top of page

Artwork By Aly Elgayar

Kamal's Women: Agency, Femininity, and Identity in The Magic of Saida

By Iffat Siddiqui


The magic of Saida (2012) is a novel by M.G Vassanji, one the most prolific Canadian writers with Kenyan-Tanzanian background. The magic of Saida follows the life of Kamal Punja, son of an African mother and Indian father, who is a Tanzanian expatriate doctor living in Canada. The novel examines his return to Tanzania in order to search for his African lover, Saida. This paper looks at the issues of identity and community in relation to the feminist and postcolonial discourse. These issues are resolved by observing the micro-level relationships of the characters rather than the macro problem of history in the text: the history that examines the dynamics of post colonial Tanzania and, the problematic retelling of history as it brings of up of questions of rights to the land. This essay engages with the work of Frantz Fanon and Sigmund Freud and their ideas of community construction, female agency, and gender relationships. The text will examine the relationship of Kamal with key women in his life (his mother, lover, and wife) in order to establish how these relationships effect the construction of Kamal’s identity.

[Keywords]: Fanon, Freud, postcolonial, identity, community, feminine, sexual agency, intellectual agency.


Kamal's Women: Agency, Feminity, and Identity in The Magic of Saida

The Magic of Saida (2012) by M.G. Vassanji is a postcolonial novel set in Tanzania. The novel explores questions of identity, agency, and history in the colonial, and the postcolonial discourse. The novel looks at the complex human relationships in the context of colonialism and post colonialism, and how the macro political turmoil affects the micro relationships in the small town of Kilwa. Although the novel portrays the protagonist Dr. Kamal’s struggle to find his long lost love, the subtext is much more complex as it explores how national identity is constructed in a complex post colonial society.



Dr. Kamal Punja is Canadian Tanzanian doctor who arrives from Tanzania with a sole purpose of searching his long lost love Saida. In lieu of finding Saida, he finds his childhood and boyhood; that he spent in the little Tanzanian town of Kilwa.


The town of Kilwa has changed so much that Kamal feels lost and confused, and thus employs a businessman, Lateef, in order make sense of the town (Vassanji, 2012).  Kamal, who has not been in touch with anyone from Kilwa, including his mother, is baffled to find that no one recognizes him or his mother, nor is he able to trace Saida, despite her family connections to the famous poet Mzee Omari  (Vassanji, 2012).


Saida is not only Kamal’s childhood friend, she is also his love interest. Kamal taught her English and, in return, she taught him Arabic (Vassanji, 2012). Kamal knew Saida’s whole family, including her famous poet grandfather who eventually commits suicide. Mzee Omari, Saida’s grandfather, and his family are like Kamal’s family since Kamal’s Indian father left his African mother when he was very young (Vassanji, 2012).


Kamal’s mother, despite being overprotective, eventually sends Kamal to his Indian uncle in Dar es Salaam to become an Indian. Kamal looses touch with not only his mother, who moves to Lindi with her new husband, but also Saida (Vassanji, 2012). Kamal is extremely disturbed by the turn of events as he was extremely close to his mother and cannot understand “why would she would send him off” to Dar es Salam to live with relations he does not know (Vassanji, 2012). Kamal’s mother had been obsessed with his image as an Indian as she believes that by adopting his Indian identity Kamal will automatically occupy a higher status (Vassanji, 2012).


Kamal’s earlier days in Dar es Salam are hard as he not only finds himself the object of ridicule due to his heritage, but has to come to terms with his mother’s abandonment and adopt a completely new identity. Kamal learns that his two identities are mutually exclusive, and if he has to become an Indian he has to shed his African identity first (Vassanji, 2012).


Kamal eventually returns to Kilwa and meets Saida, who by that time has gotten married to an old mganga^1, who is abusive towards her. Kamal and Saida reconnect and eventually become intimate (Vassanji, 2012). Kamal returns to his life outside of Kilwa, leaving Saida behind with a promise of return that for various reasons he is unable to keep.  Kamal actually decides not to return as he feels that their relationship is no longer possible since they are completely different people now (Vassanji, 2012). He moves on and becomes a doctor, marries Shamim who is an Indian, moves to Canada, and eventually has children. Although he leaves Kilwa, Kilwa does not leave him, and he is haunted by the past; Kamal tries to compensate his yearning for the past by loosing himself in books through which he tries to access not only his past, but also create his identity as well. After having a successful career as a doctor in Canada, Kamal return to search for his Saida (Vassanji, 2012). He eventually finds out through her reluctant relatives that Saida had his child who was killed by her mother and the husband that Saida eventually leaves she eventually leaves (Vassanji, 2012).


