Samir Jeraj

Abdulrazak Gurnah on Afterlives and Colonial Hypocrisy

Talking to the BBC as part of their History of the World in 100 objects, author Abdulrazak Gurnah recounted finding pieces of Chinese pottery as a young person in Zanzibar. ‘It was only later on,’ he said,

when you begin to go into museums, or hear these persistent stories of great Chinese armadas that visited East Africa, that the object then becomes valuable, a signifier of something important – a connection. And then you see the object itself, and you see its completeness, its weight, and its beauty. It makes this inescapable – this presence over centuries of a culture as far away as China.

Gurnah could be thought of a Zanzibari writer, an East African writer, an African writer, someone who writes about the Indian Ocean worlds, and as a British writer addressing issues of memory, homemaking, settling and finding space for oneself. Like the shards of Chinese pottery, his characters’ worlds are broken, and yet they struggle to make them complete, valuable and beautiful.

Gurnah’s latest novel starts with new beginnings. A man begins a new job that will transform his life. Elsewhere, a young man drawn into military service on behalf of a colonial power returns home. The theme of dislocation and abandonment is one Gurnah returns to throughout his novels. Afterlives opens just before the First World War in German East Africa, what is now known as Tanzania. The novel follows characters through episodes of momentous upheavals and conflict: the defeat of German Imperialism, colonisation by the British, and Independence. The focus is on the impact of these events and of colonialism on individuals, how people can move on, come together and build a life and a family of choice.

Afterlives will inevitably be seen as a sequel to Gurnah’s 1994 Booker-nominated novel Paradise, in which the main character Yussuf is sent to work off his father’s debt by working for a merchant. This back-story is similar to that of Hamza, one of the characters in Afterlives. (The often-repeated phrase from Paradise ‘he ain’t my uncle’ makes an appearance when Hamza finally reveals his past life.) Afterlives also picks up chronologically where Paradise finishes.

‘I think I always wanted to write about the War,’ Gurnah says when we talked about his latest book. ‘Then a couple of years ago, it seemed the right time.’ He does not tend to do directed research, and instead accumulates a knowledge and understanding of colonialism, reflecting on stories he has heard (‘experience and proximity, and then there’s always the element of luck’). As such, he felt no particular imperative to write Afterlives. But the timing of its publication is fortunate as former colonial powers like Britain and Germany are again being challenged to examine their history. ‘It’s a continuous engagement with these issues that we have to keep doing,’ says Gurnah, adding ‘There’s has always been, apparently, the current climate of attacking strangers [and of hostility] against others. But there is, at the same time, a constant, I think, fight back.’

In Gurnah’s work, historical events are filtered through individual experience. Events are worked through relatively quickly, though the pace of Afterlives makes time for Hamza and Afiya, whose romance  is attended to in quieter moments as their love grows in the face of adversity. At its heart, the novel is a series of psychological portraits addressing trauma and – as the title suggests – what comes afterwards. Some characters, like Bi Asha, are embittered and filled with grievance. Others, such as Hamza, are able to move beyond them.  Afterlives celebrates community through the interconnectedness of its characters, through their encounters with one another.  Acts of unexpected kindness follow failures in family support networks. Those already on the margins of society traverse societal boundaries. Khalifa, for example, is the legitimate child of an Asian man and African woman and can travel in both communities. These relationships across communities in Zanzibar and towns in mainland Tanganyika were not unusual and included people in Gurnah’s own family.

His story of how he came to the UK, fleeing the repressive political system in Zanzibar in the 1960s is formative in his writing. Gurnah recalls how state violence and state terror combined with economic insecurity and restrictions on speech and protest. ‘When I left was very dangerous place then. People were being jailed. There was very little room for manoeuvre, for people to work, to prosper, or even to speak and to speak openly about their discontent.’ The oppressive political environment in Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania is described in detail in Gurnah’s 2001 novel By the Sea, where petty grievances, cruelties and denouncements culminate in arrests, imprisonment and humiliation. The experience of loneliness, dislocation and trauma, as someone who effectively came to the UK as a refugee, is something he channelled into his writing. Ultimately, it would take him eighteen years to channel these experiences into his first novel.

Afterlives also travels long and far, and Gurnah makes an effort to reclaim this time in more ways than one. Stretching over fifty years, it has a defined calendar, marked by dates and events. The impact of colonisation has a long and complex history, as we remember that traditional systems of trade – such as the caravans from Paradise and the communities shaped by them – were obliterated by German and British Imperialism. Giordano Nanni, in their 2012 book argues that time itself was colonised, that people had to conform to European systems of time, partly due to bureaucratic processes. There is a hint of this manifested much later in history in Gurnah’s By the Sea. The main character refuses to use a phone, quietly both inconveniencing people and enjoying the fact that they still have to visit him unannounced.

Abdulrazak Gurnah has just retired from teaching at the University of Kent, where he had a profound impact on his students. Hana Ali recounts how he was the first Black teacher in her life. ‘I had waited 21 years.’ His status as a novelist and academic was ‘massive’ and she initially felt quite intimidated. ‘You knew you were in the room with a star, a genuine star. He is one of those people who when they when they enter the room, you kind of sit up straight a bit,’ she says. The location of the room where her seminars with Professor Gurnah took place was such that students could see him approach over the bridge in the distance, prompting them to reflect on how well-prepared they were. One is reminded of the man and the phone, of patience or convenience, and whose terms we live by. ‘He was not somebody who was just going to let you coast. He wanted people to be engaged,’ said Ali, who would think, ‘I need to come with my game face on.’

