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Conflicted Space: A Geopolitical Shaping of Integration and Autonomy in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise


Conflicted Space: A Geopolitical Shaping of Integration and Autonomy in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise

Dr. Elham Hossain

Associate Professor

Department of English

Green University of Bangladesh

Dhaka, Bangladesh


With all its topographical diversity and fluid historical experiences Africa’s interaction with the transitioning strategies of the modern world economy, politics and power dynamics creates a conflicted space. Abdulrazak Gurnah, in his historical novel Paradise, ironically calls East Africa a paradise which on the verge of imperial takeover during the first quarter of the 20th century turns into a conflicted space, basically shattered by poverty, domestic slavery, superstition, corrosive tribal conflict, expansionist political deprivation and exploitation. For centuries the Africans accommodated Arabian culture in close contact with the Arabian traders. In 19th century the European colonizers imposed their cultural and political dominance upon the natives. Even in post-colonial period first world countries with their geopolitical strategies are exercising imperial hegemony in different forms. Consequently, dilemmas emanated from its experiences and trauma make Africa vulnerable to the imperial powers. In this novel the protagonist, twelve year old boy Yusuf’s enslavement to the rich Arabian merchant Uncle Aziz depicts the picture of domestic slavery in Africa even many years after the official prohibition of international slavery. The fictional city Kawa in many ways coincides Africa which finds itself vulnerable to militate the imperial exploitation of Europe due to the dilemmas emerging out of its endogenous ethnic diversities, cultural hybridity and demographic disintegration. This paper seeks to explore Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise to show how the author addresses the issue of conflicted space from geopolitical perspective.

Keywords: Geopolitics, Diversity, Integration, Space, Intersection, Hegemony

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise offers a narrative that explores the impact of colonialism on Tanzania, in broad sense, on Africa regarding the economic and political realities controlled and shaped by the hegemony of colonial power-structure. Gurnah was born in Tanzania and due to the political turmoil he was forced to assume the life of an immigrant in England. It was his firsthand experience that helped him understand that political turmoil emanated from the colonial enterprises usually challenge the identity of the natives as they are led to the uncertainty that hinders the development process of nationality and nationhood. Immediately after the First World War the German colonial force left Tanzania to England. Rulers changed but the rule did not change. As colonialism is a profit maximizing enterprise it usually negotiates the bourgeois class people of the society. Uncle Aziz who represents the local bourgeois capitalists turns into a beneficiary of the colonial enterprises and his dubious role slows down the journey of the country towards liberty. They rather accompany the paradigm shift of power structure. Hence, the process of identity development of a people is retarded not only by the hegemony penetrating into it from outside but also by the internal disintegration and hegemony that invigorates itself shaking hands with the external power that threatens the identity development process of a nation-state. Thus, Gurnah, in the polemics of his Paradise, depicts the roller coaster journey of an African country that metaphorically represents whole Africa, through the labyrinth of history wrapped in anxiety and trauma which define its identity to a great extent. The way in which Gurnah brings about “affinity between art and politics in its polemics” has made his novel Paradise one of the representative novels of African literature (Adeoti 3). The narrative presented by Gurnah, in this way, is conspicuously sensitive to the political, epistemological, cultural, religious, artistic and social forces that saturate it.

True, meanings are relational or contextual and every entity obviously seems to be dialogically associated with other. In such a relational situation one entity with dominant position usually determines the shaping and integration of another entity. During colonial period this process of shaping and constructing was almost one sided, on the part of the colonizers who used to brand the natives as ‘Others’. The process of Otherization was fortified by imagined stereotypes enmeshed with myths and unequal partnership and lack of dialogues and negotiations. Chinua Achebe, in this connection, rightly observes, “Europe is not ready for such a dialogue” (Schipper 19). Prejudices, bigotry and parochialism in attitude to Africa used to block the way of making this negotiation and equality which the Europeans are incapable of extending to the Others. Hence, the terms ‘integration’ and ‘autonomy’ were associated with impossibility during the colonial era. This arrogance of Europe is also conspicuous in the Berlin Conference in 1884, when Africa was partitioned without any sort of negotiation with the Africans, that is, “No Africans were consulted about European action” (Killam xiv) But even in Post-colonial period, these terms do not truly carry their authentic meanings as they are assumed in context of geopolitical realities, associated with the status of the First World, that is, ex-colonial countries and the Third world associated with the countries marked for underdevelopment. Abdulrazak Gurnah explores the geopolitical factors, such as diverse economic, psychological, political, ethnic and cultural phenomena, which are still threatening the internal integrity and autonomy of Africa by egging it on to the unbridled race of capitalism, exploitation of labour which is associated with the modern version of slavery and bourgeois power-structure.

