Firsthand recollections - GulfToday

Firsthand recollections

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tanzanian-born Abdulrazak Gurnah is the second Muslim of Arab stock to be awarded the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature. The first was Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz who became a laureate in 1988. In 2006 Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was the second Muslim to win.

In addition to the three literature laureates, there have been seven Muslims who have been awarded the prize for peace, including Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever in 2014, two in chemistry and one in physics.

Gurnah falls into four ethno-religious categories as he is the also first black African author to win the literature award since Wole Soyinka in 1986 and the fourth black writer to achieve this honour since Tony Morrison of the US won in 1993.

Conferred since 1901, the prizes honour achievement in science, peace, and economics, as well as literature. The more famous literature prize winners included imperialist Rudyard Kipling, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Ireland’s William Butler Yeats, British dramatist George Bernard Shaw, British poet T.S Eliot, British essayist Bertrand Russell, British historian Winston Churchill, US novelist Earnest Hemmingway, France’s Albert Camus, Colombian writer Gabriel Carcia Marquez, US songster Bob Dylan and fellow refugee from colonialism V.S. Naipaul.

Gurnah was cited by the Nobel Committee “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

The citation continued: “His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world... [His] characters find themselves in a hiatus between cultures and continents, between a life that was and a life emerging; it is an insecure state that can never be resolved.”

The author of ten novels, Gurnah was completely surprised to have won the prize, which is accompanied by a cash award of $1.4 million. According to the Guardian, he did not believe the caller who rang him with the news and was convinced only when he consulted the Nobel Committee’s website. He then rang his wife Denise who was at the zoo with their grandson.

In his typically low-key response, he said the award would encourage discussion of the legacy of colonialism and becoming a refugee. “These are things that are with us every day. People are dying, people are being hurt around the world — we must deal with these issues in the most kind way.”

He pointed out, “The world is much more violent than it was in the 1960s [when he became a refugee in Britain], so there is now greater pressure [to accept migrants] on the countries that are safe, they inevitably draw more people.”

A man who has experienced colonialism, refugeedom, and cultural confusion, Gurnah was born in December 1948 in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, a former centre of the African slave trade which had been a British protectorate since 1890. Gurnah and his brother fled their homeland in 1968 following the 1964 revolution by local Africans against the ruling Arab minority and the merger of Zanzibar with Tanganyika, which gained independence from Britain in 1961, to form Tanzania.

In 2001 Gurnah wrote, “During the revolution thousands were slaughtered, whole communities were expelled and many hundreds imprisoned. In the shambles and persecutions that followed, a vindictive terror ruled our lives.”

The Gurnah brothers arrived in an overtly racist Britain which was trying to cope with Asians forced out of Kenya and Uganda. In his interview with the Guardian he said, “When I was here as a very young person, people would not have had any problem about saying to your face certain words that we now consider to be offensive. It was much more pervasive, that sort of attitude. You couldn’t even get on a bus without somehow encountering something that made you recoil.”

While such racist hostility toward Britons of colour has diminished, he said, it has morphed into antagonism toward migrants. He observed, “...we have new rules about detention of refugees and asylum-seekers that are so mean they seem to me to be almost criminal. And these are argued for and protected by the government. This doesn’t seem to me to be a big advance to the way earlier people were treated.” He singled out for blame Britain’s hard-line Home Secretary Priti Patel who, ironically, is of Ugandan-Indian background.

As he was unskilled and poor when he arrived in Britain, he was determined to get an education in order to get ahead in life. He studied at Christ Church College, Canterbury, before moving to the University of Kent where he earned his doctorate in 1982. After lecturing at Bayero University Kano, in Nigeria, he became professor of English and postcolonial literature at Kent until his retirement in 2017.

Gumah is a prolific author who writes in English although his first language is Swahili. He has produced many short stories and essays in addition to his novels. He began writing in a diary during his 20s while homesick for the Arab-ruled Zanzibar which had been engulfed by Africa. He moved from recollections from home to stories about fictional characters who are refugees trying to adapt to a land very different from their homeland.

He wrote his first novel, “Memory of Departure,” in 1987 while he was working on his Ph.D. dissertation. His book provided the foundation for his subsequent novels and stories, generally set in East Africa, about the “lingering trauma of colonialism, war and displacement.” His books have been listed for the Booker, Whitbread, Commonwealth and Writers’ Guild prizes although he failed to secure any of these prestigious awards. Until he won the Nobel Prize he did not receive the attention other writers enjoyed and his novels have not matched the commercial success of books written by Nobel Prize predecessors. On learning of the award, he quipped, “I could handle more readers.”


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