Book Review: “Life and Politics in Mombasa” by Hyder


Kweli Ikidhiwri Uwongi Hujitenga – “When Truth comes, falsehood disappears” – Swahili saying.

“Life and Politics in Mombasa” is the biography of Hyder Kindy an East African Swahili political leader during the end of the British colonial period in Kenya.

Hyder, was a local African political leader who never will be mentioned in the same breath as Nkrumah, Kaunda, Kenyatta or Mandela, yet his contribution to his country was as equally as important from a local perspective, something the history books and commentators often ignore.

I came across the copy of Hyder Kindy’s memoirs as a gift which was given to me by Hyder’s grandson Soud Hyder, who is a close friend of mine. When Soud gave me the book, I initially was intrigued to understand more about Soud’s grandfather, yet at the same I did think “now when would I read a book about a Swahili figure I have never heard of?” However, because I had worked with Soud Hyder and was often told about his Kenyan Swahili and Omani heritage, I knew it would be a good read to understand something I had no knowledge of. The memoirs of Hyder Kindy would give valuable insight of life of a man of Swahili descent living under the rule of Zanzibar Sultanate during the period of the territory being a British Protectorate. Similarly, because I myself keep a journal, I am often intrigued by diaries and biographies to see how people recollect their ideas and memories which becomes a documentation of history.

Hyder’s memoirs gave a unique view of local politics during Kenya’s road to independence together with some witty anecdotes, tales and stories of success. His biography has examples of principles, humiliation, struggle, tragedy, work and civic duty. Hyder’s life provides a story against the divisions of a complexed ethnic, religious and tribal society in Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. Richard Stern who gave the foreword to the book sums up the biography by writing “Sheikh Hyder Kindy is a fine story-teller with many fascinating experiences to recount.” From the onset Kindy shows how Mombasa was a plural society yet split between African, Indians, Arabs and the British, while Kindy as a Swahili Muslim was from a community quite often perceived as Arab by the Africans and as African by the Arabs and considered to be less politically valuable for British, hence why Hyder’s had to constantly play a difficult political game to survive.

It was obvious Hyder Kindy came from a family who understood the concept of responsibility and even though he lost his father at a young age he was constantly taught the values of honour and respect from his mother, his step-father and his brothers. I liked the way Kindy would recall his stories yet show a moral purpose at each juncture of his life. For example, he had promised his mother he would pay her his first month salary when he started his job in 1925 as a legal clerk, yet as a young idealistic man he spent his money on his own, however his conscience overcame him and regretted what he had done as he wrote “ever since that time I have tried doubly hard to keep whatever promises I have made,” something which Hyder held true in his life with examples throughout the book.

In 1929 Hyder and his two associates were sentenced to nine months in jail for beating up an influential Arab who had insulted the Swahili community in an article. The case became a political one as it highlighted the differences between the Arabs and Swahili Muslims living on the coastline. Hyder for his actions become a hero for standing up for a people who quite often were made to feel inferior by the Arabs of the East African coastline. Even though with his friends he was incarcerated, Hyder showed how the principles of being honest does pays off. During an incident with a corrupt prison official where Hyder was accused of defying orders and striking the officer in retaliation, Hyder was exonerated for what took place and was rewarded for working inside the prison due to his reputation of being a trustworthy man. Even when Hyder formed various trade unions for workers an example of being a true leader was shown when he refused to take a job as a civil servant at a time when local men were looked over for professional jobs. Only when the authorities gave 75% of his members in the union allocated jobs did Hyder accept the government post. Another example of his principled stance was when he led a union for taxi drivers who were often discriminated against. Even though he led the union for better pay and equality he resigned from his post when he found out some members were violating driving laws when they were told not to.

Hyder sadly had his fair share of tragedy as his first born child Aisha and his first wife Fatma Ali Haji died within three months of each other in 1929. In 1931, Hyder found true love by marrying his second wife Fatma Soud. Hyder was a Swahili, Fatma Soud was of Arab origin, their marriage had defied social norms and structures in British colonial Kenya society as it was unthinkable for a Swahili man to marry an Arab woman. He initially had proposed to Fatma Soud through the traditional way, however as it was rejected by her father, Fatma ran away with Hyder and they both married amongst a few witnesses. A marriage borne out of love for 34 years and eleven children ended in tragedy as Fatma Soud died of heart failure living a heartbroken Hyder who wrote it was painful for him, In Fatma Soud’s honour Hyder wrote a 71 verse Swahili poem which is featured in his memoirs. Hyder also had another wife during his marriage to Fatma, but he divorced her after Fatma died. After Fatma’s death and through the insistence of his children, Hyder married Fatma Shee in 1966 as a life companion.

