It was 1963 and the peak of the civil rights movement in the US. A black man as American President was not even a yearning at that time — the dreams then were about basic equal rights.
Mahmood Mamdani, a young African student of Indian ancestry from Uganda, decided to make the bus journey south to join demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, to support the civil rights movement. The police beat up the demonstrators and threw them into jail. He used the phone call he was entitled to to call the Ugandan ambassador in Washington D.C. who after rebuking him for “interfering in the internal affairs of a foreign country” got him out.
What followed is quite a tale. Back at the University of Pittsburgh, he was visited by two FBI fellows “who looked just like they do on television.” They were baffled by his motivation. “Eventually, I remember this fellow asked, ‘You like Marx?’ I said I hadn’t met him. ‘No, no, he’s dead.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, what happened?’ ‘No, no, he died long ago.’ I said, ‘I don’t understand why you are asking me then.’ ‘No, no, he believed that people should all be equal, money should be taken from the rich, given to the poor’. I said, it sounds fantastic. By now having concluded that I was a harmless fellow, they left. The upshot was that I went to the library looking for this fellow. I’d never heard of (Karl) Marx. I was 17, had come from a colony, a secondary school in Uganda and an engineering student.”
During a visit to Mumbai last week, one gathers Mamdani has sheaves of such tales: of random personal incidents that had interesting interstices with a broader history, which obliquely shaped his life.
The intention of this conversation is to get to know a person better, which means up close and personal as well. “You try. I’ll tell you which ones I’ll answer, which ones I won’t.” The smile is challenging. The shirt is crisp. The voice softly accented. My guess is he is wary that the interest in this Africa expert may have more to do with his being married to a famous film-maker.
But Mamdani is an acclaimed writer whose journey intersects with several historical events in different continents. The author of works such as Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War (GMBM), and the Roots of Terror; When Victims Become Killers (about Rwanda) and the soon to be published The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency (about Darfur) knows a thing or two about how the world turns.
Mamdani divides his time between the US where he teaches and his home in Kampala, Uganda. He was born in the year of Indian Independence to Gujarati-speaking settlers in Tanzania who moved to Uganda some years later. Among the many gifts Uganda got on its independence in 1962 were 27 scholarships from the US. One went to Mamdani who eventually returned after a decade armed with a Ph.D in political science. History had a nasty welcome waiting. “Idi Amin had just come to power. I’d come back, a pan-Africanist, an African nationalist, and I was thrown out as an Indian along with the rest.”
Fate was to play the same trick twice. Mamdani returned to Uganda after Amin was thrown out in 1979 but fell foul of the Milton Obote government. In 1984 while discussing the Ethiopian famine, Mamdani dared to argue that the state was a greater threat to the peasant than the weather. His citizenship was summarily withdrawn and he became stateless. But Obote too went and Mamdani returned.
Teaching in exile in Tanzania at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, a centre of the Southern African liberation movements, Mamdani found himself in “the hotbed of radical intellectual activity, and I took it in along with the ocean air and the ocean breeze.”
His parents would certainly have been bemused. His father, Yusufbhai, was a “very small time poet” in Gujarati. He then became a clerk and later, an auctioneer. “His specialty was carpets, he understood carpets.”
If life changed dramatically for people in the US after 9/11, Mamdani, who was a leading faculty member at Columbia University in New York, was no exception. “I became a Muslim, I couldn’t go anywhere without — my name is Mahmood — being constantly reminded as to who I was. Ten years ago my mother wondered what happened to the nice boy who prayed, fasted, read the Koran. ‘Now, look at you. Nobody would know you were Muslim.’” Mamdani retorted he was a Muslim when Muslims are persecuted. She called after 9/11. “Now, you must be a Muslim every day. I smiled. She had the last word.”
Mamdani wrote GMBM to make sense of post 9/11. He approached the history of the Cold War from a completely African vantage point, pre 9/11. Everybody else simply saw Afghanistan but Mamdani also saw Central America and southern Africa where the new paradigm in US foreign policy immediately began after the defeat in Vietnam. GMBM saw more readers than all his books put together.
Africa was suddenly discovered and Mamdani became “mainstream” instead of marginal in academia. “Suddenly, I was talking in churches, universities; I was talking in radio stations, TV, different places. I was engaging with groups. Intellectually, I had a very fruitful life.”
The more frustrating aspect of being an academic, says Mamdani, is that the writing is always for an intermediary audience: the opinions makers. In the US, the media give access to only certain kinds of intellectuals. Even newspapers such as The New York Times — if one is writing about the world at large, and the war on terror — are very establishment-oriented.
Even so, through his translations he has managed to reach an intellectual audience in the US and in Europe. And a little bit in India. He just sold the Marathi rights for GMBM.
Intellectual work, admittedly, usually has a limited audience. Which often mystifies his wife. “Why are you working so hard on something that only 500 people will read?”
Mamdani met film-maker Mira Nair in 1989 when she came to Kampala to research her film Mississippi Masala. She had read a book he had written in a transit camp in London during his first exile. “She interviewed me, we talked at length. And I think we fell in love almost instantly. As though it was scripted,” says Mamdani, his face suddenly aglow.
Having been married once, she was not keen to give it a second try, however. What was his winning argument? “That she was pregnant! Zohran was on the way! Her major concern actually was that I had no sense of the life of a film-maker. Zero. You know these people are like soldiers. They go on campaigns. For months. She asked me, ‘Can you live with somebody like that?’” He could.
In 1991, they wed in Toronto in Mira’s cousin’s house. Mamdani read a poem his father wrote for the occasion. And Mira’s niece, six years old, said: I declare you married. “And that was it. Eight people in the room. Then we went to New York, stood in line, and registered our marriage,” he twinkles.
Mamdani had an invitation from Obama’s Kenyan grandmother to join her at a ball in Virginia to celebrate the inauguration. Does a new President with a Muslim middle name change perceptions or is Obama incidental to the GMBM debate?
His feelings are mixed. Pessimistic because for perceptions to change there has to be a shift away from the war on terror, from violence and the immediate, direct perpetrators of violence to the issues that underpin them. Right now, there is every effort to make sure that shift doesn’t happen.
Mamdani points to the attacks on Gaza (“timed during the transition period between George Bush and Obama”) and the selection of Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice (Obama’s nominees for secretary of state and UN ambassador, respectively) whom he describes as “Democratic Neocons (neo conservatives) and hawks.” “There is bound to be a big tussle. I mean you can’t become president of the US without making a pact with the devil. And he had to make that pact — not to get elected, but to govern. The pact is mainly with the Clinton section of the establishment. And I’m as curious as anybody else. You are talking of a President of an imperial power. But we are also talking of a President of a power in deepening crisis. That gives more leeway and it will depend on the way he uses soft power and military power. Soft power means having to deal with issues.”
Still, this African retains some hope. “Obama is smart, smart enough. I have read one book of his, Dreams for my Father. That book made me think that this guy is a bit different. This is not your mediocre person filtered through a dozen sieves before he gets to the starting line.” A bit like Mamdani himself, in fact.