Identity is related to the question of difference which is constructed on the foundation of culture, social class, sex, religion, age, nationality and living area. So, the space out of which identity emerges is an ever conflicting location and the privileged side of the binaries takes up the role of self and it brands the opposition of these binaries as ‘Other’. Gurnah’s Paradise presents Aziz, a wealthy Arabian-African merchant representing the emerging bourgeois class during the colonial era, with all the makers of the self, well-fortified by the economic, political and cultural phenomena which Yusuf, a young boy and Khalil, another boy who works as a sales person in the shop of Aziz, are metaphorically depicted as ‘Other’.

The novel is set before First World War in the imaginary African city Kawa, a melting pot of diverse cultures, people, religions, languages and belief systems. The novel is set. A boy named Yusuf of twelve years of age turns into a slave to a rich merchant Uncle Aziz as his father fails to repay the debt he owed him. Yusuf is dramatically thrown from simple rural life to a restless urban life, a life of uncertainty. He follows the caravan of Uncle Aziz in a “dangerous trading mission in the interior of the continent” (Gikandi 296). It is mostly a narrative of the journey of an African boy into the heart of his own continent to be exposed to the pitfalls lying in ethnic diversity, feudal conflicts, cultural diversity, existential angst and anxieties that turn Africa vulnerable to the outsiders who with significant ease, emanated from inner disintegration, impose colonial hegemony upon the natives and thus like all other novels of Gurnah, Paradise  tends to “mediate sensitively, in the tradition of the best diasporic fiction, on questions of exile, memory, and cosmopolitanism” (Gikandi 296).In course of the journey Yusuf happens to encounter internal tribal clashes, child labour, domestic slavery, advent of the European colonizers, gradual corruption of millennia old tradition and myths. All these diverse forces impact his mental entity that suffers from dilemma and thus he turns into a representative of the Africans confused and traumatized on the face of colonial enterprises. Even his personal life is shattered by the system that makes his dreams and desires impossible. The domestic problem are no less threatening than the outer problems as among ethnic groups it challenges the likelihood of synthesis among diverse cultures essentially required for offering a counter discourse to colonialism. Towards the end of the novel when Aziz comes back with his caravan First World War has already begun and the Germans are conscripting the local youths into their army, that is, colonial hegemony is controlling the local life of Tanzania. Thus, the text very aptly depicts the conflicted space that poses threat to integrity and autonomy which are a crying need for transforming a geographical location with a community of people into a nation-state.

Man’s location is in the consistent conflicting space is determined in respect of the geographical and cultural diversities. Ethnic and social stereotypes construct the concept of intersectionality which tends to transform a man into a divided self. Integration among diversities of history, culture, language and heritage and man’s autonomy as an individual entity that he builds up through the process of negotiation contribute to the development of his identity which can aptly fight back the discourse of hegemony on the part of the colonizers. But internal stratification weakens the ‘will to power’ of the natives to fight back the hegemonic discourse. In Paradise Uncle Aziz enjoys the status of the elite class of the society and he maintains it solely. In a scene when Yusuf tries to follow Uncle Aziz into his house he unexpectedly discovers from his strict gesture that he is not allowed inside his house. The author narrates the scene in the following way:

Uncle Aziz walked away towards the side of the house where Yususf saw an open doorway, and thought he saw fruit trees and flowering bushes and a glint of water. When he started to follow, his uncle, without turning round, extended the palm of his hand from his body and held it stiffly out as he walked away. Yusuf had never seen the gesture before, but he felt the rebuke and knew it meant he was not to follow. He looked at Khalil and found him appraising him with large smile. He beckoned Yusuf and turned to walk back to the shop. (21)

Yusuf’s discovery of Uncle Aziz’s coldness towards him can be interpreted as a metaphor of the bourgeois consciousness of his class’s credit in supplanting the medieval aristocracy. Aziz belongs to the economic commune and it is true that “[I]n any case the economic commune has instruments of labour at its disposal for the purpose of production” (Engel 376). Possessing the instruments of labour enables the commune of Aziz, in broad sense, the bourgeois capitalists compartmentalize the society like the train by which Uncle Aziz travels. He always travels in the First class compartment while Yusuf along with other coolies travel in the Third class compartment where they can neither lie nor sit comfortably in the middle of the squalor. To Uncle Aziz Yusuf and Khalil are only the instruments which produce labour and he exploits them. Uncle Aziz lives in a palace-like house surrounded by a whitewashed wall. On the other hand, Khalil and Yusuf sleep in the courtyard adjacent to the shop where both of them work as “shopkeepers by day watchmen by night, and covered themselves with rough calico sheets” (23).

