Abdulrazak Gurnah: celebrating multiculturalism

When reading Abdulrazak Gurnah for the first time, the reader is surprised to learn how cosmopolitan the eastern coast of the African continent has been. In the pages of the new winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Persian and Indian merchants coexist with Tanzanians and Omani sultans, revealing the rich network of cultural, social and material exchange that existed between Africa, the Middle East and Asia before the emergence of European colonialism . This cosmopolitanism has been the backbone of the Indian Ocean in general and of the island of Zanzibar in particular, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania – and the writer’s place of origin – which has witnessed millennia of Afro-Asian relations.

The migratory experience —whether of a free or forced nature— is the axis of much of the Tanzanian’s work. The author himself arrived as a refugee in the United Kingdom – the country in which he currently resides – after the Zanzibar Revolution overthrew the regime of Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah Al Said and provoked a fierce repression against the population of Arab and Asian origin on the island . This is the historical context that articulates the novel By the Sea (2001) ( On the shore , Poliedro publishing house). When the protagonist of the narrative, the Zanzibarí Saleh Omar, arrives in London requesting asylum, he only brings with him a small box of incense. The origin of this object is the starting point of a family history that transcends nations, cultures and continents and that challenges the rigid binary between ‘origin’ and ‘destination’ that normally characterizes stories about migration and the effects of colonialism.

Abdulrazak Gurnah da una clase en la Universidad de Kent en mayo de 2016.
Abdulrazak Gurnah lectures at the University of Kent in May 2016. SIMON JARRATT (AFP)

Gurnah’s narratives inhabit transcultural and multilingual spaces that seem to blur the boundaries between the ‘me’ and the ‘other’, the ‘native’ and the ‘foreigner’. The characters of By the Sea (2001) or Desertion (2006), for example, navigate fluently between the English, Swahili, Arabic or Gujarati. They are characters who seem to defy the concept of ‘origin’ or even the category of ‘nation’ itself and who find hybridity and multiculturalism a reason for celebration and empowerment. Yet Gurnah is not seduced by the tantalizing idea of ​​an idyllic pre-colonial Africa. His work also delves into the shadows of the African continent, as is the case with his most famous work, Paradise (1994) ( Paraíso , El Aleph publishing house), nominated for the Booker Prize and which recounts the slave trade that already existed in Africa in pre-colonial times.

The award of the Nobel Prize to Abdulrazah Gurnah is an opportunity to (re) discover an author who has not only managed to capture the contradictions of the migratory experience and the hybrid identities, but also allows us to reimagine a prosperous, multicultural, multilingual African continent, with its lights and shadows, but that did not need the tutelage of Europe to open up to the world.

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