Kamal finds Saida in Lindi as a maganga who tricks him to live some of his most painful feelings and memories as retribution. Kamal eventually learns that mganga, who he went to see, and Saida are the same person through the dress that he gave Saida a long while back. He returns to find her, but it is too late as she is too late denying him his final resolution (Vassanji, 2012). 



Rey Chow in his article “The Politics of admittance: Female sexual agency, miscegenation, and the formation of community in Frantz Fanon” examines the notions of community in relation to the female sexuality and miscegenation through the theories of Fanon and Freud. These notions of community in relation to female agency lends themselves to the reading of The magic of Saida, as the relationship between Kamal, Hamida, Saida, and Shamim constructs Kamal’s identity through out the novel. As Kamal’s relationship with the key women in the novel changes, so does his communal, national identity change through out his life, portraying the complexity of identity in post -colonial society.


Literature Review

There is almost no direct research that is related to The magic of Saida, but Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin define key concepts that are related to the postcolonial thory, and contribute in understanding concepts that are explored in The magic of Saida in order to highlight the complexity of identity in postcolonial society. The most important concept explained is the relation ship between Feminism in ‘postcoloniality’ that helps in the grounding of other key concepts and criticism. According to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, feminism is of interest to the postcolonial discourse as comparison can be drawn between patriarchy and imperialism as they both assert dominance over their subordinates. Feminism is also relevant to the postcolonial discourse as there have been several debates in the colonial society, which asks whether gender oppression or political oppression is more relevant to women and their agency (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, p. 101-102). Another important aspect discussed by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin is the idea of agency as the ability of a person to initiate an action identified outside their socially constructed identity (p.8). It is important in the postcolonial discourse because it questions the subjects’ agency to engage or resist the imperialism. To Ashcroft, Griffithss, and Tiffin, agency is very much limited to the subjectivity of the subject; since human subjectivity is constructed through ideology (Althusser), language (Lacan), and discourse (Foucault), it is believed that action is very much a part of that. Although it may be difficult to break those forces that construct them, it is not impossible (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, p. 8-9). In their work, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin explore allegory as the symbolic narrative that refers to some other situation. According to them, it is adopted in the postcolonial discourse to engage and disrupt imperialism and constructs the alternative identity by allegorically representing imperial dominance (9). Another key concept explored is ambivalence is a psychoanalysis term that talks about wanting one thing, and wanting its opposite, it the desire and contempt for the same subject. It describes the relationship between the colonizer, and the colonized. (12). Furthermore, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin explore the idea of binaries in postcolonial aspect. Binaries, according to them, are a pair of duality usually opposing; the imperialist view of the world creates binaries in order to create dominance. (23-24). One of the most important aspects of The magic of Saida is miscegenation, which according to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, is the sexual union of different races. The whites were obsessed with the result of such union especially incases of the master/slave situation (142).


Chow uses these terms in his study of Fanon and Freud to describe how community is constructed in the postcolonial state and how it is affected by “female sexual agency, and miscegenation.” Chow uses the work of Freud and Fanon in his work to establish the boundaries through which inclusion and exclusion in the community works. According to Freud, bonds of community can be achieved through two things: First, the “murder of the primal father” then his immortalization in as god like figure, and second is the law against incest (Chow, pg. 36-37). Feminine sexual power or agency disrupts the kinship bonds as they are literally capable of adding members to the community that are not desirable through either incest or miscegenation; therefore, feminine sexuality needs to be monitored in order to avoid such disruptions (Chow, pg. 41-43).


The Black woman, by being both of color and female can move in and out of the community through sex and ethnicity. The black man has the privilege to constructs a community consciousness as the male, being the patriarchal and dominant feature of the community, has control over the females especially females of colored origins to prevent the fluidity, and create boundaries as “once we put our focus on this “tabooed” area of female sexuality, we see that female sexuality is what interrupts the unidirectional force of existential violence that is otherwise justified in Fanon’s theory of postcolonial nation-building” (Ashcroft and Griffiths, p.49). The female community is not exclusive, but rather is inclusive as the female is more accepting of the others.



