“At first some things seem like a joke. I hear stories of things happening to others, I hear the words—people disappearing, people’s hands getting chopped off, people getting beaten and people dying. The words produce pictures in my mind but it is nothing compared with experiencing it. When Sheikh told me about being arrested and being detained for eight weeks for involvement in a riot where a boy in his school was killed, it was just a story. Until I woke up with my hands sore from being bound tightly behind my back, none of it was real” – Dantala, excerpt from Born on a Tuesday.
Two-time Caine Prize finalist and Nigerian novelist, Elnathan John writes an exceptional story about a Muslim boy in North Western Nigeria in which he invites readers to take an intimate look at the way a young man seeks meaning and purpose in a world ripped apart by political and religious violence.
Self-described as a “recovering lawyer”, John came into prominence as a cultural commentator and satirist on Nigeria’s literary scene. Born on a Tuesday is his stirring, starkly rendered first novel.
Dantala Ahmad, the protagonist whose name the meaning of the book derives from, lives among a gang of street boys who sleep under a kuka tree. During an election, the boys are paid to cause a disturbance however, their attempt to burn down the opposition’s local headquarters ends in disaster, and Dantala finds himself on the run for his life.
Told in Dantala’s naive, questioning voice, this astonishing novel explores the ways in which young northern Nigerians are seduced by religious fundamentalism and violence. It also seeks to describe northern Nigeria, often lacking representation in literature and films, as more than terrorist attacks, steeping the reader in the language and the culture of the Muslim north, where men and women rarely mix. With great insight, and storytelling, sometimes tragic, other times humorous, John peers beyond unfeeling news reports and numbers that don’t quite add up.
Dantala who is an almajiri—an Arabic word used in Nigeria for a child who has left his home to study Islam—gives an account of his life from 2003 to 2010 in this fictional debut. He makes his way to a mosque run by kind, peace-loving imam named Sheikh Jamal who provides him with food, shelter, and guidance, eventually becoming a favored apprentice. But before long, a series of conflicts arise. His mother is dying back in his native village, his brothers have joined a rival sect, one of the sheikh’s closest advisers Malam Abdul-Nur begins to raise his own radical movement, and his best friend Jibril is caught up in the centre of it all.
Jibril, a cousin to Malam Abdul-Nur, had taught Dantala the English language and in turn learned how to read and write in Arabic. Excerpts of a notebook in which Dantala attempts phrases and paragraphs with words which are new to him like TERRIFY, OBSESS, FOCAL, GIBBERISH, SECT and WHY, become something to look forward to as the reader witnesses less mistakes and cancellations as the novel progresses. His thoughts on everything from the confusions of Islamic sectarianism to his burning crush on Sheikh’s daughter, offer some kind of relatability no matter one’s tribe, religion or class.
As a reader with a Christian background in a world increasingly gearing toward Islamophobia, a novel where the milieu is entirely Muslim was a welcome novelty and a revelation of how deep divides can run even when living in the same country with a marginalised/under-represented group. Women, however, suffer in the sidelines of this book, which may be attributed more to how things are in reality rather than the mindset of the author.
More than anything, Elnathan John’s book sets a name and a face together with their struggles just like any other person, and demystifies and challenges the apathy towards people on religious and tribal divides. We are forced to see the ‘unseen’ person in the form of a poor Northerner stripped of basic rights, education and who often does not aspire to more, the boys who will never be known, and the girls who become numbers—people to whom John dedicates this work.
At first, the book’s simple nature may lead the reader to erroneously think the storyline is simple as well. Starting off with the all too common scene of young Hausa boys sitting around and smoking ‘wee wee’. But the plot unravels even thicker as even the peace loving Sheikh and his enclave aren’t exempt from the reach of violence from soldiers and religious sects. ‘I want to show that things are never simple,’ Elnathan John had said himself in an interview with the Guardian.
His use of Hausa words such as koko and kosai without the use of italics, his address of homosexuality and even the transformation of Malam Abdul-Nur who once saved the Sheikh’s life before going down the long road of extremism, spoke to the unflinching nature of author from the history of colonialism and the exploration of traits present in us all.
John’s concluding chapter is an all too familiar fear, one of being alive but still having lost due to circumstances beyond an individual’s control. Dantala does not get a chance to pursue his love for Aisha. He is arrested in the wake of riots and put in prison, where he spends the next nine months. When he returns to his old home, he discovers a note from Jibril—he wasn’t dead. Yet, its poignant message remains in every interaction with the media’s portrayal of the loss of lives, and the illusion generated by our proximity to violence, reminding us that we are all human after all. It’s a book every Nigerian who can read should definitely get.
Elnathan John is a judge for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.