57 pages 1 hour read

Abdulrazak Gurnah


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide


Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Zanzibar-born British writer, published his novel Paradise in 1994. Set in the early 1900s in what is now Tanzania, it tells the story of Yusuf, a young man who is sold at age 12 to a traveling merchant called Uncle Aziz to pay off his parents’ debt, a system known as rehani. He works in the merchant’s shop with another rehani and eventually goes on a trade journey into the interior of the African continent. Along the way, he learns what fear and desperation will make people do, as well as how people use belief to hide behind and justify their actions. The novel depicts the array of cultures in East Africa, as well as the looming figure of colonialism. It was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize for fiction. Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021.

This guide refers to the 1994 New Press International Fiction edition.

Plot Summary

A wealthy merchant called Uncle Aziz comes to visit 12-year-old Yusuf and his parents, the owners of a hotel. Yusuf looks forward to these visits because his mother will lay out a feast, even in the times of drought and hunger, and Uncle Aziz often gives Yusuf a coin. At this visit, however, talks with the merchant are intense. His father informs him that he will be going on a trip with Uncle Aziz immediately. Yusuf does not know that he will never see his parents again.

He travels by train with Uncle Aziz to the town on the coast where he lives. Uncle Aziz hands him over to a young man named Khalil who runs his shop. Khalil shows Yusuf the ropes in working at the shop and explains that the merchant is not his uncle—he should call him “seyyid” because Yusuf’s father, like Khalil’s father, sold him to the merchant as a rehani (unpaid worker) to pay off debts. The two bond, though Khalil sometimes is tough on his “little brother” for being naïve. Yusuf ventures into a walled garden and sees mirrors on the tree and hears a woman’s voice. Khalil explains that the Mistress, the merchant’s wife, lives there, but she never goes out. Khalil occasionally attends to her, though, because he speaks Arabic.

After a few years pass, Uncle Aziz announces that Yusuf will join him on a trade journey to the interior. Yusuf leaves with the caravan of porters and Mohammed Abdalla, the mnyapara or leader of the crew. He is wary of Abdalla, who has a reputation for sodomy and who makes lewd remarks about Yusuf. Abdalla and the other porters talk of the “savages” with whom they’ll be trading and warn Yusuf of their odd rituals and customs. When the caravan arrives at a town near the mountains, Uncle Aziz arranges for Yusuf to stay there with the shopkeeper Hamid and his wife Maimuna, with whom he has left some of the mysterious hessian-covered cargo in a storeroom, while the rest of the caravan moves on into the interior. One night, Yusuf sees Hamid in the storeroom with the mysterious goods, whimpering and worrying.

Yusuf runs errands and does odd jobs for Hamid and Maimuna. One day, Hamid proposes that they take their own little trade journey with a Sikh friend of his called Kalasinga. On their journey, Yusuf finds a beautiful waterfall and they intend to camp nearby until a guard in a European-issued uniform warns them away, saying the bwana (his boss) does not want them there. They move on to the home of Hussein, one of Hamid’s friends, who worries that Hamid has gotten himself in over his head with the merchant and will one day get cheated or be caught in the middle of a bad situation. Hamid is afraid for the future, with the Europeans taking over and forcing people to learn their way of life.

Shortly after their return, Uncle Aziz returns from his trade journey, which was difficult. Two men were injured and had to be left behind in a town to recover. Uncle Aziz gives Yusuf some money and tells him that he will see him the next year when he returns.

Hamid starts acting pious after he notices that Yusuf has seen him worry over the goods Uncle Aziz stashed in his storeroom. He decides that they should read the Koran together, which forces Yusuf to admit that he cannot read. Hamid and Maimuna decide that he should go to the Koran school with their children. Though he is teased by the other children for being much older, the imam who teaches the lessons takes kindly to Yusuf and assigns him errands. Kalasinga, wary of Yusuf’s new religious tone, has him come over to learn English or mechanics.

Yusuf’s hosts cool toward him after Maimuna discovers that Asha, their daughter, has been spending time in his room without her brothers there, cuddling with Yusuf. When Uncle Aziz arrives for the next expedition, Hamid arranges for him to take Yusuf on the trade journey. In addition to Mohammed Abdalla, Uncle Aziz has hired Simba Mwene, a large, fierce man who helps control all the porters. Eight days into their journey, they arrive in an area controlled by the sultan of Mkata who demands tribute, though he is not satisfied until the merchant doubles the offer twice. When a crocodile kills a village woman, the sultan claims the caravan has brought evil upon them and demands compensation. That night, Yusuf dreams of a dog slavering over him, searching for his secrets. When he wakes, he discovers that a hyena attacked one of the porters at dawn. The sultan declares it recompense.

