Set in the world of violent conflict arising from divisive attempts by sectarian splinter groups to define and put into practice a fundamentalist form of Islam, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (Grove Press) can feel all too familiar at times. It echoes the news of kidnapped schoolgirls and the profiles of young men who leave their homes to join in jihad. The political events it refers to – the rigged elections, the coups, the police state – hearken back to recent years when Africa’s terrorist groups were a focal point of the major media outlets, before they ceded their place to the devastating conflict in Syria. Yet this is not a piece of journalism, despite the author’s most famous role in Nigeria being that of scathing political satirist (most prominently with a column in the Daily Trust. In this novel, told through the eyes of a child (then teenager, then young man) who attends Quaranic school in the Northern region of Nigeria, John portrays the rising of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sokoto state, and frighteningly shows how religious idealism and sectarianism lead to violence.
While I have not seen a ton of press about it in the past months leading up to its publication, I do think that it will prove to be an important work. The few reviews I have seen compare it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and, indeed, it deserves this distinction perhaps more so than most books compared to the canonical text). Yet I found the characterization of Dantala and the tension and confusion of the rising conflict between forms of Islam much more similar in tone and content to Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas obligé (2000) or Allah Is Not Obliged (2007). While Kourouma’s novel explores the plight of child soldiers in West Africa in stark detail, John’s novel very convincingly deals with the rise of religious sectarianism leading to violence. The effective use of multilingualism and of oral/written forms of communication is a particularly striking similarity between the two, as is the voice of a fearless but woeful young man who is swept along in a conflict over which he has no control. A notable difference, of course, is that Kourouma’s Birahima is forced to join the fighting, whereas John’s Dantala tries to stay away from it.
It is jarring to read violence that is so normalized in the eyes of a child. After he has left school, Dantala takes up with a local group of boys who smoke the ever-present “wee-wee” and work as thugs and promoters for the “Small Party” during election time. They also enforce a kind of street justice among their small community of Bayan Layi. When a boy in their community attempts to steal a jug of groundnut oil, he is severely punished by the group. Dantala recalls: “I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch.” It sounds like the observation of a psychopathic killer. Yet it is rather a raw personal detail in the life of a child whose only example is violence.
Shortly after this event, Dantala leaves Bayan Layi when his best friend, gang leader Banda, is brutally murdered. He returns to his native Sokoto State – home to one of the larger Shiite minority populations in Nigeria and a place of much religious conflict – is taken in by a mosque, given food, shelter, education and (mostly importantly) kindness. He becomes active in the mosque’s undertakings, including the opening of a new school: the Society for the Resurrection of True Islam. He learns under the tutelage of elders such as the peaceable Sheikh Jamal and his bloodthirsty counselor Malam Abdul-Nur. And he develops a friendship with Jibril, another young pupil and the younger brother of Abdur-Nur.
During his stay with the school and through his close relationship with Sheikh, Dantala (who becomes known as Ahmed because Dantala, or “born on a Tuesday” is not a real name) experiences firsthand the growing reaches – both spiritual and political – of fundamentalist ideolog. While the school’s mission is seemingly creative rather than destructive, peaceful rather than violent, the zeal of Sheikh’s ideas and his promotion of “true” Islam serve, albeit indirectly to stir a violent fervor not only in Malam Abdul-Nur, but also in the local population.
The disintegration of the friendship between Sheikh and Abdul-Nur, and the growing divide between them as they dispute the proper methods by which to arrive at this “true Islam,” puts a compelling personal face upon the somewhat anonymous story of one group breaking away from the other due to ideological differences. While they both agree that Shia is not the “true” Islam, and that Westernized beliefs and educational practices are at odds with the “true” Islam, what they do not agree on is the measures that should be taken in order to secure a kind of perfect religious and political system within Nigeria.
And so. What else? Devastating violence ensues. Abdul-Nur runs away from Sheikh’s peace-promoting mosque and moves with his zealous followers to a remote stretch of land in order to train an army of mujahideen. This army wreaks havoc on Sokoto state and on the life of Dantala himself, which unravels in gory detail.
But what Elnathan John so powerfully portrays in this book is that the tendency toward jihad is not the individual choice one might think. Indeed, the choice that faces Dantala and other characters, like Jibril, is which fundamentalist sect to join, not whether to join one. Dantala is hungry and without family. He has seen profoundly troubling and senseless violence. While he himself repents the bloody physical conflict of his youth, and chooses not to harm others, he is still part of the vast sectarian conflict in Nigeria and throughout West Africa more broadly.
[I have to say, I’m watching the fourth season of HBO’s The Wire right now and it is heartbreaking but also extremely compelling. It is extraordinary the lack of understanding we have about the trauma of conflict and the normalizing of violence and the effects that these have on young people especially.]
It is a life of divisions lived in a deeply divided political state and religious community, and this is one of the reasons why the book’s beginning – the election between the Big Party and the Small Party – is key. The homeless and hungry boys of Bayan Layi are given money to perform certain tasks in support of the operations of the Small Party, even those operations which include violent physical confrontations behind the scenes. It involves some painful stuff, and the possibility of death looms large. But where else would they turn? Isn’t possibly dying a small price to pay for food and money and a bit of weed that helps blur the basic circumstances of life? I believe we are meant to surmise that, whether political or religious, the conflict between groups similarly preys upon the most vulnerable population: young people.
With “Born on a Tuesday” Elnathan John has delivered a work that explores the climate of sectarian religious violence and chronicles the establishment of violence as a norm within a community. While it requires the reader to sit with some confusion as to specific details (Which political parties is he referring to? Which coup? Are these small religious sects real or fictional?) the novel’s veering into abstract territory is possibly a reflection of the chaotic nature of living through such traumatic conditions. In this it is both similar and different from Allah n’est pas obligé, which continually refers to specific leaders in the horrifying series of military dictatorships that seized West African countries in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s (Taylor, Gbagbo, Gaddafi), but maintains the tone of horrified haze that seems to characterize the experience of child soldiers. In the story of Dantala, John’s own novel offers a gripping exploration of the ideological tumult taking place in contemporary Nigeria. Despite some minor flaws (mainly with characterization), it’s an excellent debut and I think his best is yet to come and will be brilliant.