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from the April 2007 issue

from Desertion

The author of this piece, Abdulrazak Gurnah, received the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy praised Gurnah for his  “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism.”

The wakil leading the way in front of him was a thin, wrinkled, fair-complexioned man with the curved spine that Frederick assumed came from a lifetime of crooked clerking. (A wrinkled old man of monkey cunning, Frederick tried the phrase to himself two or three times, to lodge it in his mind until he could write it down.) He was dressed in a white cotton jacket buttoned up to the neck; tight-fitting trousers, tan leather slippers and the green-gold embroidered cap. His movements were generous and various, too many flourishes and bows and toothy grins for Frederick's liking. Something about him made Frederick think of one of Dickens's milder sinisters—quite unctuous. In a moment they had plunged into the narrow crooked lanes of the dilapidated native town whose roofs almost met above his head. His posting here was nearly four months old, but this was only the third time he was venturing into these reeking streets. The surfaces of the lanes were so eroded by rain and slimy streams of sewage, and so covered with rubbish, that Frederick had to watch his every step. As soon as they entered into the gloom, he was surrounded by a hum, a noise without words, as if he had entered an enclosed space where many people were muttering in an undertone. It was a heap, smelling of garbage and drains. The whole place needed to be knocked down and swept away, but he had no funds for such works.

He forced himself to take shallow breaths, even though his instinct was to swallow huge heaving gulps to relieve the sense of suffocation he felt in the crowds and the alleyways. People looked at him and looked again, and he heard prededing him the cry of mzungu. People sitting outside their houses stood up in surprise and perhaps anxiety. One old man stepped forward and kissed his hand. Frederick was not unused to such acts of devotion. Older natives sometimes kissed his hand because they mistook him for the man who had freed the slaves some years before. Frederick did not discourage their deference. It did no harm and made some things easier. He saw grins all around him, and he could not be sure if they were kind or otherwise, if they were amused by the old man or derisive of him. The shopkeepers in their hole-in-the-wall shops called out to him, tempting him with one of their foul wares, objects which it beggared belief could provide a living for them: a tiny pile of charcoal, a couple of oranges, a handful of eggs and, least attractive of all, the ragged dirty vendor crouched over it all.

Children waved dementedly to him and tried to cross his path, calling him mzungu mzungu, as if otherwise he would have missed seeing them. He heard other things but could not catch anything clearly. He did his best not to. Let them shout their filthy words, why not, for all the good it would do them. Their voices irritated him, like the buzz of insects or the bleating of animals, like the whines of decrepit street-women in a London dockyard alleyway. The banyan ahead of him was waving his arms excitedly at the crowd, calling out in exasperation, making a show of urgency and impatience. Frederick was tempted to give his excitable backside a prod with his riding crop, and tell him through gritted teeth to conduct himself with rather more dignity before he made a complete fool of both of them. He strode on as best he could, keeping no less than two paces between himself and the wakil ahead of him, trusting in the irresistible force of his momentum to clear a path ahead. Frederick was not a big man, but he was well and strong, so he wasn't troubled by the crowds and their noise, not really. He was more troubled by the possibility of embarrassment and mockery, in case he slipped into the slimy gutters or was buffeted by a religious lunatic. No one needed any reminders in this part of the world about how unyielding British power could be, and if they did, the awesome events at Omdurman the previous year, word of which had spread this far, would concentrate minds anew. But sometimes native crowds were abominably and recklessly excitable, and so he found it helpful to think angry and ugly thoughts about them to keep his unease in check.

He wondered who the wounded man was. The likeliest was that it was someone from the Lutheran mission up north in the delta, which had stayed on even after the signature of the 1886 spheres of influence agreement and the departure of the German post. Some years before he came, so he had heard from Burton. There had been a Masai massacre near there, and the Methodist missionary and his wife and a score of their charges had perished. A fearless man, by all accounts, going about everywhere armed with nothing more than an open umbrella, boating up and down the river as if he had never heard of a crocodile or a poison dart. It must have won the respect of the local natives because they did not bother his mission and some even joined it. It was a less common outcome than most people imagined—missions saving souls—at least in his experience.

Still, it was astonishing that the Masai had raided that near the coast, and that they should have chosen a humble man of God and his flock as their victim. They ranged over great swathes of the interior as if it were a primeval playground for their blood sports. What was that line from Shelley's "Mont Blanc" about the huge rocks scattered about the mountain, as if that blasted landscape had been a playground for primeval godlings of earthquake and storm? The Masai were the unruly godlings of the shriveled landscape in the interior of this land. The common wisdom was that the Masai only raided for cattle, like the lion only attacked for food, but Frederick thought both had a taste for blood and cruelty, and prayed that he would never have to put his theory to the test. There could have been a Masai raid on the Lutheran mission, or if not Masai then another marauding tribe, the Galla or Somali or another wandering band of idlers. The river drew them down as if it were a funnel, as rivers had drawn barbarian tribes since time began.

He had also received word from Mombasa that the Methodists were planning another mission, nearer the town this time so they could fish more safely, and a Reverend Holiday would be on his way in due course. But when the good Reverend was ready, he would be sure to come by sea from Mombasa rather than overland. This poor devil was more likely to have wandered in from the interior.

