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Artwork by Hamza Ahmed



"To Become an Indian:" An Exploration of Kamal's Ambigious Identity in The Magic of Saida 

By Ayesha Alshared


The Magic of Saida by M. G. Vassanji (2012) centers around Kamal, the son of an African mother and an Indian father, who grows up in Tanzania and then relocates to Canada where he becomes an established doctor. The novel tackles themes of racial identity, belonging, and the effects of the past on the present. Kamal identifies mainly as an African when residing with his mother in Kilwa during his childhood; he is then urged to embrace an Indian identity when he is sent to live with his uncle in Dar es Salaam in his early adolescence. Decades after moving to Edmonton, Canada, Kamal decides to come back to Kilwa. This paper explores the tension and ambiguity in Kamal’s identity by analyzing the way he defines himself – or is defined – in Kilwa and Dar es Salaam, and then investigating, through a Friedian lens, how that in turn affects him as he ages and drives him to return.

Keywords: The Magic of Saida, M. G. Vassanji, racial identity, hybridity


“To Become an Indian”: An Exploration of Kamal’s Ambiguous Identity in The Magic of Saida

The Magic of Saida is a multifaceted novel written by African-East Asian-Canadian author M. G. Vassanji, published in 2012. Vassanji (2012) often explores issues of home, history, and identity through his novels, two of which, The Gunny Sack and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, won The Giller Prize in 1994 and 2003 respectively (“M. G. Vassanji,” n.d.).  As a Canadian author whose own identity spans three continents, he tackles themes of the condition of the East African-Indian diaspora and racial hybridity in his writing. The Magic of Saida is no exception. It chronicles the story of Kamal Punja, a boy brought up in Kilwa, who grew up in Dar es Salaam, pursued his education in Uganda, and then relocated to Edmonton, Canada, only to return to Kilwa, his place of origin, decades later. The fragmented narrative(s), the jumps between past and present, Africa, Asia and North America in The Magic of Saida encapsulate the difficulties – and failures – of identifying with race and nation through Kamal’s ambiguous intra-national and international identity.



The novel does not follow chronological order, but rather tells the story of the protagonist Kamal Punja in a non-linear sequence and in such a way that personal and public history become hard to disentangle. The prologue introduces Kamal, a Canadian doctor born to an African mother and Indian father, through the words of a publisher he has met while admitted at the hospital. Kigoma, said publisher, tells us of how he has met Kamal, hospitalized and delirious, having returned to the town of his youth in search of the obscure love of his childhood, Saida. One of the first things the reader learns of Kamal is his seemingly conflicting identity as it appears to Kigoma: “He was called Kamal Punja […] That Indian name belied his appearance when I saw him, which was very evidently that of an African” (p. 4). The diction used here, “belied,” puts forth the issue of conflicting identity right from the beginning.


As the story progresses, his youth in Tanzania is recounted. Kamal was born in Kilwa and grows up living with his African mother, his father having left them when Kamal was 4, until she sends him to live with his Indian uncle Jaffa Punja in Dar es Salam at the age of 11. It is during his time in Kilwa that he meets Saida, the mysterious figure that he left the comforts of his Canadian home to search for a lifetime later. She is the daughter of his mother’s friend and the granddaughter of a great Swalihi poet named Mzee Omari Tamim. Mzee Omari and his epic poem, “The Composition of the Coming of the Modern Age” that is interweaved throughout the narrative, offer the history of colonial Tanzania and its resistance. The local poet is himself a complex character, having had an amiable relationship with the Germans in his youth only to grow up and recount stories of resistance and opposition to colonialism such as the Maji Maji war in his poetry. Mzee Omari ends up committing suicide when Kamal is a child by hanging himself on a mango tree that Kamal’s great grandfather Punja Devraj was hanged on by the Germans during a rebellion (Vassanji, 2012).