In Yusuf’s disposition towards Aziz conflicted space becomes more conspicuous. Yusuf possesses a latent desire to be absorbed in the space where Uncle Aziz lives. But Khalil who for the time being serves as chorus in Greek classical dramas, tries to draw his attention to the fact that Uncle Aziz is not ready to call a beggarly boy his nephew. He rather maintains that he is the master and Yusuf is his mere servant. Khalil rebukes Yusuf for his insistence in calling Uncle Aziz his uncle and asserts, “He doesn’t like little beggars like you calling him Uncle, Uncle, Uncle. He likes you to kiss his hand and call him Seyyid. And in case you don’t know what that means, it means master” (25). Here, caste system among the Muslims is conspicuously reflected and in this connection, it may be mentioned that like the upper caste Hindus, even in Bengal a group of Muslims considered themselves the descendents of the Arabs, Afghans or Persians. They did not consider themselves to be local converted Muslims. They call themselves Ashraf and abusively call the local converted Muslims Atraf. They maintain aristocracy in their way of life and hate manual labour. In this connection an excerpt from Chowdhury Iftekhar Uddin can be relevant to the deliberation. He asserts:

Like the higher caste Hindus, foreign Moslems (Arabs, Persians, Afghans) and their descendents consider the acceptance of menial service as a moral degradation (Indian Census Report 1901 Part-1 p.543) and looked with contempt upon all other ranks of Bengal Moslems whom they call “Ajlaf’, ‘coarse rabble’, 10 Indian Institute of Dalit Studies Volume III, Number 07 lower classes including different functional groups such as weavers, cotton carders, oil-pressers, barbers, tailors etc. The Arzal (lowest of all) consisted of the lowest caste such as Helalkhor (sweepers, latrine and garbage cleaners), Lalbegi, Abdal and Bediya with whom no other Moslem would associate. (9-10)

Historically it is found that in 7th century Arabian trading community came to Eastern African countries. They concentrated more on mercantile enterprises than on politics. The locals were enslaved as manual labourers who served the Arabian merchants. Their attitude towards the locals was that of a master towards a slave. As a descendent of the Arabian trading community Aziz’s disposition towards Yusuf, Khalil and the people employed to serve him interprets his Ashraf status whose binary opposition is only these working people. So, Khalil’s emphasis on the epithet ‘Seyyid’ marks the distinction between Ashraf and Atraf, that is, centre and periphery of the power-structure of the society. But centre is centre as it is defined in context of the margin. No identity is absolute or independent. Interdependence constructs identities of both the parties. A reflexive relationship between these two parties produces a hybrid space. This hybridity does never bring about a compromise but a juxtaposition with distinct characteristics and hence the space where these binaries are seemingly synthesized is marked for the consistent conflict and mutual challenges. The margin opposes the centre, dislikes it, shows rivalry with it and at the same time it possesses in its unconscious a latent desire to share the place of the centre. This dubious role of the margin permanently throws it into the conflicted space that inevitably contributes to the dynamics of the phenomena that construct the society. Besides, geopolitical realities influence the identity of the individuals. Social and historical changes shape the identity of an individual and his community and this is the reason for which “some postmodernists view identity as a function of historical and cultural circumstances” (Cuninghame 17-18).An individual is mostly defined by his location in respect of the historical and cultural circumstances.

