September 23, 2008

The African Presence in Oman: Research Questions

My research looks at the influence of Swahili culture on Oman. This research is extremely relevant at the present time. The Arab/African dichotomy has been the subject of extensive media coverage due to the conflict in Darfur. Unsurprisingly, the media focuses only on conflict, reducing a complex historically-negotiated relationship to an ugly racial divide. The history of Oman offers another example of extensive cultural interchange between Arabs and Africans and may help shed light on questions of how intermarriage and migration complicate the simplistic Arab/African dichotomy. It also may shed light on questions of power vis-à-vis family identity.
There are various groups of people who all could be considered African, in one way or another, but who may identify as Arab, Swahili, or simply Omani. Africans in Oman have diverse origins: some come directly from East Africa for employment, while others have someone (usually a mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother) from East Africa. Still others are the descendants of Africans brought by Omani slave traders until the late nineteenth century.

My research starts from the premise that the culture that became Omani—primarily coastal Arabs of the southeast peninsula—had its origins in maritime pursuits and connections with the larger Indian Ocean world. For example, Oman in the nineteenth century encompassed diverse groups of people-- Indian traders who made up the core of Muscat’s overseas financial empire, Baluchi mercenaries, Swahili Arabs like Tippu Tip, and indigenous Zanzibaris.
Those I refer to as Swahili Arabs migrated to the Swahili coast in large numbers beginning in the early 18th century and continued until the end of the nineteenth century. There were two major waves of migration—early 18th century, after the overthrow of the Portuguese, and mid-nineteenth century, with Sultan Seyyid Said’s move to Zanzibar.

This migration gave rise to a distinct Omani influence on the coastal culture of East Africa. Tippu Tip’s family was one example of the Swahilized Arabs who traded and intermarried in Mombasa, Zanzibar, Tanga, Bagamoyo, and other city-states of the mrima.

I am most interested in contrasting the community of Swahili Arabs with their fellow Omanis. This means tracing the history of each community, their mother tongues (Arabic vs. Swahili) and the ways in which they constitute themselves as individuals and social groups. Do all now consider themselves ‘just’ Omani? What religious and cultural differences separated Zanzibari/Swahili Omanis from other Arab Omanis? Is there a social stigma in Oman in being from Zanzibar? What kind of economic differences are there between the two groups What aspects of culture in Oman can be said to have an African origin? Which nisbas are most associated with migration to East Africa?

One way I hope to answer these questions is through an individual who in many ways straddles these divides. Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi, the most famous of the nineteenth century Swahili ivory-traders, was the great grandson of an African woman and an Arab migrant trader from Oman. The first part of my research is directed towards finding relatives of Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi (Tippu Tip) and interviewing them, as well as tracing any documents related to Hamed bin Muhammed’s life and family.
Arab/African Intermarriage


Sudanese: 'What Arab-African rift?'

While the World sees only Arab-African conflict in Darfur, pockets of amity thrive unnoticed.
Christian Science Monitor
by Heba Aly
Dongola, Sudan - Ask Abbas Adam Ibrahim whether he is Arab or African, and he does not quite know how to respond. "Both," the Sudanese man says, after slight hesitation.

Mr. Adam comes from the Fur tribe, of Darfur – commonly understood to be an African tribe, under persecution by Sudan's Arab-dominated government.

Last month, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, saying "evidence shows that al-Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa groups, on account of their ethnicity."

But for Sudanese Arabs and Africans coexisting peacefully outside Darfur, these racial distinctions are not so clear.

Adam, for example, believes he has some Arab blood.

During the drought of the early 1980s, Adam left Darfur for the mostly-Arab north of Sudan, in search of work and a better life. He settled in Dongola, a city more than 300 miles north of the capital, Khartoum, and has lived among Arabs ever since. He even married one and now has four "mixed" children.

"We live here peacefully and there are no problems," he says. "We live as if we are natives here. We feel that this is our country and this is our town."

Around the corner, at a small Darfurian social club, the atmosphere is loud and buoyant. Young men gather around tables playing cards, slamming down dominoes excitedly, and watching television. They are mostly economic migrants who left Darfur years ago. Among them are members of various tribes that are killing each other back in Darfur and in neighboring Kordofan State.

