The Magic of Saida begins with a relatively familiar premise: a man returns to the country of his birth on a mission to find the woman he once loved. But this novel finally delivers a much more complex and tragic story than this starting point might suggest, offering a sweeping history of what is today Tanzania, from precolonial times to (almost) the present day.
The man is Kamal, born in the village of Kilwa, who has for decades made a life for himself in Canada as a successful doctor. We meet him apparently poisoned, in a hospital bed in Dar es Salaam, under circumstances shrouded in mystery. The tale of how he got there is the story of his search for the title’s magical Saida, but it is also the story of Kilwa, of German colonization of Deutsch Ostafrika, of the Maji Maji war and various anticolonial uprisings and resistances, of World War I as it played out on African soil, of British rule and, finally, independence – plus a bit of post-independence disillusionment. The narrative also evokes something of the energy of the decolonizing movements of the 60s, with Kamal studying at the famous Kampala University.
The novel offers an intricate and vivid portrayal of the Indian Ocean networks and communities that thrived before European conquest, and especially the links to India are explored, as Kamal’s grandfather was an Indian who made the sea journey from the subcontinent to the African coast. This genealogy means that Kamal tends to feel, depending on context, not quite African enough, or not quite Indian enough.
The (historical) setting stole the show for me, and the representation of German colonialism – seemingly so rare in English-language fiction – was particularly interesting, as was the novel’s insistent meditation on complicity. Former traders in enslaved people were also anticolonial fighters; those who seem villains now might once have fought on the side of emancipation, and vice versa. The ending has a sting I didn’t expect, and the book is a surprisingly rewarding read.