Paradise by Gurnah Abdulrazak: Book Reflection

by Mapule Mohulatsi

Paradise is usually defined as an idyllic place where one wishes to go and forget the torments of the present moment. Paradise has been confused as a place where one needs to go to escape; paradise is never at the present moment unless it is a fleeting sensation that never stays. The human contradiction when looking at paradise is that paradise is never at the place where one is situated. In paradise, or rather how the idea of paradise has been presented to us, is shown as a series of pleasures that benefit the individual. These pleasures or benefits can be attainted by the way in which we negotiate our own paradise and selves through the degenerate nature of ‘othering’ those that surround us. In the biblical sense, paradise is heaven, the kingdom of heaven, a promised land and the City of God, abode of all saints. Earth can be seen as a city of God, a sort of paradise that is conflicted within its own self. The idea and the definition of Paradise challenge us to consider if paradise is a feeling or a place? Is it both? Is paradise a human construct that presents an escape from ‘hell’ which is the present moment? In the warmth of innocence, are we at paradise?


Located in East Afrika, the novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, ‘Paradise’, deconstructs the notion of paradise in both its geographical and sensational presentations. In the novel, paradise is both within and beyond the individual. Sometimes it can be located and sometimes not. However, in both the geographical and the sensational notions of paradise, we are confronted by the contradictions of humanity in religion. The sense of self and trade and how each of these have a relationship with the ideas and the definition of paradise.

In separate conversations with Yusuf, Mohammed Adballa and Khalil, seek to explain the place of violence in Uncle Aziz’s trade patterns and how it affects each of the mentioned characters, especially Yusuf, and their sense of selves. The themes of displacement, choice, religion and trade play a pivotal role in explaining how violence and trade affect Yusuf’s sense of self. The novel is divided in ways that illustrate Yusuf’s journey and the loss of his innocence throughout the journey. The novel is an illustration of the journey within Yusuf, and the journey he is making as a slave into the interior and outside of it. 

East Afrika

Trade, religious exchange and slavery in East Afrika have been taking place before the arrival of Europeans on the coast. The coast of East Afrika has been exposed to trade before the birth of Christ. The colonial history of Afrika, with the arrival of Europeans, is used predominantly to explain forms of trade, slavery, and other exchanges that the Indian Ocean world has long been exposed to. Ideas, religions, goods and generics have been in constant exchange in the Indian Ocean world. The ocean is a connecter of different worlds where identities have emerged due to the movements of people and their ideas. Different elements have been used to initiate these movements, from the monsoon winds and dhows to steam ships and aeroplanes. Trade has been an important factor that motivates the movement of people, and due to trade and movement, identities and the perceptions of reality have changed for people.

The concept of movement has played a pivotal role in the concepts of paradise. How this concept is understood by individuals in a society that has a long history in the trade of things, including the ideas of paradise, slavery and religion. The social interaction of East Afrikans is one that is influenced by a dynamic history of slavery and Gurnah shows in Paradise that the corruption of trade into subjection and enslavement pre-dates European colonisation. In East Afrika servitude and slavery have always been woven into the social fabric. The exchange of religious ideas has also taken place, and due to the movements of different ideas, the perceptions of paradise have also changed especially when considering paradise in the sense of self.


For Yusuf, paradise is always in his imagination. Society and his interactions with it produce his imagination. His imagination is one which locates the sensational element of paradise with freedom. Freedom in the imagination of his realities, thus he creates a self defined paradise.  Gurnah, through the character of Yusuf, offers us a paradise which highlights the diversity of the East Afrikan coast. Through his imagination, Yusuf is able to escape the violence of trade and slavery on him. 

In the first section of the novel, ‘The Walled Garden’, we are introduced to Yusuf’s protected innocence. In the protection of his family. Yusuf as a child is able to imagine and to create a paradise of his own. He has a special relationship with his society and is able to negotiate his own peace despite his alienation as a child. For example- “Yusuf’s father preferred him to play with the children of the Indian shopkeeper who lived in the neighbourhood, except that the Indian children threw sand and jeered at him when he tried to get near them…”( Gurnah; 1994, 6). To negotiate his own peace – “Sometimes he sat with the groups of older boys who lounged under the shades of trees or lees of houses. He liked being with the boys because they were always telling jokes and laughing. Their parents worked as vibarua, labouring for the Germans on the line-construction gangs” (Gurnah, 1994, 6).