"There is no such thing as Arab or African. We are all Sudanese," says Mohammed El-Cheikh an Arab from Western Kordofan. "Him over there," he says, pointing across the yard to a young man standing shyly in the corner, "that's my friend Abubakr. He's from the [African] Tama tribe.

"There are problems in Darfur, but they are not between people. They are related to the government and to politics."

In scores of markets, clubs, and homes in the Arab north, Arabs and Africans are working side by side, sending their children to the same schools and intermarrying. The Arab-African distinction that has played out so broadly in media coverage of Darfur means little to people here.

In fact, historians say the distinction has no factual basis. There is a long tradition of intermarrying between the Arab and African tribes that settled in what is now Sudan.

"No single tribe in Sudan can claim it is purely African or Arab," says history teacher and mayor of the greater Dongola locality Bushra Mohamed Saleh. "They are all mixed."

And while some tribes may be more Arab or more African, coexistence between them is nothing new. Even in Darfur, different tribal groups lived together for centuries. So-called Arab nomadic tribes and African farming communities shared the same land – the nomads using it for their cattle to graze; the farmers using it to grow their crops. Conflicts arose routinely but were solved through traditional leaders.

Things changed early this millennium when traditional leaders lost their control, guns became more commonplace, and a group of non-Arab Darfurians took up arms against the government, arguing that their region had been neglected.

In responding to this rebellion, the government made a "big, big, big mistake," says Gen. Hassan Hamadain, who governed West Darfur State during the late 1990s.

It called upon popular defense forces from local communities to combat the Darfur rebels. But those who responded were mostly Arabs, many of whom joined the now infamous janjaweed militia that is accused of razing hundreds of African villages, looting, raping, and killing along the way.

"The government made use of the conflict in Darfur in a kind of non-thoughtful way," says General Hamadain, who has since retired from politics, acknowledging that he and others failed in Darfur. "It was not sensitive to the tribal relationships, the tribal history of the area, and the resources."

And so what began as normal, cyclical conflicts between mostly Arab herders and non-Arab farmers grew to what has been termed the world's largest humanitarian disaster. The United Nations says some 300,000 have died and 2.5 million have been displaced.

Among the dead were members of Hassan Ali Ibrahim's village, which was completely destroyed by Arabs. But he says he can't hold them all responsible.

"The disputes between the Arabs and people in Darfur originate from different reasons – grazing, pastures, natural things. They are not rooted in race," said the community elder, sitting under a tree at the Islamic school he manages in Dongola, where both Arab and African children sit side by side. "The Arabs that are here have nothing to do with this."

Still, for some Darfurians, it is not so easy to forget. Daoud (not his real name) watched with his own eyes as members of his family were killed by Arab militias in West Darfur. After the first attack on his village, he found his father dead. He says he does not blame the Arabs – "Who supported them? Who gave them the guns? Wasn't it the government?" – but he still has difficulty getting too close.

"I can interact with Arabs at work or in general ways, but when it comes to close relationships, I feel there is a wall between us."

British analyst Jago Salmon says this social polarization – a result he blames partly on simplistic descriptions by Western Darfur advocates – has been an unfortunate consequence of the conflict, but was never its root.

"We were still looking for dichotomy of some kind, something that would explain what was going on easily and simply. We latched onto the Arab-African dichotomy, which did vast damage…. Then as the conflict developed, it became a reality on the ground. It became something by which people explained the conflict themselves."

But as the conflict continues in Darfur – 180,000 have fled their homes this year alone, according to the UN – Adam will wake up next to his Arab wife every morning, Ali will teach his Arab students, and plenty of other African Darfurians will keep living alongside Arabs, wishing the politics would cease and their tribes could go back to life as usual.


September 21, 2008

Sufism: Veil and Quintessence

Completed an interesting if rather wordy exposition of Sufi doctrine. The author, Frithjof Schuon, was a mystic and famous author of many works on world religion. He was initiated into the Shadhili tariqa in North Africa by Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi. I cannot do justice to the book here, but following in the critiques of rationalism and materialism I have advanced in earlier posts, I find many useful points in Schuon, not the least of which is below:

"When Plato maintains that the philosophos should think independently of common opinions, he is referring to intellection and not logic alone; whereas Descartes, who did everything to restrict and compromise the notion of philosophy, maintains this while starting from systematic doubt, to such an extent that for him philosophy is synonymous not only with rationalism but also with skepticism. This is a major suicide of the intelligence, inaugurated moreover by Pyrrho and others as a reaction against what was believed to be "metaphysical dogmatism." The "Greek miracle" is in fact the substitution of reason for intellect, of the fact for the principle, of the phenomenon for the idea, of the accident for the substance, of the form for the essence, of man for God; and this applies to art as well as thought. The true Greek miracle, if miracle there be--and in this case it would be related to the "Hindu miracle"--is doctrinal metaphysics and methodic logic, providentially utilized by the monotheistic Semites."