Kamal’s Tanzanian identity is established through his relationship to his mother and Saida. Kamal constantly questions his admittance into the Tanzanian society, as he is constantly reminded that he is not part of the community, since, according to Chow, the idea of the community comes form the commonality and consensus (p.36). As Kamal is the result of an African mother and Indian father, he is not part of the community as he reminds his mother, “You call me an Indian every time. Everybody calls me an Indian! Except the Indian themselves” (Vassanji, p.38). The repetition of the word Indian emphasizes his difference, because the reader realizes his frustrations with not being able to be like everyone else, because of his mixed race as he does not fit into the community. The repetition reinforces in the readers’ minds his status as the Indian, but the last sentences makes the reader realize that he does not fit anywhere as the idea of him being an Indian is negated. His frustration can be seen in the short sentences and punctuation, which makes it not only stand out, but gives the sentences a child like feel as well.


First of all, Kamal’s relationship with his mother is very interesting as it is defines by Kamal’s absent father: making him the man of the house in his absence. Kamal, according to her, is the only man for her, as she called him “her mume” (Vassanji,, 92). Hamida transfers her allegiance to Kamal from his father, giving him the place that his father employed. Hamida seems to have control of her sexuality as, despite suitors, she chooses not to indulge in another relationship. She instead remains faithful to a man who has left despite there being no hope of him returning. For example, when Kamal is conjecturing about his father she says, “perhaps he will send for you” (Vassanji, p. 33). She does not include herself in that equation, as perhaps that she knows that her role as his mistress is over. Despite the abandonment, she does not resents Punja, but wants her son to embody him as she still “faithfully follows” his father’s instructions on how to spend the money he left behind, and encourages Kamal to emulate his father (Vassanji, 66-67).  Despite employing her own sexual agency, Hamida is bound by the norms of the society and therefore cannot have more than one man. Therefore, to accepts a new man in her life, she has to give up Kamal, because he not only occupied the position of man in the house, but he was also the reminder of his father’s control over sexuality, thus implying that the woman never really have agency. It transfers from the father to son. The result of this relationship is that, although Kamal has position in the Kilwa community as her son, she forces him to occupy the position of an outsider through her assignment of him in the position of her father, thus distorting his identity as, in spite of his desire, he cannot become an African, but remains an Indian


On the other hand, Saida’s identity as an African is already established. She is the granddaughter of Mzee Omari, one of the greatest Tanzanian colonial poets who is well respected by the townspeople. Kamal and Saida’s identities in the beginning are opposites as Saida is part of the community that Kamal is not part of. Although Saida has her part in the community, she lacks her own identity in the community, as she is only known as Mzee Omari’s granddaughter. By establishing her role as Mzee Omari’s progeny, especially female progeny, Saida occupies a very special position in the narrative of the novel. Mzee Omari is the epitome of the Tanzanian culture, and as his progeny she is the epitome of the Tanzanian culture as well. Although she does not occupy the same position as probably a male heir, she occupies other forms of power as a future mother and vessel for the preservation of the Tanzanian culture by giving birth to the future children. Her relationship with Kamal is the representation of the occupied Tanzania as, despite her relationship with her African husband, she is conquered by Kamal who embraces his Indian identity as his ties with his mother are broken.


Kamal and Saida both do not have a father; Kamal’s father, and incidentally his grandfather’s identity is established in the narrative. The father is absent for most of Kamal’s life; perhaps he is metaphorically murdered, as according to Chow “sacrifice of the primal father, who is afterward venerated and raised to the status of a god, a totem” is needed in order to form communal bond (p. 36). Kamal has a high status father, who according to his mother is “sultan, ambassador, nobility, and comes form a merchant family” and according to Mzee Omari, his grandfather is “ Punja the Lion” (Pp. 28, 85). The attributes give the father almost a princely status that implies that he was above the Africans that he lives with; therefore, as his heir, he should be given a much higher status. The title “Punja the lion” is an honorary title that assumes the position of power as a superhero-like or supernatural being who assumes the attributes of the lion such as valor, bravery, and pride. Although Kamal inherits the ‘higher’ status in the community due to his ties with his father, he is unable to identify himself with that status in his early life due to the absence of his father.


