Excerpt from By the Sea
I speak to maps. And sometimes they say something back to me. This is not as strange as it sounds, nor is it an unheard of thing. Before maps the world was limitless. It was maps that gave it shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed, not just laid waste and plundered. Maps made places on the edges of the imagination seem graspable and placable. And later when it became necessary, geography became biology in order to construct a hierarchy in which to place the people who lived in their inaccessibility and primitiveness in other places on the map.
The first map I saw, though I must have seen others in innocence before that, was one a teacher showed us when we were seven years old. I was seven anyway, even if I can’t say for certain about the ages of the multitude which shared this experience with me. There or thereabouts, anyway. For some reason, you had to be below a certain age before you could begin school. I have never properly considered the oddness of this before and it is only now as I think it that I realise its strangeness. If you were over a certain age, it was as if you had gone over the point beyond which you could be instructed, like a coconut that had overripened and become undrinkable, or cloves that had been left too long on the tree and had swollen into seeds. And even now as I think of it I can’t come up with an explanation for this stern exclusion. The British brought us school, and brought the rules to make school work. If the rules said you had to be six and no older than six to be allowed to start school, that was how it would be. Not that the schools had things their own way, because parents shaved off however many years it was necessary to have their children allowed in. Birth certificate? They were poor, ignorant people and never bothered to obtain one. Which was why they wanted their son to go to school, so he wouldn’t end up a beast like them.
In our own lives, everyone had been going to chuoni for generations. Chuoni, that was where we went to learn the aliph-be-te so we could read the Koran and listen to the miraculous events which befell the Prophet throughout his lifetime, salallahu-wa-ale. And whenever there was time to spare, or the heat was too great to concentrate on the nimbly curling letters on the page, we listened to stories of the hair-raising tortures that awaited some of us after death. Nobody bothered with age in chuoni. You started more or less as soon as you were toilettrained and stayed there until you could read the Koran from beginning to end, or until you found the nerve to escape, or until the teachers could no longer bear to have you around, or your parents refused to pay the miserable pittance which was the teacher’s fee. Most people had made their escape by the age of thirteen or so. But at school you started when you were six and progressed as well as you could, year after year, all of you the same age together. There were always stragglers, those who had been required to repeat a year, one or two in every class who lived with their shame throughout their school life. For the rest of us, we were all the same age, on paper. You could never be sure how old class-mates really were, and as we grew a little older, some developed moustaches at a tender age and some disappeared for a few days and returned with eyes alight with secret knowledge, followed by whispered rumours of quiet weddings in the countryside. We did tend to marry early in those days. I don’t know what happened in girls’ schools and wish now that I did. Perhaps the girls would have just disappeared from school, there one day gone the next, and everyone would have guessed they had been married. Married off, married by, done to. I try to imagine what that would have felt like. I imagine myself a woman, feeble with unuttered justification, unutterable. I imagine myself defeated.
But I was talking about the first map I saw. I was seven when the teacher showed it to us, even if I can’t say for certain the ages of the other boys in the class. Seven is a propitious number, and I have been here for seven months, though that is not why I cling to that number for the moment of my first map. I know I was seven because it was my second year at school, and I have the integrity of the British Empire to bear me out, since I would have been six the year I started, as the rules required. The teacher introduced his subject in a dramatic fashion. He held up a hen’s egg between thumb and forefinger. ‘Who can tell me how to make this egg stand up on its end?’ That was how he introduced Christopher Columbus to us. It was a fabulous and unrepeatable moment, as if I too had stumbled across an unimagined and unexpected continent. It was the moment at the start of a story. As his story developed, he began to draw a map on the blackboard with a piece of white chalk: the coast of north-west Europe, the Iberian peninsula, southern Europe, the land of Shams, Syria and Palestine, the coast of North Africa which then bulged out and tucked in and then slid down to the Cape of Good Hope. As he drew, he spoke, naming places, sometimes in full sometimes in passing. Sinuously north to the jut of the Ruvuma delta, the cusp of our stretch of coast, the Hom of Africa, then the Red Sea coast to Suez, the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, the Malay Peninsula and then all the way to China. He stopped there and smiled, having drawn half the known world in one continuous line with his piece of chalk. He put a dot halfway down the east coast of Africa and said, ‘This is where we are, a long way from China.’