Yusuf is a character who is able to create his own paradise and it is entirely due to his imagination. The journey of this imagination and that of his innocence are protected and damaged by his ability to adapt. His sense of self, which we are introduced to in ‘The Walled Garden’, is one that negotiates its own space even in spaces that alienate him. Even though he finds some freedom from the older boys, in the game of kipande, he is too small to play with them. To escape this – “Yusuf made himself a kipande, and adapted the game so he could play it on his own… he chased up and down the road in front of their house, shouting with excitement and trying to catch a kipande he had just hit high in the as he could…” (Gurnah; 1994, 8). Yusuf and his innocence provide a paradise for him, and on his journey he maintains the innocence of imagination.


Displacement in the novel is an important theme. Slavery being the biggest factor which displaces people. The violence of the trade Uncle Aziz partakes in is one that is connected to slavery. The novel challenges the ways of seeing, how people see and how people are seen. Displacement in the novel is usually associated to this seen/seeing process. How people view you and how you view them can displace you within the situations that entangle your history to them. Gurnah suggests that we are as separated as we are connected, especially in a society that deals with slavery and trade. This theme of displacement is also maintained through the post-colonial gaze that the novel takes. The novel revisits texts on colonialism and writes back to them.

As Julie Newman suggests, “postcolonial novelists reposition the novel in relation to its point of origin, or historical position so that they can ‘repossess their own stories’ and ‘take control of their own reality’, are, through their self-consciousness, politically more effective than representational or nationalistic works.” (Judie Newman, in her essay ‘The colonial Voice in the Motherland, pg. 4).

Both Khalil and Yusuf are displaced, and both are affected and react from their displacement in different and unique ways. The place of violence in Uncle Aziz’s trade patterns and how it affects their lives receives a different reaction from them. In ‘The Mountain Town’, the theme of displacement is especially clear. Khalil, who is also a slave due to the place of trade in society, has accepted his fate and fully understands it. He understands the terms of his slavery, negotiates them, and also accepts them. In his duties he is vibrant and eccentric, he is loyal to his master and expects Yusuf to be like him. When he meets Yusuf he advises him –

“He ain’t your uncle, you’d better learn that quickly zuma. It’s important for you. He doesn’t like little beggars like you calling him Uncle, Uncle, Uncle. He likes you to kiss his hand and call him seyyid. And in case you don’t know what that means, it means master. Do you hear me, kipumbu, we, you little testicle? Seyyid, you call him that. Seyyid!” (Gurnah, 1994). 

Khalil constantly reminds Yusuf of his place, as if he is reassuring himself of his. He wants him and Yusuf to recognize each other as brothers in slavery. He is irritated by the naive way that Yusuf deals with the terms of his slavery. In the journey to the mountain town, Yusuf becomes aware of the bigger displacements of trade. Mohammed Abdalla says that he has to go and trade with them and “learn the difference between the ways of civilisation and the ways of the savage. It’s time you grew up and saw what the world is like…” (Gurnah, 1994). In his journey he is exposed to the degenerate nature of othering that comes with trade. Khalil and Mohammed Abdalla seem to have accepted the conditions of trade and how it places them in a better, ‘civilised’ position. On the journey Yusuf learns of the mentalities of the civilised. He is told constantly that the savages do not know God, and that that the civilised will always defeat the savage. He is informed that –

‘This is what on this earth we do …. To trade we go to the driest deserts and the darkest forests, and care nothing whether we trade with a king or a savage, or whether we live or die. It’s all the same to us. You’ll see some of the places we pass, where people have not yet been brought to life by trade, and they live like paralysed insects. There are no people more clever than traders, no calling more noble. It is what gives us life.’ (Gurnah,1994).

