My meeting with Abdulrazak Gurnah

It was in the late 1980s. I was visiting Great Britain to attend the annual Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. Right after the festival, I had the opportunity to meet him in London. This is the professor of English literature at the University of Kent, Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature a few days ago.

My meeting with Abdulrazak Gurnah

At that time, Gurnah was not yet famous and had just published his very first novel. Memory of departure (1987). He did not yet know at that time whether he was going to take the route of novel writing. At first I thought he was Indian or Pakistani because of his name, but he told me he was from Tanzania and had never been very well known. Gurnah was born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar, steeped in Arab-Islamic heritage. He lived there for 18 years before leaving for England where he became a professor of literature. One of the topics that preoccupied me at the time was immigration to England. The streets of London were swarming with Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Chinese, and there were many Arabs. So much so that some said ironically: ” If you want to meet English people, don’t go to London “. My friend, Michael Billington, theater critic at Guardian, advised me to see Gurnah to have a good knowledge of the subject of immigration.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was a modest and polite man who spoke with great appreciation of Egypt and Arab culture. He told me that his father was of Yemeni origin and that he had learned the Koran as a child, even though he did not speak Arabic. We talked about the problem of immigration and our common passion which was English literature, before moving on to the novel. I asked him if he thought he belonged to English literature, since English is his mother tongue, or to Southern literature? He immediately replied that geographic divisions did not apply to literature, that there was no such thing as Southern or Northern literature, and that literature was a human experience wherever it was. According to Gurnah, the human side of literature makes the reader from the South appreciate the novel from the North. I asked him if the South and the North did not impose their subjects on novelists and if geographical affiliation did not often impose the subjects chosen by literature. I asked him : ” If you weren’t an immigrant from the South, would you have mentioned the exodus? “. He told me : ” Maybe not, but whatever. The theme of the novel is not what matters most but how it is treated. This is what distinguishes the literary work “.

Gurnah has published 10 novels. The most famous are Paradise (paradise, 1994), By the Sea (near the sea, 2001) and Desertion (Farewell Zanzibar, 2005).

Gurnah told me that when he wrote his first novel, he just wanted to chronicle his experience with immigration. While writing, he realized that the novel was taking shape. When I asked him if this experience would be followed by others, he replied no, adding that he did not see himself as a novelist, but rather as a researcher trying to record his human experience.

In fact, Gurnah published his second novel the following year. Pilgrims Way, and two years later, in 1990, his third novel, Dottie, was born. These three novels can be considered a trilogy. This trilogy, written in successive stages, proves that the soul of the novelist was in him, even if he was not aware of it when writing his first novel. Today Abdulrazak Gurnah is one of England’s most important novelists. He has been a winner of the Booker Prize several times. The characters in his novels all suffer from identity issues and have been uprooted from their native environment. The novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah are close to the many experiences of our young people who are forced to immigrate and who suffer from the loss of their identity. This is why I am amazed that his novels have not been translated into Arabic until now.

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My meeting with Abdulrazak Gurnah

Hank Gilbert