Notes on Abdulrazak Gurnah

This is a stub. It will grow and change over time. 

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel for Literature for 2021.  I had never read him. Follows a potpourri of links and reading notes as I begin to do so, starting with his  1996 Admiring Silence.

Life’s like that, clinging futilely to the very objects that imprison us.
< Admiring Silence.


Recalling my 2000 piece, African Literatures in the year 2050, which will serve as an occasional frame-of-reference, in particular the concept of “novels of disillusionment”, which originally referred to works  from the second wave during the 1970s and which I explored further in Text, Identity, and Difference (1987). Also linking here Through a Prism Darkly, 1991 (pdf). and Jihad, Ijtihad and Other Dialogical Wars, 1996 (pdf), which were ground-breaking, ahem, pieces I wrote on Islam in African literature.


Ch 1

The tone of the first chapter of Admiring Silence reminds me of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, the former reflecting the racism of the English and their immediate insular subjects, the latter the particularly vicious forms of it as practiced in the US.

Ch 2

“Gurnah integrates bits of Swahili, Arabic, and German throughout most of his writings. He has said that he had to push back against publishers to continue this practice, while they would have preferred to “italicize or Anglicize Swahili and Arabic references and phrases in his books.”[11] Gurnah has criticized the practices in both British and American publishing which want to “make the alien seem alien” by marking ‘foreign’ terms and phrases with italics or by putting them in a glossary.[11] < Wiki Gurnah:

Ch 3: Independence was quickly followed by the Zanzibar Revolution

The prog’s Uncle Hasim had been part of the mainstream nationalist movement. His father and aunts were as well, but they were pro-Omani, hence were executed once the Revolution took hold.

Okello’s  order not to kill white people, only Arabs and Indians

Ch 4

“Don’t tell them those kinds of stories. They’ll just lap them up and start up on their racist filth” < Emma, the hero’s English lover-wife. “I even suggested we get married, for the baby’s sake, but Emma laughed at my bourgeois anxieties.”


During Mwinyi’s terms Tanzania took the first steps to reverse the socialist policies of Julius Nyerere.[3] He relaxed import restrictions and encouraged private enterprise. It was during his second term that multi-party politics were introduced under pressure for reform from foreign and domestic sources. Often referred to as Mzee Rukhsa (“Everything goes”), he pushed for liberalization of morals, beliefs, values (without breaking the law) and the economy.[4]

‘It’s going to be a girl,’ I said. ‘And we were thinking of calling her Pocahontas.’”

Part Two

‘Your Self’s grown gross, a dog that sleeps and feeds.’ Farid ud-din Attar, < The Conference of the Birds (1177) 

Already by chapter three part one in Admiring Silence, the picture becomes clearer when Gurnah depicts the havoc wrought by the Africanization, the black Africanization of Tanzanian nationalism, though he passes over in silence, so far, the slavery and the … evil of Omani hegemony, reserving his satirical barbs for the English, and letting his own family, including the pious patriarchy of his Uncle, off the hook. 

Part Two shows even more the disillusionment of which many other African wrters expressed after independence.

How telling it has become that we now read works of aictionn in terms of whom they blame.

He was, after all, a Wahhabi, those lovers of the unadorned word of God, zealots of the Sunna, the muwahhidun. The original Wahhabis were the fundamentalists of fundamentalists, and could proudly take their place among the fanatical crazies of any religion.

Omanis (64%)   Bububu, which was a kind of heartland of Omani occupation. (56%)

So they had one of their mad conversations in the Revolutionary Council for the Redemption of the Nation, and decided that these women were racists, God’s truth. That was what these racists to shame all racists arrived at as a way of forcing those women into their beds, may God strike them with vile diseases in old age. Racism is an evil which our nation cannot tolerate, the radio announced the same evening. (66%)

Part 3 

Why do I say our societies when we are all so different, from Timbuctoo to Algiers to Havana to East Timor? Because in this we are all the same, that we keep silent and nod – for fear of our lives – while bloated tyrants fart and stamp on us for their petty gratification. (87%)

Adui = SW the enemy

Admiring Silence belongs in the category of the second, post-independence phase of novels of “disillusionment” (dKwei Armah, Ouologuem, even Soyinka), a tendency commented on, including by yours truly in trhe 70s and 80s),but which is casually omitted by contemporary critical theory or poco…

The tragedy of mixing blood. (Obama’s paternal grandfather was absolutely opposed to having “the Obama blood sullied by a white woman” (p. 126, Dreams from my Father)

’‘I don’t think I ever got over those early days, though. Even after all these years I can’t get over the feeling of being alien in England, of being a foreigner. Sometimes I think that what I feel for England is disappointed love.’ (93%)

lBut now I spoke in Kiswahili,”Ala, mtu wetu,’ he said. You’re one of us. ( 90%)I made up the whole pack of lies which was my life with her because I could. (97%)


Early Swahili History Reconsidered, Thomas Spear

The Swahili, Derek Nurse and Thomas Spear.

hadithi sahihi au si sahihi SW = tale true, tale false SW = correct or incorrect story.