Through “Life and Politics in Mombasa” Hyder presented a historical narrative of the Swahili community and where they stood amoangst Africans, Arabs and the British during that period. The Swahili were African with an inward influence of the African continent and at outward influence of Arabs and Persians, yet they were never perceived as their own by each side. Hyder demonstrated that as the Swahili people they have no choice but take their destiny into their own hands to stand up for their own rights through engagement an ideal which is so relevant for minority communities in our globalised world today.

IMG_4881.JPGIn 1951 Hyder was in London after he accepted the post of assistant lecturer at SOAS, again this period shows Hyder’s trustworthiness as it was an Arab who recommended the job for Hyder, despite objections from other Arabs, his benefactor remained defiant. The London chapter is where Hyder I feel found his political awakening. Spending time in the city of empire, London in 1951 was a dream for many colonial subjects and what London offered to them was to understand and see what the capital of the empire had to offer. Throughout British colonial history there has been an irony where leading campaigners against the British empire such as Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and Kenyatta had spent time in London and how the city of empire was also a hotbed of ideas of change and emancipation within the liberal and metropolitan society. The duration spent in London for Hyder was a period where he met other African intellectuals and activists while he came to terms with what colonial rule had done to not only his country but other distant lands as well.

“Life and Politics in Mombasa” is a series of events and anecdotes of a man who wanted his people to be emancipated from all forms of bigotry and rule and to embrace a true African identity as Kenyans, Muslims or even Swahili. In his life Hyder ran committees, developed a radio station, ran a translation service, worked as a judicial officer, taught in academia, worked as a Mudir (Private Secretary) for an official, an organiser of gatherings, speeches and honourary banquets and a representative of a people as a Senator in the Mombasa legislative.

What “Life and Politics in Mombasa” demonstrates that for every independence leader like Jinnah, Gandhi, Kenyatta, Mandela or even Havel there are hundreds of Hyder Kindy’s who were on the streets working for the same cause locally or regionally. They may not have statues or countless biographies written about them, but their contributions were essential. I may have not have heard of Hyder Kindy and what he offered to his society, but we should seek people like Hyder Kindy out and follow their stories and struggles. My own grandfather Hasanji Patel who I was named after during the period of post partition India worked immensely hard to improve the educational and political standards of his local community. Hasanji Patel was no legislative member nor was he a teacher, yet as a community worker he set up schools and colleges in his area, he was a writer for his regional newspaper, a champion for the poor and vulnerable and a political operator who was respected and revered by many. Yet like Hyder Kindy he was a pillar who for his locality was as important if not more valuable than any national leader. Again, a valuable member of society who often are unsung heroes, yet their contributions will echo for years to come, hence why it is essential to understand them, study them and learn from them.

“Life and Politics in Mombasa” is a journey of a man who made a difference to his people on a micro level yet the legacy has lived on within his family, his locality and his community. Whatever one lives in Mombasa, Manchester or Multan, we have many Hyder Kindy’s who have worked for their community, we often hear about them, I am fortunate in reading about one such giant.

Book Review: The Race of a lifetime – How Obama won the White House

“Senator Clinton would like to speak to you,” one of her people told Obama. So Obama ambled over to Clinton as she stood there on the tarmac.

“I’m sorry about what Billy said,” Hilary began. “I didn’t know he was going to do that. I’m not running that kind of campaign.”

“That’s fine, Hilary,” Obama replied. “But this wasn’t an isolated incident. There were those emails Iowa……”

“Now hold on a second!” Clinton snapped, cutting Obama off, uncorking the long list of grievances she’d been stewing on for months. Bug-eyed, red-faced, waving her arms. Hilary pointed at her rival’s chest. Obama tried to calm her down by putting his hand on her shoulder- but that only made Clinton angrier. Finally, they broke from the clinch, stalking back to their respective planes.

“Wow, that was surreal,” Obama told his chief strategist. “You could see something in her eyes,” he said, something he hadn’t seen before. Maybe it was gear. Maybe desperation.

“You know what?” Obama said. “We’re doing something right.”

The Race of a lifetime – How Obama won the White House, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is book for the fans of politiking, strategy, communications, negotiation and the general art of winning all types of games in order to win the big prize is a must.

