Archive for May 14th, 2013

My review of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel of Zanzibar

May 14, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This review was published in Kirkus Reviews, 2002] 


By The Sea begins with a prospective refugee presenting his passport to an officer at an immigration counter in a British airport.



At desks such as these, every day, thousands of supplicants discover whether or not the stories of their lives match the exacting standards of victimhood and oppression that qualify people for the status of refugee. Familiar though this situation is, it is all-too-rarely written about. In Gurnah’s superb rendering the scene is presented in all its bright, terrifying sterility, accurate in all its nuances and details.



This scene sets in motion an examination of two intertwined lives, both rooted in Zanzibar, the island off the East African coast that was once one of the world’s great entrepots. Saleh Omar is in his sixties and has spent most of his life in Zanzibar, earning a living as a shopkeeper and antique dealer.  Latif Mahmud is a much younger relative who left Africa for Europe at the age of eighteen: he is a poet and teacher, who has made a sort of life for himself in London. Years before, in Zanzibar, Saleh Omar had been instrumental in dispossessing Latif Mahmud and his family of their home. Now, their positions are reversed: it is Saleh Omar who is dispossessed. Meeting in England, the two men discover that they are both implicated in creating the circumstances that have pushed the other into exile; circumstances that are the result of a complex intermeshing of family conflicts, politics and history. Nothing is unambiguous in this story; there are no easy accountings of guilt, blame and responsibility.

By the Sea is also an extended meditation on history, on a lost world of interoceanic cosmpolitanism, on colonialism and the furies that it unleashed. In this it recalls one of the great classics of modern Arabic literature: the Sudanese writer, Tayyib al-Salih’s novel, Season of Migration to the North.

By the Sea is a rich, poignant, truthful novel and it establishes Abdulrazak Gurnah as one of the most important voices of our time.




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