June 16, 2014

Zanjibar: Wa Akfān min Rahim al’alam (Book Review)

Laura Goffman is a Ph.D. student in Middle East and North African History at Georgetown University. She also holds an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from New York University. Her research focuses on the cultural and social dynamics of militarization in twentieth-century Oman. Check her out on Academia.edu.

Al-Ghonaimi, Sheikha. Zanjibar: Wa Akfān min Rahim al’alam. Maktaba ḍāmirī lilnashar wa at-tawzī‘. Sultana Oman, 2012.

The cover of Sheikha Al Ghonaimi’s 2012 novel Zanjibar: Wa Akfān min Rahim al’alam (Zanzibar: Shrouds from the Womb of Pain) is an outline of the map of Zanzibar, splattered haphazardly with blood-red blotches of paint, spilling from the island into the surrounding Indian Ocean. We learn in Ghonaimi’s introduction that this blood represents the Omanis of Zanzibar who were slaughtered during the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. This uprising led to the death and expulsion of thousands of Arabs and South Asians, including the Omani Sultan who had been placed at the head of a constitutional monarchy when the British Empire granted Zanzibar’s independence in 1963. He fled the island on his yacht—many others were not so fortunate.

While Ghonaimi’s narrative focus is on the social life and political events of Zanzibar, the orientation of her characters firmly remains in the Omani homeland. Ghonaimi structures her novel in the form of a letter written by her narrator, Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Harthy, to his older brother, whom he has not seen since he departed from Oman some 30 years earlier. Like many Omanis of the impoverished interior, the fictional Mohammed left Oman with his father in the early 1950s in search of greater prosperity in East Africa. Mohammed is only 8 years old when he and his father arrive in Zanzibar, and the first part of the novel is built around a child's nostalgia for an idealized home in Oman. The dramatic focus of this section is Mohammed's recollection of his mother's reluctance to agree to her youngest son's departure, and his father's persistence in convincing her that their son would benefit from learning the ways of trade. Guiltily, Mohammed describes his childish ignorance of the gravity and permanence of his departure, and his mother's rare display of tears as he left. His mother, we learn, has long since passed away, and he longs to have been able to tell her goodbye.

This melancholic nostalgia for his family colors Mohammed's depiction of life in Oman, which Ghonaimi describes, through the lens of his memories, as a pure and simple existence among an intimate circle. The predictable rhythm of trips to the mosque, agricultural work, and religious education structures Mohammed's early life. This Omani community emerges in his memory as majestic in its commitment to these daily rituals. For example, he describes his first trip to the mosque with his father, "I entered the mosque for the first time at dawn...there the men were as though they were illuminated...they were dressed in the Omani way, which reflected the purity of their hearts...it was beautiful to see human beings participating as angels in that atmosphere of spiritual purity" (17, quotations are my translations).

Some troubles do seep into Mohammed’s memories of this well-ordered world of Oman's interior: the father and the teacher both feel justified in beating mischievous children, who in turn harass Antoor, a homeless wanderer who lost his entire family in a fire that started while his wife was cooking. Also, clear hierarchies prevail, as girls cook and boys carry tools to work on the date farms, and Mohammed recalls his mother sadly reminding his aunt after she learns of Mohammed's approaching departure, "I had no say in the matter" (29). His aunt is horrified that her sister is forced to relinquish her youngest son, but the necessity of covering her face and retreating from view as the men arrive to take him away prevents her from expressing these feelings to Mohammed's father, so away they go, over the mountains with their caravan to catch a ship to Zanzibar.

The Omani community in Zanzibar is apparently close-knit and guards its communal privileges by maintaining a tight control over its network of families. Ghonaimi illustrates this protection of their own when Muhammad and his father arrive in Zanzibar as bedraggled immigrants, but are immediately taken up by Al Barwani, a prominent Omani merchant with an elegant home and a host of black servants. Mohammed and his father have no connection to Barwani except for their shared Arabic language and Omani heritage, but he becomes their willing patron and invites them to be his guests after Mohammed’s father asks him for help translating the Swahili spokenon the dock. Barwani supplies Mohammed with a black servant boy, Youssef, to teach him Swahili until he is proficient enough to enroll in the local school, and he helps Mohammed’s father to start a business.

Youssef becomes like family to Mohammad, yet he holds a separate status as a non-Arab “native”. For example, when Barwani first suggests that Mohammed learn Swahili from Youssef, his father worries about his son mixing with blacks.Barwani assures him, “Don’t worry, Youssef has been brought up in my house, and his manners and morals are excellent” (61). The implication here is that Youssef, despite his race, is an acceptable companion due to his cultivation in an Omani domestic setting. When violence erupts on the island in 1964, Youssef's family saves Mohammed, now 18, and his little brother, Ahmed. In an ultimate act of loyalty, Youssef decides to accompany Mohammed and Ahmed as they smuggle themselves off of the island in the storage cabin of a ship, and when Mohammed questions his willingness to leave his own family, Youssef asks him angrily, "How can you say that there is a price for friendship?" (127).

Friendship between a black former servant and an Omani immigrant may be priceless, but it does have its limitations: after they have reached Dar es Salaam, for example, Mohammed spots an older Omani woman on the docks, and switches from Swahili to Arabic. When Youssef protests that he does not understand, Mohammed replies that he is using Arabic because "I want her to feel that I am close to her" (156). Just as Barwani took in Mohammed and his father in Zanzibar, in Dar es Salaam Mohammed immediately forges a connection with an Omani he identifies by language and appearance. As Mohammed and his brother settle into another enclave of the Omani diaspora, only Youssef’s exceptional loyalty to Mohammed and his upbringing in Barwani’s household grant him entry to this community.

As Nate Mathews noted in another post on Coverage of East Africa in the Omani Media, nostalgia for Oman's East African "empire" has become widespread in Omani media today. Ghonaimi adopts the standard points of this narrative. Through the voice of a minor character (a man who helps Mohammed and his companions to escape Zanzibar during the uprising), Ghonaimi offers an elaborate account of the history of Omanis in Zanzibar. The crucial points here are the propagation of Islam in East Africa through Omani efforts, the primitive nature of Africans before the Arab arrival (even alluding to acts of cannibalism), and the gracious, cultivating influence of the Omanis (138-139). The legacy of slavery is hardly mentioned, and after this historical rendition, Mohammed asks indignantly, "Why do the Omanis deserve all this pain in a country they improved so much?" (141). The answer to this query is at the didactic heart of the novel, and Ghonaimi assures us that the horrors of 1964 came about due to officious British colonizers and demagogic mainlanders (in the final section of the book, Mohammed even lists the names and crimes of specific political leaders), whose combined influence, she suggests, tragically disturbed the harmonious and cosmopolitan balance of pre-1964 Zanzibar.

The most engaging parts of Zanzibar: Shrouds from the Womb of Pain are Ghonaimi’s vivid descriptions of family and community life in Oman and Zanzibar. Here, her enthusiasm for Omani history and her sensitivity to the textures of daily life make for fascinating and compelling reading. Ghonaimi’sinsistence on Omani benevolence and victimhood in East Africa is, however, somewhat one-sided due to her reliance on racial and cultural stereotypes of "Africans" and to her neglect of the historical reverberations of slavery and ethnic chauvinism. Ultimately, these shortcomings are detrimental to her innovative attempt to use the epistolary novel and the complex power of memory to make some sense of the horrific violence of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution.


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