A Letter to Anti-Vaxxers

In 1969 I was drafted into the US Military, enough of a national emergency to send young men off to a war in Southeast Asia. I disagreed with the policies and the ethics of that war, even though they were declared a public good.

Think of the penalties the unvaccinated willl be forced to pay as being like a draft. If you don’t want to suffer them, then face the consequences.

I became a felon, a fugitive to Canada, gave up my citizenship and faced innumerable instances of legal harassment over my subsequent lifetime..

If you do not accept vaccination for the public good, then at least leave the country, like I did. 

There is always a chance, here admittedly slim, of a later amnesty.


(For the record, I was amnestied by  President Carter in 1977, my citizenship, which was illegally taken from me in the 70s, was formally restored in 2009.)

Conversation around Richard Olney

An exchange on Richard Olney, occasioned by one of our estival Olney menu dinners on28 August, which led to this IG post:


On Aug 25, 2021, at 11:34, JA wrote:


We’ll convene on Saturday at our place for the second Olney dinner this summer.  Festivities begin at 6.

Looking forward!

MM replies:

Bonus points to anyone interested in dressing up like Julia or Paul as Jonathan works his interpretation of the Olney food magic. 😘

Julia feeds Paul






Richard in his Kitchen









MM adds:


 “Richard Olney unpacked the way the French plan a menu and synchronize not only the dishes but the wines, occasion, time of year and company, to make a meal a work of art. He also gave us a model for eating that’s close to the earth and of living simply and beautifully.”

SJ intervenes :

Gosh, can I come as Richard?? He’s pretty handsome.  I guess I’ll have to take up smoking …

I reply (GL) :

If we doin’ drag I am too small to become Julia.

Richard always wore the same thing: cord espadrilles, khaki shorts and a usually checked cotton short sleeve., substituting long pants whenever restaurant protocol required. I don’t have any espadrilles anymore but when in the south of France I dressed just like him.

Yes, he smoked Gaulouses until he died at 71. He was one of rhe few who was allowed a post-prandial … cig at Chez Panisse. He called them “fags”. And I was allowed to smoke alongside him. His palette was based on nicotine, he claimed.

SJ replies :

Hah!  Thanks for the sartorial details!  Wish I had espadrilles, but I’ll pass on the Gauloises.

GL 2:

They, Gauloises, haven’t been for sale in the US for decades now. Fear of US litigation. The first years I was here I used to always bring back some packs from EU.

MM 3

Well, Nordstrom has options:  😜

I love y’all! I was just joking. And I loved those pics because Richard was in slacks and I thought barefoot in his kitchen. Thanks George for the espadrilles history. I presume the photographer or perhaps Julia insisted on the slacks. 😂

GL 3:

Since we’re on this jag, two more with Richard (courtesy of Judith Olney)

With James’s first wife, Judith, herself the author of several cookbooks. She’s on Instagram and still teaches cookery in Miami Beach. 

Richard with his sister-in-law Judith Olney









With his buddy Georges Garin in the stripèd tee, and Richard’s friend Mary Painter, by then Mary Garin, circa 1969. She was the dedicacee of Another Country. For more lit gossip see the second item in Baldwin once said, “When I realized I couldn’t marry Mary Painter, I realized I could marry no one.”

Richard, Georges Garin,, Mary Garin









Finally, the calling card of Garin’s resto on the Left Bank.  I had a fabulous 4 hour luncheon there as Mary’s guest in November, 1972, from which I emerged inebriated beyond measure to confront the full façade of Notre Dame in 5pm sunset glow. Took a cab back to my hovel in the 14th and slept until the next morning. 



GL 4

For info: Richard’s espadrilles were the basic provençal version, the rope sole with light canvas uppers. He would go through a couple of pairs every summer. Didn’t mind going barefoot either.

For those who haven’t seen it, R’s portrait of James Baldwin.


RB joins in:

Dear Georges,

Your reminisces and photos are fantastic, in all senses of the word! Wow!