In other words, there is a distinction to be made between rationalism and intellect; intellect necessarily includes a sense which is beyond rationalism. This idea is expressed in the book's title, which expresses how the most profound inner truths can be 'veiled' as it where, by hyperbole, ellipsis, and apparent contradiction. Schuon offers numerous Quranic examples of this technique.
The book also has the great virtue of expounding Sufism in the context of other mystical doctrines, showing points of agreement and departure and bringing out the mystical uniqueness of tasawwuf. Good to read in companion with Seyyed Hossein Nasr's The Garden of Truth.


September 20, 2008


Five o'clock am at the hostel in Dubai. My alarm rings and I slap at it and it tumbles to the bottom bunk, careening off the head of the Australian passed out beneath me. He groans. I get up, shower, turn in my key, shoulder my bags, and walk out into the blistering heat of morning. Sweat is pouring down my arms as I struggle to the bus stop. I wait for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 35 minutes without my bus passing, even though the schedule says three buses should have passed in that time frame. I take a taxi to the bus station, where I pass out on a threadbare couch in an alley around the corner from the station. At 7:15 our bus comes chugging to the stop. There are two other foreign passengers--one is a Japanese guy going to Muscat--and two Omanis, including the driver. The two Omani guys are reminding me of Zanzibar, with their white dishdashas and woven caps with intricate geometric designs. The driver speaks Swahili!

The road from Dubai to Muscat cuts through a wasteland--all heat and rocks and desert mountains jutting raggedly from the sand. I sleep fitfully. At the border the guard looks at my Omani visa for a LOOONG time and finally stamps it.
The driver drops me at a roundabout with no shade, and then a few minutes later my contact in Oman drives up and scoops me from the side of the road. Ali is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bristol, an English teacher and former director of the Language Institute at Sultan Qaboos University. He takes me to his family's farmhouse in the village of Saham, where his cousin (or more accurately, his cousin's Bangladeshi servant) farms dates and keeps a few goats and cows.

For iftar, I eat a delicious spread: dates, sambusas, mandazi, and a kind of chicken porridge, then later fish curry and laban. Ali tells me I am the first American to pray in the village mosque. After isha prayer, the men gather and go from house to house, eating from plates of rice and lamb, fresh fruit, fried dough, and little cups of coffee. I join them, embarassed at how poor my Arabic is, but completely overwhelmed with the hospitality I am receiving. After eating again, the men trail off to watch the soccer tournament, or to play cards at the clubhouse. They teach me to play "sita'" a six-player version of spades with the trump changing every game. The trump or 'trophy card is called the "hukum." There is a lot of good natured arguing, and Ali gives me a piece of advice: "Treat every conversation as a learning opportunity."
The following night, the same ritual is repeated, and this time I meet Saleh, a retired government official whose mother is from Tanga, Tanzania. He speaks Swahili! We discuss how his family left Tanzania after the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika. He was eight years old. His younger brother Mohamed is in the military in Oman, and speaks good English but no Swahili. He tells me that Swahili is not taught in schools in Oman. No surprise there.
Later, walking through the village and along the beach, I am struck by how many Omanis seem to have African ancestry. Are these Arabized Africans the descendants of Omani men who married African women, like Saleh's mother? Or are there distinct African communities descended from the first Africans brought to Oman by Arab slave-traders?
Bidding my goodbyes in halting Arabic on the third evening in Saham, I am asked by Mohamed for my number. He wants to put me in touch with a sheikh who speaks Swahili, and from who I can learn tajwhid. My adventure in Oman is just beginning. On to Muscat!


