Born on a Tuesday… a deft delivery on Northern Nigeria’s religious ferment

TuesdayFor anyone unfamiliar with the terrain, northern Nigeria is one swath of silence cloaked in inscrutable, unifying Islamic religion that is unknown to the rest of the country. In a country sharply divided by different languages, a multiplicity of tribes and, of course, religions, the north’s inscrutability is taken as a given. And so whereas there is ferment and pluralism of tongues from the southern part of Nigeria, the north seems to live in the shadows of silence amplified by religious homogeneity and oligarchic conservatism.

But this is far from the truth, as Elnathan John makes us believe in his new fiction Born on a Tuesday (Cassava Republic Press. Abuja; 2015), a deftly woven tale in the life of a former street urchin also known as almajiri through whose eyes we see the unfolding religious turmoil, the different sects and the strong jihadist sentiments among some and how they set upon each other just to prove the superiority of their different teachings. John’s bold fiction takes its readers behind the holy of holies of a religious ferment that is close to the rest of us.

Indeed, Born on a Tuesday unfolds with how a former almajiri, Ahmad Dantala, a pupil of Malam Junaidu, joins the street urchins in Kaduna after finishing his studies; he learns of his father’s death, a father who shared out his four sons to far flung clerics from his Sokoto home. These sons fall into different spheres of Islamic influences. Three of them join the more militant Shiite sect, while Dantala is with the more conservative, conciliatory Islamiya sect.

After his apprenticeship with Junaidu, Dantala mixes up with Banda and his gang, and they become ready tools in the hands of Nigeria’s unscrupulous politicians who use them to unleash mayhem during elections, especially after loosing elections. This is what forces Dantala to flee Kaduna northwards to his native Sokoto. But as fate would have it, he arrives in Sokoto and into the arm of the moderate cleric Sheikh Jamal who receives him and makes a place for him in his mosque from where he becomes his deputy.

For once, Dantala enjoys a normal life in circumstances that are sharply different from the hard life he’d known as a religious pupil and a street urchin in Kaduna. But the death of his twin sisters shatters his mother’s mind and she refuses to be consoled until she dies after living a hard life.

But it is the sectarian upheavals among the same Islamic religion that lends Born on a Tuesday its gripping urgency as a tale of religious schisms moderating ordinary life in that part of the country. With Islamic foundations in faraway Saudi Arabia and in the Middle East, some of the clerics have ready access to these funds to cause unrest. What is ironic and shocking are how the different teachings from these sects emanating from the same religion should cause so much violence and bloodbath. The Shiites and Islamiya are set upon each other and violence periodically erupts.

What is even more ironic is how Dantala’s own household is mixed up in all this. One of them Hassan, dies in Iran, according to his brother, Maccido, while they were on a ‘course,’ but Dantala is convinced Maccido and Hussein are lying about the cause of his death.

While Dantala pitches his tent with a moderate cleric, Sheikh Jamal, his three brothers are in the Shiites’ camp. What is unmistakable is the Shiites propensity towards violence; their member periodically recruited to fight in faraway places like Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran and, perhaps Al Qaeda and ISIS. This is how deadly religion mixing with international politics can be.

In fact, within Sheikh Jamal’s fold, his deputy, Malam Abdul-Nur, becomes even more deadly after returning from Saudi Arabia and forms his jihadist army to Islamise the country and impose Shar’ia law on the country. But in a debate with Sheikh Jamal in Saudi Arabia, Malam Abdul-Nur is defeated and he realises just how hopeless his quest is, as it has no basis or logic. His men butcher Sheikh Jamal in cold blood. Then the army steps in and begins a reign of terror to bring to heel these religious charlatans.

John’s Born on a Tuesday is aptly an eye-opener to a region’s religious zealotry and its quest for a jihadist state. But with the horror that is Boko Haram, sensible Moslems would have begun to see how hopeless that jihadist quest is, as the faithful and the infidels alike are butchered. Dantala’s raw narrative is symptomatic of an attitude that is barely tolerant of other views and modes of being. Dantala was shipped off at an early age from his native Sokoto to Kaduna to a Koranic education; he begins to encounter English when Malam Abdul-Nur’s cousin Jubril arrives Sokoto and he begins another education. It is the English he learns from Jubril that sets him on this narrative.

And it is when Dantala begins to learn English that his worldview starts to broaden up and change from that fatalistic way of thinking to a more humane one.

Although he becomes the sad martyr for his moderate beliefs and the need to make Islam indeed a religion of peace, Sheikh Jamal is an example of the ideal Moslem who does not seek the liquidation of others for his beliefs to reign. He is a strong advocate of peaceful co-existence in a plural society like Nigeria, where imposition of one religion over others of different persuasion is futile. Indeed, his voice is one moderating tempers and making western education the best way to go among a swath of people mostly forsworn to it.

Sheikh Jamal counters Malam Abdul-Nur thus, “I am say, which is injurious for Muslims, refusing to join the government and refusing to go to school and being sidelined by the government or going to school, pushing for separate classrooms for boys and girls, pushing for girls to wear hijabs to school, joining government and the police and the army and eventually becoming strong enough to control the government?… Now you are saying don’t go to school, don’t be part of government – is that supposed to remedy it or make it worse? When our women and children can’t read and write, is this supposed to help them take over Nigeria?… If you got guns and men and tanks and defeated the Nigerian army, what is your plan for ruling this country, especially as there is a whole other half that is not Muslim?…”

Malam Abdul-Nur has no answer to that, as indeed other jihadist zealots are…

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