A truly beautiful book, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea is full of quiet insight about leaving home, about families, about illegal immigration, and about malice. It has a brilliant humour. Here is a bit about a madrasa, a chuoni on the island of Zanzibar:
Chuoni, that was where we went to learn the aliph-be-te so we could read the Koran and listen to the miraculous events which befell the Prophet throughout his lifetime, salallahu-wa-ale. And whenever there was time to spare, or the heat was too great to concentrate on the nimbly curling letters on the page, we listened to stories of the hair-raising tortures that awaited us after death. Nobody bothered with age in chuoni. You started more or less as soon as you were toilet-trained and stayed there until you could read the Koran from the beginning to end, or until you found the nerve to escape, or until the teachers could no longer bear to have you around, or your parents refused to pay the miserable pittance which was the teacher’s fee. Most people had made their escape by the age of thirteen or so (p. 36).
It is a truthful book unlike most other books about exile. And the malice can escalate from the petty to the operatic in a few devastating and beautifully described steps. There is so little nostalgia here about “home”:
I’d forgotten so much… Willfully, I suspect. I mean that I willfully forgot so much. I was listening to you and thinking, Lord, that’s what it was like. That is precisely how it was. All that bickering and pettiness. All that insulting. Old people with their unending grudges and their malice. That was what it felt like as a child, whispers and accusation, and complicated indignations that stretched further and further back all the time (p. 193).
And later the same narrator says,
When I escaped from GDR, I never wrote to them, and I guessed that they would not know where I was so they would never be able to write to me. I wanted nothing to do with them, and their hatreds and their demands. Their hatreds of each other, the hatreds that made him rant and mumble and fall into that corrosive silence of his. I know you’re not supposed to be able to say that about your parents, but it was a bit of luck, being able to escape from the GDR into a kind of anonymity, even to be able to change my name, to escape from them. To be able to start again. You know that fantasy? (p. 239).
And you think wow. This is on the one hand about the myth of starting over and on the other hand it doubles back on itself and gently chides itself. The chiding is done by the other narrator (there are two – and there are millions of stories within stories):
I marvelled at [his] sternness about his parents, not because it was inconceivable from so far away, where the insistent demands of intimacy can be deflected with silence, but because I wondered about the price he would have to pay for his perverse triumph, and how much those looks of pain owed to the inevitable distress and guilt he would feel (p. 239)
Oh my god, the gentle but lacerating insight that stays with you. Much critical theory has questioned the (im)possibility of love’s “insistent demands of intimacy” – I was only today reading Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where he brutally makes love the compromise we make when we give up the free play of sex:
Love, and the enduring and responsible relations which it demands, are founded on a union of sexuality with ‘affection,’ and this union is the historical result of a long and cruel process of domestication, in which the instinct’s legitimate manifestation is made supreme and its component parts are arrested in their development. Thus cultural refinement of sexuality, its sublimation to love, took place within a civilization which established possessive private relations apart from, and in decisive aspects conflicting with, the possessive societal relations…. The full force of civilized morality was mobilized against the use of the body as mere object, means, instrument of pleasure; such reification was tabooed and remained the ill-reputed privilege of whores, degenerates and perverts (pp. 200-201).
And of course in a funny and provocative exchange with Michael Hardt, Lauren Berlant suggests that there are “other modes of relating,”
the ones involving proximity, solidarity, collegiality, friendship, the light touch and intermittent ones, and then the hatreds, aversions, and not caring (the pleasure of the city: to be proximate without a plan) (p.687).
But back to Gurnah’s By the Sea. This is a book that accumulates inside your capillaries, under your skin. You remember images from it when you are doing something entirely unrelated. Phrases come back insistently. That fragment I have bolded above is just so beautiful, so heart-breaking, so true.
And he has extraordinary passages about detention camps on islands and in Tanzania, where without much sentimentality or using the vocabulary of trauma he recounts the indignity, the horror of such postcolonial brutality and political malice. Many of the island detainees are people designated as Omanis:
The government had been using the island as a detention centre since independence. They rounded up whole families of people of Omani descent, especially those who lived in the country or wore beards and turbans or were related to the ousted Sultan, and transported them to the small island some distance off shore. There they were detained under guard, until eventually, several months later, ships chartered by the Omani government took them away in their thousands. There were so many of them that it was weeks before the ships stopped coming. It was known that there were still some people detained there. The whole island was out of bounds to visitors, so what was known about what happened there relied on rumour and a photograph snapped by someone unknown and printed in a newspaper in Kenya. It showed a scene which was not unfamiliar from press photographs of other disasters – a crowd of people squatting on the ground, some of them with heads bent, some looking towards the camera with tired melting eyes,some with cautious interest, bearded men capless and worn out, women with heads shawled and eyes cast down, children staring (p. 222).
And the bits about both of the main characters’ illegal immigration into the UK (both as refugees, one during the Cold War, one long after) are gently, beautifully rich and point to the diminished possibilities and futures of such migration as decades have gone by. Here, there is no sentimentality either, no inevitable goodness in victimhood, nor any extravagant virtue in halfhearted hospitalities.
