Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Laureate for Literature
Abdulrazak Gurnah on Hebron Panel, 2009 / PalFest (Creative Commons)

Wole Soyinka was the first Black African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Other Nobel Prize winners from the African continent are Nagib Mahfuz (Egypt), Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee (both South Africa). The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, and who is considered one of the fathers of modern African literature, never received the prize. In all likelihood, neither will the Marxist Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has been strongly favored in recent years. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie and Nuruddin Farah from Somalia are repeatedly mentioned as other African authors worthy of the prize. But no Black African author has been considered for the Swedish Academy’s award since Soyinka—until this year when Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah was unexpectedly declared the Nobel Laureate for Literature.

Born in 1948, Gurnah’s youth was marked by the last years of British colonial rule and the troubled early years of independence. Much social tension on the small island in the Indian Ocean off the Tanzanian coast sprang from the conflict between the Arab and African populations. The British, who maintained good relations with the sultans of the Persian Gulf, and fearing rebellion in Africa, launched Zanzibar’s independence in 1963, at the same time affirming Arab rule.

An eyewitness at the time, the legendary Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński, wrote in The Shadow of the Sun:

“Abeid Karume was the leader of Zanzibar’s Afro-Shirazi Party. Although this party, representing the island’s black African population, won a majority in the last elections, the government was formed by an Arab minority party supported by London—the Zanzibar Nationalist Party. The Africans, outraged by this fact, organized a revolt and abolished Arab rule. That is what had just transpired two days ago.” He goes on:

“Three hours after Prince Philip, in the name of Queen Elizabeth, transfers Zanzibar into Arab hands, Field Marshal John Okello makes his move, and in the course of a single night seizes power on Zanzibar.”

This led to persecution and massacres of the Arab and Indian populations, and many fled. Gurnah and his brother, of Arab descent on their father’s side, also emigrated to England to study in late 1967. Gurnah only returned to Zanzibar on a visit in 1984.

Gurnah’s memory of this period is largely painful. But in some of his works, especially in By the Sea (2001), he addresses the solidarity of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) with Zanzibar, which was important for both countries, especially in the 1960s. Zanzibar was the first non-socialist country to recognize the GDR diplomatically and to defy the Hallstein Doctrine, West Germany’s claim to sole diplomatic representation. After the unification of Zanzibar with Tanganyika to form Tanzania, President Nyerere also insisted on maintaining recognition of the GDR and entertained diplomatic relations with both German states despite the Hallstein Doctrine. In addition to projects such as a housing construction program, many young Zanzibaris were delegated to the GDR for training courses and studies.

Zanzibar appears as a setting in most of Gurnah’s novels, usually dealing with the fortunes of individuals and families in the turmoil of the times. Migration and being caught in between cultures are important themes in Gurnah’s work, and for which he was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize: “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

By the Sea

Saleh Omar, a 65-year-old Zanzibari refugee and former businessman, seeks asylum in England following 11 years of imprisonment in Zanzibar. Here he meets his compatriot Latif Mahmud, whose shared past consists of two evictions linked to Omar’s business dealings with the Persian trader Hussein, who exploited and defrauded all parties involved. This conflict is embedded in the history of Zanzibar. It begins in the last years of British colonial power and ends with Omar’s departure. Brought together by fate, both men now try to remember the exact course of events and the circumstances surrounding this period of their lives. These memories form the core of the novel.

Right at the start, Omar reflects on the colonial history of East Africa: “Then the Portuguese, rounding the continent, burst so unexpectedly and so disastrously from that unknown and impenetrable sea, and put paid to medieval geography with their sea-borne cannons. They wreaked their religion-crazed havoc on islands, harbors, and cities, exulting over their cruelty to the inhabitants they plundered. Then the Omanis came to remove them and take charge in the name of the true God, and brought with them Indian money, with the British close behind, and close behind them the Germans and the French and whoever else had the wherewithal.”

