They were met by a young man called Khalil who came rushing out of the shop at the front of the bungalow with garrulous cries of welcome. He kissed Uncle Aziz’s hand reverently, and would have kissed it again and again if Uncle Aziz had not pulled his hand away in the end. He said something irritably, and Khalil stood silently in front of him, his hands clasped together as he struggled to restrain himself from reaching for Uncle Aziz’s hand. They exchanged greetings and news in Arabic while Yusuf looked on.
This book, read for the Roman de Rochefort and written by the Nobel prize winner Gurnah tells us a story of East Africa at a pivotal moment. The arrival of the European powers and their modern weapons, forcing the locals under their rule, and the effects of this on the trade of the Arabs. In this precise case, of Aziz who lives from the age old trade with the interior of the continent, and who provides work and wealth for the villagers around him. The changes in the balance of power force the traders to take greater risks to find new sources of ivory and animal skins deeper in the continent.
‘There wasn’t much longer to wait. After Amir Pasha came Prinzi, the German commander, and he made war at once and killed the sultan and his children and any of his people that he could find. He placed the Arabs under his heel at first the chased them away. The foreigner ground them down so thoroughly that they could not even force their slaves to work on their farms anymore.’
Aziz as a money lender, living on the coast, when he cannot be repaid accepts if necessary people, usually children from the villages in the countryside. At the start of this story “uncle” Aziz comes away from a village with the young Yussuf who does not understand that he has been ceded to Aziz by his parents, illustrated by his arrival at the walls of Aziz’s villa.
This book then describes the voyages of Aziz and his caravan in the hinterlands the people they meet and the risks they take. It also shows the inner power of Aziz and his standing up against these people.
The air was sharp under the mountain, and the light had a purple tint which Yusuf had never seen before….Behind the mountain, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals. They thought war honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbours, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes.
Abdulrazak Gurnah manages to recreate a time, the pressure and the people and persuade us of their reality.
First Published in French by Gallimard in 2023.
The quotes as read in French before translation
Un jeune homme sortit précipitamment de la boutique qui se trouvait sur le devant de la maison, et vint à leur rencontre avec des protestations volubiles de bienvenue. Il baisa la main d’oncle Aziz, et aurait continué indéfiniment since dernier ne l’avait retirée en prononçant quelques mots d’un ton irrité: « Assez, Khalil ! » Khalil resta immobile, serrant ses mains l’une contre l’autre comme pour se retenir de saisir encore celle de son maître.
« Peu de temps après le départ d’Amir Pacha est arrivé Prinzi, le commandant allemand; il a livré bataille au sultan, l’a tué lui, ses enfants et les membres de sa famille. Les Arabes ont été contraints de se soumettre, et humiliés à un tel point qu’ils ne pouvaient plus forcer leurs esclaves à travailler dans les champs.’
L’air était vif sur la montagne, et la lumière avait un reflet violet que Yusuf n’avait pas vu auparavant….Derrière la montagne, d’après ceux qui y étaient déjà allés, vivaient des guerriers qui élevaient du bétail et buvaient le sang de leurs animaux. Ils pensaient que la guerre était honorable, et étaient fiers de leur passé de violence. Le mérite des chefs était évalué d’après le nombre d’animaux qu’ils avaient capturés au cours de razzias chez leurs voisins, et de femmes qu’ils avaient enlevées.