And I really look forward to being with you all on Saturday!


GL 5 :

Thx, R-,

Not to be presumptious (o what the hell, why not?), the byline in my Insta account profile reads:  Memoria vitae bene actae iucunda est. Memories of a well-lived life are a pleasure.

This afternoon, anyway, I feel like I had a well-lived life 😇.


And JA’s IG on the event:

Pythagorean Proof

Every once in a while, my mind gets snagged by numbers, nowhere as often as when I was seven or eight and used to work out sums in my head (that was before I discovered masturbation).

A Financial Times recent piece by Tim Harford entitled “We must face facts — even the ones we don’t like” provides a good example.

The universe is not constructed in terms of whole numbers. A hypotenuse across a square  is prima facie evidence, a dilemma for true-believing Pythagoreans, who thought whole numbers were the basis of everything. Hence the fun in using the Pythagorean theorem to show they are not.

The square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the square of the other two sides. Formulaically:  c2 = a2 + b2 

Assume a whole number fraction, a/b, does equal √2, that is a/b  =  √2 . Let’s also assume that a/b is the simplest possible fraction, with a and b sharing no common factors.

Rearranging a/b  =  √2  gives us 2b2 = a2.

That means that a2 is an even number, which implies four thngs: a is also even. and therefore a2/2 is also even, therefore b2 is even and therefore b is even.

Alas, we began by assuming that a/b was the simplest possible whole number fraction, but we’ve just proved that a/b is the ratio of two even numbers and it follows that this fraction could be simplified by dividing both of them by 2.

This contradion shows that our original assumption — that a and b exist at all — must be wrong.

From Tim Harford, Undercover Economist, Financial Times, 10/11 July, 2021, p 18.

Performing Québec

Old Con seems to be pretty predictably on script.

Actually, it crossed my mind to say about him what John does occasionally about black woke BLM types, that they are performing their static outrage, static because things are not going to change, and if things did their spiel would have to reflect it, in which case they would have little left to say.

The reason I allow myself this bit of ad hominen characterization is because Con knows that Canada is an elite accommodation, that the official version of the country is just that, the official version, that the mass of CDN Anglophones are never going to be bilingual (in French anyway), but that the surface of interaction must reflect the pretence that both languages are equal. This is because the processes of diglossia and bilingualism are not going to be deeply affected by legislation or by official pretence. Infrastructure vs superstructure.

In particular I disagree with his claim that the Québec elite made a good-faith promise to have a bilingual Canada, and that they have “betrayed” that deal.

No, Con: no one ever imagined by that all of Canada was going to become bilingual. That bit of work was intended for the hard-working elite interlocuters, translators among them, who grease the creaky wheels of officialdom. And whence the sudden concern for poor unilingual francophones in Québec? Crocodile tears, I say. Let them stay unilingual. That’s their business, that of Québécois on the street, not a constitutional issue. And my experience as an anglophone in Q has been that for a half-century is that it is a great place, not a source of oppression. In fact most of the young in Montreal, anglophones and allophones leading, are bilingual and comfortable with it.

Put another way, Québec is no more likely to change than say South Dakota, Wyoming or … Lousiana. The secret to successful governing is allowing for variegated accommodation among diverse constituencies (did I write that?). There is huge assymetry in Canadian society, but the Q seem to understand that, as far as language goes, and have learned to get the most out of it they can. Unitarian Canuck nationalists, who can be sometimes preoccupied with Québec, want instead to iron out imperfections and wrinkles, most of which are pro forma.

All this to say that I am not worried about Q becoming a renegade province within the orbit of the capacious Canadian constitution, a wad of sticky flypaper if ever there was one.

That Zemmour is certainly a nasty piece of work, alright.

I had forgotten about Ellison’s quip, so long ago since I read it. Beautiful.

Of course I can detect traces of Lasch in your disappointment about John having based the last Bears Mentioning with a SNL skit, rather than something real …. Certainly a “secular” tendency which is rampant these days, secular in the sense of “generational”. John is at least writing in that context as an editorialist rather than as an educator. What I too dislike is the mass infusion of popular culture into education, e.g. vampire movies serving as target of “cultural analysis” — a “hook” to use your word.

Snag the young and innocent with allusions to what they already know, unload your message, and send them on the way with no further effort to understand. What ever happened to having to learn new material? OK, it you want, talk about vampires but try to include some geography and history in the discussion. Where has that Stoff come from? Etc.

But I’m an old fart. Generations pass. The sun also rises. A sentiment which Con betrays in his last sentence.