger and disappointment, are certainly strong flavors in Gurnah’s early writing, and they lend themselves naturally to a motif that recurs in his oeuvre: that of a long, wounding journey. In his early work, this often takes the form of a physical journey from Africa to Europe that mirrors Gurnah’s own migration from province to metropolis. Having fled home, Gurnah arrived in England in the late 1960s, at the height of anti-immigrant political fervor in the country (in 1968, the conservative British politician Enoch Powell warned of a future in which the “black man will have the whip hand over the white man”; the slogan “Enoch was right” soon became a battle cry of the far right). This journey to the metropolis made Gurnah part of a foundational international cohort of postcolonial writers, an emerging Commonwealth of disaffected migrants in search of a nation: Buchi Emecheta (In the Ditch), Sam Selvon (The Lonely Londoners), George Lamming (The Pleasures of Exile) and the young V. S. Naipaul (The Mimic Men).
Unsurprisingly, the trauma of the Zanzibar Revolution weighs heavily on Gurnah’s migrants in his early novels, Memory of Departure (1987) and Pilgrims Way (1988), like a shameful secret that prevents them from fully participating in British anti-racist movements. There is no escaping it, history seems to lead in a straight line from colonialism to independence to disaster, and there is no place in it for those who don’t quite fit into a team, who are “a bit of this and a bit of that.” Despite having migrated himself, the protagonist of Pilgrims Way, for instance, remains haunted by his last conversations with friends who could not escape the revolution:
Killings! There are going to be killings here! Look at the way things are. The Arabs and the Indians own all the land and all the businesses. The blacks are the skivvies and the labourers. You and I, a bit of this and a bit of that, doing well out of it. How long do you think that’s going to last? Don’t fool yourself like all these nationalists. One of these days, these people that we’ve been making slaves of for centuries will rise up and cut the throats of their oppressors. The Indians will go back to India and the Arabs will go back to Arabia, and what will you and I do?
For most of us today, the act of migration takes the form of a gradual detachment from a place we once called home: with visits back to the old country decreasing in frequency from once every year, to once every two years, to once every ten. It was not so for Gurnah. After he fled Zanzibar as a young man, he was unable to return for more than a decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in Gurnah’s fiction, migration turns out to be an experience that diminishes everyone involved. Those who are lucky enough to escape find that migration cleaves their lives in two. The English retreat into meanness and insularity, the migrants cover up their hurt with a fake bluster. Angry, resentful, humiliated, Gurnah’s young migrants still find it difficult to hold onto their rage, which threatens to simmer and thicken into a more humiliating and sticky sense of gratitude or relief. Every migrant knows this feeling; it is the secret that makes clowns of us all. The smell of the squalor left behind tends to be very strong in Gurnah’s novels, to the point where it often overpowers the more lonely drama playing out in English pubs, boarding houses, and council flats. As Daud, the protagonist of Pilgrims Way, notes, at least the roads are paved and clean in London and there no pi-dogs feeding off waste in street corners. But how is Daud supposed to feel gratitude when he can sense the English driver marshaling the English passengers against him every time he enters a bus?
The indifference and unearned hostility with which they are greeted tends to unsettle Gurnah’s young migrants, to the point where they lose any sense of their place in the world. Here’s Rashid, from Desertion (2005), reflecting on the moment he realizes he will never go back, at least not to the same place he left behind:
I had been thinking of myself as someone in the middle part of a journey, between coming and going, fulfilling an undertaking before returning home, but I began to fear that my journey was over, that I would live all my life in England, a stranger in the middle of nowhere.
And Salim, from the more recent Gravel Heart (2017), on his years as a middling student:
I felt as if the city despised me, as if I were a tiresome and timorous child who had wandered unwelcome out of the dust and rubble of his puny island shanty into this place where boldness and greed and swagger were required for survival. …
[But] I learnt to live in London, to avoid being intimidated by crowds and by rudeness, to avoid curiosity, not to feel desolate at hostile stares.
“The achievements of exile,” as Edward Said reminds us in a famous essay, “are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.” London chips away at Gurnah’s heroes in epistolary fragments, in letters home that never get mailed. We like to think of political refugees as people gathering their strength so they may return and change the world; Gurnah’s migrants find themselves exhausted by the act of making themselves worthy of love. I’m reminded of an Indian poet that I will not name here, whose letters from the 1950s tell the heartbreaking story of an adolescent nervous breakdown and a helpless mother who could not heal her son, a story both personal and yet so typical of African and Asian students in that time, archived in blue airmail letters that flew from London to its former empire, and back again.
