Love and Betrayal in Colonial Africa
The Zanzibaris, for their part, regard the foreigners who have come to rule them with a mix of suspicion, fear and awe. When Hassanali finds Pearce lying on the ground, he asks, in one of the book's many double-entendres: "Subhanallah, who are you? Are you human or spirit?" Pearce's arrival leads to a brief fight among the mosque-goers over who should have the privilege to take in the foreigner, the mzungu. Hassanali wins the honor, since he found the man and it is his Muslim duty to care for him until he recuperates. Almost immediately, though, Hassanali begins to worry that his home is not comfortable enough for the British man. He lets Pearce have the bedroom while he sleeps in the hallway, and "when the mzungu had regained his senses, they could ask him what he wished them to do." And indeed, neither Hassanali nor his friends bother to discuss the takeover of their lands in the same terms as Turner, Burton and Pearce. Rather, they appear to be concerned with surviving, with making do with what they have.
Rehana, confined to her home and to the homes of her friends, seems at first to be focused on affairs of the heart. Yet she turns out to be the most perceptive observer of the foreigners who suddenly appear in her home. Pearce doesn't strike her as a regular mzungu, but instead he is "more like complication and confusion." In Turner she sees "the snarling figure from the stories, the destroyer of nations." It is not Hassanali but Rehana who dares to stand up to Turner's abuse and to his accusations that they stole the sick man's belongings.
Gurnah's chapter on Rehana is his first attempt at writing from a female point of view. He has shown an interest in women's issues throughout his work (inheritance laws in By the Sea, arranged marriages in Admiring Silence, sexual bondage in Paradise), but taking on the female voice here allows him to paint an unusually complex portrait of this and other female characters. The women in Desertion range from the independent to the submissive, the sexually repressed to the unabashedly liberated, the educated to the ignorant, the pragmatic to the romantic. Gurnah seems to delight in turning stereotypes on their head. For instance, Farida, Amin and Rashid's sister, fails to get into high school and is eager to stay at home and work as a dressmaker, much to the dismay of her educated mother. Later, however, Farida writes and publishes collections of poetry that neither of her schooled brothers could have crafted.
The second part of Desertion focuses mostly on Amin, Rashid and Farida, who are portrayed against the tumultuous backdrop of a country heading toward independence. As a young boy, Rashid teaches himself Italian by reading books given to him by an uncle, a customs agent. He doesn't understand what the words mean, but he still refuses to address anyone in his family in any language but Italian. Eventually, everyone around him starts to believe that the boy does speak Italian, which earns him the respect of his elders. Aping the language of Europeans, even without understanding, confers power and respect. When Rashid goes to high school he excels in most subjects, but particularly in English. Like most products of a colonial education, Rashid begins to see himself through the lens of the outsiders. He grows up despising his culture and feeling, in a sense, that he belongs elsewhere. "The more complex [Rashid's] understanding became, the more it seemed that this world became his." Not surprisingly, Rashid leaves for Britain to pursue his education, only to find himself struggling to fit into a culture he thought he knew so well.
Amin doesn't share Rashid's academic ambitions. He is content to follow in his parents' footsteps and go to the local teacher-training college. But he dares to fall in love with Jamila, who turns out to be Rehana's granddaughter. The story of their courtship, constrained as it is by the conservative society in which they live and by the fact that it takes place during Ramadan, makes for one of the novel's most exquisitely written chapters.
That night he dreamed about her again, and dreamed about the beast squatting on her. He was that beast, he thought when he woke up. He had been the beast all along, but had refused to recognize himself, an ugly obsessive creature trembling with feelings and desires that he would do better to suppress and deny.
The great irony of Amin's life is that his own parents defied their traditions by having a love marriage and finishing their studies before getting married. Out of loyalty to his parents, Amin abandons his lover, a decision that changes the course of his life, turning him into an exile in his own country, unable to connect with anyone or anything.