During his childhood in Kilwa Kamal struggles with his racial identity, unsure whether he is “African” or “Indian,” for he is always reminded of his Indian background by his African mother but rejected as an Indian by the Indian community: “‘But you call me an Indian every time. Everybody calls me an Indian! Except the Indians themselves’” (p. 38). When Kamal moves to Dar es Salaam to live with his uncle Jaffa he attempts to wholly embrace an Indian identity. He learns the Hindi language and after a while becomes fluent it. However, he is known as the mixed-race local and is referred to by the community as “Golo,” which means slave. After school in Dar es Salaam, Kamal moves to Kampala, Uganda to attend the Makerere University, and it is here that he meets Shamim, a girl from his city whom he later on marries. Before going off to Uganda, however, he returns to Kilwa to find Saida married to an older man yet still meets her and promises that he will come back to her. Later on in the novel the reader learns that as a result of their meeting Saida has become pregnant, something Kamal discovers only during his return in his old age. During his time in university, when Uganda is under the rule of the dictator Idi Amin, Kamal and Shamim move to Canada in fear of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. In Canada he starts a new life in which he becomes a successful doctor. He co-owns three clinics in Edmonton and fathers two children, a boy and a girl. His return to Kilwa thus raises a lot of questions. Why has he come back? Why has he left a successful and comfortable life? What reminded him of Saida and of his childhood?

Nevertheless, what is evident and consistent throughout Kamal’s stages in life is that he fails to come to grips with his identity. In each stage of his life, he is expected to embrace a certain ethnicity, a certain sense of self, exclusively and statically. When he feels African, he is constantly reminded of his Indian-ness, and questions about his Indian father never leave his mind. When he tries to fit in with the Indian community while staying with his uncle, his African features and background remain a dominant part of his self.  As his mother says, “‘…[Y]ou are an Indian who is more African than all these Africans walking about. And a better Indian than all those Banyani shopkeepers’” (Vassanji, 2012, p.38). This is what becomes “[t]he riddle of his life ”



The way racial identity is constructed in Kamal’s youth does not appear to allow for multiplicity or hybridity, and Kamal does not seem able to move beyond this conception of racial identity  as he ages. His return to Kilwa thus acts as a means to discovering who he really is, perhaps through piecing his past with what he left behind – Saida. When racial background becomes the primary constituent of one’s “identity,” when this identity is defined mainly in terms of where one comes from and where one’s parents come from, one’s sense of self will ultimately remain ambiguous and incomplete. This is the case with Kamal – he predominantly seems to see himself in terms of nation and race, and hence in his age he feels the need to come back to his nation and finally settle this question of identity and belonging. Additionally, other identity forming factors are imposed on Kamal such as language, religion, and class, which are in conflict during his youth. This paper will focus on exploring the tensions in Kamal’s identity by analyzing the way he defines himself – or is defined – in Kilwa and Dar es Salaam, and then investigating, through a Friedian lens, how that in turn affects him in as he ages and drives him to return.


Literature Review

Secondary scholarly sources directly discussing The Magic of Saida are difficult to find since the book is a relatively new publication. However, critics have often examined the themes tackled through the novel, especially in relation to Vassanji’s older works.


For historical background, Chapter 2 of Tanzania in Transition: From Nyerere to Mkapa entitled “A Historical Framework for Analyzing Current Tanzanian Transitions: The Post-independence Model, Nyerere’s Ideas and Some Interpretations” by Kjell Havnevik (2010) was reviewed. This is useful to broaden the understanding of Tanzanian nationalism with special reference to the condition of Asians and the way they were perceived. It sheds light on the dynamics between the African and Asian race that co-exists in the novel and especially in Dar es Salaam where Kamal’s identity “becomes Indian.”


“Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanism?: M.G. Vassanji’s Hybrid Parables of Kenyan Nationalism” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (2007) “examines the relationship between cosmopolitanism, nationalism, and hybridity in contemporary theory and the fiction of M.G. Vassanji about the Indian diaspora in east Africa.” Although it focuses mainly on the novel The In-between World of Vikram Lall (including other texts as well), it is still relevant to the discussion of this paper since there are common themes between the former and the Magic of Saida. Specifically, the issue of identity, or as the author of the article suggests, non identity, in Vassanji’s characters is considered. These ideas can shed light on Kamal’s ambiguous identity.