Then he put a dot in the north Mediterranean and said, ‘This is where Christopher Columbus was, and he wanted to go to China, but by following a route in the opposite direction.’ I don’t remember much of what he told us about the adventures of greedy Cristobal, so many other stories have silted up over that innocent moment, but I remember that he said that Columbus set out on his voyage the same year as the fall of Granada and the expulsion of Muslims from Andalus. These names top were new to me, as were so many of the others, but he said them with such reverence and longing – the fall of Granada and the expulsion of Muslims from Andalus – that I have never lost the moment. I see him now, a short plump man, dressed in a kanzu, kofia and a faded brown jacket, his face pitted with smallpox scars yet composed into a look of forebearance and tolerance. And I remember the fluency with which he created an image of the world for us, my first map.
The egg? This was the story. The sailors on Columbus’s ships had never sailed west into the Atlantic, nobody had. For all anyone knew, the ocean suddenly ended and its waters fell into a gigantic chasm and then travelled through caverns and gorges under the earth to a depthless pool infested with monsters and devils. Then also the journey was long and difficult, the ocean empty, no glimpse of Cathay however sharp-eyed the lookout. So the rabble grumbled and plotted. We want to go home. In the end Columbus confronted them, holding a hen’s egg between thumb and forefinger. Which of you can make this egg stand on its end? he asked. None of them could, of course. They were only sailors, doomed to play superstitious bit parts in such high drama, and grumble and cook up improbable plots. Columbus gently cracked the end of the egg – the teacher demonstrated with his own egg – and then stood it on the quarter-deck rail. I am not sure now whether the moral was that in order to eat an egg you have to crack it, and therefore in order to find Cathay you have to put up with suffering, or whether it was just to demonstrate that Columbus was a great deal cleverer than the sailors and was therefore more likely to be right about the most sensible course of action. In any case, the sailors immediately gave up any thought of insurrection and sailed on in search of the Grand Khan. As I would have done when I was seven. The teacher carefully put his hard-boiled egg down on his desk for later consumption.
We never had that teacher again, although he was a regular teacher at the school. Our class teacher was absent that day and he was looking after us for the morning. At the end of the morning we trooped out to go back to our class, and when I peeped in later to see the world he had shown us, the map had been wiped off the board.
Hussein would not have known about this, would have had no idea how it was that maps began to speak to me, but he knew how I loved looking at them and collecting them, and he sent me his grandfather’s old map to placate me because he owed me money. I laughed with pleasure when the gift arrived, but I was also almost certain that I would not see Hussein again. Why would he want to come our way to sell bits and pieces of sandalwood and rosewater when he could be trading in Rangoon and Shiraz and other such far-flung places in the great world, places hard to reach and therefore beautiful because of that?
Copyright © 2001 by Abdulrazak Gurna
Reproduced by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing
Excerpt from The Last Gift
ONE DAY, LONG BEFORE the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back. And then another day, forty-three years later, he collapsed just inside the front door of his house in a small English town. It was late in the day when it happened, returning home after work, but it was also late in the day altogether. He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame but himself.
He felt it corning, the collapse. Not with the dread of ruin that had idled by him for as long as he could remember, but with a feeling that something deliberate and muscular was steadily bearing down on him. It was not a strike out of nowhere, more like the beast had slowly turned its head towards him, recognised him and then reached out to smother him. His thoughts were clear as the weakness drained his body, and in that clarity he thought, absurdly, that this must be what it felt like to starve or freeze to death or to have a stone crush the breath out of your body. The comparison made him wince despite his anxiety: see what melodrama tiredness can induce?
He was weary when he left work, with that kind of weariness that sometimes descended on him inexplicably at the end of the day, more so in recent years than before, and which made him wish he could sit down and do nothing until the exhaustion had passed away, or until strong arms came to pick him up and take him home. He was old now, getting old, to say the least. The wish was like a memory, as if he remembered someone doing just that a long time ago – picking him up and taking him home. But he did not think it was a memory. The older he became, the more childlike his wishes at times. The longer he lived, the nearer his childhood drew to him, and it seemed less and less like a distant fantasy of someone else’s life.
Copyright © 2011 by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Reproduced by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing
Curious about 2021 literature laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah but can’t decide which of his books to start with? Here three members of the Swedish Academy give their recommendations.