Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Home Search: New Frame
On the night of January 11, 1964, a month after Zanzibar gained independence, the Arab Sultan and his elected constitutional government were overthrown by forces claiming to represent the African racial majority. There have been reprisals and pogroms against Arabs and South Asians, resulting in the deaths of around 20,000 people.
Zanzibar’s much-vaunted cosmopolitanism clashes with repressed memories of slavery and the slave trade. It was one of the main slave trading ports and by the 19th century around 50,000 slaves passed through the slave markets here. The new rhetoric pits the African against the Arab.
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Abdulrazak Gurnah, of Arab descent, fled Zanzibar in 1967 for England with his brother, to land amidst racial hatred in a country facing imperial decline and growing uselessness. In 1968, Enoch Powell was scheduled to deliver his infamous Rivers of Blood speech as he predicted a violent and bloody future for Britain with what he and other Tories saw as a growing stream of immigrants.
Gurnah’s work reflects these stories of the Indian Ocean world, colonialism, migration, violence and race. What does it mean to belong to somewhere, and does the migrant live a life that can only consist of facing, with a lingering memory of past and present violence?
Migration as a process
In Gurnah’s novels, migration is not a single act. It is an ongoing process with individuals constantly caught between two worlds, bearing the scars of old degradation and lingering secrets. It’s a state of suspended animation, and like Hannah in The last gift, attacks his mother, why do these âdespicable immigrant tragediesâ continue to haunt people? They are ordinary people without enormous psychic resources, who make do and there is the promise of redemption that lies in the suggestions of a life beyond the space of the novel. Gurnah leaves windows open in each of her novels suggesting possibilities for healing through return, new encounters, and possible resolutions. However, the return is as fraught with possibilities of disillusion as it is with a feeling of not fitting in.
At Gurnah Admire the silence as much as By the sea what the returning migrant is confronted with is a feeling of impassable distance, born as much from the distance as from the guilt of leaving. In the first novel, the presence of constantly blocked toilets becomes a metaphor for both stagnation and postcolony misery. The central character of Admire the silence lies to his white partner about his country and himself to esteem himself as much as to solicit affinities. It’s his way of managing and coping.
- Part one | Land issues and historical distortions
There is no base here, no refuge from the heartless world. Families are fragile entities and are made up as much of internal tensions as of their contingent membership. One can be taken like a foundling, and subjected to an authoritarian patriarch. On the other hand, as Gurnah says, “even love can be overwhelming” because families make demands on individuals; fierce chains of loyalty or requisite obedience bind us. The threat is present at all times and the child is the main candidate for potential violence. The same goes for young women, who are manipulated and begin to acquire simple “market value”.
In Departure, the protagonist’s childhood is short and brutal. In Dottie, the eponymous character “passes by there” but not his brothers and sisters. Yusuf in paradise survives, but luck matters as much as individual resilience or ingenuity. There is none of the sentimentality associated with the bourgeois fiction of the family as a unit which despite all its problems offers space to return. There is not there, as Gertrude Stein might have said, in the immigrant world of Gurnah.
The lasting impact of colonialism
The world of the Indian Ocean encroaches on the consciousness of the characters in which being a Muslim is less a matter of religion than a cultural cosmopolis – the World of Arabian Nights and the tales of trickster Abu Nawas. It is a world that encompasses Palestine, the Swahili coast from Somalia to Mozambique, and Aden, Kerala and Bombay. Madagascar, an African island, seems to belong to another planet of this world determined by monsoon winds and historical networks. The Indian Ocean is both vast and familiar in its micro-worlds. Colonialism has an impact on this world and creates new hierarchies and disturbances.
In Beyond, we get a parable of a German colony in southern Africa during the First World War. We now know that the colonial wars involved the large-scale carnage of colonial troops from Africa and Asia and the cutesy European summons from Ypres and Flanders generally overlook this fact. a oberleutnant develops an affinity for Hamza, his ordinance, and tries to civilize him by cultivating a love for Friedrich Schiller’s poetry. This misguided humanism is rooted in the harshness of racial difference and the impossibility of friendship between unequal people. As Gurnah shows, the ideological superiority mindset can only exude condescension, not affinity.
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Abbas in The last gift feels like he comes from a tiny place, he remains afraid of the world with its vastness. This feeling of men from small places trying to find a home in the world is a theme that runs through Gurnah’s novels. Yet despite the scars, memories of violence and the fragility of relationships, they eventually come out.
This article was first published by Indian Express.