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.