Unlike his early books, which are somewhat scarred by humiliation and pain, Gurnah’s recent migrant fiction is marked by a rare, detached elegance, by long sentences that flow from clause to clause, holding on to dignity against all odds. Still, as moving as it can be, Gurnah’s writing on the refugee experience tends to circle themes familiar to us from multiple generations of migrant literature in English. It is another kind of journey altogether—a reverent, almost mystic return to the landscape of colonial Africa—that sets Gurnah apart from his peers.
In his more mature fiction, Gurnah returns obsessively to what feels like an endlessly extending late colonial moment, stretching from the late nineteenth century to the Revolution of 1964. It is in this moment that Gurnah’s world seems to be forged and lost; what comes after independence feels more like an epilogue than the start of something new. The sense of standing with one’s feet in the sand during a retreating tide, as magic disappears from the physical universe, is at the heart of Gurnah’s masterpieces: Paradise (1994), Desertion and Afterlives (2020). All three books linger with strange encounters in late colonial Africa: Sikhs and Muslims in lonely trading outposts debating the exact geographical location of Paradise; a European Orientalist stumbling out of the desert, alone and empty-handed, into the arms of a pious shopkeeper in a coastal town; the askaris of the German Schutztruppe and the soldiers of the British Indian army pursuing each other in long marches through the countryside.
In its citation, the Nobel committee praised Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration” of ordinary lives lived under the shadow of large empires, and indeed, the colonial archives do reluctantly house many strange stories—of sailors, soldiers and migrants, sometimes living under assumed names, about whose ragged lives we know very little. Yet it would be difficult to describe Gurnah’s historical fiction as a simple act of recovery or resistance—even though his version of history hurts far more than his well-mannered prose would have you expect. Disappointment infects these fictions like a particularly virulent form of malaria; what appears to be a mild setback eventually takes over everything. Fathers invariably seem to wither up and die; mothers get cheated out of their inheritance; young men leave their home to make their lives elsewhere, but fortune eludes them, and they end up as servants or clerks. Evenings end in desultory walks down familiar alleys, petering away into the same stale bazaar gossip. The rich live behind high walls, in mansions by the sea, the poor sleep in shacks or sheds or inside shops with corrugated iron roofs. Love is difficult, almost impossible to find; lovers from distant lands disappear with the changing monsoon winds, leaving behind broken hearts. The revolution, when it comes, brings purges, censorship, detention camps, humiliation. Things stop working, the water supply becomes erratic, but people get by. There is nothing else to be done; this is the shape of the world. And yet for all its squalor, this is still an enchanted realm, held together by a cosmopolitan Indian Ocean culture—visited by djinns and invisible presences, the mysteries of the universe just out of reach.
The political urgency of the Zanzibar Revolution recedes in Gurnah’s enchanted historical fiction, displaced into stories of jilted love, impossible romance and vengeful husbands that recreate in English the cadences and conventions of a story told in Swahili or Arabic. In the hands of a skilled artist, pain transforms into something akin to wonder. Consider By the Sea (2001), one of the few books, fictional or otherwise, to describe the detention of ethnic minorities by the post-revolutionary regime in Zanzibar; only here, our protagonist, Saleh Omar, is not a political detainee but a shopkeeper jailed for eleven years as an act of petty vengeance by someone he has wronged in the past. Alongside entire families of Omani descent, Saleh is detained on a small island near Zanzibar, in a prison originally built by the British to hold rebellious natives and later converted into a hospital for tuberculosis patients. From his cell, Saleh hears a mysterious singing in the distance, coming over the crowns of trees. An old caretaker, who has been looking after the island from colonial times, offers an explanation:
Once, he said, he saw a column of spray race across the surface of the sea and stop on the island. When he went nearer to investigate he found a large black figure, a jinn, sleeping under a tree with a large casket open beside his head. In the large casket was a woman, stroking her hair and singing to herself, and then licking her jewelled fingers one by one, as if something sweet still remained on them. Perhaps it was her I had heard, he said. Some poor creature stolen by a black jinn and kept in a casket for his pleasure. Did I know why she was licking her jewelled fingers like that? he asked me. Because while the jinn slept, she seduced any man that was near by and took a ring as a token of her pleasure. So when she licked her fingers like that she was living again the feeling of all the men she had taken.
