Where do you come from?
The question seems simple enough, but the answer, for me, has always been complicated: Does the inquisitor want to know where I was born? Where my parents were born? Where I was raised? My dark skin, almond-shaped eyes, and the narrow bridge of my nose all offer their own comment, which are at odds with my conception of home.
Journalist Tasneem Jamal understands this reality firsthand. She was born in Mbarara, Uganda and immigrated with her family to Canada in 1975. This was only three years after the dictator Idi Amin, who was President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, had expelled the country’s South Asian population out of the country, claiming the minority was “sabotaging” the Ugandan economy they had actually helped build through mercantilism.
Jamal’s debut novel, Where the Air Is Sweet, tells a 20th-century story of three generations of one family’s search for home. It begins when Raju leaves his impoverished community in Malia, India in 1921 to make his fortune in the mercantilist empire growing steadily in British occupied East Africa. After building the foundation for success in Mbarara, Raju sends for his wife Rehmat and together they settle their roots and raise six children in their new home.
Raju’s patriarchal pride is culminated in the marriage of his son Jafar to Mumtaz in a marriage of equals, or as close to the idea as was possible at the time. Mumtaz, a motherless orphan who spent most of her sheltered life in boarding school “knows her place is with the women” but it is with the men in her life that she chooses to speak freely. She is not one to stand silently as the men rattle on about what is happening outside their walls. She has a stake in Uganda; she has opinions that cannot be silenced.
But hope for an independent Uganda begins to fade when Amin ousts President Milton Obote in a stealthy military coup d’etat. The new dictator rallies his nation through anti-Indian rhetoric, creating a warped image of Asians as “bloodsuckers,” and their privilege as a dangerous remnant of colonialism. “Why only Asians?” Mumtaz asks her husband, before answering her own question: “He’s mad but … He’s going after tribes, tribes that threaten him. Langi, Acholi, Asian … His talk is stupid. But his actions are organized, systematic.”
Jafar cannot accept this reality. Unlike Mumtaz, who was born in Kenya, and Raju, who emigrated from India, he knows no other home: “He can’t throw Asians out. We’re Ugandans. We helped build this country. We help to run this country.”
Perhaps the author’s father shared Jafar’s conviction, which would explain why her family did not leave with the 90,000 Asians who left Uganda in 1972. But despite Jafar’s resistance, his family’s life is pulled like a rug from under their feet, and their home becomes a hostile environment. Fleeing is the only option, starting anew in somewhere unfamiliar. Still, Jafar will not give up on Uganda until it has thoroughly given up on him.
His two young children can barely reconcile the danger surrounding them with the protected, happy lives they have known. All they can see is what makes them different, what forces them to stand apart from their peers. Raju tells his granddaughter that language is the key to making the world a smaller, more accepting place: “If you have many tongues, you can say many things many ways … you must become a child of the earth. You must feel that the world is your home.”
Thus home becomes a fluid concept. It is not a tangible structure fixed to a foundation. It exists beyond externalities, it moves, it grows, it shuffles and rebuilds, because home is family.
The immediacy in Jamal’s prose will allow readers to absorb her characters’ anxieties as their lives fall to pieces that cannot easily be put back together. This story is at turns engrossing, shocking, beautiful, yet revolting in its dark reality. But it is an important history of a displaced diaspora searching for a place in this world to call home. This is a reality that the author knows personally, and one that many immigrants like myself will relate to.
Safa Jinje is a writer and editor living in Toronto.