In his journey, Yusuf is introduced to the violences of trade. Despite this, he still experiences the beauty of the places he visits and the people he meets. He learns to read the Koran and finds a sense of self within it. The Koran in the novel is used to show how religion and trade have a special relationship; characters in the novel use the Koran to justify themselves. But for Yusuf it is different when he learns to read it–

‘Yusuf’s ardour did not appear to relent. In two months he read the Koran from beginning to end, and was ready to start again’ (Gurnah, 2004).

Yusuf, unlike Khalil and Mohammed, still negotiates his own paradise despite the conditions of his enslavement and its displacement. The nature of othering in the novel shows that the hybridism of East Afrika is one that is conflicted, to negotiate self, the ‘other’ has to exist. Displacement is also usually caused by how a person is seen. Yusuf escapes this, for one he made aware that he is beautiful, yet never does he take advantage of it. In the novel we do not encounter a moment where he consciously ‘others’ another person. Instead he is welcoming to the ostracised, the relationship that develops between him and the hermit gardener show this.

Trade & Violence

In the last two sections of the novel, the violence of Uncle Aziz’s trade patterns are depicted fully, and their effect on Yusuf, his imagination and his ability to choose. In the last two sections the theme of othering is shown to be a significant part of trading in East Afrika. In doing this Gurnah attempts to show that the arrival of the Europeans is simply a continuation of a slavery. That this is generated by a superiority that is an outcome of othering, of giving a sense of importance to selves, selves like Uncle Aziz, Chatu and Europeans. Uncle Aziz’s trade patterns, and this is because of the importance of trade in religion and society, deeply affect those around him. Mohammed Abdalla foresees the end of the customary Arab trade with the interior under the onslaught of European colonisation of East Afrika – as he puts it to Yusuf:

‘ . . . there will be no more journeys now the European dogs are everywhere. By the time they’ve finished with us they will have fucked us up every hole in our bodies. Fucked us beyond recognition. We’ll be worse than the shit they’ll make us eat. Every evil will be ours, people of our blood, so that even naked savages will be able to despise us. You’ll see.’ (Gurnah, 1994)

Uncle Aziz’s trade patterns affect the people he travels with and those he leaves at home. Khalil is forced to entertain the mistress. In the insect-infected wilderness across the lake, disease takes its toll and a number of the porters die. By the end of the journey Mohammed is weak and not as strong as he used to be. The violence of trade and his own violence have weakened him. After the last journey, which is horrible, a lot has changed. Uncle Aziz has less power and is in debt due to the advent of Western colonisation. The novel suggests, when the German officer arrives outside Uncle Aziz’s shop together with his column of askaris in order to capture more men for the colonial army, serves only to further compound the dialectic of domination, subjection and compromise (Gqola, 2012).

Sun Setting

At the end of the novel, Yusuf joins the column. He realises that he will not ever fully escape slavery because of the laws of trade, but he does have choice. What Gurnah’s reader does come to see through Yusuf s eyes in the final section of the novel, is the extent to which in this East Afrikan world servitude and slavery are not simply the consequence of European colonisation. They have always been inextricably woven into the social fabric. This is not to minimize the impact of the German colonisation of East Afrika, but to show that paradise is within. Yusuf, unlike Khalil and Mohammed, is able to negotiate his own journey at the end. Paradise for Yusuf is in the freedom of imagination. Despite his slavery, he is still able to escape mentally and sometimes physically. The garden he tends is a paradise created by his imagination and the physical sensations it gives him.

The place of violence in Uncle Aziz’s trade patterns affects Yusuf’s sense of self. However, he is still able to create a sense of self that is entirely his own. Paradise can be a geographic location, as scenes from the novel have depicted East Afrika to be. But in the violence of trade, these locations are exploited and owned. Thus the concept of paradise in the novel is extended to self, and the parts of self which can remain untainted, such as the imagination and the ability to choose. Paradise is usually defined as an idyllic place where one wishes to go and forget the torments of the present moment. Paradise has been confused as a place where one needs to go to escape. The human contradiction when looking at paradise is that paradise is never at the place where one is situated; that one needs to escape ones history to be in paradise. Yusuf shows that this notion is not completely true. 

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