The imprisonment of political detainees by a post-independence regime is a familiar setting in postcolonial literature, reflecting the ubiquity of this kind of repression: ask the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Kenyan novelist Ngügï wa Thiong’o or the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, all of whom went to jail for their writing, and all of whom emerged with a renewed sense of their political vocation as writers. In By the Sea, Gurnah quickly passes over the eleven years of imprisonment his character endures in post-revolutionary Zanzibar, mostly in silence: “The years were written in the language of the body, and it is not a language I can speak with words.” What remains, what Gurnah passes on to his readers, is a fairy tale about a jinn and an imprisoned woman in a casket. This unnerving nugget exists embedded in Gurnah’s English prose as an echo from another language and literature, like the bottle of Arabic oudh Saleh brings with him when he arrives at Gatwick Airport, claiming asylum under a false name. In the midst of a rather bleak narrative of post-independence disappointment, we catch fleeting glimpses of another realm of existence. It is Gurnah’s commitment to an honest representation of the former that allows the latter to bloom.
Paradise, my favorite among Gurnah’s works, tracks the coming of age of twelve-year-old Yusuf, who is sold to a trader from a coastal town to pay off his family’s debts. At one point in the book, Yusuf accompanies this trader, whom he euphemistically calls Uncle Aziz, on a long journey through the countryside, bartering household goods (obtained through a loan from the local Indian merchants) for ivory. The novel’s account of the movement of long caravans into the African interior—thousands of porters marching for weeks at a time, led by horns and drums—is, simply put, unforgettable. As numerous scholars of Gurnah’s work have pointed out, his historical fiction responds to predecessors in both English and Swahili, drawing on Tippu Tip’s autobiography as much as Joseph Conrad and Henry Morton Stanley. Except here, instead of the cold, commercial precision of Tippu Tip’s memoir, or the paranoia and madness of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we encounter mystery, dignity and difference. No quotation could do this passage justice. Yusuf, too, fumbles for words when he tries to recall the terror and ecstasy of the journey after his return to town, describing an unexpected encounter with Mount Kilimanjaro:
The light on the mountain is green … like no light I’ve ever imagined. And the air is as if it has been washed clean. In the morning, when the sun strikes the peak of snow, it feels like eternity, like a moment which will never change. And in late afternoon near water, the sound of a voice rises deeply to the skies. One evening, on a journey up the mountain, we stopped by a waterfall. It was beautiful, as if everything was complete. I have never seen anything as beautiful as that. You could hear God breathing.
Somehow, in the midst of a long journey marked by violence, disease and death, Yusuf is able to see red cliffs rising like the Gates of Paradise, to hear God breathing. It was what he had been searching for, without knowing it.
I first read Paradise during a long layover in Dubai, in a departure hall crammed with migrant workers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sudan and god knows where else. One by one the departure gates opened, and people lined up to fly away to cities with fantastic names, names from ancient legends and medieval travelogues. Soon after sunrise, I boarded my own plane, to Calcutta, and finished the book in the air, the unseen ocean below me, thinking of the merchants of Paradise, sharing campfire stories about the impossible beauty of the gardens in cities like Bukhara, Tashkent and Herat. When did names like Herat, Timbaktu, Karachi, Dar es-Salaam and Surat lose their power to enchant us? When did they become places people feel lucky to leave, even if it is to work in a labor camp in the desert, drilling oil or constructing skyscrapers? Will these names ever recover their lost magic?
In a moving autobiographical essay on his journey as a reader, which ranges from Keats to Firdausi, Gurnah tells us that English, not Swahili, was the language in which he first learned to read seriously, “to build up a web of textual references and allusions,” until he found a form of English that could be “hospitable and roomy and spacious.” “But,” he adds, “if that is the language I learnt to read and write in, what I was to write had already been given to me a long time before that.” By some miracle, thanks to the capriciousness of the Nobel Prize committee, the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah, a stubbornly foreign 73-year-old writer, has now become available around the world, from Europe to Tanzania. Though he writes in English and lives in England, where he is Professor Emeritus at the University of Kent, it is quite possible that Gurnah may now be translated into the languages of his childhood, many of which can still be heard in the bylanes of old port cities around the Indian Ocean: Swahili, Arabic, Gujarati, Somali. After he was awarded the prize last November, I have started looking for Gurnah whenever I go into a bookstore; I have since found him in Barnes & Noble chain stores in Philadelphia and family-run bookstores in a New Delhi market. He usually has a little sticker on his cover, like an apple in a supermarket, that bluntly says “The Nobel Prize 2021,” reminding us that literary prestige is, if nothing else, a way of transforming cultural capital to money. The irony of these books now retracing Gurnah’s journey backwards, from Europe to Africa and Asia, is delicious and worth savoring. I don’t know how much of Gurnah’s oeuvre will be read a hundred years from now, when the value of this sticker will have depreciated. But I am hopeful that his legacy will survive. In an increasingly insular world, still scarred by the violence of the past, Gurnah’s wounding journeys lead us toward a distant utopian goal—the recovery of the human potential for enchantment with the foreign and the untranslatable.