Comoros: beyond belief

I thought this one might defeat me. As far as I could see, there was not – nor had there ever been – a single novel, short story collection or memoir published in English translation by a writer from the Comoro Islands. No matter who I asked or how charmingly I smiled at the Google homepage, the answer was always the same: nada. It seemed I had come to the end of the road.

In despair, I mentioned the dilemma to my colleague – the same colleague who came up trumps with the Niger book. A few weeks later he was back with, in his words, ‘possible gold’. He’d found a CV online of Anis Memon, a lecturer in French and Italian at the University of Vermont. It stated that in 2005 he’d done a translation of Le Kafir du Karthala by Mohamed Toihiri, the Comoros’ permanent representative to the United Nations and, according to Simon Gikandi’s Encyclopedia of African Literature, the country’s first published novelist. Perhaps if I contacted Memon, he might be able to dig out the manuscript for me?

I fired off an email and received a modest response from Memon. He said he couldn’t vouch for the quality of the translation as it was a personal project he’d undertaken when Mohamed Toihiri was a visiting lecturer one year at Memon’s grad school. The two had spent quite a bit of time together and as a result Memon had decided it would be good practice for him to try and translate one of the writer’s novels. Still, if I wanted to look at the manuscript, he’d see if he could find it for me.

A nail-biting wait ensued. The way I saw it, Memon’s translation was probably my one chance of reading a Comorian novel in English. I just hoped he was better at backing up and archiving his files than I was.

Luckily, that turned out to be the case and when I next checked my emails while on holiday in Spain, the file was waiting for me. The Kaffir of Karthala was mine to read.

Beginning on the day Dr Idi Wa Mazamba discovers he has terminal cancer, the novel tells the story of one man’s struggle to free himself from the conventions, patterns and prejudices that have dogged his life. Liberated by the knowledge that his days are numbered, married Mazamba embarks on an affair with a French woman, Aubéri, and comes to look at the world around him with new eyes. Yet this fresh vision brings with it a heightened awareness of the racism, corruption and contradictions that riddle society. Appalled by the hypocrisy he encounters, Dr Mazamba hatches a plan to challenge the status quo while he still can.

Toihiri is a clear-eyed writer, who excels at presenting complex situations in concise, memorable ways. Whether he is describing the inequality of living conditions in Chitsangani – ‘a neighbourhood where the Middle Ages and the Third Millennium went hand in hand’ and where ‘here one slept on a mat of fleas, there one got ill from hyper-cleanliness’ – or the double standards that see foreign nationals and the ‘generous partner’ donors who pull the political strings behind the scenes receiving top treatment while patients in Mazamba’s hospital can not afford drugs, Toihiri’s descriptions are precise and fearless.

Often, they are very funny too. Ranging from witty anecdotes to satirical attacks, such as the summary of the political career of Marshal Kabaya – ‘at first Minister of Sand in Your Eyes, he was then promoted, following a shuffling of the cabinet, and became the Minister of State in Charge of the Occult Sciences’ – they puncture pomposity and pretence wherever Toihiri sees it. Meanwhile, the writer balances these descriptions with a wry affection for some of the customs on the archipelago that keeps the narrative from becoming overly bitter, as when Mazamba explains the rivalry between the islands to Aubéri:

‘In Ngazija and Mmwali they say that the Anjouanese are poisoners, that they’re skinflints, morbidly jealous, that you mustn’t even look at their women otherwise they’ll arrange to have you thrown off a bridge; we actually say a lot of nonsense about each other.’

Perhaps the most fascinating passages of the book for readers unfamiliar with Comorian culture, like me, are those surrounding marriage traditions in Mazamba’s home village. There, the concept of the ‘great wedding’, a huge celebration which each man is expected to save for and go through once in his life, regardless of whether he is already married to another woman or not, holds sway. And when Issa, Mazamba’s best friend, allows himself to be flattered into going through a great wedding with a canny teenager, the folly of the institution is laid bare.

Occasionally, Toihiri’s desire to encapsulate contradictions and struggles in punchy imagery runs away with the narrative. Muslim Mazamba and Jewish Aubéri’s first physical encounter, for example takes place in a church during a trip they both conveniently have to take to apartheid-riven South Africa. Reading the descriptions of Mazamba breaking his Ramadan fast with Aubéri’s bodily fluids under the shadow of a crucifix, I couldn’t help feeling the author was labouring the point. In addition, the final stages of the plot, during which Mazamba is unexpectedly manoeuvred into a position of influence that enables him to take radical action, rely too much on coincidence and luck to be entirely credible.

But then I’m writing this having just read a translation that until a couple of months ago existed only on the hard drive of an academic I’ve never met more than 3,000 miles away. Hmmn. Perhaps anything is possible after all…

The Kaffir of Karthala  (Le Kafir du Karthala) by Mohamed Toihiri, translated from the French by Anis Memon

Yemen: the past is another country

There isn’t much Yemeni prose for curious English-language readers to get their hands on. At first I assumed this was because of a lack of translation – and that is part of it – but after some time researching Yemeni writers and emailing addresses for bookshops and writers associations that, without exception, bounced my messages straight back at me, I realised that there might be a bit more to it.

In fact, the country’s political history, which saw the rigid regime of the Imams give way to decades of war and unrest in the latter half of the 20th century, means that fiction writing and publishing in the country has been pretty thin on the ground. Nevertheless, there have been some pioneers and of these Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, whose 1984 novel The Hostage was chosen as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union, has to be one of the most celebrated.