Although Kamal’s role as the heir of his father is established as he leaves Kilwa, he is unable to fully enjoy it, as needs a woman (through sexual relation) to introduce him to the society in order to reinforce his position as the heir into the society. According to Chow, the women have the ability to reproduce and give admittance to someone new into the society, and due to the potentially dangerous threat of incest, her relationship with men should be monitored under the guidance of the male (41). Kamal’s relationship with his mother is not monitored as she lacks a husband who can prevent such relationships. This notion is reinforced in the novel; “Mama would laugh at this saying, “Just like his father,” though it was she who encouraged him to save”(Vassanji, p. 67). It is as if his mother wants him to behave like his father, and occupy that position. Later on the narrative, during the discussion of how “a woman without a man is nobody, and always at risk, like a warrior without a shield,” the mother would reply that Kamal was her man (Vassanji, 92). The narrative here implies that the community is insecure of the idea of the mother being potentially single and harmful to the community, and therefore she must take a man. When she does take that man from Lindi as her husband, she leaves Kamal behind; therefore making Kamal feel abandoned as he says, “abandoned me” (Vassanji, p.92). When she abandons Kamal in a way she leaves him in a diaspora as he no longer feels grounded anywhere, as his mother was the one connected him to Kilwa as when later returns to meet Saida he identifies himself as an Indian rather than being an African. As mentioned earlier, her mother’s assignment of the role of his father, Kamal is not given the position into the ‘African society,’ as his mother who despite having given birth to him does not associate herself with him; this distancing causes Kamal’s identity to become fragmented, as he despite trying cannot fit into the society.


Kamal’s sexual interest is focused on Saida, who, ‘like is mother’, is part of the same community, but unlike his mother he can occupy the space of the “man” for her without social stigma. His relationship with Saida not only allows him to occupy a more sexual and patriarchal role of the ‘man’ which he could not have with his mother because of the stigma, but also allows him access into the society which his mother denies him. Saida and Kamal’s relationship starts at a very young age but does not mature and reaches its peak until they are both old enough to understand such relationships. The relationship that they share transforms and matures as they mature, but the roots of that relationship are established in their childhood. Saida observes matter of factly the intimate relationship between two lovers that they encounter their excursion as children; the nonchalant way that she observes a sexual act implies that she is aware of her sexuality, and has no qualms about it (Vassanji, p. 49). She understands her position as an object of sex. She shows him her knickers when she is a young girl “proudly” as if her acquiring knickers, a sexualized object, is an accomplishment (Vassanji, p. 43).  Freud explains the idea of female sexuality as the potent form of power that has the potential of “transmission, confusion, and reproduction through actual bodies, that could break down all boundaries and thus disrupt social order in the most fundamental fashion” (Chow, p.43). Saida has the power through her sexuality as she has sexual agency. This gives her power to move in and out of the community and form different identities. Despite having an agency the women, especially Saida, are and the mother are relegated as symbols of reproduction and objects of sex. She initiates the sexual contact with Kamal on his return, and this time their sexual encounter is his conquering of her body, she becomes his and gives him access to the community that he once lost. By giving him access to her body, and therefore denying her husband the same sexual freedom over her body, Saida makes a statement about her position in the society as she establishes whom she wants to give to, and who she does not want to give access to, defying the patriarchal society. Kamal and Saida’s physical relationship is described as being powerful because of the “illicit” and “sinful” aspect of it. It is described as “pure passion of possession” thus implying that Saida is changing the owner of her body. This here creates irony because even though Saida is using her sexual agency, she is also giving up her agency as well to the outsider, as Kamal is an outsider, although, through Saida, he can access the “home” which he left behind by ‘possessing Saida’s body. The sexual act for Kamal is just not about expressing his love. It also becomes a way of conquering the identity that he feels should be his but is no longer able to portray. The “illicitness” of the act is not only result of immorality of the act, but also the breaking the boundaries created by the community She, unlike Hamida, is giving two men access to her body, therefore reinforcing her sexual agency; She is unlike, Hamida who transferred her sexual agency.


Saida, by breaking the rules of the society breaks the rigid notion of female sexual agency when she assumes an asexual space as in intellect, rather then embodying the position of sexual being therefore an inferior intellectual being. Saida, does this by not only introducing her own subjectivity into the narrative through poetry, but also by breaking the sexual rules (marriage) in the society as well. This shocks the Kamal whose identity was formed as Saida’s tutor, and by utilizing the agency she not only challenges his position in the society and makes him feel threatened, as Kamal says, “She was a proper Swahili, an aristocrat, granddaughter of two poets; he a chotara, a mixed blood, as he was called in school” (Vassanji, p. 56), but breaks out of the sexual mold as well. She invites him in to the community that she is part of by giving him access to the Arabic language, and forming the basics of his Arabic identity. Saida goes on to become a sort of scholar who helps people through holy text by reading their “shidas,” which is based on the knowledge of the Quran (Vassanji, p. 116). By assuming the position of power not through her sexuality, but through her intellect she breaks the social norms and invites Kamal entry to the community.


