October 23, 2008

Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar

Finished Ali Muhsin Al Barwani's memoirs today--Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar Sheikh Ali translated the Holy Quran into Swahili, a copy of which I have somewhere in my collection. But he's also famous as one of the founders of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party. He comes from a long line of very distinguished Swahili from the Barwani family, including Rumaliza, who led coastal anti-colonial resistance against the British. His father was a famous sheikh. The book is a fascinating dive into some of the issues of the Zanzibar Revolution. Basically, Sheikh Ali was put in prison likely on orders from Nyerere, after Zanzibar and Tanganyika joined into the federation of Tanzania. The book is a scathing critique of Nyerere, an exploration of the aims and goals of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, and a chronicle of Ali's life events, including the chaotic 'time of politics' before the 1964 Revolution, and his ten-year sojourn in various Tanzanian prisons.

The way Ali tells it, the British supported and nurtured the Afro-Shirazi Party against the ZNP because the ZNP accepted aid in the form of scholarships from Nasserite Egypt. Frankly, Ali's little known story of events seems highly plausible. The 1964 revolution had a variety of causes, some of which were the ZNP's ignorance of the changing dynamics that labor migration had created in Zanzibar. If you don't exactly agree with Ali's interpretation at every turn, you can appreciate his progressive drive, his tremendous knowledge of the Omani-Zanzibar connection, and his having been a participant in attempting to liberate Zanzibar from British colonial rule.

Yet although Ali is a breath of (occasionally cranky) fresh air, its hard to see exactly why ANYONE would have been against the ZNP the way he tells the story. At times, Ali glosses over the quite brutal aspects of the Arab slave trade and plantation slavery and the subtle racial and civilizational dynamic which the ZNP employed and which alienated many mainland Africans. For a thought provoking look into the complicated links between race, colonialism, and intellectual discourse in Zanzibar, I can do no better than to recommend Jonathon Glassman's excellent article: "Slower Than a Massacre: The Multiple Sources of Racial Thought in Colonial Africa." Also Jesse Benjamin explored this and suggested that the dialectic of race on the East Coast of Africa needs more attention with regard to Omani-African relationships.

Sheikh Ali died in March of 2006 at the age of eighty-six. Much respect to this freedom fighter and Islamic scholar. May we learn from his example, but also continue to clarify and understand the subtle ways in which schisms can creep in unnoticed into any progressive nationalist movement, and subsequently be exploited. I hope we also remain aware that just because there is a name attached to something: "Socialist" "Revolutionary" "Islamic" "Nationalist" "Christian" doesn't mean it represents what it claims to represent. And that goes for the word "Change" too, all due respect to Barack Obama.


Anonymous,  November 13, 2008 at 2:49 AM  

After reading his book "Conflicts & Harmony in Zanzibar" what do you really think of Ali Muhsin and the cause he was fighting for?

Nathaniel Mathews November 14, 2008 at 8:10 AM  

I thought that was pretty clear from the post. I think Ali Muhsin is to be commended for his progressive drive and attempts to build a nationalist movement in Zanzibar. However, I was uncomfortable with the parts of the book where I thought Ali glossed over the history of land dispossession and slavery in Zanzibar, as if these were minor episodes in the country's history. In fact, as Fred Cooper shows in From Slaves to Squatters the British intentionally propped up the class of plantation owners (mostly Arab) even after they ended slavery, thus intensifying the island's social stratification and allowing the issue of wealth accumulation to go unaddressed.

Unknown January 7, 2011 at 12:23 AM  

Can anyone tell me how to get copies of this book. Asante sana, Shukran, etc.
David Hirsch

Nathaniel Mathews June 8, 2011 at 7:39 PM  

Mr. Hirsch, the book is self-published, though if you are affiliated with a university you can get it through ILL. Otherwise you will have to know a connected Omani or Zanzibari friend who can get you copies; the book is not widely available in bookshops.

Anonymous,  December 22, 2011 at 5:01 PM  

im a zanzibari currently in malaysia and would like to get a copy of this book

Anonymous,  December 22, 2011 at 5:03 PM  

im a zanzibari currently in malaysia and a student in swinburne university of technology. how can i get this book. i desperately need to read it

Nathaniel Mathews December 22, 2011 at 9:02 PM  

Please contact Nasser al-Riyami; you can find him on the facebook group: Zanzibar and Oman. He knows how to obtain a copy of the book.


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