Amin Malek (1993) discusses the idea of “in-betweenness” which he dubs “ambivalent affiliations” in his article “Ambivalent Affiliations and the Postcolonial Condition: The Fiction of M. G. Vassanji”. The article reviews the novel The Gunny Sack. This text too investigates issues of identity, primarily exploring “multiplicity, cross- pollination, [and] interbreeding.” The Canadian-Asian-African characters’ processes of negotiating their identities in the aforementioned novel is analyzed in the article. The insight provided is valuable since Kamal, whom this research paper focuses on, is in a similar position as characters in The Gunny Sack. For example, Malek (1993) asserts, “This condition of ambivalent affiliation is replicated in No New Land, where the Asian-African immigrants in Canada are shown negotiating the sense and status of their belonging to yet another continent, country, and culture to which they once more had to immigrate” (p. 279). There is a direct parallel between the conditions referred to in this quotation and the condition of Kamal in The Magic of Saida.


Of the articles reviewed, the following is the only one that directly deals with The Magic of Saida. “Reconstructing History in Vassanji's  The Magic of  Saida” was written by Joseph Pivato (2014) and presented at an international conference revolving around Vassanji’s works. It gives a brief review of multiple topics found in the novel, many of which were relevant: “the phenomenon of the return journey among immigrants; identity and ethnic duality; memory and the loss of memory; and different perspectives in writing history (Pivato, 2014). Interesting ideas regarding Kamal’s reason for returning are offered. Pivato (2014) suggests that one reason – that may even be subconscious – that drives Kamal to return is the wish to die in his homeland. Pivato (2014) draws parallels between Kamal and Mzee Omari in this section of his text. Kamal’s return to Kilwa will be explored in the analysis with reference to Betty Friedan’s (1993) The Fountain of Age further, which will be reviewed below.


Betty Friedan’s (1993) ideas about aging, the home, and discovering one’s self put forth in her book The Fountain of Age will be used in analyzing Kamal’s return and the reasons for it. Friedan (1993) presents the notion of “the Third age” in which individuals enter a new stage in life that is basically unknown; unknown because it is not dictated by former roles in one’s life such as career or parenthood. In the same vein, perhaps Kamal has reached a point in his life where he feels that he should focus on things that are more important to him, such as negotiating his identity and coming into terms with it. On that note, Friedan discusses the role of home in relation to a sense of self-identity, and this could be applied to Kamal. He returns home in order to complete his identity, or at least attempts to. The author also discusses the liberating prospects of accessing “a new place” in one’s later years and how this notion of “moving on” is important. Kamal’s journey to Kilwa could be viewed as a failure of these Friedian ideals since he does not let go of the past and, importantly, does not achieve, or discover, a complete sense of identity; it was and remains ambiguous.



  • An Analysis of Kamal’s Identity

  • African in Kilwa


Having spent the major part of his childhood in Kilwa, Kamal, even upon his return, feels a certain degree of belonging to it. The narrator refers to the town as “Kamal’s Kilwa” (Vassanji, 2012, p. 18). The way Kamal feels about Kilwa is deduced from the structure of the phrase; this is the place that almost belongs to Kamal as suggested by the possessive apostrophe, but also the place to which Kamal belongs. The importance of Kilwa to Kamal is undeniable given the fact that this is where he returns, and not to Dar es Salaam. It is suggested through this fact that Kilwa is where he feels most at home, where his identity, despite its persistent conflict, is most complete.


However, his life in Kilwa as a child and sense of identity is not without tension for he always asks his mother about his racial identity and lineage. “What about your family, Mama?” asks young Kamal (p. 29). His mother responds by only telling him about the past she was not ashamed of, of his father’s past, the Indian “sultans” and “ambassadors” (p. 29). At this point, there is conviction sensed by Kamal in terms of his identity. He feels African: “‘But I’m an African,’ he protested with vehemence” (p. 29). Furthermore, his insistence on knowing his mother’s African background, coupled with his near rejection of his Indian background (“I don’t speak Indian, I don’t eat Indian!” (p. 29)) may indicate that he feels mainly African.