September 18, 2008

The City That Oil Built

Ah Dubai...a modern day legend. Perhaps the essence of what Dubai is can best be summed up in the title of a photograph I came across in a gallery in the Bastakiya quarter called 'Converging Territories', in which the faces and garments of a group of young women were inscribed with the Holy Quran.
In the same way, Dubai lies at the convergence of two territories: 'piety' and 'materialism'. One would be mistaken to think that the latter is extrinsic to Islam; indeed part of me wondered if Maxime Rodinson had Dubai in the back of her mind when she wrote her now classic work, Islam and Capitalism. Wandering through the City Centre mall in Deira, I had multiple visions of this convergence: the young Emirati with the Dolce and Gabbana tank top and red-and-white headscarf, the Gap store with "Ramadan Kareem!" emblazoned on the frosted glass, the reoccuring Egpytian motif in the malls and hotels (ala Las Vegas) and the coincidence of two temporal events: the Maghrib prayer at a masjid along the creek with rows of Pakistani men eating dates and rice served from a communal pot...and the absolutely electric buzz of people as I walked through the gold souq of Deira later that night, staring at the sparkling rows of bangles, rings, and necklaces.
Dubai is young...the oldest building in the area, the al-Fahidi fort (which houses the Dubai Museum) is from 1800, and a sustained settlement did not emerge until around 1833. The roots of Dubai's phenomenonal growth can be traced to the late 1800s, when Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher al-Maktoum gave tax exemptions to foreign traders. Following that, two contracts with the British government helped to accelerate Dubai's importance as a trading center: one gave the British permission to land planes, the second, the permission to search for oil. The latter proved an inspired choice; since then Dubai has made itself hyper-friendly to multinational investment, to the point that certain zones in the city are a 100% tax-free for companies doing business and they can repatriate all the profits. Yet at some point, peak oil will hit (or maybe it already has) and Dubai will have to rely on the image it is now increasingly trying to shape: a tourist playground.
And of course, with any playground, you have to have people to clean it up; and here is what shapes the international character of Dubai: the hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the Phillipines. From the looks of it knowing Hindi or Urdu would be potentially more useful than knowing Arabic in Dubai. Hassan, a taxi driver from Pakistan, told me he didn't like Dubai because, "there is no health care...very dangerous to get sick." John from the Phillipines was working at a service station, living in one room with his wife and two kids, sharing an apartment with seven other families because the rent was so high. Still, he said, life was better here than back home. These kind of stories were everywhere during my stay stories of sheer human survival in the shadow of so much opulence; these low-wage workers drive the engine of global growth.
I stayed at the youth hostel, where I had an initially idyllic picture of sitting around late at night telling stories and jamming music with the other residents. However, most people staying in the hostel seemed to be looking for work; one young investment banker from England had just arrived to take advantage of Dubai's "emerging markets." Another young women from New Zealand had been parked at the hostel two weeks, scanning the want ads. Everyone was asleep before 10:00pm. The other 'tourist' was Hisham from Cairo; we had a great time walking around Ibn Battuta mall and Mall of the Emirates, eating Iftar buffets and people-watching until late in the evening, then taking a 2-hour long bus ride back to our hostel.
My sleep schedule has been seriously altered by the jet-lag and fasting. The first day here, I arrived at 12am and got up early in the morning at 7:30am. I rushed out to see the sights...which was a bad idea, since nothing opens until at least 10am, and the early morning Dubai heat is withering, especially when you're fasting. Water never tasted so good that evening! I learned my lesson: sleep late, or minimize morning activity, then go out at night.


September 11, 2008

Dreams from the Rail, the Road, and the River

"A dream can be the highest point of living,"
I told the policeman as he filed the report for persons missing.
My spirit ran away that day I havn't seen him since the morning.
My words were missing too I had too gesture out my warning
to the boatman to the river to the rail to the sky.
When I finally reached the station, it occured me to devise
a river of my own to catch my spirit in its torrent.
The policeman eyed me strangely as he triple stamped the warrant
for the seizure and arrest of this strange fugitive existence.
I went out into the heat of morning, mind racing like a piston.
"A dream can be the highest point of living."
Frantically fumbling through the faces I had met last evening.
The night's memory was a haze as I wandered lost in my bereaving,
stumbling past shops and churches filled with the believing,
wishing I was stoned or drunk or any type of feeling
to take away the livid fear and emptiness of its leaving.
The carbon copy of the police report lay crumpled deep inside my pocket,
as I remembered how I left the club last night, as my spirit lay forgotten:
nearly unconscious, sotted and sprawled amidst cocktail napkins as I soaked the
last sprays of intoxication from ruby throated pleasure decanters.

