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Dhaka Tribune

Dhaka Lit Fest

Chasing yesterdays

Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah shares his experiences on the concluding day of the Dhaka Lit Fest

Update : 10 Jan 2023, 01:22 PM

“What made you start writing your first novel? Was it loneliness?” 

“Loneliness was one of the factors. The others were different, but they were basically in the same genre as loneliness.” 

“Such as?” 

“Loneliness. Guilt…” 

“Guilt at leaving your home?” 

It was at this moment that Abdulrazak Gurnah was lost for words. The morning started out pleasantly enough, with the acclaimed writer and noble laureate taking a trip down memory lane and giving the wry smile tinged with a whisp of regret only a seasoned veteran of his age is able to give, and as the lecture proceeded to more serious grounds – IE his adolescence and his departure from Zanzibar for the coasts of England –Gurnah took on the somber and analytical stature that is “expected” from an artist of his caliber. 

However, one of the most rewarding moments of face-to-face conversations like this is even adept conmen – as all writers should be – don't have the temperament necessary to sustain their masked dance all night. In the case of Gurnah, we certainly got a peek behind the curtain more often than not. 

Let's return to the moment from the opening. A crook in his eyebrows, a downward gaze, and a moment of reflection – expressions Gurnah certainly didn't plan on using in this particular setting, but expressions that he was nevertheless, able to hide behind his characteristic persona of the author, noble laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah. To the casual eye, the hesitation didn't even last a second. But given Gurnah's usually stoic – albeit cheerful – attitude to most things, and the pause coming at a moment when he has been asked about a decisive moment of his life - not to mention the heavy subject matter that was the chief concern of the conversation itself - one would not just be blind if one didn't realize the significance of this particular moment. Given the lack of emotional insight that is necessary to result in such a mechanical response, I would imagine that the people who don't find this moment significant, they have left behind their humanity a long time ago. 


I have been sitting on a particular plan since the tail-end of 2021. The plan involves me getting out of my room, getting dressed, going down, and exploring the neighborhood that lies directly behind our apartment. Every evening, I sit down and think to myself, “This is the night.” 

Every morning, I go to bed disappointed, thinking that I'll get around to it next time. 

Now, there might be several explanations for this. The area behind our apartment might just be a literal swamp – a revelation that wouldn't surprise me given the industrial nature of the part of Dhaka we reside in. Who knows, the area might be hostile and dangerous, another hypothesis that isn't very far-fetched given that mugging is again on the rise and has essentially become an accepted part of living in Bangladesh. 

But that's not the reason I don't follow through this particular plan. 

The area I aim to explore is not the backwoods, nor is it a sister concern of the municipality of Mohammadpur. And this is something I can say with absolute certainty. 

How can I know this? To tell you the truth, I used to live in this place. The area of Dhaka we currently reside in is not some uncharted territory to which I have never been exposed before. 

This is the same place I used to live in a long, long time ago.

You see, back when I was still a child, this was the place I grew up in. A lot of the foundational elements of my psyche were formed in the alleyways of this place. I started school here. I made my first friends here. My lifelong addiction to storytelling – and anime in particular – found its genesis in this place. All I am and all I will be – for better or for worse - the seeds can be traced back to this particular back-wood lying cozily behind our current apartment. 

As a result, I dread going back. I dread going back to those alleyways I am so fond of. I dread meeting the people who shaped me as I am today. 

Because in reality, that place doesn't exist. 

On an infrastructural level, the entirety of Dhaka has had a facelift, and if I think that the place I want to go back to is the same place that I had left behind all those years ago – then I am a bigger fool then the people I am calling blind. On a biological level, all things end in decay, and even if by some miracle all of the people that were there in my life during that time period were still alive, they wouldn't be able to hold a candle to the memories I have of them, just as much I wouldn't be able to meet their expectations my own self. 

The people we are fond of don't exist. The people we think we are don't exist. All that exists, is memory, and when there is a disconnect between memory and the reality it is supposed to represent, then that results in of the bleakest epiphanies in the entire world. 

No matter how hard we try to hold on, everything results in decay.


These were the thoughts that were racing through my head as Gurnah recounted his eventual return to Zanzibar. Following some changes in the political structure of the country and his own career as a writer taking of, he took some weeks to travel through the coasts of Africa – places like Tanzania and the like – and he recounted fondly his run-ins with the people that shaped his childhood. To single out another moment, when he was asked about his proclivity in utilizing English as the language of choice when it came to his literary endeavors, he said that he always had an aptitude for the language, that he always read in English, and when he was nine years old, he had an English teacher who said that he had a particular knack for the language. 

When Gurnah met him after what must have been decades, the guy came up to Gurnah and grinned. 

“I discovered you,” he said. 


Unlike the moment in the opening, this is an encounter that Gurnah is able to narrate with that wry smile returning to his lips. His regained his composure – serious when he needs to be, sarcastic when he wants to be – and the rest of the talk went through as one might expect for an event like this. There was a rundown of his journey as a writer, questions and comments of his winning the Nobel prize, and moneyed sycophants trying to gain his attention through postulating themselves at his feet. But the moment we talked about earlier, where he recounted his reunion with his teacher – while it might seem devoid of the emotional weight of the opening, on the surface at least – gives us another insight into the man, and more importantly, the author that is Gurnah, or should I use his name as is used in connection to his ouvre, Abdulrazak Gurnah. 

Gurnah is acclaimed for his treatment of the diasporic and refugee experience. A writer uprooted from his home and eventually settling in a country he knew nothing of, Gurnah took to his pen to write down his experiences of this particular circumstance, of simultaneously trying to balance oneself in two separate boats, of trying to remember a place that has ceased to exist, of keeping it alive in our collective unconscious as his lifelong act of legacy. 

Obviously, this is a task that is looked upon as of great importance in literary circles. Given the globalized nature of the world, the monolithic narrative that has dominated our literary discussions for the past couple of centuries was bound to face a challenge. Given the hypothesis we have already entertained where I delved into my own experiences of departure, as with all things, this is a narrative that is destined for decay as well. 

However, the reason that Gurnah is able to do what he has done is because he – along with his compatriots who work in similar schools of thought – have come from a world that is different than ours. In their world, there was a marked difference between the characteristics of Zanzibar and the characteristics of a place like England. There was a marked difference between say, the 70s and the 80s. Times marched on, as always, but time is not the obliterative force it is today where the abandoned lot you played in your freshman year of high school gets turned into a multi storied commercial behemoth in the span of a single year. 

Things changed, but things also stayed the same. 

Whereas, in the world we live in now, within the span of a single night, you can't recognize your own face. 

At least, that's what I perceive our reality to be.

Nafis Shahriar is an Editorial Assistant at Dhaka Tribune. This is the first part of an ongoing series. 

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