The authors say they hope to occupy the ground that lies “between history and journalism”; their book, researched as the events were unwinding was written in hindsight as it shows how Barack Obama reaffirmed the promised, “Y es we can,” slogan and won the race to become President of the United States.

Of course the book did cover the issues of race, economy, the war in Iraq, the role of a post-Bush America and the complexities of how Americans choose their commander-in-chief.  Yet the frantic, yet detailed pace of the book sheds light in the most rivetting US presidential elections since 1960 as Barack Obama had to overcome firstly Hilary Clinton and then John McCain.

The book shows Hilary Clinton could have the endorsement of Caroline Kennedy, but because the call was made by a Hilary aide, Kennedy felt offended and gave her all to Obama, as her uncle, the late Edward Kennedy publically endorsed Obama as he felt upset at the way Hilaryland were using race as a campaign yardstick to win the extra points.

The rise and fall of John Edwards, demonstrates how bad political decisions, indecisiveness and a moment of madness could completely destroy aspiration, potential and ambition, but can turn any individual into a deluded mindset, as when the world is falling apart, they still feel powerful and confident. Politics and power it seems has this addiction as around us many the mighty and not so might have fallen, yet their fall from power is often worse, because the way they handled it. John Edwards’s affair with his web video producer, Rielle Hunter, was parody in itself. Initially denying the affair, Edwards was forced to come clean, but justified his act of madness, by stating the affair took place after his wife Elizabeth was given the all clear from cancer.  Elizabeth Edwards came worse in this journey, as the authors showed a perceived darling of the political families was actually his insecure, crazy and at times just mad. The authors show the Edwards as a couple like the Clintons who had ambition, but had no vision or steel to succeed. As the Edwards campaign was falling apart, Edwards still expected some reward from Obama, as one incident highlighted he was after a position in any future Obama administration, he’ll settle for attorney general. “How desperate is this guy?” Tom Daschle, is said to have thought. “This is ridiculous. It’s going to be ambassador to Zimbabwe next.”

The authors potray Bill Clinton as a liability to the Hilary campaign, as his constant meddling and obsession of Obama not getting a tough ride, caused deep divisions in the Hilaryland camp. Bill was one reason why top-­ranking ­Democrats sought an alternative to Hillary, even though they so feared the wrath of the Clintons that they couldn’t publicly back Obama. One senior party member says of the Bill situation: “It’s like some epic Japanese film where everyone sees the disaster coming in the third reel, but no one can figure out what to do about it.”

The book also looked at the McCain campaign, which basically was a shambles from the start, the incidents over how they chose Sarah Palin as the running mate was straight out of a scene from the hit comedy show, The Thick of It.

When complications for choosing the 2004 Democratic VP candidate, Joe Lieberman fell, the feuding McCain team quickly processed a timetable of two months into a week by vetting, choosing and introducing Palin, with the intention that the announcement will be a game changer.

Her appearance at the convention with her “lip stick” speech was a sensation, but from then it went downhill, as her obsession with note cards, expensive suits and make-up together with her moments of dimness trailed the Republican campaign to disaster. McCain’s staff  struggled to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. She did not know why  there are two countries called Korea, she thought Saddam Hussein attacked America on September 11, 2001 and even though her son was serving in Iraq, she could not say who the enemy was. McCain’s people found that things she had  told them were not quite true, and they feared at one point that she was
mentally unstable.

But the star attraction was Barack Obama, and his tale of 2008 was the key to this epic polemic. The authors show a young politician who in 2007 wasn’t exactly confident of himself and those around him, yet  by November 4th 2008, he became a political sensation with his oratory skills, the management of the Lehmann brothers crisis and how he managed to unite his Democratic party calmness and acumen which was instilled into his team consisting of political strategists like Dan Axelrod, Dan Pouffle and Robert Gibbs who ran a tightly organised political machinery who not defeated the Republican party, but also the first couple of the Democratic party, when it was needed.

The final few pages of the book is dedicated on how president-elect Obama asks his defeated Democratic colleague, Hilary Clinton to become secretary of state, even though the personal and often bitter relationship to secure the nomination would assume that it would be the last thing Obama would do.

But political maturity showed, as their past relationship was one of respect and mutual understanding as  partisan colleagues in the Senate.  When he offered her the position of secretary of state, no one on either team could believe it. Hillary, initially rejected the offer, stating she was too tired ad withdrawn from the experience of the past 18 months and had prepared a statement to that effect when she spoke to the president elect at 1am on the morning of the announcement.

