by Dr Jehad Al-Omari
Traditional Zanzibaris take great pride in their doors, such as this one, which is decorated with Arabic religious calligraphy.
It’s not often – to say the least – that the Arab world has cause to celebrate the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature. After all, there’s little doubt that we Arabs live on the margins when it comes to both literature and science. The last time a Nobel award was widely celebrated among Arabs was back in 1988 when the prolific Egyptian writer and storyteller professionally known as Naguib Mahfouz received the Literature prize, and that was long before the age of social media when events like this “run on every tongue”, as we say in Arabic. Even then, when Mahfouz was given this prestigious honour, it was by no means without controversy. Within the Arab world, Mahfouz is well known for his novels portraying Egyptian life before and after the 1952 revolution that toppled Egypt’s monarch King Farouk. His most famous work is the Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, which portrays Cairo life from the 1930s onwards, following the life of a Cairene patriarch and his family. These stories were dramatized on Arab Television and were also translated into English, among other languages, following the Nobel award.
I for one, living at that time in the UK, was pleasantly surprised when Mahfouz was awarded the prize, and seeing his translated novels displayed in bookshop windows gave me a great deal of pride. I felt similar pride when I first saw Amin Malouf’s novels displayed on British bookshelves. Whereas Mahfouz has won admiration for his portrayals of Egyptian life and politics and, is moreover, famous within the Arab world for writing in a style today known as Modern Literary Arabic, which moved away from the rather rigid, classical style of his contemporaries, Malouf is well known for his historical novels presenting Arab history to a Western readership. Unlike Mahfouz, who wrote in Arabic and was also prone to use colloquial Egyptian, Lebanese author Malouf wrote all his books, with the exception of one, in French. However, Mahfouz’s Nobel win, although widely celebrated in the Arab world at the time, was not free of controversy: there were those who alleged that his prize award owed a great deal to the peace treaty which Egypt signed with Israel.
Indeed, among the most controversial Nobel Prizes ever was the joint award of the Peace Prize to Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978. This followed Sadat‘s historic visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent Camp David Accords and Peace Treaty of 1978. The Arab world subsequently boycotted Egypt for taking this unilateral step towards peace with its historic adversary Israel and, even to this day, the 1978 treaty – and the others that followed it – still remain controversial. The Arab-Israeli conflict and subsequent peace process remain the most hotly debated issues in the Arab world. A Wikipedia contributor has also underlined that the joint prize was even more controversial because both recipients had fought against the British and Prime Minister Begin was specifically implicated in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1945, which resulted in the deaths of 91 – mostly British – people.
As far as the Arab world is concerned, not to mention more global perspectives that can be found on the internet, there have been plenty of controversial Nobel prizes and to many, a Nobel award is not necessarily as prestigious as some like to claim. The Literature award is particularly open to challenge, being decided – as a friend of mine points out – by five obscure white Swedish judges who are barely known outside their own country, and quintessentially Eurocentric in the way it reflects European or at least generally Western preferences in literature and art. As an example, I must confess to being astonished when Bob Dylan received the Literature prize in 2016.
Meanwhile, this year’s award to Abdulrazak Gurnah aroused some considerable debate in the Arab world. The deliberations initially centred on whether he’s an Arab, and therefore the award should be celebrated by Arabs as another award to them, an African Arab, an African, or even British. Gurnah is officially described as hailing simultaneously from both Tanzania and the United Kingdom, thus joining the very short list of winners supposedly steeped in two different cultures – a recent phenomenon that reflects the increasingly global and multicultural world we live in. As reports on the origins of Abdulrazak Gurnah trickled out, debate arose on exactly how his name ought to be written in Arabic. Is it Gurnah with a G or rather Qurnah with a Q? Is the h at the end a soft or hard h, and is the u a short or long vowel? Within a day or two it had been established that both his parents came from Yemen (specifically the Hadhramaut region) and had departed to Zanzibar in the 1940s. Further investigations revealed the names of both his parents, plus their precise origins and roots, thereby proving that he is of pure Arab stock… and therefore the prize was genuinely Arab! At the other extreme, there were those who sought to highlight that the man doesn’t even speak Arabic, has never lived in the Arab world, and that nobody in the Arab world has ever heard of him! This latter denigration was quickly rebuffed when someone produced a news article about a Master’s thesis on his work that had been submitted to a university in Yemen!