As the caravan continues, the going gets tougher and the sultans they encounter ask for more and more. Friction arises between Simba Mwene and Mohammed Abdalla about how to handle most situations. Yusuf feels more comfortable around the crew, however. When they arrive at a lakeside town, Yusuf learns that that is where Uncle Aziz left the two injured men to recover. Hints from Mohammed Abdalla, however, indicate that it was more of an abandonment than a kind gesture. After paying a hefty tribute to help the sultan secure a shroud for his recently deceased wife, the crew is allowed to negotiate for passage with the boatmen. They survive a storm, but the boatmen insist they pay homage at a shrine to a spirit named Pembe for safe travel.

In the next town, they hire a guide to take them to Chatu, the leader at their final destination. Although the elders they meet in Chatu’s area are unfriendly, Chatu seems quite kind. Yet, that night, Yusuf has a prophetic dream of a gate of flames. As he awakes, Chatu’s men attack the encampment and kill four guards. Chatu takes all the goods and the merchant’s money, claiming that someone like him cheated them, so his action is repayment. Chatu keeps Yusuf in his house as a hostage, though he is treated well and develops a relationship with a young woman named Bati. Uncle Aziz tells Chatu that they cannot leave without their goods. One day, a German officer with a column of askaris appears and listens to the merchant’s claim. He orders Chatu to return the stolen goods, as the government has outlawed tribute. The caravan still takes five months to return home, as they often must stop and work for sultans and elders to afford food.

Back at Uncle Aziz’s home, he begins paying his crew what he can. As he still owes money, he leaves with Simba Mwene to make collections from people who owe him. Mwene thinks the goods stashed at Hamid’s store are rhino horn, which the Mdachi (“German” in Swahili) government has forbidden. He relates rumors, too, of an impending war between the Germans and the English.

Gradually, Yusuf gets back into doing work in the garden. While widening the channels to the pool, he discovers a leather pouch containing an amulet. He hears a woman’s voice and sees a figure in the doorway. When he asks Khalil about it, Khalil tells him the Mistress has gone crazy and wants to see Yusuf. He relates her story: She was a wealthy widow who married Aziz 12 years earlier. She has a purple mark, an illness, on her cheek, so she never leaves the house. Uncle Aziz visited Khalil’s Ba (father), as he had borrowed money for a business, which eventually failed. A year later, Mohammed Abdalla came and took Khalil and his seven-year-old sister Amina away. Amina serves the Mistress. The Mistress believes Yusuf can heal her with prayers, touch, or spit.

Khalil and Yusuf visit the Mistress. Khalil translates, but when he doesn’t know a word, another voice supplies it—Amina. Yusuf is immediately enchanted with Amina. He mumbles a prayer over the Mistress, and they leave. They visit several more times, and against Khalil’s advice, Yusuf touches the Mistress’s face. Khalil accuses him of not taking the situation seriously, but Yusuf continues to go and to work in the garden just to catch glimpses of Amina. Yusuf visits the Mistress on his own, and Amina tells him there is much that Khalil didn’t translate, such as that the Mistress’s name is Zulekha. Zulekha invites him not just to eat in the house but to sleep in the courtyard. As Amina walks Yusuf out, she tells him she saw him find an amulet and that she threw one away once, over the wall into the garden.

Khalil’s demeanor toward Yusuf is distant and disapproving. Yusuf continues to visit the Mistress on his own, just to see Amina, though after Zulekha tells him to breathe on her, Amina warns him that the Mistress’s obsession has reached a new high and he should stay away. Yusuf asks why Amina doesn’t resemble her brother, and she tells him that she and her sister had been kidnapped as young children, and Khalil’s father managed to rescue her. He then adopted her. Later, Yusuf confronts Khalil about why he didn’t just tell him that. Khalil explains that the death of their father meant that Amina was essentially sold into bondage. Even though Khalil is free to leave, he will not leave Amina there alone, but if she leaves without the merchant’s consent, then Khalil will be rehani again, so Amina will not leave.

Yusuf visits the Mistress one last time to see Amina and asks her to leave with him. However, Zulekha meets him alone at the door. She speaks to him passionately and touches him. He turns to run, and she rips his shirt. Khalil goes in to calm her. When he comes out, he advises Yusuf to leave immediately, as the Mistress is claiming the Yusuf attacked her. Yusuf refuses, thinking that will make him look guilty. In the morning, Uncle Aziz returns and questions Yusuf about his involvement with the Mistress. He seems to believe Yusuf that Zulekha grabbed him, and he had visited so often just to see Amina. Uncle Aziz informs Yusuf that his father is dead and his mother has moved away. He has plans for Yusuf, perhaps travelling in his stead. As he leaves, he warns the young men to be wary of Germans who may snatch up men for their army.

A troop of askaris arrive in the neighborhood, led by a German officer. Khalil and Yusuf board up the shop and watch them. The German sends groups of askaris to round up men. After they leave, Khalil runs to check on the house and Yusuf goes outside to look through the detritus the men left behind. He sees dogs eating at a pile of excrement. He recalls his earlier dream of his cowardice gleaming in its afterbirth. He realizes the paths that lie before him, what he could become. Behind him, the doors of the garden are bolted shut. Yusuf runs after the retreating column of marching men.

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Abdulrazak Gurnah


Abdulrazak Gurnah