Set during the run up to a brief revolution in the 1940s, the book portrays the struggles of a young boy who is taken hostage because of his father’s political activities and is sent to work as a duwaydar [attendant] in the Governor’s palace. Required to service every whim and desire of the men and women of the household, the boy learns the meaning of powerlessness and subjection. Yet, as his political awareness grows and society outside the palace gates begins to stir, his experiences give him the insight he needs to begin to imagine another future.

Interlink Books, the company behind the Emerging Voices series in which this translation was published, were clearly worried that the historical and social context of the novel might be challenging for Western readers. Not only did they include a preface explaining the reasons for translating the book in this edition, but they also added two introductions and footnotes to the Arabic terms in the text.

They needn’t have been so diligent because Dammaj’s skill as a storyteller is more than equal to the task of carrying his readers over his narrative’s sometimes challenging terrain. Indeed, the sense that we are getting a glimpse into the closed, privileged and long-lost world of palace life under the Imams’ rule is one of the novel’s great strengths. This is helped by the protagonist’s position as an outsider, which means that we discover the world with him and watch as he compares the formal processes of power with the way things are done in his own largely illiterate home community.

However, perhaps the most startling arena of discovery is that of the palace’s sexual politics. Women in this closed world are extremely predatory towards the young pubescent boys serving them, as are the soldiers manning the gates, leaving the hero feeling ‘like a rare bird […] put in a golden cage for life’. During a drive back from a state visit, the women’s possessiveness even spills over into a physical fight, with the boy tossed between them like a doll:

‘Then suddenly, she got hold of me and threw me towards them, so that I lost my balance and fell in some of their laps.

‘”You’re simply jealous of me,” she said, “because he’s sitting next to me. Am I jealous of you because he’s in your beds every night?”‘

Humiliation doesn’t get much deeper than this. However for Dammaj’s hero, the extreme pressure of being possessed and passed around in this way is just the force he needs to sublimate his powerlessness into dignity and develop his own desire for self-determination.

This growth of the protagonist from a naive child into a humane and thoughtful young man is what transforms the narrative from an intriguing account of life in a particular period into a timeless, classic tale. Dummaj shows us the human heart beating beneath the strange clothes and outmoded customs. Powerful writing indeed.

The Hostage (Ar-Rahina) by Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, translated from the Arabic by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (Interlink Books, 1994)

Gabon: mother courage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gabon. It’s not a country that we in the UK hear much about. In fact, a quick search of the BBC website shows that only a handful of stories have mentioned the place in the last 12 months – and most of them were to do with the African football Cup of Nations.

With nothing to go on, it seemed to make sense to return to a trusted source for a steer on what to read. And so I picked out Daniel Mengara’s Mema from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, a collection which introduced me to the excellent Bessie Head a month or so ago.

I was in for a surprise. Told by a son in memory and praise of his ostracized mother, this is one of the most unusual books I’ve read.

The novel records the downfall of Mema (mother) as she runs up against the strict codes and mores of rural Gabonese society. Left to fend for herself in her in-laws’ village after her meek husband dies, the fearless and even fearsome woman, who has a habit of settling disputes with a machete, finds the whispers and suspicions that have dogged her throughout her marriage swell to fever pitch until she is separated from her children and must watch her son go off alone ‘into the new world that the white man was slowly creating for us’ because it is ‘the only way out’.

Mema’s world is a world of storytelling and rhetoric. When problems crop up, they are dealt with through a medzo or village meeting, during which the most persuasive speakers – usually the old women – carry the day. ‘Tales were what made people wise’ in this milieu of ‘psychological games and scare tactics’, the narrator explains, adding that ‘it was up to the youngsters to show cleverness by getting out of the tale the wisdom that they needed’.

The impact of growing up in a world where everyone is expected to be a literary critic and stories are the way of getting things done, is clear from the narrator’s doubts about what he is doing with his own act of telling:

‘Is it because I have travelled across the seas to the white man’s land that I have decided to desecrate my mother’s memories by telling them to strangers who will not even care to read her story to the end? Strangers who may not like what I have to say or may hate me for daring to say it? And how could strangers understand what I have to say? What will they do when the story of my mother proves too much for them and starts to haunt them, eating them from the inside?’

The novel’s portrayal of the power of women is equally intriguing. While making clear that the society he describes is ostensibly patriarchal, the narrator shows how women maintain control behind closed doors. ‘The lion had to be kept roaring for the sake of appearance’, he explains, but ‘when a woman was angry, nothing in the village worked’. The most striking demonstration of this is played out in the description of the rituals surrounding deserting wives in the region. Form dictates that the husband, who has usually been deserted on the grounds of cruelty, must go to apologise and beg his spouse back from his in-laws,. However if a husband is slow to do this the village women will launch a campaign of non-cooperation with their partners to force his hand.

For all the power women wield collectively, though, the radical Mema finds that individuals who don’t conform face a lonely road. Shunned for displaying masculine traits and daring to use mimbiri (witchcraft) to try to heal her dying husband, she is forced out of society and must carve out her own road for herself and her child.

In the wake of her death, only her son’s fierce admiration remains, fuelling this passionate elegy, which cannot fail to resonate with readers. Angry, abrupt, strange and moving, Mema’s tale is as haunting as its narrator describes. I was consumed and challenged by it. In its turn it will give me food for thought for a long time to come.

Mema by Daniel Mengara (Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2003)