Paradise, a Novel by Abdulramzak Gurnah

Portrait of Abulrazak Gurnah Winner of 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature
By PalFest – originally posted to Flickr as Abdulrazak Gurnah on Hebron Panel, CC BY 2.0

Paradise By Abdulrazak Gurnah, Winner Of the 2021 Nobel Prize For Literature

Abdulrazak Gurnah, who taught literature at the University of Kent for many years, has just won the Nobel Prize. He is originally from Zanzibar, which he left at the age of 18 in 1966. In 1994, his novel Paradise, which is located in Tanganyika in the decade before the first world war, was long-listed for the Booker prize.

I happen to have a 1994 edition on my shelves. It is a copy our daughter annotated when it was a set-book in a course of post-colonial literature she took at University of Natal near that time.

Characters In the Novel

The hero of the story is the Swahili-speaking teenager, Yusuf. He is taken from his family by “Uncle” Aziz and put to work at his shop in another town. Another young man, called Khalil, manages this shop, and instructs young Yusuf in some bitter truths. Truths such as that they are both on “rehani” to the Uncle.

This means their parents gave them over to Uncle because of a debt: they are thus slaves for life. Actually, although Yusuf misses his parents occasionally, especially the memory of his mother, he is not unhappy with his new life in the shop.

In the main house, the mistress of the house lives in seclusion. This is not only because of Muslim custom but because she is sick. Yusuf is never invited to meet her in these early days. But he does begin to venture into the Paradise, a walled courtyard adjoining the house. This has the traditional lay-out of a central pool, flowing water in four directions, and sweet-smelling herbs.

This lay-out is said to model the Garden of Eden. It was made some years ago by a family slave. An old man now, it is said he declined to be released when slavery was abolished in that country, preferring to stay and tend his Paradise garden.

Leaving Paradise

Suddenly Yusuf is ordered to go with Uncle Aziz on one of his trading trips into the interior:
“You’ll come and trade with us, and learn the difference between the ways of civilisation and the ways of the savage,” said the headman of the porters. For the first part of the journey, most of the porters travelled third-class by train whilst the goods were put on an old lorry.

This lorry seems to me to be a bit out of place at a time when there were almost no motorised vehicles in Africa (circa 1910). I looked up the transport facts. Some railways had been built in the region by then, but motorised vehicles were rare even in South Africa. I suspect the author, born in 1948, confused stories of travel in the 1920-30 period with the earlier pre-World War I period. Never mind; it enables him to put in the book the marvelously believable character of a Sikh mechanic, a daring and humorous contrast to the Swahili characters.

When they arrived inland, near “a snowcapped mountain” (Mount Kilimanjaro, presumably) the porters “marched off in procession, carrying whatever had been assigned to them. At the head of the caravan marched their haughty captain, swinging his cane.”

Racist Commentary

Some of the locals pass (Masai, obviously)

“Imagine that God should create creatures like that. They look like something made of sin.

“How do they get themselves to look so red?

It must be the blood they drink.”

The caravan stops to leave some goods with another Arab-Swahili trader called Hamid who runs a shop there. There is more comment on the inter-tribal relations of the local people:

“The dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals… they thought war honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they acquired from their neighbours and the number of women they had abducted… their traditional victims were the cultivators who lived on the mountain slopes… they looked hardy and flat-footed, not the look of people who would travel far from their land.”

Examining Ethnic Diversity From a Personal Point Of View

On these points begin the underlinings of my studious daughter. I know that as a student in Durban she was already navigating the complexities of multi-cultural life there. There were White (at least two varieties, English and Afrikaans), Indian (Muslim or Hindu), Coloured (several varieties, from the Cape or more local) and Black African (at least three languages even from among her own relatives).

So a book that revealed the tribal and social complexities of a country further north must have been fascinating. She loved that course, she says now.