The action here, as in other novels by Gurnah, is set in the petty bourgeoisie and middle class—the class of often impoverished shopkeepers, small businessmen, mostly of Arab, Indian or mixed descent, not the dispossessed African population of laborers and fishermen.

The school-educated Omar says of the British colonial masters: “In their books, I read unflattering accounts of my history, and because they were unflattering, they seemed truer than the stories we told ourselves. I read about the diseases that tormented us, about the future that lay before us, about the world we lived in and our place in it. It was as if they had remade us, and in ways that we no longer had any recourse but to accept, so complete and well-fitting was the story they told about us.”

Mahmud, a generation younger, goes to study abroad in East Germany in the 1960s, shortly after gaining independence, through his mother’s connections with a minister. Here, Gurnah paints a picture from the perspective of the young African who does not find paradise. Even before starting his studies in dentistry, he is persuaded by friends to defect, which takes him to England. The author based his picture of Mahmud on reports from school friends. It is important, however, that the GDR’s aid projects for Zanzibar occupy such considerable space in this novel.

Omar also reflects critically on the role of the USA after the end of colonial rule: “Then the President became disenchanted with the Americans. Partly this was because of the swelling chorus of discontent with the United States across Africa at the time. They had shown their hand too openly in the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo—boastful CIA officers could not resist making unattributable claims. They were murdering black Americans at home, when they only wanted the vote and equal rights as citizens, aspirations familiar to all of us at the time, aspirations which chimed with our discontent over arrogant oppression of non-European people all over the world.”

History overtakes Gurnah’s characters and makes them its pawns; the author remains committed to individual fates. From his perspective, he rejects simplistic notions of liberation, migration, Muslims, and East Africa; so By the Sea is more concerned with the complicated relationship between the two narrators than with Omar’s precariousness as an asylum seeker. Although the frame story is about Omar’s situation as an asylum seeker in England, most of the text follows the two men’s conflicting narratives of their lives in Zanzibar and their eventual negotiation of a new acquaintance based on their shared history.


This novel, published in 2005, also examines the history of Tanganyika through the lens of a petty bourgeois Indian-African family. The story spans almost 90 years, from 1899 to about 1984, beginning with the fateful rescue of a Mzungu—a European—whose love affair with Rahena, sister of his rescuer, continued for years, and its aftermath through the generations. The deserters from societal rules become tragic figures.

The story is set first in the colonial era, later in the early 1960s, the years around independence and afterwards. Rashid, who emigrated from Zanzibar to study in England and narrates some of the novel, shares aspects of his biography with Gurnah: he too studies English, obtains a doctorate, gets a lectureship, marries in England. He only returns to Zanzibar for a visit in the mid-1980s, when his parents have already died. Until then, his family advises against visiting because of expected reprisals. Gurnah paints a bleak, desolate picture through the accounts of Amin’s brother:

“We are all becoming increasingly addicted to the mosque. The government delivers its socialist lies and we all rush for the mosques. The days are getting darker in every way. Food is becoming more scarce. There are power cuts and water shortages. So it’s inevitable that mosques will get fuller and prayers last longer. I find an unexpected pleasure in this communion.”

Still revered today across Africa for his socialist Ujamaa policies in the early post-colonial years, Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, is also portrayed less than sympathetically:

“Poor minister, they captured him and humiliated him as they did all the other ministers. They’re all in jail on the mainland now, guests of President Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika, who glows with pleasure at what has befallen us.”

Gurnah and Ngugi

Gurnah’s perspective differs from that of Ngugi, whose view of colonialism is more uncompromising, who writes about resistance, and who also comments scathingly about Africa’s neocolonial present. While Gurnah is strongly indebted to English literature, and to the tales of 1001 Nights, Ngugi has consciously and pioneeringly discarded the language of the colonists and writes only in Gikuyu. His novel Matigari, published in 1987, rapidly entered popular culture, to the dismay of the authorities. When the then President Daniel arap Moi heard that a certain Matigari was abroad in Kenya, asking difficult questions, he ordered his immediate arrest. All copies of the book distributed in Kenya were confiscated and destroyed.