I wailed to remember and my tears splashed on the famished asphalt,
whose hungry tongue searched for salty drops amidst the gravel.
Lapping up my sorrow like a gift it had been given,
it spoke from deep within its bowels like a rock that had been riven.
"A dream can be the highest point of living."
As I wondered could I live even with my spirit gone.
Without the engine of desire could my body carry on?
By the river of this empty road all that touched me was a song
but I couldn't sing a note because my melody was gone.
And so I chanted mine in silence for the martyrs in my blood,
as kings, warriors, and priestesses, rose gasping from the river mud.
From the bottom of this water beneath depths I did not know,
came the master of the seasons, spinning sunlight, dusting snow,
looking something like Poseidon with his trident fit to throw.
The blood of martyrs in my veins cried out to join with this boiling stream
bearing the wreckage of oppression, all the detritus of broken dreams.
All the thousands of Katrinas and the cities they destroyed
All the ignorance and gossip of their schemings in the void.
The river swept it all along, swollen and brown, carrying champagne flutes and Gucci bags, overfed hiphop stars and their greedy CEOs, politicians with snouts, computers with secret passwords and cybernetic pleasure hookups, missiles and tanks and machine guns, and glossy magazines and catalogs and caviar buffets and purple BMWs, and mega-churches, full to the brim with the expectant faithful laying their Andrew Jacksons in the collection bucket for some lying unscrupulous sleaze bucket with a Bible.
All the stormy chaos of a fallen civilization swept past me in a river which became a flood, which became a wave, a compressed ocean unleashed with stunning ferocity on the world--reclaiming and returning its stolen innocence.

My spirit swept past.
My spirit swept past on the raging waters
My spirit swept past on the raging waters clutching the copy of my triplicate police report,
laughing at my desperation with the glee of a mad fiend,
as I ran along the river I created from my dreams.
In my intoxication of despair I threw myself beneath this raging.
In the darkness I was carried on the arms of the amazing.
I said, "Father I stretch out my hand unto Thee/Let the light from the lighthouse shine its beacon over me."

The Lord of Worlds caught my spirit and I in an olive tree on the banks of the river.
And in the tree was an orb, and in the orb was a light, and the light was a lamp that lit my body's path to allow my spirit to descend.
Frightened of song and dreams and sleep I watched my river end
in the iridescent pool of Allah's prophetic vision:
"A dream can be the highest point of living."


September 7, 2008

Refutations of a Pure Materialism

Ghazali's Proposition for a State of Experience Beyond Ordinary Perception and Logical Reason
Then I said, "My reliance on sense-data has also become untenable. Perhaps, therefore, I can rely only on those rational data which belong to the category of primary truth, such as our asserting that 'Ten is more than three' and 'One and the same thing cannot be simultaneously affirmed and denied and 'One and the same thing cannot be incipient and eternal, existent and nonexistent, necessary and impossible.'

Then sense data spoke up: "What assurance have you that your reliance on rational data is not like your reliance on sense data? Indeed you used to have confidence in me. Then the reason-judge came along and gave me the lie. But were it not for the reason-judge, you would still accept me as true. So there may be, beyond the perception of reason, another judge. And if the latter revealed itself, it would give the lie to judgments of reason, just as the reason-judge revealed itself and gave the lie to the judgments of sense. The mere fact of that nonappearance of that further perception does not prove the impossibility of its existence."

For a brief space, my soul hesitated about the answer to that objection, and sense-data reinforced their difficulty by an appeal to dreaming, saying: "Don't you see that when you are asleep you believe certain things and imagine certain circumstances and believe they are fixed and lasting and entertain no doubts about that being their status? Then you wake up and know that all your imaginings and beliefs were groundless and unsubstantial. So while everything you believe through sensation or intellection in your waking state may be true in relation to that state, what assurance have you that you may not suddenly experience a state which would have the same relation to your waking state as the latter has to your dreaming, and your waking state would be dreaming in relation to that new and further state. If you found yourself in such a state, you would be sure that all your rational beliefs were unsubstantial fancies."