Glimpses Of Colonialism

The book also gives glimpses of colonialism. There is a Lutheran pastor working among the cultivators, giving them the plough, monogamy and “mournful choruses.” There is also another European, living on a huge fortified estate. Yusuf hears talk like this: “These Europeans are very persistent, and as they fight over the prosperity of the earth they will crush all of us… it isn’t trade they are after, but the land itself.”

Yusuf remains with Hamid, while Uncle Aziz takes his caravan further into the interior, into Congo. “On the other side of the lakes… he was trading with the Manyema people and doing good business. It was dangerous country, but trade was possible. Rubber, ivory and even a little gold, God willing.”

Hamid also takes Yusuf on a smaller four-day trade journey to Hussein, He is another Swahili trader, from Zanzibar. They travel in the van(?) belonging to the outspoken Sikh who comes out with a surprising outburst against “ignorant Allah-wallahs”; “Maybe I don’t know what God is, or remember all his thousand names and million promises, but I know that he can’t be this big bully you worship.”

Meanwhile, the more devout Hamid discovers that Yusuf can’t read the Qur‘an. So he makes sure to send him to madrassa with the children during Ramadan. But after a period gaining some literacy there, Yusuf learns more from visiting Kalasingh at his garage.

Into Congo With Uncle Aziz

The next year, Uncle Aziz arrives with an even larger caravan. He takes Yusuf with him as they trade in the various settlements going westwards into Congo. The perils of the journey are well described, the rivers they have to cross, the bartering with each “sultan” to be allowed to cross, and the dangers from animals and insects. Porters die on such journeys.

At the final destination, exhausted, and with stores depleted from the commissions paid en route, there is disappointment as that sultan turns hostile and imprisons the caravan, supposedly for a debt that another Arab trader did not pay. They are rescued by a Belgian administrator, who turns up to adjudicate. So they went back to the coast by another route:

“They had lost nearly a quarter of their men..and nearly half their goods, what with the tributes, and Chatu’s robbery.”

So Yusuf arrives back at the home of Uncle Aziz, back to his old job in the shop.

Entering the Grove Of Desire

It is only at this point in the story that “the grove of desire” becomes accessible to young Yusuf who has grown into an exceedingly handsome young man. While he is gardening, the mistress of the house (Aziz’s wife) spies on him and demands, through Khalil, to see him. Aziz is away, so both are fearful of such visits inside the house. But they have to obey, as the mistress demands. She wants young Yusuf to lay his hands upon her, which he does reluctantly, under the eyes of the young female servant, Amina, who is also “rehani.”

Eventually, it is Amina that Yusuf desires. In a novel that has so far depicted the separation of the sexes to a degree hard to imagine for non-Muslim readers, there is this late onrush of a love story. The pair are plotting to abscond together. But war interrupts and German forces march on the town, a German officer leading Askaris (Swahili youths who had enlisted).

War Intervenes

The novel ends abruptly when Yusuf runs after the Germans to join the Askaris, ”with smarting eyes.” The love line in the plot is also dropped at this point.

I disagree with the comment from the Guardian emblazoned on the front cover, “a small paradise in itself.” This is not a novel about Rousseau-esque noble savages. It is more like Conrad’s “heart of darkness,” only the viewpoint is that of “more civilised” coast people regarding the black tribes of the hinterland and, more sporadically, regarding their ruthless colonisers.

For a reader in Kent, some 100 years later and more than 7,000 km away from the region, it is an exotic glimpse into a very different multicultural world. Tanzania is home to over 100 languages. For those of us used to battling modern varieties of racism, it is salutary to recognise it in more brutal varieties prevalent in that region and epoch of Africa. Also, in a survivalist economy, cruel forms of domination and slavery (rehani) prevailed: it is not surprising that Yusuf’s final choice was to run away.

That essentially is what Gurnah did at the age of 18 – he migrated from Zanzibar. I wanted to discover his take on the varieties of racism he then encountered in the UK, but have not yet succeeded in getting an interview. 

I must just read more of his novels, most available on Kindle, but surprisingly Paradise has never been bought into the collection of Kent County Library. Perhaps it seems just too exotic.