Gurnah’s character Rashid reflects on the writer Sundeep as he remembers former fellow students:

“Sundeep…has become a writer of some fame. He spent a year living in Malawi and wrote…an irreverent comedy about post-imperial absurdities…. President Banda did not like it and had the sale of the book banned in Malawi. Sundeep was well out of harm’s way by then, and having his book banned by a President-for-Life who was just reaching the peak of his authoritarian career did not do his reputation any harm. … I’ve read most of his books but I no longer look forward to them. I think that despite their zest and fluency, they have grown increasingly certain of their judgments, and to be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry.”

This portrait contains certain similarities to Ngugi, which are supported by Gurnah’s views on him in academic publications.


This ironically titled novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. The action takes place between 1900 and 1914 in colonial East Africa:

“Everywhere they went now they found the Europeans had got there before them, and had installed soldiers and officials.… The traders spoke of the Europeans with amazement, awed by their ferocity and ruthlessness. They take the best land without paying a bead, force the people to work for them by one trick or another.… Taxes for this, taxes for that, otherwise prison for the offender, or the lash, or even hanging.”

The plot centers on Yusuf, who is sold into bondage at the age of 12 by his father, who runs a hotel for a certain Aziz and cannot repay a debt. The boy works for Aziz without pay and never goes to school. He is not the only child who comes to Aziz in this way. Khalil is a few years older and becomes his best friend and advisor. Yusuf thus comes from the impoverished petty bourgeoisie but slips into servitude through bondage. Nevertheless, he is under Aziz’s protection. Despite the relationship of dependence, there is a certain sense of security.

Over the years, Aziz takes Yusuf with him on his trading caravans, and so Yusuf gets to know an Africa marked by tribal wars, superstition, and disease. Germans are also heard of again and again, slowly spreading. Years later, Yusuf learns that his parents are dead. Like Khalil, he does not know how to free himself financially from Aziz. With Aziz, a life as a trader awaits him. So, at the end of the novel, he runs after a German Schutztruppe of African askaris—local soldiers serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa—to join them. He does this despite just witnessing their willingness to use violence against their own people. Although various gardens of paradise appear in the text, there is none for Yusuf or Khalil. Other characters are also excluded from this possibility.

After Lives

Published in 2020, this novel picks up historically where Paradise left off. Now, however, the German colonialists and their Schutztruppen move to the center of the action. A lot of German and references to German culture and colonial history appear. Gurnah clearly enjoys languages and integrates mainly Swahili but also Arabic into all his texts.

Once again, interest in the fate of the characters is central, through which Gurnah creates an empathy for these people who are guilty of crimes against their own people. He shows what draws them to the Schutztruppen, how they are treated as subhuman, and how they still act against their own interests. The focus is on their human motivations, their pride, not their misdeeds. They learn German; Hamza, a main character, learns it particularly well. But he is badly injured by an officer in a rage and eventually deserts. Another character, Ilyas, ends up in Germany through the turmoil of the First World War, stays, and another stroke of fate awaits him there. The lives of these characters, why they join the Schutztruppen, what else life has in store for them—everything makes up a whole in which, characteristically for Gurnah, there are no heroes, only people who somehow survive.

Although the time span of this novel includes the years of the Maji-Maji rebellion, this is only mentioned in passing. The two-year rebellion was brutally crushed. The Germans also used famine as a weapon, wantonly destroying the crops of suspected Maji-Maji supporters. The Maji-Maji rebellion in Tanganyika was the most significant African resistance against German colonial rule.

The jury of the Swedish Academy, not above bourgeois prejudices, would do well not to wait another 35 years before picking up another book from Africa. On December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, Abdulrazak Gurnah will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of Black Africa.


Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.