The Last Gift By Abdul Razak Gurnah

London, 2010.

One of the joys of reading is finding a piece of yourself in the pages of a book and feeling like the world is a bit smaller because someone has understood and put into words the way you feel.  Recently I read Abdul Razak Gurnah’s book “The Last Gift” and it was a read that was packed with such moments.

The book is about a couple named Abbas and Maryam who have been married for  thirty years and their two children Jamal and Anna. Jamal is doing his PhD in migration, Maryam is frustrated and uncertain about her long term relationship and the four of them are a family who know little about each other’s lives. When Abbas suffers from a diabetic crisis and a stroke at the beginning of the book however, the stories and secrets of their family begin to emerge.

More than simply an interesting novel, it is a fascinating and thoughtful read that addresses themes of identity, immigration, belonging, family, relationships, duty and love. Though we may not have deep secrets we’ve all had that feeling of realising that there is much we don’t know about those we love, and in its juxtaposition of a family oblivious to the thoughts and history of one another, and observations about what it means to belong and to feel foreign in a place more generally, this book makes you think deeply about how you define the word home, and the cruelty and harshness we often show to those we care about the most.

In addition to asking its reader to think about what it means to be a family, it asks the reader to think about the privilege in our own lives. It points out the conversations we may enter not considering the assumptions we are making about the lives of others or the privilege involved when we expect others to answer our very personal questions.

Below, some of my favourite, most memorable passages from the book.

On Learning

There was a library, with hundreds of books that he could take home to read if he wished. It was like all his schooling, until then had taken place in a small room, a small empty shut away room. Then someone had opened the door and he found out that the room was a tiny little cell in a huge building. (p.128)

On Knowledge and Adulthood..

He felt that he was at an important moment in his life although he was not sure of the source of this feeling. Perhaps it was a sense of impeding decisions, that for the first time in his life he would be able to choose what he would do with himself. He considered this and decided that he did not think it was that. Perhaps it was to do with approaching the end of his PhD, a sense of completing a job and it was this which made him feel grown up, an adult, an agent in the world. He did feel that sense but that was a plodder’s delight, satisfaction at (nearly) getting a job done, not any expectation of having arived at transforming knowledge. (p.85)

On epistemologies..

It was what he studied, migration trends and policies in the European Union. He could describe the patterns and provide the historical context, locate this wave from the Maghreb and its destination and that one from Zimbabwe and how it dispersed. He could construct tables and draw graphs, yet he knew that each one of those dots on his chart had a story that the graphs could not illustrate. He knew that from his Ba, and he knew that from the faces that he saw in the streets, and from the silent spaces in the reports he read. He knew that it was a clutter of ambition and fear and desperation and incomprehension that brought people so far and enabled them to put up with so much. (p.86)

On Stereotypes and Privilege

“They were all looking at her, waiting for her to speak, to tell them what her real nation was. She wished she could get up and leave, and walk quickly to the train station and travel to wherever her real nation was. She wished she had more panache, and knew how to charm people she did not like.” (p.116)

On War and Citizenship..

“They took no notice of those who marched, or of others who didn’t march but raised their objections in other ways, and went right ahead with their war. It made Jamal wonder what it meant to be a citizen: how millions of them listened to what they were told, and thought about it and were not persuaded, how so many people, all over the world, spoke their reluctance and outrage and disagreement, and yet how all of this made no difference. ” (p.126)

The Distance is Far, But our Hearts are Near

It is strange to be presentation prepping and paper writing when there is a major revolution going on across the world.  I feel like we should stop what we’re doing and have a conversation about what this means for planning, for democracy, for the world, for ourselves, for our friends and neighbours.  Two days ago a dear friend sent me the video clip below and while I was watching it my throat had a lump and tears were close by, but even now, my heart is full with the thought of how the love of your first home is a deep bond that stays with you always.   (Alas, much to say, but also much to do, so today this must be a short note).

Till next time.

Goodness. I Had No Idea Bookshelf Goodbyes Would Be So Darn Difficult.

From debating whether to go at all, there are now nine days remaining till I leave my beloved Vancouver and move to Toronto. And friends, the move is making my heart hurt.

Not because  leaving places and people I love dearly will be hard (that’s true but I’ve accepted it finally) but because I’m puzzled by how one decides what to take and what to leave behind.  During a trip to London in May 2010 Antoine Saint Exupery’s words “he who would travel happily must travel light” came to mind when I arrived and realised that tube stations don’t have lifts, and struggled waited for wonderful strangers to help me with my suitcase every time I took a train to a different part of the country, or transferred hotels within London itself. In those moments, I would look at other passengers with tiny bags going for weekend trips and admire how their luggage didn’t hinder their movement at all.  So it’s a sensible principle: journeying forward with relatively little physical (and mental I suppose) baggage just makes for happier, easier times.

Intellectually I get this. But my courage fails me with the thought of implementing it when relocating someplace new.  The logic still makes sense: if you pack lightly future moves are easier to do, storing things in a tiny apartment is less complicated and you save on the cost of shipping whatever doesn’t fit in your two suitcase allowance. But when your return date is uncertain, oh it becomes ever so much harder to do!

And I’m surprised by just how hard it’s been.  After all, I’ve never been fond of malls, I have such tiny feet it’s a pain to go shoe shopping,  and trying on clothes with a hijab can be quite an elaborate affair, so I’ve always thought I was the kind of person who had limited belongings. I was wrong, and as I examine the contents of my room, I’m amazed by the sheer number of things I possess. Books. Letter paper.  Moleskines filled with late night reflections, emphatic underlining and a complete disregard for paragraphs. Swimming gear.  Bundt pans.  Prayer rugs. Binders filled with extracurricular classes and beautiful essays (not my own) that I’ve saved over the years. I’m astonished to discover it all.

It is the books that seem the hardest to leave. Packing this afternoon, I looked at my well worn copy of Walden, my Urdu books and my copy of Anne’s first set of adventures (among many many others) and leaving them felt like leaving good, kind friends and teachers behind. Yet opening a box and collecting a mass of  ‘necessary’ titles wasn’t a great solution either; I realised that even leaving a full bookshelf behind, to take my required books means shipping a couple of boxes worth, and it felt troubling to be so attached to material things. In Pakistan people’s lives have been turned upside down by floods of the past few weeks, in other parts of the world people leave their homes at a moment’s notice, and the cost of postage could be better used to help people in genuine need. (and so for the first time, I’m questioning the act of buying books in the first place; they are heavy and hard to move around!) On the other hand, being on my own and not being able to decipher a bit of Tariq Ramadan’s words before bed might make it that much harder to adjust and create a sense of home. On the other hand (I’m an octopus apparently), how much time do grad students have to read anyway?

And so I return to my dilemma. Dear friends, what do you take when you move? Are you a proponent of the packing light approach or do you take everything you love when you go? Advice most appreciated.