Knowledge as Experience: al-Ghazali on phenomenology
Then it became clear to me that their (the Sufis) most distinctive characteristic is something that can be attained, not by study, but rather by fruitional experience and the state of ecstacy and the exchange of qualities. How great a difference there is between your knowing the definitions and causes and conditions of health and satiety and your being healthy and sated! And how great a difference there is between knowing the definition of drunkenness and actually being drunk! Indeed a drunken man while he is drunk, does not know the concept and definition of drunkenness and has no knowledge of it.

Beyond Intellect
Beyond the stage of intellect there is another stage. In this another eye is opened, by which man sees the hidden, and what will take place in the future, and other things, from which the intellect is far removed as the power of discernment is from the perception of intelligibles and the power of sensation is from things perceived by discernment. And just as one able only to discern if presented with the things perceptible to the intellect, would reject them and consider them outlandish, so some men endowed with intellect have rejected the things perceptible to the prophetic power and considered them wildly improbable. That is the very essence of ignorance! For such a man has no supporting reason except that it is a stage he himself has not attained and for him it does not exist, so he supposes that it does not exist in itself.


September 4, 2008

Ramadan Kareem

Fasting is a ancient human ritual. It seems that through the suffering of denying ourselves food, we reap the benefits of a clearer mind. At least in theory. In practice, I got off the plane from Doha and started fasting with jet lag. Someone told me today I had lost weight, and I think I will probably lose even more in the coming month. But thats not so bad. I do wonder how I will deal with fasting in the Middle East heat? My guidebook tells me there are two times to avoid going to Dubai--during Ramadan and during late August. Well, Dubai, here I come.
One thing Ramadan makes you conscious of is the degree to which little urges dominate the rhythms and cycles of our lives. I mean, not to state the obvious, but our lives revolve around eating! Taking that cycle away takes some adjustment, and right now my stomach hurts, and I think I'm getting a cold, and there is some delicious leftovers in the frig, but still, I RISE, and I fast, and I try to pray.


September 2, 2008

Not a Dark Star by Far

Home to D.C. Well, not really home. Traveling these days is a sojourn of displacement, with no true permanence of place. And that is as it should be. I leave for my mother and father's house in a few days, then on to Zurich, Switzerland where I connect on a flight to Dubai, and then take a bus to Muscat to get settled and begin Arabic classes.

And what of my time in Africa? A part of me, perhaps the part obsessed with bringing closure to each event in my life, needs to write a 'sum-up', a massing, collecting, and labeling of what I have experienced and what I have learned from it.

At one time, I fancied myself something of a travel writer, with the ambition to travel anywhere and everywhere, preferably under the most difficult circumstances, and as an ordinary person, not a tourist. Apparently this is a sentiment I share with the world-renowned travel writer Paul Theroux, whose interesting and vexing Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown I have just finished. (Hey it was only $3 in Lamu).

I have many criticisms of the book, the least of which are the occasional linguistic errors in Swahili. But first, much respect to Theroux for eschewing the triumphal safari writing of innumerable travel books about Africa. He seems much more interested in the people than the animals, and he has some interesting (though not particularly new) insights. His prose is bitterly hilarious and compelling, an absolute joy to read. The work is shot through with amazing stories of struggle and triumph and Theroux can humanize his characters when he wants to.

But for all its virtues, Theroux's model of Africa as a 'dark star', a separate planet, relies too heavily on nineteenth century European tropes about Africa as an unknown wasteland, in Hegel's words, "the land of children and midnight." Theroux is well aware of this voluminous literature (he even cites some of it), yet he is content with this tired metaphor of the alien continent.

Africa is still an object for Theroux's desire to 'get away' and be unreachable and unconnected. He wants to be Huck Finn striking out for the territory. He courts Africa's danger, its 'primitiveness' for his own ends. Yet here is the curious part: even as Theroux embraces this aspect, he is angry at it. He seems embittered that Africa has not 'progressed' enough and that foreign aid, corruption, and rising urbanization contribute to Africa's difficulties. There are two contradictory visions of Africa described by Theroux--one a idyllic vision of rural survival, of changeless humanity, and secondly, a mass of pathological human beings and utter lawlessness and backwardness whose attempts to progress have only ended in chaos.