Moreover, his sense of identity being predominantly African in this stage of his life is exemplified in his encounter with Mzee Omari during Eid. Mzee Omari gives Kamal a coin in the Indian currency, an anna, and says to him, “You like it, yes. It’s from your country” to which Kamal replies “startled” and “tearfully,” “Kwangu ni hapo, Mzee Omari” which means “I am from here” in Swalihi (p. 68). The tension felt by little Kamal is illustrated as well through his emotions. It seems as if he feels offended by what Mzee Omari sensed, hence the tears, and wants to prove his “Africanness.” This is deduced from the fact that his response is transcribed in Swalihi, reinforcing the way he feels about his own selfhood.


The feeling of racial ambiguity Kamal feels during his early childhood is not as pronounced as it is during his adolescence when he is sent to Dar es Salaam. After all, in Kilwa he is at a young age and he feels as African as his mother, but society still does not let him forget that his father was an Indian as demonstrated through Mzee Omari and even through his interactions with his mother. In general, his identity at this period is rigidly constructed; he feels threatened by the mention of his Indian ancestry. He also feels like the two conditions are mutually exclusive; he can be either African or Indian – but not both. This is inferred through his very sensitivity towards his Indian descent. The notion of positive hybridity, from Kamal himself and his surroundings, is nowhere to be seen.


Indian in Dar es Salaam

Kamal’s move to Dar es Salaam is certainly a traumatizing event for he has no say in it. Not only is the manner in which he is sent shocking, but the environment that he is sent to is shockingly different as well. Conflict remains, if not intensifies, when he relocates to Dar es Salaam to live with his Uncle, in the words of his mother, “to become an Indian.”


He is dubbed “Golo” by his peers, a nickname that means slave, and his conflicted identity is ever present. This idea is important because it does not only shed light on the racial differences between Kamal and his peers in Dar es Salaam, but also the class differences that are inevitably attached to race. His descent from slaves is highlighted every time he is called “Golo.” The tension surrounding this fact is underscored through his conversation with his mother in Kilwa regarding her ancestors: “One day his men [Hassan bin Omari’s agents] captured my grandmother, who was a Matumbi. Makunganya sold her to an Indian” (Vassanji, 2012, p. 52; emphasis added). The fact that it was an Indian whom her grandmother was sold to is stressed through the use of a short sharp sentence. The clash between Kamal’s Indian identity and his African identity is better understood through this hierarchy of race. His great grandmother was a slave that was sold to, and oppressed by, an Indian. Furthermore, the stigma attached to this detail is evident in the narrator’s tone when he says, “He was a descendant of a Matumbi slave” (p. 52), right after the narration of the aforementioned conversation, almost to emphasize its weight.


Likewise, the effect this has on Kamal is exhibited once again in Dar es Salaam when he hears of a sexual encounter his uncle has with an African girl: “Kamal understood. Excited as any teenager at this lascivious account of a sexual encounter, and yet…she was a bought one; a young African girl…How repugnant” (p. 219). Kamal is clearly distressed by this encounter: “The thought kept plaguing his mind: Was this how his father had seen Mama?” (p. 219). The fact that he takes this incident personally is seen through the way he responds; he is reminded once again of both his mother’s ancestry (“bought one”) and of his Indian father and his relationship with his mother. In addition, this incident sheds light on how race has certain implications depending on the context; in the Indian community “African” is inferior.

Furthermore, poverty seems to be associated with race, Africans in particular, in Dar es Salaam. Kamal tried to adapt in Dar es Salaam by associating with other mixed or African children: “It was easier, Kamal discovered soon enough, to conform to mischief, be among the other misfits, the poor and the half-castes, generally the darker hued” (p. 214). Coupling “poor” with “half-castes” elucidates this association. Additionally, the reader is told that the “poor” “misfits” are Africans (“the darker hued”). Class difference was a prevalent issue in Tanzania as seen through former president Nyerere’s efforts to counteract it: “[Nyerere] was…increasingly preoccupied with combating the tendencies towards class differences” (Havnevik, 2010, p. 44). However, although Kamal attempts to blend in with children of similar background in the new city he finds himself in, his assimilation with the Indian community is not genuine. As the narrator states, “[…] [T]he whole point of his story was what a difficult and how incomplete and unsuccessful a conversion he went through from African to Asian” (Vassanji, 2012, p. 215). Also, this “conversion” is not just one of race, since “Asian” denotes language as well: language is another defining factor in the hierarchy of identities Kamal experiences. “The making of Golo into an Indian […] meant that he had to learn their language” (p. 214). For Kamal, language proves to be a problem at first which further intensifies his feelings of un-belonging and ambiguity: “Communication was an ordeal […] [H]e was caught in a crossfire between several voices babbling loudly in Kihindi all around him” (p. 194). The Hindi language is referred to using the Swalihi word, “Kihindi”, which shows the play of the opposing – he feels – identities he has.