The space produced by the migration is also problematic as it leads the diaspora to the third space which geopolitically tells upon the autonomy of the individual. For example, a Punjabi Shikh Harbans Singh who lives on driving a van goes through a problematic identity. Hamid hires his van and starts exercising his dominance upon him. Derogatorily he calls Harbans Singh ‘Kalasinga’. He justifies his harshness towards Harbans Singh taking resort to his belief system which instigates him with a perception that only he as a Muslim will go to heaven. According to him, for being a non-Muslim Harbans will be deprived of any of seven heavens. This hegemonic consciousness of the belief system serves as one of the factors that may cause a breach among the people of the society with diverse cultures and rituals. In today’s globalized world this problem is getting worsened day by day. Diasporas living in different parts of the world experience a sense of homelessness while living with the natives who show the bitter coldness to them. As Hamid rebukes Harbans as ‘hairy Kafir’ derogatorily, Diasporas in different countries are branded only second class citizens (75). Actually, relationships in new global cultural economy cannot be “reduced to a simple centre-periphery model” (Appadurai 25). Global cultural flows mostly constructed by global economy challenge the typical concept of nation-state. Nation-state requires the consciousness among the people about nationalism which is traversed by new global economy encompassing Diasporas, diverse people with diverse cultural backgrounds, indentured labourers and multi-national corporations. The world which is made up of all these ingredients can offer only transnationalism, constructed by mass migration, global capitalism, hybridized ideologies, cyber technology and the vast network of Diasporas. Hence, relationship in imagined national communities is an outcome of the heterogeneous amalgamation of all these factors. Abdulrazak Gurnah has employed a metaphor of the relationship among Uncle Aziz, Yusuf, Abdalla and Hamid. Capitalist countries today behave as Uncle Aziz and his compatriots Abdalla and Hamid behave towards their servants with the same coldness that he shows to Yusuf. As capitalists their only typical concern is how to maximize profit. Aziz does not care whether his coolies are devoured by lions or hyenas or crocodiles. His eyes are fixed upon profit maximizing mission at the cost of the lives of the working class people because they are to him a mere factory of labour. Uncle Aziz, Abdalla and Hamid travel from locality to locality with commodities. They do not wait for the consumers to come to them; they rather go to the consumers to sell their goods. This mercantile strategy imported by the European colonizers is adopted by the local bourgeois like Uncle Aziz and his accomplices. When Hamid, Hussein and Harbans Singh gossip about the cruelty of the German colonizers Uncle Aziz stops them and suggests them to leave it to God. Whatever, according to him, they do, they cannot make the sun rise from the West and make it set in the East. Hence, the disposition which is exposed here defines Aziz’s bourgeois status. In a capitalist society the bourgeois usually thrive in negotiation with the power-structure. They do not confront the power-structure because they internalize and assimilate the disposition of the oppressor. It happens as long as “they concretely ‘discover their oppressor and in turn their own consciousness…” (Freire 37). Because of this inability they take resort to fatalistic attitude towards their situation. Friere in his book Pedagogy of Oppressed defines this fatalism “as docility that is a trait of national character” (37). He further asserts, “Fatalism in the guise of docility is the fruit of an historical and sociological situation, not as essential characteristic of a people’s behavior. It is almost always related to the power of destiny or fate or fortune- inevitable forces- or to a distorted view of God” (Friere 37). While the oppressed are being preoccupied with such disposition there occurs a paradigm shift of their attention from oppressor to God and they start believing that God is the creator of this ‘organized disorder’ (Friere 37). However, Uncle Aziz, as a representative of the beneficiaries of the capitalist mission of colonization leads his workers to fatalism deliberately with a view to discouraging them to raise resistance against the oppressor. In such a situation Hamid, Hussein, Harbans Singh and millions of oppressed like them assume that the disorder is not created by the oppressors, but by God Who is invincible. Thus, the oppressor successfully evades any kind of resistance on the part of the natives as they are controlled by religion which was always used as an apparatus by the oppressors.

Theology which is a discursive hegemony is very often shaped and reshaped by the power-structure to exploit the common people and discourage any sort of resistance to power. Sometimes, tortures on the part of the power-structure are interpreted deliberately as synonymous with inescapable and pre-ordained fate. Uncle Aziz who incarnates the emerging bourgeois and capitalist class of people as a beneficiary of the corporate economy of imperialism plays the role of the representative of the rulers who incarnate themselves as social and political gods. Sajjad Zaheer has explicated the role of these capitalist gods very bravely in his seminal book The Light, originally in Urdu Roshnai. In his view, these gods, progenies of capitalist imperialism exercise their hegemony upon the people by relating them with the religious belief system of the common mass on whose part they always apprehend a rise of resistance or protest. Zaheer goes on:

These gods, in whom were mingled all the forces and phenomena of nature, were the masters of human beings and their destiny. To please them lead to salvation; to anger them meant perdition. It was impossible for the ordinary men could achieve salvation only by annihilating their egos and their desires. (36)

Thus, appropriating the tools of religion, culture, language, literature and art, the colonizing nations desire to take in the whole population of a particular geography. But “only a tiny elite was educated into the culture, values, outlook, and consciousness of the imperialist bourgeoisie” (Thiong’o 69). Uncle Aziz belongs to the bourgeoisie which contributes to the conviction of the colonizing nation and invigorates it to fortify its hegemony with the instruments of even mental and spiritual coercion.