But the book also has lovely sketches of how the sea was woven into the lives of the Zanzibaris:
A nahodha (a ship’s captain) cut a figure in the streets, a man of the sea striding about, attending to merchandise and technicalities, calling and urging porters and crew before the tide turned or the wind dropped. When he walked past, going about his affairs, people greeted him and called out to him, sometimes by name and sometimes by his calling (p. 177)
It definitely reminded me of the Villiers memoir of sailing on a dhow from the Arabian Peninsula to the east coast of Africa. And “the traders and the sailors who came during the musim were an uncouth and rough-hewn riff-raff, although this is not to say they did not have a decorous integrity of their own” (p. 21). He has more to say about them
For centuries, intrepid traders and sailors, most of them barbarous and poor no doubt, made the annual journey to that stretch of coast on the eastern side of the continent., which had cusped so long ago to receive the musim winds. They brought with them their goods and their God and their way of looking at the world, their stories and their songs and their prayers, and just a glimpse of the learning which was the jewel of their endeavours. And they brought their hungers and greeds, their fantasies and lies and hatreds, leaving some among their numbers behind for whole life-times and taking what they could buy, trade, or snatch away with them, including people they bought or kidnapped or sold into labour and degradation in their own lands. After all that time, the people who lived on that coast hardly knew who they were, but knew enough to cling to what made them different from those they despised, among themselves as well as among the outlying progeny of the human race in the interior of the continent (p. 15).
And there is this geopolitical story that starts with the Customs Police:
You know, the people who stand at the harbour gate and search all the vehicles, and keep unauthorised people out, and require a bribe for everything. You didn’t need to be able to read and write for that kind of a job, a lowly job in most people’s eyes, which I suppose is how Nuhu got it. I didn’t know he was attracted to that kind of work, unforms and those heavy boots. … Anyway, after a few years Nuhu found a way of leaving, of escaping to God knows where. He was in a good position to do that,you might think, but in those early years [of mass arrests] the Harbour Police were very vigilant, the ones with guns and powerful motor-boats not the slouching bawabs of whom Nuhu was one. The penalties for attempting to escape were severe then. He must have stowed away in one of the Cargo ships, and to judge by the destination of the ships that used to call on us then, he is now living somewhere in Russia or China or the former GDR. If he survived undetected, or if the crew did not throw him overboard, or if he did not find a way to jumping ship earlier in Aden or Mogadisho, or Port Said (pp.207-208).
And the one unquestionably villainous character in the story is
a Persian trader from Bahrain who had come to our part of the world with the musim, the winds of the monsoons, he and thousands of other traders from Arabia, the Gulf, India and Sind, and the Horn of Africa. They had been doing this every year for at least a thousand years. In the last months of the year, the winds blow steadily across the Indian Ocean towards the coast of Africa, where the currents obligingly provide a channel to harbour. Then in the early months of the new year, the winds turn around and blow in the opposite directions, ready to speed the traders home. It was all as if intended to be exactly thus, that the winds and currents would only reach the stretch of coast from southern Somalia to Sofala, at the northern end of what has become known as the Mozambique Channel. South of his stretch, the currents turned evil and cold, and ships that strayed beyond there were never heard of again. South of Sofala was an impenetrable sea of strange mists, and whirlpools a mile wide, and giant luminescent stingrays rising to the surface in the dead of night and monstrous squids obscuring the horizon (pp. 14-15).
But even the villainous trader has a family story that is entirely embedded in and interwoven with the history of empire, of British betrayals and devastations their law and avarice and order caused. And in this story, the “natives” are not innocent, nor victims, and they are not even strictly “natives” – a Bahraini of Persian origin starting his business in Malaya under the rule of the British has a kind of colonial cosmopolitanism that much history erases (though of course Conrad touches on it in his Lord Jim and so much else).
And then the empire also arrives in the east coast of Africa, along with maps and their magical properties:
Then the Portuguese, rounding the continent, burst so unexpectedly and so disastrously from that unknown and impenetrable sea, and put paid to medieval geography with their sea-borne cannons. They wreaked their religion-crazed havoc on islands, harbours and cities, exulting over their cruelty to the inhabitants they plundered. Then the Omanis came to remove them and take charge in the name of the true God, and brought with them Indian money, with the British close behind, and close behind them the Germans and the French and whoever else had the wherewithal.
New maps were made, complete maps, so that every inch was accounted for, and everyone now knew who they were, or at least who they belonged to. Those maps, how they transformed everything. And so it came to pass that in time those scattered little towns by the sea along the African coast found themselves part of huge territories stretching for hundreds of miles into the interior, teeming with people they had thought beneath them, and who when the time came promptly returned the favour. Among the many deprivations inflicted on those towns by the sea was the prohibition of the musim trade. The last months of the year would no longer see crowds of sailing ships lying plank to plank in the harbour, the sea between them glistening with slicks of their waste, or the streets thronged with Somalis or Suri Arabs or Sindhis, buying and selling and breaking into incomprehensible fights, and at night camping in the open spaces, singing cheerful songs and brewing tea, or stretched out on the ground in their grimy rags, shouting raucous ribaldries at each other (pp. 15-16).
The rhythm of the sentences and their force that carries them forward and forward and forward until we arrive at independence – and then the darkness of betrayals and cruelty after independence. I now have to read his Paradise.