It is not just Kamal’s racial identity that is disordered, but his religious one as well. When he lives in the Indian community in Dar es Salaam, he not only becomes an Indian – or is urged to – but a Shamsi Hindi-speaking one. As Amin Malek (1993) explains, “The Shamsis are Vassanji's fictional representation of the Isma'ilis, a subsect of Shi'ism, one of the two great branches of Islam (the other being Sunnism)” (p. 281). The religious transformation Kamal has to undergo is elucidated when he tells the narrator of the difference between the religious customs that are followed in Kilwa and those in Dar es Salaam. In Kilwa, religion does not seem to be a defining factor of Kamal’s identity, for it is “all implicit and effortless” (Vassanji, 2012, p. 217). Kamal says that there they “were never religious” but instead “Islam was all around [them]” (p. 216). On the other hand, religion in Dar es Salaam takes a different shape. In Kamal’s words: “Now in Dar I was with a community whose faith was a musical, an ongoing Bollywood epic” (p. 217). Religion there is all-encompassing as it is in Kilwa, but in a very different way; it is more active and more of a lifestyle, whereas in Kilwa it seems to be understated and in the background. This fact is made clear through the analysis of the Indian “khano”; it is a worship place but also serves as a sort of community center: “The khano was a wonderland…After the prayers a few hundred people mingled about, food offerings were auctioned in a loud, festive ambience, kids ran around screaming and playing. Khano was prayer and party combined” (p. 214). Given that the khano plays a large part in one’s life within the Indian community, religion now becomes a bigger player in identity formation. As Kamal says, in Kilwa religion is not a major factor; it is “implicit” (p. 217). However, now Kamal’s notion of his identity must include religion, considering the prominence religion is given in Dar es Salaam. This new factor and the tension it brings with it is emphasized when Kamal passes by a mosque that is similar to the ones around in Kilwa: “His deviation into the austere familiarity of an African mskiti was one lapse from this new life” (p. 218). Referring to a religious place of worship in terms of race, “African mskiti,” shows the interplay between the two. His African identity includes certain religious dynamics too. On the same note, it is referred to as “mskiti,” the Swahili word for mosque, and accordingly now his identity is portrayed in terms of race, religion, and language as well. Kamal’s difficulty in reconciling his identity is seen through the reactions he faced  upon visiting this mosque. His Indian adoptive family does not approve of him visiting this African mosque: “Zera Auntie asked him if he has asked forgiveness at the khano” (p. 218). Kamal is expected to embrace a whole new identity and disregard his “previous” African one.


At this phase of his youth it is almost as if these new identities are forced upon him: “Mama sent him away to claim his father’s heritage, become an Indian” (p. 30). The diction used here (the words “claims” and “become”) reifies identity, describing it as if it is a concrete object that one “claims.” This is an important idea, as it stands against the notion of hybridity in its positive sense. It could be argued that Kamal’s struggle in understanding himself, a struggle that extends to his middle-age in Canada, stems from this view of concretized identity that he grows up with: identity is reduced and simplified. His attempts in Dar es Salaam are not to assimilate with the Indian community, but to “become” one of them, which as the future tells is unsuccessful, for he is later haunted by these questions of race and belonging back in his office in Edmonton. On the same note, the language used when describing his situation in India implies that Kamal’s effort to “become” Indian is a failure: “[…] [T]hat’s what he was in Dar es Salaam: Golo, the African; the chotaro, the half-caste Indian; mouthing Indianisms with increasing fluency, occasionally stumbling” (p. 195). The tone with which the latter part of the quote is narrated seems to have hints of sarcasm. This could reflect the idea that trying to “become” an Indian is the wrong way to go about identity for it is not that simple a matter and identity is not a mold one steps into as Kamal is expected to.