In this respect, Theroux is not far from Conrad's own view of Africa in Heart of Darkness, which illuminatingly, Theroux reveals he read thirteen times during his trip. As a lens through which to interpret Africa, Conrad's limitations as an author have been amply discussed. Why is there no discussion by Theroux of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart as a counterpoint to the distorted view of African humanity offered by Conrad?

Having done a bit of the travelling on some of the routes and destinations Theroux undertakes in his book (especially via bus) I can say that the displacement, the disgust, and the raw anger that overtakes Theroux at the inefficency and danger of Africa are part of a peculiar and quite common Western attitude towards Africa, not some feature inhering in the landscape or the personalities of the people. Its not that Theroux is wrong on many counts; the roads are in many places as horrible as he describes and there is small or big time venality. For example, I lost my bus ticket to Nairobi and was forced to pay off the clerk to write 'lost ticket' on a piece of paper and stamp it with the proper mark. This despite the fact that he had written my ticket in triplicate, and he still possessed the two receipts in his notebook!

No my problem is with Theroux's inflated sense of his own self-importance, his rage that he is basically treated as an ATM by begging Africans, and his outrage that he is given the honorific 'mzee.' His feelings underscore how his attempts at objective reporting are still colored by an invisible sense of turf, that he knows how the world 'ought' to work. I can imagine Theroux visiting Tippu Tip's house in Zanzibar and being outraged at the drunk squatter living at the top floor angrily demanding money for the privilege of seeing the house. I can almost hear Theroux saying, "Why isn't the government doing something about this?" The subtext to his outrage: "This would never happen in America!"

This is power at work, and whether or not you would like to call it white skin privilege or simply the arrogance of money and Western education, Dark Star Safari provides a quite interesting look at a very subtle instance of the attitude that treats Africa as a place of pathology and absurdity, not as a potential reservoir for practices of how to be human, how to survive and thrive. As a species, we learned virtually every survival skill (including social habits) in Africa, especially along the route Theroux traveled--home to the oldest civilization (Sudan and Egypt) and the oldest human bone specimens (Ethiopia and Kenya). Theroux even touches on this, but the grouchy-Westerner-observing-the-intractable-problems-of-Africa is the dominant narrative of his book.

As for me, my safari was an adventure, a test, a research expedition, and a time to reflect. It was indeed a head-clearing experience. Somehow, maybe not even consciously, I came closer to being authentically 'myself' above and beyond any external definitions. And I began to confront some difficult and painful personal issues relating to my desire to please others at any expense. Inshallah, I will be back, and soon.


Saturday Night in Nairobi off the chain. I only spent two days there, but the energy and feel is in great contrast to the coast. First of all, everyone speaks English, and their Swahili is 'chopped and screwed', so much so its become its own sub-genre of Swahili called Sheng. Here are a couple examples of Swahili slang or Swahili-English mixture:

niaje?= how are you?
nimekumiss= I miss you
kujienjoy= to enjoy yourself

More can be found at this online Sheng Dictionary

Anyway, I was hanging with Silas (my Swahili teacher's nephew) and his friends. Much respect and appreciation to him for showing me around.


Istalihi za Kiswahili

The Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (BAKITA) is the national body for the Swahili language in Tanzania, and is on the forefront of efforts to make Swahili an effective language for science, technology, mathematics, medicine, and the humanities. In Istalihi za Kiswahili they provide a list of essential vocabulary in Swahili for various disciplines. Here is a sampling from the history section:

foreign trade--biashara ya kimataifa
labor movement--chama cha wafanyakazi
archives--hifadhi ya nyaraka
colonial legacy--kasumba ya ukoloni
armed struggle--mapambano ya silaha
political system--mfumo wa kisiasa
division of labor--mgawano wa kazi
factors of production--misingi ya uzalishaji
class formation--utabakishaji
World War--vita kuu vya dunia


Down and Out in Malindi

Reached Malindi from Lamu absolutely exhausted after a rather interesting bus ride in which we busted a tire. The bus was absolutely PACKED too. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit Gedi ruins before my bus to Nairobi the next day. Instead, I laid on my razor thin mattress and read Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town until the power went out and I decided it was a sign to go to bed. WRONG. An hour later it came back on and woke me up out of my stupor. I couldn't go back to sleep. Downstairs from dirt-cheap room (about USD $2/night) the disco blazed nonstop until 5am. I should have taken the cue and just gone downstairs and danced.


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