No, the picture in his mind as they picked their way past mounds of rubbish and crumbling houses with their rotting doors, was of a bedraggled troop of loyal natives standing by a rough stretcher they had fashioned to carry their good priest to safety. It made him think of the two devoted Zanzibaris who a few years before had carried the embalmed body of the saintly Dr. Livingstone thousands of miles from the great lakes to the coast in Bagamoyo. First they took out his heart and buried it in the place where he died, then they embalmed the body. How did they think to do that? Where would two native porters have got the idea for such a grand symbolic gesture from? Imagine two farm laborers or two navvies at home coming up with such a notion. Perhaps the good doctor left instructions, but even then, why didn't they drop the body into the nearest marsh and stride off home? What a saint he must have been to inspire that kind of fidelity in his people. A bedraggled troop of urchins and layabouts was at his heels, although fidelity was not what was in their minds, more like the morbid curiosity for suffering and sensation that afflicted idle and empty minds.

The lane suddenly ended, and opening up before him was a bright sandy clearing. He stopped in surprise, struck by how pleasant the open space was. Someone charged into him from behind, and without looking round he lashed out with his riding crop and felt it striking flesh and bone. There was a shrill, childish yelp, followed by laughter, and Frederick could not restrain a smile. There was a small whitewashed mosque at the top corner of the clearing with a road running beside it The two shuttered windows and the door, which was half-open, were painted a beautiful Mediterranean blue, like the color of the Madonna's robe in a Titian painting. At the end of the clearing nearest to them, on his right, was a grimy café with some marble-topped tables and benches outside. What were marble-topped tables doing in this neck of the woods? Beyond the café were stone dwellings, some of more than one story, and the rest modest but clean and in reasonable repair. Another lane opened into the clearing, and now he saw that there were several other lanes that did the same. On his left were more dwellings, with door curtains gently billowing in a breeze that seemed to come from the widening road that ran by the other side of the mosque toward open farmland in the distance beyond. Frederick could feel the breeze where he stood, and wondered where he was and why no one had told him about this pleasant location in this derelict town. He tried to work out in his mind its position on the map in his office. The wakil, who had also stopped and was half-turned toward him, pointed beyond the dwellings on Frederick's left, smiling and nodding in self-congratulation.

"Sir," the wakil said, beckoning Frederick to follow, and wagging his head with self-important urgency. The crowd that had accompanied them through the lanes pressed past them and fanned out in the clearing, facing the direction the wakil indicated. As Frederick followed behind the wakil he saw a small shop ahead, a duka, the crowded merchandise store which proliferated in Indian cities, and which Indian traders had brought to this part of the world. They weren't all owned by Indians, traders from Hadhramut also had a forte for this kind of commerce, but the idea belonged to the Indians. He wondered if that explained the orderliness of the clearing, if this was an Indian enclave. In these parts, wherever Indians went, there prosperity followed, although of course it depended on the class of Indians. In Zanzibar he had seen the street-sweeping variety that clogged Indian cities living in degrading penury and begging in the streets, whining and screeching their grating racket, and most of the vendors of the hole-in-the-wall shops were Indians. But the general idea was true: get the right kind of banyan in your district and prosperity will surely follow.

There were two or three customers outside the shop, and some elderly men sitting on a bench beside it. Frederick wondered why they were heading for the shop anyway, perhaps to ask for directions. No sign of his bedraggled troop of loyal bearers yet. He lengthened his stride so that he was beside the scampering wakil as they approached the shop. The elderly men rose to their feet and so did the dukawallah, stepping down hurriedly from the platform above his wares. They did that, apprehensive and respectful whenever a European approached, and Frederick quite understood why. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was talking at once and casting wary glances at him. The wakil, he saw, was alternating a stern demanding tone to the dukawallah with sagacious and understanding wags of his head. After a few exchanges at this dramatic intensity, while Frederick was still at a loss about what exactly was going on, the dukawallah went back into his shop, and through it to open the door to his yard. The wakil stepped inside and beckoned Frederick in after him. One of the elderly men kept the crowd back with his stick, but they thronged the doorway and some clambered to the top of the yard wall.

It was all so unexpected. Frederick knew, at the instant before he stepped through the door into the yard, that the wounded man would be inside, but he only knew at that exact instant and had no time to adjust anticipation. He saw a long-haired, beaded man lying on a mat under a thatched awning, covered from feet to shoulders in a cream-colored sheet with red and white borders. There was something classical and ancient about the colors, the colors of a Roman toga. The man's head was turned to one side, his mouth slightly open, exhausted and anguished, in an attitude so familiar it was almost blasphemous. Beside him on the mat sat a woman, her legs folded and completely covered by her faded green dress. She was on the point of rising to her feet but seemed undecided, arrested in astonishment.

She turned her head away as they walked in and drew the shawl across the lower part of her face, but Frederick had seen enough to know that she was a pleasing-looking woman in her thirties, perhaps, probably of mixed local production, with that shadowy brown gloss that suggested Bajun or Somali origins. He guessed she was Mrs. Dukawallah, and he wished him joy of her. For an instant, hardly an instant, more like a flash, he thought of Christie in England and missed her. Hardly missed her, more like a single pulse beat stronger then subsided. He would think of her properly later.

From Desertion. Published 2005 by Bloomsbury. Copyright 2005 by Abdulrazak Gurnah. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

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