Simon Lewis’ (1999) thoughts in “Impossible Domestic Situations: Questions of Identity and Nationalism in the Novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah and M.G. Vassanji” quoted by Myambo (2007) elucidate the complexity of characters like Kamal. Lewis writes, “The sense of rootlessness which links […] all the central characters of Gurnah’s and Vassanji’s fiction for that matter produces a postcolonial subject rather different from the more familiar hybrids of Achebe, Dangarembga, Rushdie or Walcott. They share not so much a dual identity as a non-identity which renders their various flights ever away from, never towards (or between) homes” (p. 166). The notion of non-identity can be applied to Kamal in certain ways, especially after an analysis his sense of self in Kilwa and Dar es Salaam. He doubtless exhibits feelings of rootlessness, particularly when he is living in the Indian community with his uncle: “[His] manner of speaking, his dark brown skin, and his curly hair set him apart in his new, Indian environment. He was the local chotaro, the half-caste” (p. 194). Furthermore, Kamal internalizes this negative view of him being a “half-caste”: “Kamal could never get the African out of him, even when he washed himself with bleach to get his muddy brown out” (p. 30). This outlook on identity as being an exclusive condition is problematic, especially to have it impressed on him in his youth, and it could explain his troubles in understanding himself as an adult. Furthermore, although race seems to be his primary way of defining himself, as construed through the focus the novel gives to it, a hierarchy of identity exists within Kamal since the notion of both “African” and “Indian” include language and religion. All of these factors and his rootlessness figure in his future when he is faced with feelings of an incomplete selfhood.


Kamal’s Old “New Place”

Kamal has established himself as a well-to-do medical doctor and is living comfortably, especially as compared to his life in Africa, when he decides to go back to Kilwa. The narrator says, “A successful and driven doctor in Canada, he had reached a stage in his life of material abundance, in which however – as he obliquely put it – his personal ties had weakened. And so one day he stepped off the treadmill, allowed an old regret to awaken, and suddenly set off to find the girl he had known as a child” (p. 8). The reader asks herself right from the start, in the prologue, why a wealthy doctor would leave security to a relatively poor city. The answer offered by the narrator is not convincing, or at least incomplete; it must be more than this girl. Additionally, the phrase “stage in his life” is reminiscent of Betty Friedan’s (1993) “new place”: “That mere relinquishing of youth – roles, games, standards – can actually liberate women or men to realize new or long-deferred dreams and get to ‘a new place’ in age” (Friedan, 1993, p. 335; emphasis added). Friedan’s (1993) viewpoints are applicable to Kamal because he is in a way liberated from the roles he assumes in Canada, such as his career as a doctor, and is “liberated” enough from materialism as he leaves his wealth in order to attend to his “long-deferred” quest of the meaning of his identity.


To elaborate, his return cannot merely be to find Saida as gathered by the emphasis placed on Kilwa: “[H]e had made life elsewhere, planted roots there; and still Kilwa haunted.” It could be argued that his return was in search for Friedan’s (1993) “new place” in an old place. Kamal in his “later years” is “no longer so completely defined by those roles of family and professional career that structured [his] youth” and Friedan (1993) argues that this is when a person reaches that “stage” where he or she starts searching for a sense of wholeness (p. 350). However, Kamal’s case is an ironic twist to Friedian ideals since this place to which he travels is indeed not a new one. It nevertheless is understandable why he chooses to go home as Friedan (1993) explains that “home – the place from which we come and go, the place with which we are intimately familiar, whose very furnishings express the roots and order of our being – is more important to our essential sense of selfhood and well-being” (p. 350). This notion reveals how Kamal’s return to Kilwa is directly linked to his “essential sense of selfhood.” As already mentioned, Kamal holds Kilwa dear to him, for it is the home where he felt most home: “Kamal’s Kilwa.” Given the analysis of Kamal’s conflicted sense of identity growing up, returning “home” can be interpreted as an attempt to settling his identity. Friedan (1993) further elaborates on home, Kilwa for Kamal, as a symbol for identity: “‘[R]esidence in a place construed as home also plays a critical role in maintaining a sense of self-identity […] as the individual engages in the ongoing creation and modification of home as a symbol of the self’” (p. 350). Kamal leaves his Canadian home, but not in the positively liberating sense Friedan speaks of; he leaves home in search for an older home.


