Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri's novel 'Maymuna' demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

A Dhow in Zanzibar. Public Domain image.

In his speculative novel, Maymuna (2002), black Saudi-based author Mahmud Traouri highlights how the bodies of dispossessed women move across land and water. In doing so, he creates an alternative historiography to the dominant neoliberal rhetoric which, centered on individuality, liberty, and equality, does not attend to colonial and capitalist systemic oppression. Traouri employs a decolonial feminist approach to highlight the significant role of a woman’s journey across East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The socioeconomic and political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa have spanned centuries. Such encounters raise questions about the way movement in the Indian Ocean during the rise of colonial capitalism has shaped racial and gender politics in the region. African presence, as a result of both the slave trade and migration to the Arab Gulf, is palpable in the minutiae of daily life. Gulf citizens of African descent are an integral part of the Gulf’s cultural identity. Their songs, rhymes, and different forms of dance such as al-laywa, al-haywa, or al-ṭanbūra are a feted part of Gulf folklore. These performances are considered a positive affirmation of racial and gender visibility. Nonetheless, this cultural appropriation of racialized and gendered bodies within a romanticized national narrative generates a neoliberal hypervisibilization of autonomy which ultimately leads to the erasure of those bodies.

Such neoliberal discourse co-opts dispossessed black women’s bodies by highlighting the heterogeneity of migrant-based societies while simultaneously suppressing the underlying legacy of colonial violence. Both before and after the discovery of oil in the region, the demand for slave labor from East Africa contributed to the exponential growth of the African diaspora in the Gulf. Dispossession was perpetuated by the maritime and land trade routes of global capitalism, especially through the East India Company, the Indian Ocean slave trade, and the colonization of Zanzibar by Oman between 1698 and 1856 (which formed a single state, the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar).

Throughout the novel, Traouri draws attention to the role of Maymuna—a female black protagonist—as an archive of embodied knowledge. The narrative blends autoethnography, fiction, memoir, and prose poetry that emphasizes the aesthetics of the Arabic language and the cultural specificity of East African and Hijazi folklore. Maymuna—whose name means “the blessed one” or “the good omen” in Arabic—narrates the story of her family’s movement to the Hijaz to settle in the Islamic holy lands. Before Maymuna’s introduction into the world of the novel, the narrative’s first-person perspective challenges the ethnographic instrumentalization of African knowledge and culture. As her preborn self, Maymuna narrates: “As I hold on to the last fragment of the umbilical cord, I see deserts of Khaybar, Ḥaql, and al-ʿAqaba … I splinter … I become a forest harming my mother’s abdomen with its chaotic trees. The forest, for my people, bestows a spark of splendor and mystery, overflowing with animals and rivulets … I radiate, as a forest, in sounds and questions … the forest colored me with its reverberations.”

Here, Maymuna’s self-description of her own birth operates on a conceptual level beyond linear neoliberal narratives of time and progress. Her connection to the land, scents, and various creatures functions on a feminist ecocritical level that destabilizes the limited anthropocentrism of neoliberal subjectivity. Her body underpins the co-constitutive relation between the human body and the beyond-human bodies of land and water. Crossing borders further dismantles the binaries of land/water, life/nonexistence, and time/space, highlighting the intricacy of the grief and pain of dispossession inscribed on her skin. However, Maymuna’s body is porous, refusing to be a passive repository onto which ecology inscribes itself. The fluidity of women’s movement across borders creates a set of entanglements between humans and beyond-humans in order to form an embodied archive of affinities. Such connections challenge heteropatriarchal oppression and the extractive logic of global capitalism. By attending to the multisensorial and affective experiences of gendered dispossessed bodies, Traouri adopts a feminist epistemology to critique neoliberal subjectivity.

Maymuna’s body also documents the atrocities of both white colonialism and the Omani Arab slave trade, interrogating the history of Oman’s colonization of the Swahili coast of the Indian Ocean and the island of Zanzibar. She narrates, in detail, historical facts about the Arab slave trade in Zanzibar and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Her narration blurs the lines between documented official history and the knowledge stemming from her own body’s attunement to inherited trauma, legacies of slavery, and her own absorption of such horrors. She tells the story of her uncle ʿUmar’s complicity with Munawwir, a tradesman of dates in the Hijaz, who acts as a mediator between slave traders and wealthy sheikhs in different parts of Saudi Arabia. Munawwir convinces ʿUmar—an illegal immigrant himself—to sell young slaves to the Saudis and Yemenis. ʿUmar is eventually captured and enslaved. His interior monologue, mediated through Maymuna, relays the incomprehensible pain and trauma of slavery and alienation. He states, “I forced my blackness into the leash of exile and became opulent with disfiguration.” Signaling the relationship between racial oppression and the brutal commodification of black bodies within a colonial context, Maymuna confronts the shortcomings of neoliberal discourse by mediating a polyvocality of experiences which defy its linear logic.

The novel’s destabilization of the linearity of time and the progression of space through its layered form exemplifies the role of gendered bodies as “sites of crisis and instability.” The narrative challenges the evolution of a teleological journey through acts like crossing the borders of geopolitical nations, of land and water, of belonging and estrangement. By oscillating through time and space with abrupt yet fluid analepsis and prolepsis and a rich polyphony of voices, Maymuna’s narration of her people’s story through movement emulates the poetics of the text. This movement, however, is riddled with gaps in memory: “My mother,” she narrates, “refrained from narrating to me the moment of arrival to the Hijaz. That point remained mysterious. Utterly absent from her narrative.” The erasure of the history of movement from East Africa to the Hijaz exposes the obstacles faced by immigrants crossing bodies of land and water to reach the Gulf. These gaps shift attention to the embodiment of remembering and forgetting, where storytelling becomes a speculative method of archiving. Maymuna’s gaps generate an ethical alternative to the rationality and determinism underpinning Eurocentric Enlightenment.

In Maymuna, the gendered and racialized body-in-movement as a site of knowledge provides a venue for thinking about dispossession without the reductive use of neoliberal discourse. It pays attention to forms of affiliation and disintegration that challenge the logic of normative geopolitical borders. This text interrogates the authority of the modern Arabic canon in its lyrical experimentalism and its unflinching representation of chattel slavery in the Gulf. It also traces the convergences and divergences across different forms of colonial capitalism around the world and the oppressiveness of kafāla, the current migrant labor sponsorship system in the region. This critique of the neoliberal politics of representation pushes back against the co-optation of the history of migration and enslaved people to serve political agendas and economic profit.

About the Author

Hanan Al-Alawi is a dual-title PhD candidate in comparative literature and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State University. Her research focuses on body politics and forms of dispossession in contemporary Arabic and Persian literature in the Gulf.

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