Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

TuesdayThis is a tough book, about Nigerian politics, Islam, and a young boy growing up without guidance – and his journey from nothing to nothing by way of love and understanding, taking responsibility and learning – which leads in the end to a savage and desperate dead end.  If you like, and if you are Dantala, the boy who was born on a Tuesday, you can see this as a new beginning, but it will need a lot of faith.  In some ways, this book, which is the story of one young person’s very hard and difficult journey through his nation’s nightmare, reminded me of J M Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K.  That, you will probably remember, ends with the protagonist saying

he would bend the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up here would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.

Similarly, the last words of Born on a Tuesday are “I stretch out on the cool concrete floor.  Time slows down again. I think of all the things I must do: cut my hair, wash with hot water, start writing out my story. Then take a bus and go wherever it is headed.”  After a short life which has already tumbled through education, gang violence, religious reawakening, first love and political violence, Dantala has lost everything and everybody and must begin again.

Dantala is a young man, probably no more than a boy, but has left home and is studying Islam in a Sufi school far away.  He finishes there, then falls into a gang led by Banda, which gives him status and identity, though these are nurtured by drugs and violence.  He then loses his pole star when the gang’s violence in support of an election candidate goes badly wrong, leaving him without Banda who is killed (in spite of his protective amulets) and with nowhere to go and nothing to live for or indeed on.  He flees  the town where he has been living, Bayan Layi, and heads towards Sokoto, where he arrives after a bad traffic accident which kills two other boys he had been travelling with.  He has thought of going home to see his family – his father died while he was at school – but he stops off at a mosque where food is being distributed, and gradually, very gradually, is absorbed into the life of the mosque and the leadership of a tolerant and open hearted imam, Sheikh Jamal.

This is the central section of the book, and the central part of Dantala ‘s life so far.  here, he is gradually taken in to the mosque as Jamal discovers than in spite of his appearance (he does not know his history with the Banda gang) he is a good Quranic scholar, thoughtful and hard working, and honest and faithful.  He comes closer and closer to Jamal, who is clearly a popular figure locally, respected and loved, under the patronage of a generous local politician who supplies food for the poor and facilities for the mosque and those who work there.  He becomes a trusted helper in politics and religion, soon being asked to sing the call to prayer at the mosque:

Wallahi, I love it more than I ever thought I would. Closing my eyes, covering one ear with my hand, holding the microphone with the other and singing:

Allahu Akbar
Allahu Akbar
Allahu Akbar
Allahu Akbar
Ash hadu anla ila ha illallah
Ash hadu anla ila ha illallah
Ash hadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullah
Ash hadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullah
Hayya alas salah
Hayya alas salah
Hayya alal falah
Hayya alal falah

It transports me to a deep place away from everything around me.  The feeling is one of being lost inside myself, a dark peaceful place … the best feeling in the world, a feeling that drives out all pain, all fear, all worry all want.

But this is only a brief interlude of peace and calm – his life has been, and will be again, one stressful and dangerous rite of passage: he revisits his family, to find his brothers attracted by Islamic extremism and his mother neglected; he painfully discovers sex, and falls in love with Aisha, Jamal’s daughter, and he learns English.  He grows in confidence and status, but the political pressures are building up under his and Jamal’s feet – calls for violence against non-Muslims increase and the state steps in to stop the fighting and the terrorism.  I am wishing that everything is in the Quran, so that people will not be fighting over what is correct and what is not correct.  Allah forgive me.  But there are people that even if every thing is in the Quran, they will still bring their own thinking into it to cause fighting.  Maybe some people just like to fight. I don’t understand. Allah forgive me.  But in the end he is betrayed in the deepest and most painful way by the death of his leader, the loss of Aisha, and the brutality of the state.

This is a really interesting and moving book, well written and compelling – and straightforward to follow even for those of us who don’t know Nigeria or Islam; it seems to me to offer some human explanations for the troubles that plague Nigeria – corruption, patronage and cronyism, political and religious tensions and violence.  But I need, too, to heed the warning Dantala offers me:

When I read old magazines from outside Nigeria, I see how foreigners are always concerned with explaining things that have already happened.  Everyone wants to tell you what someone was thinking, why someone did a thing, why someone said something.  There is no way a person can know such things about another person.  Allah alone knows the heart of a person.  In the beginning, when I started reading, I too wanted to know why things happened, But time has taught me it is useless. Sometimes you let Allah do His things. What, apart from unhappiness, is the use of trying to look into what only Allah knows and destines?

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Terence Jagger loves the dynamism and colour of Nigeria, but it has its dark sides, too.

Elnathan John, Born on a Tuesday  (Cassava Republic, 2016) 978-978-950-664-4 261pp., paperback.

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