Paradise, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, is a completely different style from that of any African novel I have read in this course. The first major difference is the geographic area in which the novel takes place. Initially, the novel takes place in Tanzania, where our protagonist lives with his family, before he is taken away by his “Uncle” to a port town further up the Swahili coast prior to WWI. The novel sees that our protagonist moves all around Tanzania and into the Congo. Through this movement we see a picture of many tribes and cultures in this, relatively, small plot of land in Africa. The first cultural group the book observes is the Muslim Africans of the Swahili coast. These people are highly religious and very much against any form of blasphemy. However, even though these people are very religious, almost none of them, except the imams who were normally Arab, can understand the Arabic language the Koran is written in, but they are forced to go to school to learn how to memorize the words without the meaning. A Sikh mechanic originating from Mumbai, who the protagonist admires for his storytelling, comments on this inability to understand.
“ ‘I am going to translate the Koran,’ Kalasinga said suddenly. ‘Into Swahili,’ he added, when the others had stopped laughing. ‘You can’t even speak Kiswahili,’ Hamid said, ‘Let alone read Arabic.’ ‘I will translate it from the English translation,’ Kalasinga said, looking grim. ‘Why do you want to do that?’ Hussein asked. ‘I don’t think I’ve heard you suggest anything more futile. Why do you want to do this?’ ‘to make you stupid natives hear the ranting God you worship,’ Kalasinga said. ‘It will be my crusade. Can you understand what it says there in Arabic? A little perhaps, but most of your stupid native brothers don’t. That’s what makes you all stupid natives. Well, maybe if you did understand, you’d see how intolerant your Allah is. And instead of worshipping him, you’d find something better to do.’ ‘Wallah!’ Hamid said, no longer amused. ‘I doubt that it’s proper for someone like you to speak of Him in that unforgivable way. Perhaps someone should teach this hairy dog a lesson. I think next time you come eavesdropping on our conversations at the shop I’ll tell the stupid natives what you said. They’ll soon set fire to your hairy arse.’ ‘I will translate the Koran,’ KAlasinga said firmly. ‘Because I care for my fellow human beings, even if they are only ignorant Allah-wallahs. Is this religion for grown-up people? Maybe I don’t know what God is, or remember all his thousand names and his million promises, but I know that he can’t be this big bully you worship’ ” (85).
We think of colonization as the Western power coming in and dominating the African continent through religion, political maneuvering, and force; but they are by no means the first colonizing force to change Africa. The Islamic Empire, later the Ottoman Empire, was a present force in eastern Africa since 630 AD, and were so until the fall of the Ottomans in WWI. Though they were not as harsh and expansion centric in their conquering of Africa, the Muslims used religion, trade, political maneuvering, and force just as the western powers did. However, for some reason we disregard that history and thus Africa as a whole suffered through a much harsher second colonial era. Those who continued the expansion of their spheres of influence using the Muslim’s colonialization tactics actually foresaw the coming tides of change.
The antagonist of the book, Uncle Aziz, was a business man who started off with a moderate amount of money and gained much more when he married a rich widower. He used her wealth to expand his influence as a merchant and start becoming a broker. Through his brokerage business he give high risk investments to people he know will fail, so that he will always have people in his debt. He doesn’t need the money from them, he has plenty from his wife and business, but he wants people to worship him, which they very much do. Because he is known not to bring up debts, except under specific circumstances, people flock to him as if he were God himself, but he uses religion to humble himself outwardly. In this way he looks like a perfect human being; generous, powerful, rich, married, jovial, and humble. Even the main character, who is very much observant and grounded, as a child saw him as, “Uncle Aziz who was the centre and meaning of that life, it was around him that everything turned” (37). However, Aziz was by no means a perfect man, let alone a good man. He sees everything in terms of how it can serve him and what he can gain. When he does call up debts, they are debts of human service, he requires the children of his debtors. Yusuf, the protagonist, Khalil, and Amina are simply the current servants he has claimed. He uses these servants for two means, the first is for free work. Khalil is forced to work the shop due to his father’s debt. Amina, Khalil’s sister, also works for the household serving Aziz’s wife. Finally, Yusuf does several things, but his mainly he works with the shop and eventually he would become a porter for one of Aziz’s merchant expeditions. Their second task is companionship and worship of Aziz. He requires them kiss his hand whenever he leaves, requires them to call him seyyid, and generally to be thankful for all he gives them. Khalil does all of this and more, as he has tricked himself into seeing Aziz as a saint figure, however Yusuf, though at times enamored, could never really feel that same way. It was this defiance that attracted Aziz to Yusuf as he got older and made Yusuf become a close confidant of Aziz in order to convert Yusuf. He would fail in his conversion and even become jealous of Yusuf when Aziz’s first wife, who suffers a skin ailment, revers Yusuf as an angel that can heal her skin with his touch. It is at this time that Aziz takes him away, first to the mountains, then to the Congo, where we see native Africans who have not been as afflicted by the first colonial regime.
Aziz and his merchant crew take a Conrad-esque journey to the heart of Africa where they must trade their cheaper goods for the highly sought after goods like ivory and rhino horn. As they go through each village they roar in with horns and drums to announce their gracious arrival to the savage lands. Each of these villages were run by a “sultan”, who was typically an elder, who would require goods as tribute to not detain, or even harm, them in their journey across their land. Each of these villages had their own gods and religions that they revered and lived by. In this way Gurnah both observes the native traditions, while criticizing it at times. For example, when arriving at one village near a shallow river, a girl from the village is eaten by a crocodile and as reparations they require something dire of the merchant band as they have brought evil upon this sultan’s land. At night, by “luck”, one of the porters was mauled by a hyena and left nearly dead, but instead of being allowed to help him as much as they could, the sultan required him to be left to die, as his blood would purify the land. Though this is an obvious criticism of how, though it was no fault of the merchant band for that poor girl’s death, they were blamed because of superstition, Gurnah is not objectively critical of the traditional religions. Later, when they reached a larger body of water that required canoes to cross, a deadly storm hit while the natives were shepherding the party and instead of descending into panic, they trusted in the local god to keep them safe if they rowed to his island nearby. They safely got to the island and made a sacrifice, which stopped the storm. Whether you believe the sacrifice of goods stopped the storm or not, the fact is that their faith gave them the strength of perseverance to get safely through the storm. They made it to the end of their journey in the Congo after this, though it did not end as predicted, and that is when they return to Tanzania and we see the final group that has recently come to this part of Africa, the Germans.
The end of the book is the start of WWI and sees the town in which the protagonist lives be raided by the Germans for soldiers. Perhaps surprisingly, Yusuf, after hiding and evading the forces when they did their search for soldiers, decides to run after them and join them as they are leaving town. From today’s standpoint that is flabbergasting as we know the atrocities the westerns committed during this time period, but for Yusuf, it was trading one slaver for another and at least had the choice in this case. Furthermore, the Germans throughout the book, though by no means seen as saints or saviors, brought order on an unlawful land. It was because of the Germans that Yusuf was alive at the end of the book because when he and Aziz’s merchant and were detained and beaten for the sins of a merchant band that had come months prior and ripped off the village, it was the Germans that came, saw that there was no evidence that this was the same group of merchants, and forced the village to give back their things. The Germans also declared it illegal to take tribute in exchange for passage from one village territory to another. It is in this way that, though the atrocities of the colonizers can never be forgotten, we also see how the west was not only a source of atrocities.