On a matter close to her heart, she said (according to the authors’ ­paraphrase of the conversation): “You know my ­husband. You’ve seen what happens. We’re going to be explaining something he did every day.”

“I know,” Obama is said to have replied. “But I’m prepared to take that risk. You’re worth it. Your country needs you. I need you.”

Obama will need these skills of persuasion to win over a hostile electorate for the 2012 elections, and if he does want suggestions on how to do that, I would recommend, The Race of a lifetime – How Obama won the White House.

Book Review: The Muslim Revolt

In his book “The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam,” the British journalist Roger Hardy draws on his 25 years as Middle East and Islamic affairs analyst at BBC World Service radio to explore the often fraught relationship between Islam and the West.

Hardy is an experienced journalist as this book takes him across Egypt, Sudan, Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia speaking to and analysing thinkers, scholars, radicals, soldiers and moderates who all have a view about Political Islam.

In a period where the Arab world is in revolt against despotic regimes the ‘other’ alternative of Political Islam is often feared by Western policy makers as no real planning in engaging was created. Hardy’s book could provide some answers to those people who need answers on whether Political Islamists will tear up the status Quo in the region or will they be pragmatic in engaging with the West.

Hardy highlights the historical, religious, social, political and economic context to the current state of the Muslim world and how Political Islam has managed to fill the void but within the void there are three strands of action. Firstly he shows how in Turkey political Islam has compromised and even adapted to democratic means.  Iran shows how the country which had its Islamic revolution has managed to disappoint a generation who are at odds with the regime as the Islamic Revolution has either failed them or rejected them. The final strand of violent Political Islam isn’t seen as one-dimensional, he sees the battler as a “violent rejection of a global jahili culture is only one strand within a rich tapestry. At its core, the Islamic revival is about belief and identity, about restoring Islam’s dignity.”

Hardy was motivated to write the book as he recalls “the West is ill at ease with Islam” and that “even communism was more familiar.” Unlike communism, which was the West’s main enemy for the second half of the twentieth century, Islam is “alien as well as threatening. We fail to understand it, and we are paying a high price for our failure.”

Through his journey Hardy demonstrates that in the Arab world the people see the double failure of strategic real politick Western foreign policy vis-a-vis with despotic regimes in their own countries suppressing dissent and opinion, Hardy goes on to say the best solution would be is if the “regimes of the Muslim world to make a successful transition to modernity, and that of the West to deal intelligently and equitably with a part of the world vital to its strategic interests.”

According to Hardy, jihadist movements have succeeded in winning Muslim hearts and minds through a narrative with three interlocking elements: humiliation at the hands of the aggressive West, with Muslims as victims; the use of “redemptive violence” to treat the humiliation, and the conveying of the narrative of humiliation and de-humiliation through modern communications and graphic images. He believes that the best way to deal with the fear of the unknown is to create ‘soft power’ of dialogue, understanding, a commitment to democracy through grassroots and a process to engage with Political Islamists who are in the Turkish Islamist Party who are balancing the understanding of democracy together with their own values of religion but connected to modernity.

Hardy’s book was about Political Islam and not about faith, so if anybody wants to know about the premise of faith then this book isn’t for them, he basically uses his journey across the world of Muslim communities to show how hard power simply reinforces the message of the Jihadi struggle. Hardy warns that without an understanding of  Political Islamist, the West will forfeit lose the “hearts and minds” of Muslims.

Book review: ‘We Don’t do God’ by John Burton and Eileen McCabe

Currently I’m at the beginning of reading Tony Blair’s The Journey, however a few months ago I came across the book We Don’t Do God by Tony Blair’s election agent John Burton and author Eileen McCabe. As Alistair Campbell once said “We don’t do God,” the irony was that his boss Tony Blair was a man who had a passion for faith and religion. We don’t Do God is a good comprehensive study of Blair’s belief and how it shaped his years before, during and after his Premjership. John Burton provides an insight even though it was bias towards Blair, but Eileen McCabe uses Blair’s statements, events and initiatives and sees how much religious beliefs played a part. Tony Blair was a man of deep religious conviction, this book merely highlights that and shows that one can be religious and enter public life.  However, as I was reading this book it was seen as a precursor to rehabilitate Blair for his decisions to invade Iraq, but it did give a small insight on how faith shaped politics.