Gurnah often uses Swahili words and phrases in his books, and Afterlives is no different. His writing gently nudges the reader into acknowledging the role of colonisation in language use and its effect on literature. In the BBC4 documentary Africa Turns the Page, the programme recounts the debate between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on whether to write in the English language (Achebe), to reach a wider audience, or to write in African languages as part of the process of decolonisation (Thiong’o). Reading Gurnah’s novels as the child of an East African Asian who grew up on the Swahili coast (my father is from Mombasa), I smiled at the familiar sounds marked on the page. When we spoke by phone, I ventured a few phrases of introduction and explanation – Baba yangu anatoka Mombasa – before returning to English.

Gurnah’s characters speak to complex identities. For Hana Ali, it is an experience that resonated with her to such an extent she made his novels the subject of her PhD. His books bring together the cultural influence of Islam, ethnicity and mixed ethnicity, together with the widespread trauma of colonialism and dislocation to the West. Some characters have lost wealth or status, pretending to be less than they were in order to get along where they now are. The main character in By the Sea pretends not to speak English because he was told it would mean he was more likely to get asylum. One is forced to lie or manipulate the truth in order to comply or navigate a system. This, too, makes an appearance in Afterlives where people who had been in the German schutztruppe (the colonial army) were treated with suspicion by their new British occupiers, despite the fact many had been forced into these roles – and that the British did the same in their colonies. 

‘The colonised fought for complex reasons,’ explains Gurnah. Some were impressed by the imperial power they were being associated with and the prestige, and those were the people who volunteered to join colonial police forces and colonial armies. They were they provided a livelihood, status within their own community and with some stability in their lives. ‘A number of people just happily and willingly chose to be on that side and to fight for them,’ he adds.

German colonialism and its conflict with Britain is both the context and part of the over-arching experience through which characters develop. A German army officer, in a microcosm of colonialism itself perhaps, exhibits a fascination with one of his soldiers and his power over him, boasting that he can teach him German well enough to read Schiller while meting out brutal punishments to the same man. There is a hint of tenderness and possible sexual attraction towards him. The relationship is left unexplained. ‘He doesn’t want to acknowledge it,’ says Gurnah. ‘He doesn’t want to understand it. He doesn’t want to understand why he feels a kind of tenderness towards this gentleman.’

Later in Afterlives we encounter the ‘re-colonisation’ movement that flourished under Nazi rule which drew in several former askaris who had fought in the schutztruppe during World War One. The most famous of these, Bayume Mohamed Husen, had migrated to Germany in the late 1920s married and had children with a German woman, before he became involved with the ‘re-colonisation’ movement. He worked as an actor into the early 1940s and was later sent to a concentration camp for having an extramarital affair with a white woman. Ilyas’ tragic journey mirrors that of Husen, the fascination with the power, status and identity conferred by his association with Germany, irrespective of the rise of Naziism. The second abandonment of his sister Afiya (meaning ‘health’ in Swahili) in pursuit of reconstructing the past is a confusing act of neglect.

‘We see or hear or learn very little about Germany’s colonial encounters and German colonial experiences on the African continent,’ observes another former student of Gurnah’s, Dr Florian Stadtler, now Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Exeter. Speaking with Stadtler, it is clear that the absence of these experiences is notable in literature and novels in particular – perhaps because Germany still wrestles with the question of how a country, a people who produced great literature, art and music, could be capable of such monstrous cruelty. Academic historians have, however, made more progress on these questions of German colonialism and its legacy. Bayume Mohamed Husen’s life, for example, was the subject of a biography and documentary film. The discussions that have happened, however, have largely focused on the atrocities and genocides committed in Namibia, formerly German South West Africa.

Gurnah points out that Hannah Arendt, in her book Totalitarianism, drew a line from the violent, genocidal application of racial theories in colonies to the development of Naziism culminating in the Holocaust. Furthermore, he observes the contradiction of imperialism, that it professes concern for the people while ultimately killing them. ‘It is difficult to understand the violence and cruelty that was somehow made possible by ideas of race.’ Tangyanika suffered endless violence and the crushing of any rebellion or indiscipline by the people in this time. Yet he adds that there was a rhetoric of concern from German settlers and colonial authorities about improving health, education and agriculture. ‘There is a strange contradiction,’ he says, ‘which I think imperialism contains: on the one hand violent coercion, and on the other a sort of public moral position.’

As with several of Gurnah’s other books, the setting changes to enable Hamza and Afiya’s son to travel west, to post-World War Two Germany. There he will study and seek the personal answers to why Ilyas left and what happened to him. The ending of Afterlives brings together the themes of choice, love dislocation, memory and history. The powerful stories that Gurnah tells in his novels provoke us to examine our own choices and where they have led us today.


Samir Jeraj is a freelance journalist based in London. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, Independent, Inside Housing, New Statesman, the BBC, Channel 4 News, the New Internationalist, and OpenDemocracy.

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