57 pages 1 hour read

Abdulrazak Gurnah


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Afterlives, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s 10th novel, was published in 2022, a year after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel tells the story of a disparate group of a half-dozen colonial-era Tanzanians living in the seacoast village of Tanga. Gurnah, himself Tanzanian, who fled Zanzibar when he was 18, returns to the common topics of his previous books in this novel: the oppression of occupied people, the futility and horror of war, and the unrequited yearning of the afflicted. Gurnah introduces a cast of characters, each of whom has survived trauma from which they rise to build new lives. Praised by numerous reviewers and critics, Afterlives was a bestseller in the United States.

This guide uses the 2022 Riverhead Books hardback copy.

Content Warning: In his description of the war, Gurnah alludes to atrocities and unprovoked violence committed by military groups throughout the narrative. There are also references to miscarriages and depictions of child abuse and sexual harassment.

Plot Summary

Khalifa is the son of an Indian businessman and an African woman. A diligent student, Khalifa advances in his studies. When the Germans invade and colonize Tanzania, Khalifa’s ability to speak German makes him a key employee for the small bank where he works in the coastal town of Tanga. Amur, a shady merchant, recognizes Khalifa’s abilities and his willingness to ignore the letter of the law and brings him into his secretive business.

Khalifa’s parents die, and Khalifa marries Amur’s orphaned niece, Asha. Though they wed without ever seeing one another, the union works well. Asha dislikes her uncle because Amur used loans made to Asha’s father to gain control of the house in which Asha lives. Asha has three miscarriages and cannot have children. Amur’s son, Nassor, goes to the trade schools established by the Germans and becomes an expert woodworker. He asks Amur to buy him a woodworking shop, which Amur does. When Amur suddenly dies, Nassor takes legal possession of Asha’s home, even though she still lives there with her husband.

About this time, Ilyas comes to Tanga. He is a young Tanzanian who ran away and was educated by the Germans. When he and Khalifa become fast friends, Khalifa persuades him to make peace with his parents. Ilyas discovers his parents are deceased, though he has a young surviving sister, Afiya, who dwells with an aunt and uncle. Ilyas finds her living in terrible conditions, tormented by her older cousins. He takes his sister to Tanga and teaches her to read and write. Ilyas believes the Germans are good-hearted and fully supports them. As war looms, he joins the askari [Tanzanian mercenaries] to fight against the British. He returns Afiya to the aunt’s house, where she is badly beaten. Afiya sneaks a note to Khalifa, who rescues her, taking her into his home with Asha. She acclimates quickly, showing curiosity and intelligence. While Khalifa dislikes Nassor, Nassor treats Afiya kindly and introduces her to his wife and her friends.

Hamza also ran away. He escaped slavery by volunteering for the askari. With other recruits, he goes to a mountain training center, where harsh preparations take place. A slight, quiet youth, Hamza finds himself singled out to be the personal servant of a German lieutenant who takes a special interest in him.

The lieutenant teaches Hamza German, which spurs mockery from other askaris and hatred from the Feldwebel [German sergeant]. World War I breaks out and the askari march north to protect the border against British forces. In the first battle—an assault on Tanga—the confused Indian troops, who are fighting for the British, are routed by the askari, who take this as a sign of a quick and complete victory. Instead, the British engage in a number of battles in which the Tanzanians sustain many casualties. While the Germans fight fanatically, their numbers, supplies, and ability to acquire resources diminish greatly.

When the British cannot take Tanga, they resort to blockading it, resulting in gravely diminished resources to the civilians in the town. Resorting to tactics he employed with Amur, Khalifa shows Nassor how to work with a blockade runner who brings in small quantities of supplies, keeping Nassor in business. Two years after the war commences, Indian troops take Tanga without any attack. The citizens learn to deal with their new British overlords. Afiya worries about her brother, Ilyas, who has been gone for years without any news.

Largely on the run from British mercenaries, the German officers decide to visit a missionary clinic. Since the doctor treated a wounded Rhodesian officer, the British allowed the mission to remain open. After leaving, the askari struggle greatly. All their civilian carriers and two-thirds of the soldiers desert. The enraged Feldwebel blames Hamza, slashing him with his saber, wounding him gravely. Lapsing in and out of consciousness, Hamza is scarcely aware of riding on a stretcher to the mission. The lieutenant bids him farewell, leaving a book of Schiller’s literature. He tells Hamza that he reminds the lieutenant of his younger brother who died in combat.

Two years pass and Hamza ends up back in Tanga. He walks through town, looking for the house from which he escaped. Eventually, he meets Nassor and asks for a job. Nassor sends him to help Khalifa in the lumberyard. Khalifa offers him a place to stay. As Hamza continues to impress Nassor and Khalifa, Khalifa introduces him to Asha, who resents this. Hamza also meets Afiya, who is now 19. They become infatuated with one another, though neither lets the other know this. Afiya is a mystery to Hamza.

Nassor moves Hamza to the woodshop to study under the master carpenter Sulemani, who quickly admires his new student. Likewise, Asha grows used to the presence of Hamza, giving him chores and inviting him inside to eat with them on occasion. This gives Hamza and Afiya the opportunity to see and speak to one another. During the holy month of Ramadan, they consummate their affections in Hamza’s room. Understanding their feelings for one another, Khalifa encourages Hamza to marry Afiya. Afiya agrees. Khalifa insists that the couple resides in the house where Afiya has lived for nine years.

Business improves in Tanga after the war ends and the new British colonizers want to build infrastructure through the country. Hamza’s role in the community increases while Afiya works on her abilities as a seamstress. Everything is not perfect, however, as Hamza has night terrors as a result of his time in the military. Afiya has a miscarriage that results in her becoming more confident and independent. Asha experiences terrible pain in her pelvic region. She is diagnosed, among other things, with advanced kidney cancer. Just before her death, she makes peace with Nassor’s wife, with whom she had a life-long conflicted relationship. Coinciding with the death of Asha is the birth of Ilyas, the son and only child of Afiya and Hamza.

Nassor desires to open a higher-volume woodshop and makes Hamza the boss, doubling his salary. Since Asha, his cousin, is deceased, Nassor has little compunction about moving Khalifa out of the house and renting it. Hamza cleverly maneuvers Nassor into renting it to him, allowing Khalifa to stay. Khalifa regards little Ilyas as his grandson. This is an idyllic time for the small family.

A dreamer like his father, Ilyas often stands and stares silently. He develops the habit of talking to himself. Eventually, people realize he is speaking in the voice of a woman, asking for Ilyas—his missing uncle. His parents bring in an exorcist who provides relief for the child. Hamza tries to find what happened to the older Ilyas by writing to the wife of the German doctor, who now lives in Germany. A British officer comes to the woodshop and demands that Hamza go with him to the police station. There he is shown a letter in German from the wife of the doctor. The police force him to read and translate the letter, which states that Ilyas had come to Germany after the war and applied for a military pension and commendation.

World War II interrupts Hamza’s plan to locate the older Ilyas. After the war, the younger Ilyas travels to Germany and locates evidence that his uncle, who changed his name to Elias Essen, married and had a family in Germany. The Nazis arrested him in 1939 because of his relationship with a white woman and Elias died, along with his son, in a concentration camp.