How to Lose the War on Terror

In any political and military solution the only way to achieve a compromise or even peace is by engaging and talking to the enemy. Mark Perry’s How to lose the war on Terror outlines the misconceptions and denial of this strategy by the USA within the Middle East.

Mark Perry himself is the Director of Conflicts Forum and has spent much of his adult life travelling and working in the Middle East; spending time in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and a host of various Arab countries. His experience has been varied from talking to government officials in the USA, Israel and the Arab world to Sunni Insurgents in Iraq and the hierarchy of Hamas and Hezbullah.

The first half of the book highlights the events in Iraq subsequent to the invasion by American forces in 2003. He outlines how former Sunni Baa’th officials who were leading the insurgency from the Al-Anbar region were willing to negotiate and work with the American officials who were administering the post Saddam Iraq. The book criticises the ineffective judgement of the US military and the Coalition’s Provisional Authority in their initial non-compliance in negotiating with insurgents, which made matters worse. He gives a strong narrative of events and testimonies from military and civil brass on both sides where the US Coalition Provisional Authority finally decided to talk to the Sunni insurgents after it became apparent that the real enemy were the Al Qaeeda supporting foreign fighters who had a completely different agenda. Throughout the book Perry outlines how the USA and Israel simply fail to understand that political Islamist groups like the Iraqi Sunni insurgents, Hamas and Hezbollah had no intention of leading an Islamic revolution through force and violence but merely wanted an end to occupation and a chance to hold parity through democratic means in their own country.

What made this book so interesting was how Perry gave first hand accounts of his meetings with the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah in 2005 in Beirut accompanied by an American and European delegation that saw an opening for understanding and dialogue. From the onset of his chapters on Iraq and then on to Hamas and Hezbollah, he reiterates that the American and European political and military elite have to understand that the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah are organisations embedded in their constituencies, and their aims were not global Jihad but rather, they seek acceptance as legitimate political entities and movements who would continue to take up arms to end occupation and foreign meddling in their lands.

When an organisation has won a corruption-free election, as was the case with Hamas in 2006 and with Hezbollah’s history in Lebanon politics, both organisations have shown that they are part of their respective political orders and are here to stay. If peace is to be secured within the Middle East then they need to be at the negotiating table, rather than become proscribed as terror organisations because they don’t fit in the ideological terrain of some neo-conservative thinkers in Washington and Tel Aviv.

What can be learnt from this book is the parallels Perry draws – how in Iraq, US collaboration with groups termed as Political Islamists helped settle some conflicts and this could be replicated in other parts of the Middle East. Yet, gracefully Mark Perry outlines how in the USA it’s in the interests of some groups that no channel of communication or strategy is created in engaging with Hamas or Hezbollah.

On the chapter of Israel, Mark Perry brilliantly describes how in 1994 the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave a damaging speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) where he stated that the policies and procedures of AIPAC damages Israel rather than help her, and that the government of Israel resides in Jerusalem rather than an office of a lobbyist in Washington. Even though Mark Perry shows in his book the defiance and hawkish nature of the US Israeli lobby and their supporters, of which most people know, he doesn’t offer a rationale to show how their control over policy can be overcome.

His discussions with Hamas and Hezbollah about suicide bombers, the acceptance of the State of Israel and charges of anti-Semitism are dealt with in frank and precise exchanges with the political leaders of these organisations. However, Mark Perry doesn’t outline how a common denominator could ever be achieved between the USA and these organisations. The book deals with the ideological backgrounds of Hamas and Hezbollah and how important it is to negotiate with these groups, but as the US position isn’t challenged in the same way that Hamas and Hezbollah are, the book doesn’t exactly offer a solution but merely recounts a narrative of what the problems are.

Perry does provide a great first hand narrative of the political situations in the Middle East based on his own involvement which now spans over two decades. He ends the book with some great examples of how he has networked with various groups, whether it is sleeping on the floor in the home of a family in Gaza, meeting a Jordanian old man who recalled how in 1921 he was in the same room with King Abdullah, Winston Churchill and T.E, Lawrence or how he shared jokes about Arafat with Hamas leaders in Beirut. The book gives a good insight on how dialogue and engagement with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah could make the political map of the Middle East unravel into an oasis of peace, but the book fails to show how minds and policy could be changed in Washington and Tel Aviv towards engagement and negotiation with the enemy in order to bring peace and an end to conflict which has been akin to be known as terror.