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Where the Air is Sweet_finalsmallWhere the Air Is Sweet is the title of my first novel. It is being published by the wonderful people at HarperCollins Canada. The publication date is May 2014. The on sale date (when you can buy it from booksellers) is June 3.

Here is a blurb about the novel taken from my agency’s website:

In 1972, dictator Idi Amin expelled 80,000 South Asians from Uganda. Though many had lived in East Africa for generations, they were forced to flee in 90 days as their country descended into a surreal vortex of chaos and murder.

Spanning the years between 1921 and 1975, Where the Air Is Sweet tells the story of Raju, a young Indian man drawn to Africa by the human impulse to seek a better life, and three generations of his family who carve a life for themselves in a racially stratified colonial and post-colonial society. Where the Air Is Sweet is a story of family, their loves, their griefs, and finally their sudden expulsion at the hands of one of the world’s most terrifying tyrants.

In the writing of the novel, I relied, in particular, on two excellent books for background of the Idi Amin years. General Amin by David Martin and A State of Blood by Henry Kyemba. Both books provide some great insight into the politics of the time.

I also relied on family members’ recollections. I was born in Mbarara, Uganda (where a good chunk of the novel is set) in 1969, about three and a half years before Idi Amin expelled Asians (South Asians) from Uganda, a group which included my family. Officially he expelled only non-citizen Asians, but it was a little more complicated than that. In any case, I obviously have a personal stake in the telling of this story.


Asian Ugandans board a plane at Entebbe, Uganda,
in September 1972 after Idi Amin’s expulsion order.

I have read a number of long and short histories on Uganda, encyclopedia entries, news articles, whatever I could get my hands on. I was astonished by the almost complete absence of information about Asians. In a book-length rendering on the nation of Uganda from pre-independence until today, it was not uncommon to find a lone paragraph (made up of about two sentences) that summed up the entire history of Asians in Uganda (a history that spans a century or more), including their expulsion.

Someone had to tell their story. So I did. It is not the story. It is one story.

Ugandan president Milton Obote sits with His Highness Karim Aga Khan in Kampala in 1966.

Ugandan president Milton Obote sits with Karim Aga Khan in Kampala in 1966.

The central characters in Where the Air Is Sweet are Ismaili Muslims. Here is a bit of background on Ismailis.

Who are Ismailis?
Ismaili Muslims are a community of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples united in their allegiance to Karim Aga Khan (known to Ismailis as Mawlana Hazar Imam) as the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) and direct descendant of Prophet Mohammed.

Ismaili Islam is an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam (the smaller of the two branches of Islam). Never in their history, in any country on earth, have Ismailis been in the majority. Even within Islam itself, they’ve had to struggle to survive as a distinct group.

Why have Ismailis faced persecution?
For centuries, Ismailis have been persecuted within the Islamic world mainly because they competed for the leadership of the Muslim community. Ismailis hold that their imam, the Aga Khan, who is a direct descendant of Mohammed, should be leader of the Muslim ummah, or community.

The Muslim ummah split at the time of the Prophet’s death over the issue of his successor. When the Prophet Mohammed died, a crisis ensued over who would succeed him as leader and ensure the Muslim community remained united. A minority group held that only a member of Mohammed’s family could possess the divine wisdom required to interpret the hidden meaning of the Quran and proposed that Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law succeed the Prophet. This group came to be known as Shia’t Ali, the party of Ali, and eventually Shia. The Sunni, the largest branch of Islam in the world today, maintained that elected leaders should lead the community.

Ismailis emerged as a distinct group within Shia Islam in the eighth century after another succession crisis.

How many Ismailis are there in the world? Where do they live?
There are about 15 million Ismailis in the world, scattered over more than 25 countries (with the majority in South Asia and Central Asia).

How many Ismailis were expelled from Uganda?
About 80,000 South Asians were expelled from Uganda in 1972. Of these, approximately 24,000 were Ismailis.

Where did they go?
After the expulsion, Ismailis settled primarily in Canada, the UK, the US and continental Europe.

Why are so many Ismailis of South Asian origin?
As Ismailis continued to struggle to install their imam as leader of the growing Muslim world, they gradually moved eastward from Arabia. By the early 19th century, the 46th Imam, who had been given the honorary title of Aga Khan – which translates as “master ruler” from the Shah of Persia – moved his seat to India, where Indian missionaries had been active for hundreds of years.

How did they end up in East Africa?
Late in the 19th century the British Empire began recruiting labour from the Indian subcontinent to construct a railway connecting the Indian Ocean with the East African interior. Large numbers of Ismailis, along with other South Asians, travelled to East Africa. Once the railway was completed, many stayed on, and many of these opened shops. They quickly distinguished themselves as a sizable merchant class in much of Africa.

Who is the Aga Khan?
Aga Khan IV is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of non-denominational development agencies with mandates that include the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalization of historic cities.

Watch a recent interview with Peter Mansbridge and the Aga Khan on the CBC dated Feb. 27, 2014. This is the unedited version.

More information:

Aga Khan Development Network

Official Website of the Ismaili Muslim Community

Institute of Ismaili Studies

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