All these are the integrated constituents of the project of creating an aura of panic and pitifulness. Towards the end of the novel it is conspicuously found when the columns of German colonizing soldiers and officers enter into the garden of Uncle Aziz. The fear and nervousness that the readers mark in the faces of Yusuf and Khalil categorically generalize the overall milieu of Tanzania during the First World War while the German colonizers had to confront the British colonial force to whom they succumbed in 1920. The garden which metaphorically represents a dreamland or paradise of Uncle Aziz was forcefully conscripted and used as a camp of the German soldiers. The soldiers led by officers depart the garden and it is then found to be left with human shit. While deliberating Yusuf’s reaction after the departure of the columns of German soldiers Gurnah asserts:

He approached carefully, sniffing as if he expected the askaris to have left an acric mark of their passage. The ground was churned by the feet of the men and a disturbance lingered in the air. Just beyond the shade of the sufi tree, he found several piles of excrement which the dogs were already nibbling at. (247)

In such a constantly awe producing environment Khalil and Yusuf’s dream of passing a romantic life is shattered by the blow received from the coercive hegemony of the colonist force. It is not smoothly possible for them to develop a dialectical discourse in negotiation with the force which believes and maintains the dogma of dominance and hegemony and the crucial situation produces the space, that is, dialectically generated nationalism, in which the individuals are split up.

Colonial hegemony apprehends libertarian and utilitarian views of the part of the natives. Libertarian view does not accommodate unnecessary intervention of the state into the activities of the citizens. Hence, the colonial policy does never allow a community to transform into a nation and a territory into a nation-state. Hence, inevitably it takes up every possible initiative to deprive the natives of any chance of dialogism with the body of knowledge used by the colonizers as an apparatus to exercise coercive hegemony upon them. As such, it divides the natives into different dispositions. Hussein, Hamid and Harbans Singh are staunch critics of colonialism introduced by the Germans who, according to Hussein, “…are very determined, and as they fight over the prosperity of the earth they will crush all of us. You’d be a fool to think they’re here to do anything that is good. It isn’t trade they are after, but the land itself. And everything in it…us” (86). Kalasinga or Harbans Singh refers to his own country India and says the colonizers have also gone there under the subterfuge that they were there to go on with civilizing mission.  But India was already civilized with its rich history and heritage. It had its well developed culture, literature and aesthetics like Africa. But it was deliberately fictionalized by the colonizers. India in the colonial era lived in the fictions and myths constructed by the colonizers. India constructed in the British literary works, especially in poetry and fictions, is illusory. In this connection, Booker M. Keith refers to V. S. Naipaul who asserts that the picture of India presented in the works of the writers like Kipling and Forster is “not only inaccurate but evidence of ridiculous and comical posturing” (Booker 57). Behind the politics of this distorted construction of India the British had the vital purpose of exploiting India politically and economically. True, however long the colonizers stay in the colony, they never look upon the natives as their equals and they are so over conscious about their superior status that they always suffer from schizophrenic disposition of being un-British or un-European.  In this connection, Amartya Sen sounds very relevant while he refers to Sir John Stretchey, an admired English administrator who in his Budget speech of 28 March 1877 asserted:

I have not ceased to be an Englishman because I have passed the greater part of my life in India, and have become a member of the Indian Government. The interests of Manchester at which foolish people sneer, are the interests not only of the great and intelligent population engaged directly in the Arade in cotton but of millions of Englishmen. (336)

Like Sir John Strachey, British investors invested to tea, coffee, railways, mining, mercantile establishments, cotton, textile, iron and steel with a vested interest of maximizing their profits only. They went to Africa with the same intention. When they found that due to the intense competition for resources of Africa among the European colonizing nations a kind of unrest was going to break out in Europe, the then Prime Minister of Germany Bismarck organized a conference in Berlin and with the colonizing countries he partitioned Africa and distributed it among themselves. So, in the novel Hussein is right in diagnosing the evil in the colonizing enterprises. This diagnosis causes a kind of insecurity and trauma which make the natives sway between being and becoming, between ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’. Actually, this is the space in which an ever increasing conflict shatters the natives and weakens resistance on their part against the hegemony of colonialism.

The trauma and anxieties brought with it by colonialism challenge African identity and plausibly cause misplacement and disintegration among the ethnically diverse natives. Even in twenty first century, after almost seventy years of freedom in most of African countries ethno-religious violence and communal crises ever-increasingly challenging integrity and homogeneity and shattering the possibility of developing an atmosphere of mutual cooperation in the spirit of ‘Pan Africanism’ and ‘United States of Africa’. Under the subterfuge of globalization and multiculturalism economically far advanced First World countries are still exercising the hegemony of neo-colonization upon African countries. It is really difficult, but impossible, for Africa to wrestle with the monstrous Western capitalism and neo-liberalism and develop its integrated self and autonomy.

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