Nonetheless, ultimately, Kamal does not truly arrive at a new place by going home. It is a false start: “Sometimes there are false starts. It takes trial and error, mistakes, to arrive at a new place” (Friedan, 1993, p. 337). He fails at arriving at a new place not only because it is actually not a new one, but also because even after his return his identity remains ambiguous and he still does not feel “whole.” Friedan (1993) demonstrates the feelings sensed at arriving at this place: “In this new place, women or men report, in one way or another, that they are finally ‘putting it all together,’ ‘all the parts of myself,’ working in a different way ‘with my whole self,’ somehow ‘becoming more truly myself than I have ever been before’” (p. 338). The reader knows that this is not achieved by Kamal by coming back to Kilwa since he does not express similar feelings but rather contrary ones. In any case, it is likely that this is precisely what Kamal strives for -- completing his sense of self -- yet he now understands the extent of the complexity of the notion of identity. In Kilwa, when Kamal is asks if “[t]his is home?”, he responds by saying, “Well. I am of here and these are my people, and yet I have family elsewhere. In Canada I’ve thought of myself as African – though not African Canadian or African American – attractive illusions for a while. It becomes difficult to say precisely what one is anymore. Isn’t that a common condition nowadays?” (p. 222). These words are telling because they imply that Kamal is beginning to understand the difficulty of pinpointing or labeling one’s identity in a simplistic and reductive manner, as he attempts to do during his youth. As a child, he declares that he is African, or that he is “becoming” Indian, but now he realizes that this is not a realistic or practical way to perceive identity. Therefore, although Kamal fails to arrive at his new place where he feels a complete sense of selfhood, he succeeds in understanding that selfhood is not as simple as he thought – and the people around him thought – it was during his youth.



To sum up, some of the most predominant themes negotiated through the characters and plot in The Magic of Saida are those of identity and belonging. Kamal, the protagonist in The Magic of Saida, is an emblem of these themes. Throughout his life he has struggled with the implications of identity, for the view and construction of identity taken up by his surroundings, both in Kilwa and Dar es Salaam, are too naïve. This view is not only simplistic but problematic as well since it curses Kamal with an incomplete sense of self as a middle-aged man in Canada. Positive views of hybrid identity are not available to him as he grows up; it always seems as if he has binary identities that often clash with each other. Although after returning to Kilwa Kamal does not find black and white answers, he understands the complexities behind many of his identity struggles that figured in his life. As Kamal says: It becomes difficult to say precisely what one is…


Friedan, B. (1993). The fountain of age. London: Jonathan Cape.

Havnevik, K. J., & Isinika, A. C. (Eds.). (2010). Tanzania in transition: from Nyerere to Mkapa. African Books Collective.

M G Vassanji. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Malak, A. (1993). Ambivalent affiliations and the postcolonial condition: The fiction of M. G. Vassanji. World Literature Today, 67(2), 277-282.

Myambo, M. T. (2007). Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanism?: M.G. Vassanji’s Hybrid Parables of Kenyan Nationalism.Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 16(2), 159-189. University of Toronto Press.

Pivato, J. (2014). Reconstructing History in Vassanji's' The Magic of Saida'. Paper presented at The Transnational Imaginaries of M. G. Vassanji conference, School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London, London, UK.

Vassanji, M. G. (2012). The Magic of Saida. New York: Random House.



Ayesha Alshared is an Emirati student majoring in English with a concentration in Literature and a minor in Philosophy. She enjoys reading poetry, both Arabic and English, and her interests include cultural and religious studies. Her spare time activities involve practicing yoga and imbibing copious amounts of Arabic coffee whilst reading books she didn’t get around to over the course of the semester. 

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