The bond of Kamal with the Kilwa community is broken when Kamal looses contact with his mother and in consequence Saida, and when he comes back searching for what was lost; he finds that he is no longer a “Chotara” but an Indian with a university education, who is essentially better than her (Vassanji, 241-243). In a way Kamal wants to overcome the feeling of inadequacy he felt when Saida was above him; now that he is no longer a native but an outsider, Kamal overcomes his previous feelings by actually having sexual relationship with Saida and then leaving her. 


On the other hand, as Kamal’s relationship with Kilwa,,and therefore his African identity, is broken by his broken relationship with Saida and his mother, his relationship with Dar es Salam, and therefore his Indian identity is strengthens by the his growing relationship with Shamim who is the embodiment of his Indian roots. Shamim comments that Kamal never told her how he came to be in Dar, and he replies saying that, “my mother abandoned me and broke my world” (Vassanji, p. 183). The word choice is interesting as in the novel Kilwa is the representation of his African past, and Dar the representation of his Indian future, and his mother abandonment becoming the reason that he leaves Dar shows that how his relationship with land and community is broken, as his world is broken. Kamal inaccessibility to his mother makes it harder for him to reconnect with his African identify, and by trying to access Saida, Kamal tries to access his African identify because Saida comes to occupy that position in his life.


Shamim not only embodies Kamal’s Indian identity, but also reinforces it by constantly reminding of his Indian roots. The very first time that Shamim and Kamal meet, she reiterates to him that he is an “Indian” not an African as he identifies himself as (Vassanji, p. 252). In addition, on a bus ride, when stopped by the soldiers, Kamal himself admits to being an Asian, and not just an African (Vassanji, p. 257). This is when the intimate relationship between the two begins. After his wedding to Shamim, Kamal becomes an Indian as Saida becomes the ‘African mistress,’ establishing a new binary that was never there before. This binary makes it difficult for Kamal to occupy his position as an in-between and realizes that he has to cut his ties with Kilwa. The new binary makes it difficult for him to come back until that very binary is completely broken down, thus creating categories for his identities which he can’t mix.


On the other hand, Saida counters that slight by adopting the role of maganga “Kinjikintile” which is not only a very high position of power, but it is a male title as well implying that she is beyond a patriarchal authority to form her own identity. As Kamal’s movements are fluid in and out of the community assuming a much more feminine role in the communal identity, according Fanon. Saida, by adopting a masculine persona becomes a fixed part of the community by choosing not to associate with feminine. Her position can be identified with the Tanzanian land itself; as the land moves from colonization to post colonization, it adopts much more rigid and masculine traits. As Havnevik mentions, the socialist government desire “controls the means of production” and become more “self reliant”(p.36). As the state moves into the post colonial it becomes masculine as it wants to control the in and out of community by controlling production. This is similar in the patriarchal dominance over the female in community construct in comparison to the fluid structure of capitalist economy. As seen by the result of the Saida and Kamal’s child who, instead of being accepted into the society, is killed as it is born out of ‘sin’, and Saida is told by her mother to ‘forget the child’ (Vassanji, p. 297).  The child becomes so unacceptable that her mother conspires to kill that child, as that child is the representation of not only economic control, but the control over the commodity as well. As Saida, or any other women in the text, are commodities that have the power to defy the patriarchal control over the community by establishing their own control, and therefore need to be monitored. This imbalance results in Saida’s death as the woman because of her inability to conform to the social rules.


Overtime, the roles and identities of Kamal change as his relationship with the women change; they not only construct his identity through sexual relationships, but also through the product of relationships (children) develop his identity. The complexity of the relationships parallels the complexities of identities in postcolonial societies. The relationship becomes muddled over time; so does Kamal’s identity, leaving him grappling in the end, as his relationship with all the women in the novel is broken.


Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. Post-colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. 1st Ed ed. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Chow, Rey. "THE Politics of Admittance: Female Sexual Agency, Miscegenation, and the Formation of Community in Frantz Fanon." Franz Fanon Critical Perspectives. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2005. 35-59. Print.


Havnevik, Kjell. "Chapter Two a Historical Framework For Analyzing Tanzanian transitions: The Post- Independence Model, Nyerere's Ideas and Some Interpretations." Print.

Vassanji, Moyez.G. The Magic of Saida. 1st ed. New York: Vintage contemporaries, 2012. Print.


Iffat Siddiqui is a Pakistani student in her junior year at the American University of Sharjah. She is majoring in English Literature, and hopes to pursue a career in publication. She is passionate about literature and food, and hopes to combine the two in the future. Her biggest dream is to open a bookstore and restaurant in her hometown, Karachi. She is obsessed with all things Harry Potter, and in case of fire will not leave her Elder Wand replica behind.


bottom of page