Interestingly, in a recent Financial Times article on Abdulrazak Gurnah, it was reported that when asked where he came from, he answered without hesitation: “I’m from Zanzibar, there’s no confusion about that.” The same FT article talks about the Arab connection with Zanzibar but, annoyingly, it also makes reference to the slave trade in Zanzibar in a manner most insulting to any Arab reader. It is as if the author himself has not been able to move beyond his own historic (essentially British) prejudices regarding Africa and the Arab presence in Africa that link the Arabs inexorably with slavery. While it’s true that slavery was part of the economy of East Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Arabs would argue that to lay the blame for slavery entirely at their door is to commit a highly bigoted misrepresentation of the wider historical facts.
Historically, Arab trade with Africa and the Arab presence in East Africa go back a very long time indeed. The first Muslim refugees to flee persecution in Mecca headed to Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia) seeking the protection of its Christian king. Prior to that, Yemen was conquered by the Abyssinians and in one expedition the Abyssinians reached and threatened the holy city of Mecca. Moreover, relations with East Africa went far beyond the slave trade. No Islamic army conquered these territories and the spread of Islam to these parts occurred primarily through trade, missionaries and Sufism. Just as importantly, Zanzibar can be seen as an Arab oasis on the fringes of Africa with a long and flourishing civilization that witnessed the coming together of Arab and African cultures, where – unlike what happened as a result of British and wider European colonization of Africa and other lands – Arabs intermingled and intermarried with Africans so that there are now long established tribes and lineages that are able to call themselves both Arab and African. Being an Arab is not about race, colour or religion but is all about culture, tradition and language.
Purely from an Arab perspective, Zanzibar is another lost paradise similar to Andalusia (Spain) from which the Arabs were evicted over five centuries ago. The history of the Arabs in both these places has been romanticised and their fate portrayed as cruel and undeserved. In the case of Zanzibar, the events in question happened just over half a century ago, in 1964, in full view of the civilized world. Abdulrazak Gurnah managed to reach the shores of England in 1968, when the forced evictions of Arabs were still continuing, and I clearly remember as a school child in Abu Dhabi the sudden arrival of Zanzibari Arabs at our school and a dormitory being quickly built for them. They were mainly orphans who had lost their parents during the events that led to the eviction of Arabs. Like other Arabian Gulf countries, Abu Dhabi accepted its fair share of refugees, though, given the historic links with Oman and the fact that at one time Zanzibar had been part of Oman and ruled by an Omani Sultan, the majority of them went there. In fact, back in the 17th to the 19th centuries, Oman was a powerful state with influence stretching right across the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and East Africa. It was from Oman that the first Arab ambassador to the United States of America arrived in 1840 on board the ship Sultana, bearing gifts of perfume, Arab stallions and swords.
Sayyid Barghash bin Said al-Busaid, Sultan of Zanzibar (reigned 1870-1878), with his family
Ahmed Bin Numan Al-Kaa’bi, Omani Ambassador to the United States (1840)
One would venture to hope that that if this latest awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature serves any public good at all, it will go some way towards helping to preserve what is left of the Arab culture in Zanzibar and that the bearers of that culture will not face the same fate that Andalusians (both Muslims and Jews) faced after the Spanish Reconquista. In fact I had great difficulty searching the internet to find appropriate photos reflecting true indigenous Zanzibari life and culture for this article, given that the majority of the photo stock available appears to be targeting European tourists looking for splendid beaches, while airbrushing out the real people who inhabit this archipelago and provide living testimony to the harmony between Arab and African cultures. Who knows, perhaps the Zanzibaris will be able to benefit from their brief moment of media fame in order to help preserve and celebrate their culture and their links with the Arab world, and once again become an oasis of multiculturalism.